The church facing the palace, Santa Trínita, was founded by the Vallombrosians in the 11th century (when it was outside the city walls), and subsequently patronized by many of Florence's wealthiest families; as a result it was rebuilt many times, and could now serve as the text for a good course on Italian art history. To begin on the outside, the elegant Late Renaissance façade is by Buontalenti. However, when you enter the church and turn around, you will see the delightful Romanesque stonework that emerged when the building was restored at the turn of the century. The same restoration also revealed the floor of the 11th century church, under the present floor, and a crypt. Though the floor mosaics that were found are now in the Bargello, the capitals of the columns of the crypt are still there. The crypt is generally kept closed for safety reasons, and to see it you will have to make an appointment with the custodian (he'll most likely ask you to return another day -- tip him). You will also note, flanking the main door, two beautifully carved tombstones (the bones were transferred to the church's ossuary when the stones were removed from the floor).
The fourth chapel on the right has Lorenzo Monaco's Saints, Prophets, and the life of Mary (1420-25) and his Annunciation. It's an interesting chapel, because Lorenzo mixes styles with a surprisingly pleasant result. The Annunciation at the altar is done in the High Gothic style, with stylized figures (convincingly rendered) set against an equally stylized background. The frescoes on the walls, however, reveal that Lorenzo was well aware of the new developments in painting introduced by Masaccio: He displays a firm grasp of the newly emerging Renaissance style, painting natural looking people who are solidly anchored to their backgrounds.
Continuing on to the right transept, we cross into the High Renaissance. Domenico Ghirlandaio's skill with a brush is astonishing, and you find yourself half expecting a breeze to stir the boughs of the trees or rustle the delicate gossamer veils of the ladies. The wall of the transept, above the chapels, features David, and the Tiburtine Sybil telling Augustus of the birth of the Redeemer. The Sassetti family chapel, which is the rightmost of the two chapels, has his scenes from the life of Saint Francis. In the background of the Approval of the Rule of Saint Francis by Pope Onorio III (in the lunette) there are the Palazzo Vecchio and Orcagna's Loggia, while Lorenzo il Magnifico and Mr. Sassetti are in the foreground to the right, and Agnolo Polizziano is leading Lorenzo's sons, Piero, Giovanni, and Giuliano up the stairs. To the left, Saint Francis dons his habit, and to the right, in a fresco attributed to Domenico's brother Davide, he undergoes a trial by fire before the Sultan (Francis went on a crusade and returned horrified by what he'd seen). The next level down, to the left he receives the Stigmata before a realistic representation of the Santuario della Verna, an abbey in the wild mountains between Florence and Arezzo. The miraculous revival of the fallen boy occurs in Piazza Santa Trínita, and Sassetti's children fall to their knees (on the left); note the old Romanesque façade and Ponte Santa Trínita as it was before the great flood of 1557. The Saint's death is to the right. Francesco Sassetti and his wife, Nera Corsi, are in the tombs, and are also shown kneeling facing the altar.
The altarpiece, Domenico's Adoration of the Shepherds, is simply beautiful. It's also quite important, because he included classical elements, such as the sarcophagus manger and the Corinthian columns holding up the roof of the shack (one is dated 1485), and based the poses of the shepherds on those of the Flemish master Van der Goes's triptych (now in the Uffizi). We therefore have evidence of the newly awakened interest in the Classical world that was one of the characteristics of the High Renaissance, and also get an idea of the impact the Flemish style had upon the great masters.
The sacristy, to the right, is a step back in time. Though Abbot Baldini had the entire church whitewashed "to display his love for it" in 1685, a number of early 14th Century frescoes survived, and were moved here during the restoration following the 1966 flood, including a Noli me Tangere (Jesus saying "Don't hinder me" to the Magdalen as he leaves the tomb, generally mistranslated as "Don't touch me") by Puccio Capanna, a Pietà, and a Crucifixion clearly based on Giotto's. Compare the stilted figures in which there's no telling how a body might fit under the folds of the robes, and the simple, almost surreal landscapes, with Ghirlandaio's; the two might almost be from different worlds.
Returning to the right transept, the crucifix in the chapel to the left of the Sassetti chapel is known as San Giovanni Gualberto's crucifix, because Jesus is said to have nodded his approval to the saint when the man pardoned his brother's assassin. The crystal reliquary on the altar contains a fragment of the column Jesus was tied to when he was whipped.
The frescoes surrounding the main altar were alas painted on dry wall, and about all that is left are the Patriarchs on the ceiling, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. The crucifix by Cimabue that was once above the very pleasant 15th century alter is now in the Accademia. With the first chapel to the left, the Cappella di San Pietro, we enter the baroque with a rush. Christ walks on water to save Peter (to the right) and Peter holds the keys (to the left). The contrast between Felice Palma's bronze Christ and the jet black of the stone behind the altar is fascinating.
The next chapel has the decapitation of a saint and the Flaying of Saint Bartholomew, by Giovanni del Ponte, and, to the left, the tomb of Bishop Benozzo Federighi, one of Luca della Robbia's masterpieces.
Returning towards the front of the church, the first chapel on the right has a pretty statue of the penitent Magdalen, dressed in hair, that was begun by Desiderio da Settignano and finished by Benedetto da Maiano, in about 1464. Two chapels further down is the Cappella di Santa Caterina, which has scenes from her life on the walls, and an Annunciation by Neri di Bicci (note the expulsion from the garden in the background). Though the painting is about the same age as Lorenzo Monaco's works in the Cappella dell'Annunziata (across the aisle), Neri was far less skilled, and was obliged to twist his extremely stylized figures to fit them into a building that is much too small for them.