One of the most remarkable museums of Florence is certainly that of San Marco, an ancient Dominican convent. It is famous for having been the home of Savonarola as well as Fra Angelico - one of the earliest Renaissance artists and a friar. This museum is a testament of his work and it hosts the largest collections of works by him in the world.
The convent was founded as a monastery for the Silvestrine monks (a branch of the Benedictines) in the 1300s and was also a parish church. In 1418 the monks were admonished for not living in the precepts of monastic life and were therefore forced to live those premises - Pope Eugene IV (who was in Florence at the time) granted the complex to the Dominican friars in 1437, Cosimo de'Medici's help was also important, as it was known he wanted another Dominican community in Florence since 1434. By then it became among the most important Dominican convents of all of Italy, following St. Dominic's scholarly mission in the Church, by commissioning theological studies, art works and all the most refined forms of "beauty" and human achievements. In 1437 Cosimo commissioned Michelozzo, the Medici's architect, the reconstruction of the convent in the new Renaissance style. Work began very soon and in 1443 the complex was consecrated at the presence of Pope Eugene IV and the Archbishop Cardinal of Florence. The community was part of the new "Medici quarter" of Florence, that included the family palace and the basilica of San Lorenzo. This was the summit of the Medici's power, especially after the 1439 Council of Florence. However, Michelozzo worked on the convent between 1439 and 1444 - the buildings were very simple but also elegant: whitewashed rooms, two cloisters, a chapter house, two refectories, and a guest house. The first floor hosted the friars' cells, which are only closed by the surrounding walls, but they all share the same roof. Another important area was the library, a wide space divided in three Renaissance naves where several windows allowed light into it, helping the friars to read, study and produce exceptional manuscripts. Several Renaissance scholars used this room: Agnolo Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola... The complex hosted great artists such as Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo, but also more intriguing people, such as Girolamo Savonarola, who lived here since 1489 - he became rector of the convent and openly preached against the luxury of Florentine life. He was eventually condemned to death by pope Alexander VI Borgia. The friars lived peacefully until 1808 when Napoleon confiscated it and then until 1866 when it was confiscated under the unification of Italy!
The cloister of Saint Antonine is located at the entrance of the convent, it was built in 1440 in the Renaissance style, all the main areas of the complex can be reached from here. There are some frescoes by Fra Angelico representing Dominican Saint and a crucifixion with Saint Dominic. Further Baroque frescoes were added in the 1600s.
The Sala dell'Ospizio was destined to the most humble guests - it is now dedicated to Fra Angelico and it hosts some of his most famous works such as the Linaioli Tabernacle and many other major ones by the Florentine friar.
The chapter house was also decorated by him with an allegoric crucifixion executed in 1442, it is said that it is so mystic that Fra Angelico cried while painting it. The iconography is canonical (the Virgin, Mary Magdalen, Saint John) but it also includes saints linked to Florence: Saints Cosma and Damian, Saint Lawrence, Saint Mark, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Dominic, Saint Jerome, Saint Francis, Saint Bernard, Saint John Gualberto, Saint Peter the Martyr, Saint Zanobi, Saint Augustine, Saint Benedict, Saint Romuald and Saint Thomas Aquinas. There are also some portraits representing important Dominican friars. Other rooms are the Great Refectory and the Lavabo room which do not have particularly important works, except for a Madonna and Child by Paolo Uccello, another early Renaissance master.
Another room is the so-called one of Fra Bartolomeo, an artist who became a friar, who inspired by Savonarola destroyed all his profane works and who dedicated himself only to religious art. Some of his work is kept in these rooms.
One of the most interesting rooms in the convent is the small refectory, the room where the guests had their meals, it was decorated in 1486 by Domenico Ghirlandaio with a Cenacolo, a last supper, a popular theme for these sort of rooms. It was executed during the artist's most popular years and it is incredibly refined. It is very similar to his other Cenacolo in Ognissanti church, especially in the architecture, with a perspective that ends in an open loggia that faces onto a Renaissance garden with several fruit trees and birds which have particular meanings: the peacock, the predatory birds, the cat. Compared to the Ognissanti fresco, this one seems more monumental and serious - probably Ghirlandaio wanted to represent the moment following the annunciation of the betrayal. The cure of the detail is very interesting and it is known that the master was very much influenced by the Northern Renaissance.The serenity of the scene is a characteristic of 15th century Florentine art, it does draw attention on the theological importance of the theme, but with sprezzatura! The Son of Man that will hang on the tree, and knows it, gives calm and is calm, because eternity is sure, because he is God and the resurrection and the salvation of all is on the way and God the Son knows it and makes everyone in the scene, certainly feel it.
This room also hosts a very fine Deposition of Christ by Della Robbia.
