Guide To Florence's Monastery of San Marco, a Fra Angelico Dreamland
The San Marco Monastery is a serene and irresistible hidden gem in Florence Italy. Even though it's well known by art aficionados, it doesn't always get the love it deserves. Tourists tend to leave San Marco off their Florence itineraries in favor of must see cultural attractions like the Uffizi Gallery, Michelangelo's David, or the Duomo complex.
But you should carve out time for San Marco, if at all possible. San Marco is an extraordinary decorative complex, one of the most unusual things to do in Florence.
It's a rare opportunity to see Early Renaissance masterpieces in situ. You can admire art in its original location and understand how contemporary audiences experienced it. This simply isn't the case at the Uffizi Gallery or almost any other museum in Europe.
At this Renaissance convent-museum, you travel back in time to a nearly perfectly preserved 600 year old Dominican monastery. It was paid for by Medici family money, designed by the stellar architect Michelozzo, and decorated with delicate frescos by one of the most sublime painters of the Renaissance -- Fra Angelico. The fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola even lived there.
If you're not an avid fan of Renaissance art, you should still visit for San Marco's history, sheer beauty, and the indulgent escape it provides. San Marco Monastery is considered one of the most beautiful monasteries in Italy. It's a relaxing spot of utter tranquility after the hurly burly of Florence's hotspots.
Paradoxically, the convent sits in the Piazza San Marco, one of the busiest squares in Florence. It's a mind bending experience to step out of the loud piazza and into the silent art-filled cloister. You may feel like you've stepped into a different dimension, a delicious oasis. The convent has changed very little over 600 centuries and you can feel it.
A Short History of San Marco Monastery
In 1437, Cosimo de Medici, referred to as Cosimo the Elder, decided to rebuild a crumbling convent complex in northern Florence. It appeared to be a magnificent gesture for observant Dominican monks who had taken a vow of poverty. But the edifice was intended as a unifying civic project, meant to showcase and cement Medici power (though Cosimo did reserve a cell for himself as a retreat).
That's how it worked in Renaissance Florence -- you built a monumental complex to flex your muscles. In today's dollars, Cosimo donated approximately $60 million for construction. Naturally, the Medici patronage was stamped on the covent, with Medici symbols emblazoned on pillars, walls, and frescos.
The convent's intended inhabitants were the Fiesole Reform Dominicans, who had been living in nearby Fiesole, a short day trip from Florence. They weren't happy with their locale. As lovers of education, they wanted a transfer to the more intellectual Florence. To facilitate this goal, the Dominicans booted out another religious order, the Sylvestrians, by launching an investigation of their conduct.
The result? The Sylvestrians were condemned, found to be living "without good reputation." Indeed, it was claimed they were holding pedaphilic orgies within the walls of San Marco. It no doubt helped the Dominican's cause that the reigning pope, Eugenius IV, was a Domincan himself.
The Architecture of San Marco Monastery
San Marco was the first ever Renaissance style convent in Florence. It was built on the site of two decaying medieval monasteries during 1438-43. For this important job, Cosimo hired the architect Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery.
Michelozzo was one of the most important architects in Florence's history. He's often overlooked because he was an exact contemporary of Brunelleschi. But he adopted Brunelleschi's vocabulary -- designing San Marco with harmony, repetition, and symmetry.
Michelozzo was able to build the complex in a mind bogglingly short 6 years, something a slower and more ponderous Brunelleschi couldn't have achieved. Michelozzo used gray pietra serena stone and Ionic columns for the cloister's loggia. The columns are a bit stumpy. In the 18th century, benches were added and the columns shortened.
But when you walk into the cloister, you're enveloped in serenity. Important Fra Angelico paintings are in the lunette spaces. Inside, San Marco is a shrine to the intensely unique paintings of Fra Angelico and his workshop.
The Life of Fra Angelico
Fra Angelico was born just to the north of Florence in the Mugello region in 1395. As a youth, he was trained as a miniaturist, with the intent of becoming a manuscript illuminator. He committed himself to the monastery in his mid-twenties, apprenticing with the Benedictine monk and painter Lorenzo Monaco. Upon becoming a friar, he changed his name from Guido di Pietro to Fra Giovanni di Fiesole, his lay name.
