Against Gravity

Elizabeth Smith

The Vaults of Santa Maria Novella and the Creation of Florentine Gothic

Links between constructional practices and design were not uncommon in medieval architecture. In 12th c. France the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture went hand-in-hand with the development of the rib vault, a new form effective both for increased ease of construction and also for increased clarity in conception of the design. This connection is famously represented by the choir of Saint-Denis, whose architect took advantage of the linear character of the rib to re-imagine the relation between each bay of the choir and ambulatory, resulting in the open view so neatly described by Abbot Suger.

Such a relation can be found at the beginning of the Gothic era in Central Italy, where the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1279-1355) provides a vivid example of the link between constructional practices and design. Although here, as for most medieval buildings, there is little written evidence to aid in reconstructing the process of design and construction, it is possible to do so using evidence provided by the building itself, where the locus of interaction is situated high above the nave, in the vaults of the two bays next to the crossing. Analysis of these vaults provides a key for understanding the decision to redesign the plan and elevation of the rest of the nave. While this design change could not have taken place without conflict and sacrifice, the result would prove fruitful for the development of Italian Gothic, serving as a model for important structures, starting with the nave of Florence Cathedral, erected in the second half of the 14th c.