The first floor hosts the rooms were the friars would live as well as the library. Michelozzo created wide smooth walls, so that Fra Angelico could decorate them with great frescoes between 1438 and 1446. This was the greatest decoration of a convent until then - every single room had a fresco. The then bishop of Florence considered art to be a great instrument of meditation and learning and promoted the works. The forty-five cells are located along the three corridors - each cell has a fresco with the stories of Christ, they are always located on the wall opposite the door. These art works were an important milestone of the Renaissance - their strength comes partly from their simplicity and harmony - they inspire devotion and personal spiritual growth. There are no distractions, no strong colours or complicated backgrounds.
The first fresco we encounter is located just on top of the stairs and it is the famous one of the Annunciation (1440-1450). Fra Angelico used rich variations of gold and blue. An important characteristic is the monumentality of the figures, isolated in the loggia. In this moment Mary realises the burden she is going to accept, she is gently bending and submits to the will of God. Let it be unto me according to thy Word.
Very close to the Annunciation is the crucifix of Saint Dominic - the saint is at the foot of the cross which is spilling blood. The blood represents the blood shed for Christ for the redemption of human kind. The blood of the altar which Saint Dominic almost collects by touching the Cross, in the same way we give honour to the wine in the cup which for us is true blood.
I quite like Fra Angelico as he is able in his Medieval language to look beyond, to look to the future High Renaissance by making each scene incredibly dramatic and full of pathos - but also quite dynamic while maintaining an orthodoxy of old.
The first corridor is the central one, the cells in these corridors represent scenes from the life of Christ but do not follow a natural progression (north to south):
- Noli me Tangere
- Deposition with Saint Dominic
- Annunciation with Saint Peter the Martyr
- Mocking of Christ with the Virgin and Saint Dominic
- Mocking of Christ with the women at the sepulchre
- Risen Christ
- Risen Christ with the women
- Presentation to the temple with saints Villana and Peter the Martyr
- Madonna with Child and Saints
- Crucifix adored by Saint Dominic
- Crucifix with the Virgin
- Crucifix with the Virgin, Saint Dominic and angels
- Baptism of Christ
- Crucifixion with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Saint Dominic
- Deposition with the Virgin and Saint Dominic
- Flagellation with the Virgin and Saint Dominic
- Christ bearing the cross
- Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint Peter the Martyr
Another fine fresco is located outside the cell 24 and 25 - it is the so-called Madonna delle Ombre (Madonna of the Shadows). It represents an enthroned Virgin with Child with Saints Dominic, Cosma and Damian, Mark, John the Evangelist, Thomas Aquinas, Lawrence and Peter the Martyr. A group of saints and martyrs symbolic to Florence and the Convent, beholding the Mother of God holding the Son of Man, the true meaning of faith and sainthood, to be as close as possible to God, of which Mary is the greatest example. It was executed in 1450 (so it is a late work) and it is much more mature and detailed than his previous works.
The south corridor faces the cloister, the cells which were located here were destined to novices so the decorations are not particularly interesting. The cells are mostly decorated with Crucifixions and Saint Dominic. In the end of the corridor is the vast cell of Savonarola. Some scholars believe that these works were executed by Fra Angelico's most famous and skilled pupil Benozzo Gozzoli.
The last (north) corridor hosts more cells with further, exceptional, even more dramatic, frescoes by Fra Angelico, some of them being stunning scenes from the Passion, such as the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Supper or the Kiss of Judas, as well as the Crucifixion scenes, the way in which God's mission of salvation is fulfilled:
- Christ in the Limbo
- Sermon in the mountains and temptations of Christ
- Betrayal of Judas and entry into Jerusalem
- Oration in the garden
- Institution of the Eucharist
- Crucifixion with Longinus
- Nailing of Christ to the cross
- Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints Dominic and Thomas Aquinas
- The two cells at the end of the corridor belonged to Cosimo de' Medici for his spiritual retreats, also pope Eugene IV was hosted in it. One of the rooms is decorated with the crucifixion of Cosma and Damian. The actual room of Cosimo is decorated with an Adoration of the Magi and a Man of Sorrows.
- Crucifixion with Saint Mark
The Michelozzo's Library is located in the right hand side of this corridor. It was commissioned by Cosimo to be built in the new Renaissance style, inspired by Brunelleschi. It houses a large number of late Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts which are often exposed, although most of the most precious books were moved to the nearby Medici Biblioteca Laurenziana in San Lorenzo. Some illustrators are very famous, such as: Domenico Ghirlandaio and Zanobi Strozzi.
The convent, which I truly recommend you if you are ever in Florence is a truly inspiring place, a temple to Saint Dominic, the Order of Preacher, their scholarly refinement and taste and indeed, a visual testament to the theology of the founder of the Dominicans and their artists and theologians.