Fra Angelico was one of the most devout monks. He led a strict life of piety and humility. The Dominicans required adherents to mostly stay silent. They woke every morning at 3:00 am for prayer. Sometimes they would go weeks without food. They lived in rooms called “cells,” which had nothing save a chair, a narrow bed, a prayer desk, and a fresco.
According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, Fra Angelico prayed before taking up his brushes to paint. Whenever he painted Christ in pain, he wept. There are 7 crucifixion frescos in the upper floor monks cells.
The Art of Fra Angelico
Fortunately, for the convent, it had an incredibly talented in house painter. Working in the mid 1400s, Fra Angelico lovingly painted sacred art and realistic down to earth images of humans and human emotions. With Giotto and Donatello, Fra Angelico helped transform the art world and usher in the High Renaissance.
His humanistic pieces, with delicate palettes, led him to be (posthumously) dubbed the "Angelic Painter" or Il Beato (the Blessed). Giorgio Vasari described Fra Angelico as a "rare and perfect talent." He was one of the extraordinary figures of the Renaissance. In 1982, Pope John beatified him, leaving him one step below a canonized saint.
Fra Angelico invented emotional interiority in art. Initally, he worked in the prevailing Gothic style. But under the influence of Masaccio, a 15th century painting prodigy, Fra Angelico abandoned the rigid expressionlessness of Gothic art. He began to capture not just a scene, but the expressive feelings of the scene's characters. That allowed viewers to interact with and relate to the art.
Fra Angelico effectively laid the stylistic groundwork for Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and even Mark Rothko. His work was incredibly influential.
Fra Angelico adopted the rules of perspective that Brunelleschi and Masaccio had innovated only shortly before. He grouped figures in ways that added depth and individuality. He created a physical dimensionality around them by manipulating the depiction of light, techniques that inspired Leonard da Vinci’s chiaroscuro technique.
Fra Angelico's figures transmit their inner feelings; you can feel their existential weight. Their hands touch delicately, instilling events with great significance. When art critic and historian John Ruskin visited San Marco in 1848, he proclaimed Fra Angelico’s frescos to be “visions,” not just art works.
Even if you have little interest in Christian themes, you'll likely still find Fra Angelico's work compelling.
Highlights and What To See at San Marco Monastery, Starring Fra Angelico
The main areas of San Marco Monastery to see are:
✔ Cloister of St. Antoninus
✔ Chapter House
✔ La Piagnone
✔ Small Refectory
✔ Room of Beato Angelico
✔ Fra Angelico's Annunciation
✔ Monks Dormitory Cells
✔ Michelozzo Library
Just after the entrance, there's Michelozzo's open air Cloister of St. Antoninus. You enter and a calm falls upon you. The walls are plain, but decorated with Fra Angelico frescos in the lunettes of the loggia. The cloister also has an appealing garden.
Opposite the entrance is a vignette of St. Dominic worshipping a humanized Christ on a crucifix. One of the most celebrated lunette images is of St. Thomas Aquinas, considered a Fra Angelico masterpiece. You'll recognize him by his black cape, a gold star, and rather husky size.
St. Peter Martyr is another intense and well preserved lunette fresco. He enjoins silence above the door between the cloister and the Church of San Marco (which is an unremarkable affair that was "Baroqued" in the 17th century). The message is "shhhhh" when you enter the church.
Surrounding the cloister are a series of rooms where the monks used to carry out their daily activities: the Refectory (dining hall), Chapter House (meeting room), the Hospital Room (now the Sala del Beato Angelico), the Lavabo (washing room), etc.
2. The Chapter House
On the opposite end of the cloister is the Chapter House. All convents had them. The Chapter House was like the board meeting room for monks. There, they would congregate, conduct communal affairs, judge the friars' conduct, and have public confessions. It was sometimes a place of "accusers" and "judges."
Reflecting this theme is the Chapter House's masterpiece -- Fra Angelico’s stunning The Crucifixion with Saints. It's nothing less than epic. It occupies the entire wall opposite the entrance. The fresco is a brightly colored semicircle about thirty feet wide. The Crucifixion depicts Christ and the two thieves on either side, nailed to their crosses, as saints and witnesses grieve below.
