As you know, a façade is simply the front of a building and, in personal terms, a ‘front’ that people put up to disguise their true emotions, so that what we see on the surface is not necessary what’s beneath. Often we think of a showy building façade disguising something rather inferior behind it.
These thoughts were prompted recently by contemplating the façades of some of the famous churches in Florence where, funnily enough, in the distant past at least, the very opposite was true: a very simple façade disguised the fact that a beautiful church, often with frescoes by some of the greatest Renaissance masters, lay behind the unprepossessing exterior.
You can see what I mean by looking at the San Lorenzo, the parish church of the famous, incredibly wealthy Medici family. The church was redesigned by my hero, the supremely talented architect Filippo Brunelleschi, creator of the awe-inspiring dome of Florence cathedral. There’s an adjoining library by Michelangelo, a pulpit or two by Donatello inside, and wonderful paintings by, among others Bronzino and another hero of mine, Filippo Lippi. It’s one of the oldest, biggest and most beautiful churches in Florence – and that’s saying something.
But the façade? Well, simple to the point of austerity. It looks and it is unfinished. They did ask Michelangelo to put up a bigger, better, classical front in the early 16th Century, but although the master produced a wooden model, they never got round to building it! Here’s the model:
Other famous churches in Florence also had unprepossessing façades in Renaissance times (an exception is Santa Maria Novella, where Alberti’s simply stunning façade was the prototype for church fronts for centuries.) I’ll tell you about that some other time.
Santa Croce and the Duomo didn’t get their imposing façades until the 19th Century. More of that anon, too. To whet your appetite, here’s the famous 19th Century Santa Croce façade seen though a mirror.