Giovanni da Salerno: the founder of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

by Federico Quagliuolo

The beautiful church of Santa Maria Novella of Florence has a Salerno origin. It was in fact built in the 13th century after the arrival of a Dominican friar, John of Salerno, who decided to settle in Florence on the recommendation of San Domenico in person.

Giovanni da Salerno fresco of Santa Maria Novella
Inside the church of Santa Maria Novella there is an image that portrays Giovanni da Salerno with the church in his hand

Who was Giovanni da Salerno?

Very little is known about him. He was born in 1190 a Salerno from a wealthy family of Norman origin and he lived in the city throughout his adolescence, amidst the comforts and honors that competed with a young scion.
The Salerno of the young Giovanni was one very rich city who still lived on ancient glories of the Principality period, even though it had already been one for fifty years province of the kingdom created by Ruggiero the Norman. There city medical school it still represented a European excellence, but fate on the second gulf of Campania it looked difficult: soon the Angevins e Naples would take the political, economic and cultural monopoly on all the cities of the Campania.

In this rapidly changing environment, Giovanni da Salerno was sent by his family to Bologna, to study natural sciences at the University (that of Naples was born just 10 years after Giovanni's departure!). And it was indeed during his university period in Bologna that the meeting of life took place: the man from Salerno knew a Spanish preacher a little bigger than him, Domenico di Guzman, which in those years was about to found the order that would one day become one of the most powerful in Italy.
It is said that the young Giovanni, shaken to the core from the faith demonstrated by his friend and preacher, the future San Domenico, one day threw himself at his feet crying and asking him to to be able to enter the order.

Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella today. Giovanni da Salerno did not see her. Picture of Federico Quagliuolo

Preacher or inquisitor?

The path of Giovanni da Salerno within the order of Preachers, which one day will be known as Dominican order, it was very fast. After the novitiate, like all young people he was immediately launched into the fray: together with 11 other friars it was in fact sent to Florence divided into civil war between Guelphs and Ghibellines. It was 1219 and, in his preaching works, he soon got to know all the notables of the city, including the Bishop Giovanni of Velletri, who took a great liking to him, and above all squeezed one strong friendship with the cardinal Ugolino of Segni, which one day will be Pope Gregory IX.

Good Brother John attracted the sympathies of the Church also thanks to his contrast methods of the Ghibellines which were evidently very effective, since it was from posterity nicknamed "the hammer of the heretics“.

Thus, after having received so many of his own effective and punctual services (Giovanni da Salerno also became head of the Florentine Inquisition precisely by the hand of Gregory IX), the Pope was delighted with help the friar from Salerno to find the future seat for his order, even because the preaching friars were gaining more and more strength and proselytes throughout Italy.
Thus Giovanni, after twenty years of passage in various churches near Florence, managed to obtain a small church outside the city walls.

Structure it was called "Santa Maria delle Vigne", precisely because immediately outside ancient Florence they already extended the rows of Tuscan vineyards, and it was a very peaceful place. Who could have predicted it would one day become the city center complete with a station!

Santa Maria Novella funerary monument Giovanni da Salerno
The funerary monument to Giovanni da Salerno in the church of Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella was born

Having discovered the background, the name of the Florentine church it becomes very clear to us: Santa Maria Novella is the old "Santa Maria" renovated. Giovanni da Salerno, however, he could not see "his" church completed, as we know it: the works of demolition they began in 1246, probably just when the protagonist of our story died, e construction began in 1279, many years later.

The Dominicans, however, did not forget the father of the Florentine order and in the church of Santa Maria Novella there is the tomb of Giovanni da Salerno, the Dominican who, having left Campania, was at the origins of one of the most beautiful works of art in Florence. For the beatification we will have to wait much longer: it will only happen in 1784, some 550 years after his death. And it really is his hagiography published in that year that he gives us information about the character which, otherwise, would have been just a name and a mute face, depicted in the paintings of the Florentine church complete with Santa Maria Novella in your hands.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Life of Blessed John of Salerno, Printing House Antonio Benucci and Compagni, Florence, 1784

Become a supporter!

With a small contribution you will keep the largest cultural dissemination site in Campania alive! Many advantages for you

error: NOTICE: You can't copy the content!