Emblazoned across the top of the beautiful facade of the church of Santa Maria Novella is an inscription: IOHANES.ORICELLARIUS.PAV.F.AN.SAL.MCCCCLXX (Giovanni Rucellai. Son of Paolo. Year of Salvation. 1470).
Who was Giovanni Rucellai and how did his name end up being so prominently displayed on the city’s Dominican church?
Work on the facade began in 1350, thanks to a bequest by Turino di Baldese, who had died in 1348. However, the funds ran out with only the lower half completed. A century later Giovanni Rucellai (1403-81), a member of a wealthy family of wool merchants, offered to finance the completion of the facade, on the condition that his name be incorporated in the design. The church agreed.
Giovanni Rucellai, who was a member of one of the wealthiest families in Florence, spent a great deal of money on buildings, both secular and religious. Architecture is a very conspicuous form of expenditure and Rucellai defined three motives behind his projects. They gave him ‘the greatest contentment and the greatest pleasure, because they serve the glory of God, the honour of the city, and the commemoration of myself.’
The designer of the project was that great all-rounder of the Renaissance Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), who also designed the Rucellai family pile, which lies nearby. The work was carried out by Giovanni di Bertino between 1458 and 1470.
Rucellai’s name derives from the nature of the trade which was the source of his family’s initial wealth. The family were once importers of oricello (orchil), a plant which was treated with ammonia to produce a precious dye used for the colouring of cloth. The family had originally been called the Oricellari and it is the Latin form of this name that we see on the facade.
The facade is also adorned with the emblem of Giovanni Rucellai, which took the form of a sail billowing in the wind.