Theresa May to make major Brexit speech in Catholic church of Santa Maria Novella

Gordon Rayner
Santa Maria Novella  - REUTERS

Four centuries ago, it was the place where Galileo was first accused of heresy for daring to think differently about the world.

On Friday, Theresa May will use the Catholic church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence to set out her vision of Britain's future with a speech intended for the ears of EU leaders who regard Brexit as a different sort of betrayal.

At 2.15pm UK time, Mrs May will step up to a lectern in the 15th century basilica to deliver her long-awaited 5,000-word speech that she hopes will break the deadlock over negotiations with the EU.

Her choice of venue already has Brexit-watchers speculating over hidden messages. The church is dripping with art treasures, including  Filippino Lippi's fresco of the Crucifixion of St Philip, a rather unfortunate coincidence for the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who will be with Mrs May on Friday.

A 5.40-meter-high wooden crucifix painted by italian artist Giotto between 1288 and 1290 is seen on display in Florence's Santa Maria Novella church Credit: AP/FABRIZIO GIOVANNOZZI

Boris Johnson, who will also be in attendance, can safely assume that none of the Renaissance artworks will involve the death or torture of historic Borises, but the same cannot be said for the third member of Mrs May's Brexit trinity in Florence, David Davis.

The church, one of the oldest in Florence, contains priceless works by artists including Vasari, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio and Uccello.

Masaccio's 1428 fresco of the Trinity is credited with being the first painting in the history of art to use perfect mathematical perspective - another neat metaphor for what Mrs May is trying to achieve with her speech.

The choice of a church (and a Catholic one at that, for a Protestant Prime Minister) is a risky one for Mrs May. It gives Europhiles the opportunity to accuse her of preaching the "Word of Theresa" and cartoonists to depict her as St Theresa, whose life was cut short before she could fulfil her true potential.

A visitor walk in one of the rooms of the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novell Credit: AFP/GABRIEL BOUYS

Mrs May's choice of venue was revealed in a tweet from the church's official account, but was later deleted. Downing Street has still not officially confirmed the venue.

Santa Maria Novella is Florence's most important Dominican church. It was built on the site of the 9th-century oratory of Santa Maria delle Vigne, hence the addition of Novella (new) to its name.

It was built between the mid-13th century and the early 15th century, and consecrated in 1420.

The pulpit, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was used for a sermon by Tommaso Caccini in 1614 in which he attacked the astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, who had dared to suggest that the Earth moved around the Sun.

Galileo was eventually found "suspect of heresy" by the Roman Inquisition and kept under house arrest from 1633 until his death in 1642.

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