Piazza Santa Maria Novella was originally intended in the thirteenth century to hold the overflow of worshippers to the Santa Maria Novella church. Beginning in the late fourteenth century it was also used to hold the Palio dei Cocchi chariot races hosted by Cosimo I. The two obelisks were added in 1608 to serve as turning posts in the race. Across the piazza from the church is the fifteenth century Loggia di San Paolo, from which the grand duke viewed the race. Today it houses the Alinari National Museum of Photography (Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia).
In the nineteenth century, several important foreign literary and political figures chose this piazza as their headquarters in Florence. A plaque to the American poet Longfellow appears on the wall of the Hotel Minerva while the writer Henry James wrote his novel Roderick James in a house on the corner of the Via della Scala. On the Via delle Belle Donne is the balcony from which Garibaldi made his famous declaration "Roma o morte!"
Authentic gelato is to be had at L'Angolo del Gelato, on the corner of the Via della Scala, where the specialties of the house include a very rare crema di arachidi, or peanut butter gelato.