This topic is an extension of an article—“San Miniato al Monte nell'Anno 1207”—I prepared for a class on urban history taught by an art historian. In that class we were asked to think like historians in order to investigate the development of a site—in my case, San Miniato al Monte—for its layering of history, its saints, and the personalities that helped create the development over time. At the end of the article, I included a few passing observations that San Miniato may have offered inspiration to Brunelleschi and, especially, Alberti in his Rucellai projects, and that inspiration may have been a catalyst to the further development of the style we now call “Renaissance.” [Some of these same references are included in the Introduction below, and some of the same images appear in both articles, but for different purposes.] I realized at the end of that article that I had not analyzed the referenced buildings in an architectural manner—as that was not the expectation of the course; but, as an architect I felt I had not dealt with the topic adequately. I see this article as an opportunity to make up for that oversight.
This article will trace the development of architectural ideas through three important building projects: San Miniato al Monte in Florence, by unidentified builders of the Medieval period, and the Alberti designs for the facade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and the complete church of Sant'Andrea in Mantova. I will begin with the premise that Alberti was influenced by San Miniato and then trace those influences in his first major commission in Florence and then determine if those influences are still apparent in his final masterpiece of Sant'Andrea. This seemingly-simple premise will allow introduction and analysis of a number of related topics—the Medieval/Renaissance tendency to design facades only versus entire structures; so-called Roman influences as a source of historic inspiration; the relationship of interior to exterior design; the use of proportion systems; and the shifting from the Roman portico to the temple front as a historical prototype.
Both Brunelleschi and Alberti are recognized as having developed styles of architecture that are responsive to a local aesthetic. For their Florence projects each developed a style that combined the aesthetic of Roman-inspired religious architecture juxtaposed with an opposing, and imposing, aesthetic of the fortified palazzo. But when it came to the Roman influences, according to Pratesi, Brunelleschi and Alberti:
“…non furono nemmeno consapevoli di quanto era veramente nuovo nel Romanico Fiorentino; forse, cioé, pensarono di attingervi per quanto in esso riviveva l’Arte Classica romana, di cui erano ferventissimi ammiratori. Paradossalmente si puó dire che gli artisti rinascimentali, quasi senza rendersene conto, trovarono a casa propria, a Firenze, nel Romanico Fiorentino, particolarmente nella Basilica di San Miniato e nel Battistero di San Giovanni, quelli ideali artistici della romanitá classica.” Pratesi, p. 296
Regarding Brunelleschi, Tavernor states: “It is reported that Brunelleschi and Donatello had surveyed Roman monuments…. Roman remains were certainly closely studied by successive generations intent on a similar path. However, while Brunelleschi and Donatello were pioneers…there are doubts whether the physical remains of Rome were their primary source: the Florentine Baptistery was in any case thought to be Roman, and its appearance, along with the churches of the Santissimi Apostoli and San Miniato al Monte, bear more obvious comparison with Brunelleschi’s designs.” Tavernor, p 5
Similarly, Pratesi observes that Alberti’s house in Florence was along the Arno facing San Miniato. Every morning, weather permitting, Alberti would climb up the hill to visit San Miniato to admire its facade.
“L’Alberti, con cui si puó fare iniziare l’Architettura Rinascimentale fiorentina, sicuramente é stato un fervidissimo ammiratore della Basilica di San Miniato. Dalle finestre di casa sua nell’attuale via dei Benci, sulla riva dell’Arno, vedeva di fronte la facciata della Basilica. …l”Alberti, tutte le mattine, se non glielo impediva la pioggia, attraversando l’Arno per il ponte alle Grazie, faceva il suo footing salendo il Monte di San Miniato, per andare ad ammirare la Basilica. … La testimonianza di questi rapporti ideali tra l’Alberti e il Romanico di San Miniato si ritrove evidentissima nella facciata della chiesa di Santa Maria Novella…” Pratesi, p. 296...that Alberti built at Santa Maria Novella for the Rucellai family.
A casual observer might conclude that both facades were by the same designer. “In its arrangement of architectural elements (a pedimented temple-like upper storey with triangular panels and scrolls placed on a broad base) and the rich geometrically patterned marble inlay surface in white and green marble…, Alberti’s design resembles the general ornamental qualities of the Florentine Baptistery…, and especially the twelfth-century facade of San Miniato which overlooks Florence.” Tavernor, p 99
But, as architects, we are not casual observers; and whereas there are definite similarities between the two designs, we must take note primarily of the differences.
Why San Miniato al Monte and the Facade of Santa Maria Novella?
Although this report will demonstrate a development of architecture style from San Miniato al Monte to Sant’Andrea in Mantova, the initial, and primary, analysis will focus on San Miniato and the facade of Santa Maria Novella. This is because the two projects represent, respectively, the end and the beginning of their periods of construction. San Miniato represents the conclusion of the Tuscan Romanesque style—an intense period of development which includes the other early-Florentine icon, the Baptistry of San Giovanni. Alberti’s completion of the facade of Santa Maria Novella represents a transition period that typifies the quattrocento—Renaissance architects inheriting and completing already established medieval structures.
After we have focused on the transition of design from San Miniato al Monte to Santa Maria Novella, we will trace briefly how its ideas find their way into later works by Alberti, notably in Sant’Andrea in Mantova, which comes closest to being an Alberti total-design and best incorporates his design philosophies as described in his De Re Aedificatoria. Also, Sant’Andrea is the first Alberti project that has broken away from the medieval to Renaissance transition period cited above by being a project conceived totally “from scratch.” Although this paper is concerned neither with the construction of San Miniato nor the life of Alberti, a brief background is required to understand how different the times and circumstances were in which each existed.
