This was one of my very favorites in Florence and another where I badly misbehaved by very quietly sneaking a few forbidden (non flash) shots. I am, by nature, usually obedient when it comes to rules but faced with all those marvelous Fra Angelicos, the temptation was just too much! *snap*
San Marco is both a very old church and very old monastery whose pilgrims these days are mostly art aficionados who come to see the enshrined works of Fra Angelico, Bartolomeo and others of the Renaissance painters. Built in 1437-43 on the site of a former Benedictine convent and financed by Cosimo the Elder (who installed his own meditative cell), this Dominican complex was Command Central for “Mad Monk” Savanarola from 1490-1498.
The puritanical Prior essentially seized autocratic control of the city after a French invasion expelled the Medici in 1494, and unleashed his zealous opposition to all things immoral, frivolous or otherwise ungodly. Florentines were subjected to stringent new laws restricting fun and finery, and paintings, clothing, books, cosmetics and other items deemed excessive or indecent were rounded up and publicly burned in “Bonfires of the Vanities.” His fury turned to Rome as well: fiery sermons attacking church corruption eventually earned him an excommunication from an exasperated Pope, and citizens chaffing under his reign of terror finally decided enough was enough. Arrested, tortured and convicted of heresy, Savanarola met his end in a macabre bit of irony: a bonfire of an entirely different sort.
Hard to believe that this peaceful compound with serene cloister and delicate adornments had housed such a wrathful individual. Gentle illustrations brushed by Fra Angelico and his students are scattered throughout but the best of them are the frescoes in the austere cells of the monk’s quarters on the first floor. His famous ‘Annunciation' is at the top of the stairs leading to the dormitory, and here also is Savanarola’s cell with some original furniture and an anonymous painting of his execution in Piazza Della Signoria.
This is a must-do: see the website for hours and tickets prices. Entrance to the museum is included on Firenze Cards or Friends of the Uffizi passes. As this is a sacred site, modest dress rules apply: no bare knees and shoulders. Photography is not allowed anywhere but the cloisters: the rule I disobeyed so you could see what you shouldn’t miss!
Unfortunately I slept in on Saturday morning and missed my reservation at the Accademia so I decided to head to the same area as David's home and visit a special place I had wanted to see for a very long time: the Convento di San Marco.
During various times of my life I have been either presented with, or purchased, prayer cards picturing the delicate frescoes painted by Fra Angelico, the great Renaissance painter and Dominican monk who resided in this particular monastery.
Although the monastery was built in the 12th century, it was taken over by the Dominicans in the 15th century (and remained there until 1808). Fra Angelico was commissioned, along with others, to decorate the walls of the monks' cells, as well as other parts of the monastery, with contemplative frescoes depicting the life of Jesus and Mary as well as other hagiographic portraiture.
The 43 frescoes became the guiding emblems of the intense spiritual life of the community and even today the visitor cannot be but overwhelmed by a sense of peace, contemplation and even a sense of love when gazing upon these otherworldly creations. Indeed, the whole purpose of creating these frescoes was not for simple decoration, but were used as a memory aid commencing the process whereby the monk or priest's meditation helped him to study sacred texts in preparation for preaching (the Dominicans are famous for their exceptionally powerful and eloquent homilies).
The convent, which is a museum today, is divided up between the cloister where you enter the complex and the convent and chapter house. The last two occupy both the lower, or ground floor, and the upper floor (where the monks' cells are to be found). At the end of a corridor on the ground floor, the visitor encounters one of the first frescoes, that of 'Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion' which is painted in much brighter tones, at least the background is, than those found on the upper floor.
Photographs on the upper floor where the cells are located are not permitted (although I managed a cheeky take of The Annunciation). The Annunciation is located at the top of the stairs as you go up to the upper floor. It is a highly spiritual piece, the colour somewhat duller than the version hanging in th Prado, in Madrid, yet by no means any less intense. The scene of the annunciation by the Angel Gabriel that Mary was to be chosen as the Mother of Christ is one of the most intimate moments of the New Testament. Fra Angelico captures it as he shows both figures clutching their chests and inclining towards one another: Gabriel in a gesture of reverance, Our Lady in a sign of humility. The scene takes place in what could be seen as a Renaissance loggia with stylised foilage pictured in the background. But although Fra Angelico is playing with perspective, his true devotion to his creation is not lost in artistic measurement.
Once on the upper room, the visitor is able to peep into each cell. Almost as a spiritual voyeur one strolls from cell to cell only to be dazzled by one beautiful and tender fresco after another. I try and respect the rule of not taking photographs and two prints I am including in my photos are taken from the following website which can provide you with a better visual idea of the frescoes: http://www.wga.hu
One in particular which I love is the 'Noli me tangere' or Do not touch me, spoken by the risen Christ to Mary Magdalen in the Gospel according to Saint John 20:17. In this scene, we can see the discreet joy of the kneeling Magdalen reaching out to the risen Christ; yet we can also see his gentle resistence in the gesture of his right hand. Like in the large Annunciation fresco, Fra Angelico is able to convey the intimacy of two characters caught in a episodic moment and it is this intimacy, shared with the contemplator which would have indoubtedly contributed to the practice of inward reflection.
I would recommend to anyone a visit to the Convento; it does not hold the same mass appeal as the Accademia which contains the David, but it certainly is a treasure which many in Florence sacrifice to waiting in long queues elsewhere. This is a massive shame, because out of all of the places I visited in Florence, this was perhaps my most treasured. Please find time to visit.
Open: Monday-Friday: 8.15-13.50; Saturday: 8.15-18.50; every second Sunday: 8.15-19.00.
The big drawing card of the Convento di San Marco are the tiny monastic cells that are decorated with frescoes from the life of Christ by Fra Angelico and assistants. Personally, I found them depressing after a while, because in most of them Christ was being beaten in some way or being stabbed in the side with a spear while being crucified. Other frescoes consisted of some monk bleeding profusely from a head wound; never found out what that was about.
If you do go, go to see Fra Angelico's Annunciation, thought to be the most moving and beautiful painting of the Renaissance.
There was an interesting display on the process of illuminating scrolls in the library upstairs
The convent of San Marco, adjacent to the church, dates back to the 12th century. In 1437, Cisimo di Elder commissioned Michelozzo to restructure it, therefore the first convent is in the Renaissance style. The whole cloister is frescoed, mostly ba Fra' Angeliso, who passed the greater part of his life within the convent. The cloister is also known for its Cosimo's and Savonarola's Cells.
Another restoration of the church was in 1580 by Giambologna, while the simple facade was redone in the secong half of the 18th century.
Just north of the Duomo lies this lovely 13th century convent. It was enlarged in 1437 when Dominican monks from nearby Fiesole moved here at the invitation of Cosimo il Vecchio. The cloisters and cells are decorated with remarkable frescoes (c. 1438-45) by Florentine painter and Dominican friar Fra Angelico.
As well as the cloisters and cells, the convent has a museum with art collections etc.
Built in 1443, this church was built by the Medici's for a Dominican monastary. The church is known for its frescos by Fra Angelico
San Marco is a former Dominican monastery, built according to the plans of Michelozzo.
It is now a museum that houses the works of the monks and painters Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolommeo.