The urban environment of historic Florence, Italy is strongly defined by the numerous majestic churches, and the piazzas around them. It’s almost impossible for the visitor to remember all of their names, but the impression of the typical white, red and green marbles of their façades remains indelible in the mind. There are however some temples you don’t raise your gaze to observe when you pass by them - their simple brick façades don’t cause feelings of admiration, the piazzas in front of them seem colorless and indifferent. This was the original exterior appearance of the medieval church.
In fact, the majority of the facades were added in a period quite later to the building of the churches, and they were seen as independent structures that came to incorporate the existing ones. The facades of the two most famous Florentine temples, the Duomo – or Santa Maria del Fiore- and Santa Croce, were only completed in the 19th century, in an effort to beautify the city. One of the few exceptions is San Miniato al Monte, a church-landmark even for the modern city, whose facade was created along with the building in around the 12th century, and served as a model for many of the new designs. Among them, possibly the most famous facade in Renaissance architectural history, the one of Santa Maria Novella, was completed in the year 1470 by architecture historian Leon Battista Alberti.
The stories behind the unfinished facades, due mainly to their over-ambitious designs and high costs of realization, are even more interesting. Michelangelo failed to see his favorite design of the facade of San Lorenzo realized, as the Medici regarded it as not important enough, and commissioned him with another project. The unfinished exteriors of the medieval churches are subjects to very interesting restoration projects, like the example of the San Petronio in Bologna. This case presents an interesting society-involving model, where the citizens and visitors are called to "adopt" a piece of the façade, by paying for its cleaning.
But does that lack of elaboration of the medieval exterior mark a different attitude towards the urban space? The Franciscan church of Santa Croce used to be glorious and important even without its current external aspect - which have been criticized as anachronistic and decorative. Churches were not designed to cause awe to the outside observer, but to the inside medieval faithful. With the exaltation of the city institution and the wealth that came along with the Renaissance, the residents seemed to understand that a series of magnificent façades could be the proof of their city’s superiority.
Do you think that the façade can be treated as an independent architectural element in modern building design?
Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.