Background of San Miniato al Monte
The church and monastery of San Miniato al Monte was built in its current form and location as a result of interventions by Bishop Hildebrand during 1013 that resulted in the laying of foundations in 1018, perhaps to compensate for his up-to-then sinful career. Hildebrand had created such controversy within the walls of Florence, that he may have been eager to find any site outside the immediate city. He had a chosen the site for a new monastery at a location that already was regarded as sacred, the site where the martyred Minias purportedly carried himself and his severed head in the year 250 AD, and on which Charlemagne, in 783 AD, in memory of his prematurely deceased wife, Ildegardo, had chosen to build the first church to honor the now-consecrated Saint Minias. Much is known about the “clients;” the extremely talented and inspired designers and builders of the church of San Miniato remain anonymous.
Background of Alberti and Santa Maria Novella
Leon Battista Alberti was a writer, painter, sculptor, mathematician, and appropriate to this paper, he was an architectural theorist and architect. Tavernor feels that he came closer than anyone else to the ideal of the Renaissance man. Alberti lived from 1404 until 1472 and was born into a family with strong ties to Florence, but that had been forced to live in exile. Whatever the circumstances, Alberti was back in Florence between 1434 and 1443, advising the Rucellai family on the completion of the medieval church of Santa Maria Novella, which was to become their family church.
Giovanni Rucellai was the family member who had it made it his life’s goal to “procreate and build” in order to perpetuate the Rucellai name. During the time when Alberti was back in Florence, Giovanni had as many as four projects under construction simultaneously—the family palazzo, a family loggia, the family sepulchre (now located in San Pancrazio), and the conversion of Santa Maria Novella into the family chapel. Although the name Alberti is never specifically mentioned in any correspondence of the time, Alberti is believed to have been the adviser to the Rucellai family on all kinds of issues including building and urban design. Subsequent accounts give Alberti credit for all these designs. They have a consistency and care of design that seems to indicate the work of one individual, especially an individual of Alberti’s humanist training.
Santa Maria Novella was already substantially complete by the end of the 13th century and had been an expansion of an even earlier church and cloister. By the time Alberti was providing “advice” on its completion, the church already had a splendid interior and Masaccio’s painting “La Trinitá” was in place. The front facade had been left as exposed brick except for the “avelli”—the small covered chapels—which unified the northern edge of the piazza and a large rose window added during the 13th century. Consistent with his views on architecture, Alberti drew on classical forms—in this case, the temple and triumphal arch—and assimilated them with the pre-existing medieval elements.
[At the end of this report see the brief discussion of Sant’Andrea in Mantova where these two elements—the temple and triumphal arch—are used again, but in a startlingly different manner.]
Similarities between San Miniato al Monte and Santa Maria Novella, continued
3. Both elevations are vertically bipartite and in both cases they could be described as temple fronts on the upper half set onto colonnaded porticos. [See Differences, below, item 1]
4. Both elevations are essentially flat, two-dimensional design; all the same they provide a juxtaposition between “three-dimensional” sculpted quasi-structural elements—columns, pilasters, trabeated forms—and two-dimensional decoration applied between the structural elements.
5. Both designs, in their original format, exclude religious ornament and instead rely on geometric forms and pagan images derived from nature.
6. Both employ similar local materials and coloration including the greenish Verde di Prato stone.
7. Both have similar detailing—coupled column/pilaster at corner; pilaster extended above trabeation and containing horizontal surface as though it were a taut membrane.
8. Each has three doors—a central door providing entry into the central nave, side doors into aisles. [See Differences, below, item 2]
9. Each has predominant round forms—the “eyes” on the facade at San Miniato. [See Differences, below, item 3]
10. Gable forms that cover existing roof structures behind the elevation. [See Differences, below, item 4]
11. Both are organized utilizing a simple, geometric grid based on 1:1 proportions and/or squares. [See Differences, below, item 5]
12. Both have a lack of correspondence between exterior design and interior layout or elevations. To the modern architect this was one of the most difficult lessons to absorb. At Santa Maria Novella, one could justify that Alberti had to work around an existing fabric. But already in the Baptistry and San Miniato, where projects were conceived at one time, there is little attempt to coordinate interior/exterior design—in fact each face was designed to provide its own best solution.
13. Both are good examples of locally-responsive design. San Miniato follows the style of its predecessors and in fact helped define the local style. Santa Maria Novella deliberately followed the same tradition. Alberti recognized the importance of the assimilation of local styles and existing monuments and demonstrated an ability to be responsive to those influences. [See Five Facades Compared]
Similarities between San Miniato al Monte and Santa Maria Novella
1. The most important similarity is not an issue of design, but circumstance—each represents an ongoing project that took hundreds of years to complete. In the case of San Miniato there are no individuals associated with its design or construction other than clients and benefactors. In the case of the facade of Santa Maria Novella, Alberti emerges as the first designer whose name is recognized. The design of the impressive medieval church and monastery remains anonymous.
2. In both projects the facades were constructed over two periods of design. At San Miniato the lower half was constructed between 1070 and 1093 in a style that is imitative of the “Roman” style of the Baptistry of San Giovanni. The upper “temple front” has been dated between 1175 and 1207 and clearly departs from the more Classical style of its lower half. At Santa Maria Novella, Alberti inherited the mostly un-faced brick edifice of the medieval church. Only the large round window and the “avelli”—extended from the low garden wall surrounding the adjacent cemetery and carried across the facade—were in place when Alberti was involved to finish the work.