There's a group of life size witnesses -- Mary Magdalene, St. John the Baptist, St. Mark, St. Jerome, St. Lawrence, and a variety of doctor saints. The amazing thing about this particular line up of saints is that they're all related to the Medici family. It's a very discrete and elegant way of referring to San Marco's patron.
Underneath it all is a horizontal array of 17 medallions depicting Dominicans. It's a veritable who's who of Dominican celebrities -- Dominican saints, popes, and cardinals.
Another painting, Christ Received by Two Dominicans, depicts Dominicans greeting a sort of hippie with a halo. It's the figure of Jesus, disguised as a pilgrim, holding a tall walking stick. The painting effectively demonstrates one of the purposes, or utilitarian functions, of the Chapter House -- to receive guests. This painting was originally in a cloister lunette, but was moved inside for preservation.
3. Savonarola's Naughty Bell, La Piagnona
The Chapter House is also home to a famous bell. Leonardo's master, Andrea del Verrocchio designed the bell and it was cast by Michelozzo and Donatello. It originally rang in the bell tower of the Church of San Marco. It's a rather naughty bell nicknamed La Piagnona, or the crybaby.
La Piagnona gets its name from Savonarola, the "Mad Monk" of Florence. Savonarola preached rousingly against clerical corruption and secular art. He called for a fundamentalist style of Christian renewal with a touch of Talibanism, for his new city of God.
In 1497, Savonarola Marie Kondo'ed Florence, committing the most horrific act of cultural desecration in European history. He burned "decadent" works of art in a "Bonfire of the Vanities" in the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palaazo Vecchio. Besotted with Savonarola, even Sandro Botticelli threw precious works on the flames.
After four years of terror and excessive zealotry, Savonarola pissed off Pope Alexander VI, who excommunicated him. Florence was likewise done with his Anti-Renaissance return to the dark ages. In 1498, the killjoy Savonarola was burned and hung in the same spot he had burned the "vanities."
But back to the bell. Savonarola's standing-room-only sermons were allegedly so fiery people would sob during them. Their thunderous wailing became synonymous with the peeling of the bell. When Savonarola was arrested, the monks rang the bell incessantly calling for help.
Put out, angry Florentines mobs kidnapped the offending bell and paraded it through Florence so everyone could bestow a good "whipping." If that wasn't macabre enough, the citizens then banished the bell to the Church of San Miniato al Monte for 50 years. La Piagnona was finally restored and returned to San Marco by The Bells of Florence Project in 2010.
4. Small Refectory
There are several refectories, or monks' dining halls, in San Marco. At the entry to the most significant one, the Small Refectory, you see a fresco above the door of Jesus depicted as Homo Pietatis, or Man of Sorrow. It's an image of Jesus standing inside a sarcophagus displaying the wounds he suffered during his torture and execution. (There's another version in Cell 26).
The image has a moral. It's meant to remind the monks of Jesus' sacrifice before they entered the dining hall. The idea is that instead of indulging at their meals, the monks would sigh deeply and temper their eating.
The most significant work inside the Refectory is by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo's teacher. It's a famous The Last Supper fresco. As is typical, Judas is isolated opposite from Christ and the apostles. Typical of Ghirlandaio, the fresco is filled with animation, symbolism, and vivid detail.
There's a cat, a symbol of deceit, behind Judas. Peter has a look of open dislike and looks ready to plunge his knife. The cherries arranged on the tablecloth spell out a rhyme. FYI, there's an earlier and nearly identical Ghirlandaio The Last Judgment fresco in the Church of Ognissanti. Both paintings influenced Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper in Milan.
5. Sala del Beato Angelico
Turn right just after entering the cloister, and you're in the Sala del Beato Angelico, previously know as the Sala dell'Ospizio or the Hospice Room. The room recently received a makeover with calming gray walls and state of the art LED lighting. The Last Judgment, Altarpiece for San Marco, and Lamentation over the Dead Christ, were clean and restored.
The room is a highlight of the museum, housing the world's best Fra Angelico panel paintings, from monumental altarpieces to small works. Right now, there are 16 works on display, arranged in chronological order. The most significant ones are:
✔ The Last Judgment
✔ The Crucifixion of Saints
✔ Deposition from the Cross
✔ Peter Martyr Triptych
✔ Altarpiece for San Marco Church
✔ Lamentation over the Dead Christ
✔ Wedding and Funeral of the Virgin
✔ Tabernacle of the Linaioli
The Last Judgment was originally in the Church of Santa Maria deli Agneli. As in most paintings on this theme, Christ sits on a throne surrounded by angels judging who should go to heaven and hell. The bottom right section represents hell. Demons torture the souls of the wicked. A three headed Satan even chews them up. There's another Fra Angelico Last Judgment in the Academia Gallery.
Art historians believe that the Altarpiece from San Marco Church, commissioned by Cosimo the Elder, is one of Fra Angelico’s true masterpieces. It's considered a fine example of early Renaissance art because it uses metaphor and perspective. It mixes Dominican themes with contemporary messages and real people. The painting departs from most altarpieces in that it isn't set in heaven.
The painting was essentially a giant thank you to Cosimo. Mary and Christ sit enthroned surrounded by drapery and the "balls" (coat of arms) of the Medici. The figures are positioned in carefully choreographed groups, wearing the Medici colors of red and green. The sole merchant wears Cosimo's signature red cap and looks mournfully at the audience. Behind them is a painted forest, one of the first great examples of a Renaissance landscape.
Deposition From the Cross is an medieval altarpiece originally made for the Strozzi Chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita. You can tell it pre-dates Fra Angelico's Renaissance works by the gold halos and unrealistic bodies.
There's also an ornate Tabernacle of the Linaioli. The tabernacle is a marble shrine displaying religious paintings by Fra Angelico. It was painted for Florence's linen workers guild. Lorenzo Ghiberti, the artist who created the Gates of Paradise from the Florence Baptistery (now in the Duomo Museum) designed the frame.
In total, there are 8 separate paintings: two on the shutter panels, three smaller paintings along the predella (the bottom), and the central painting of the Madonna and baby Jesus. 12 musical angels dance in an arc around the main panel. The ensemble took 2 years to complete.
6. Fra Bartolomeo | the Lavabo
Fra Bartolomeo, like Fra Angelico, was a talented painter-monk. He was essentially the next greatest painter working at San Marco, and influenced the great Raphael. Fra Bartolomeo kept a studio in San Marco until his death in 1517. You can find his works on display in the Grand Refectory and the Lavabo.
His most famous painting is a haunting portrait of Savonarola in profile. Fra Bartolomeo came under his influence in the 1490s and became a friar in 1500. He gave up painting for several years because Savonarola considered it decadent. But the monastery instructed him to resume to benefit the Dominican order.
Next, head up to the first floor living quarters, where the real magic happens. The preserved monks cells on the upper floor are simply beautiful and a unique traveler's experience.
7. Fra Angelico's The Annunciation at the Top of the Staircase
To go upstairs, you enter a tiny cloister called the Spesa. The Spesa unites the ground floor semi-public areas with the first floor's private living spaces.
The corner staircase (originally spiral) leads to the floor where the monks lived. As you ascend the red carpet, you come face to face with one of the most celebrated images of Western art -- Fra Angelico's The Annunciation. The Annunciation is Fra Angelico's most famous painting and a celestial masterpiece.
You're be almost surprised to find the it there. It seems incongruous to see such a famous painting in a space with so few tourists. And it's so large that you're practically assaulted by its presence, forced to participate in an intimate drama and spiritual reflection.
In The Annunciation, the figures are life size and shown in a Spesa-like space. The undecorated lunettes echo Michelozzo's courtyard below.
The Virgin Mary greets the Angel Gabriel in a walled garden with Corinthian columns, evoking the Garden of Eden. Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to Christ.
The fresco isn't opulent. Mary’s clothes are pale. She's slumped over, as if she's already having morning sickness. The only elaborate image is Gabriel's wings, embellished with peacock eyes. The moment of immaculate conception is symbolized by the small grated window with light coming through into the room, or figurative womb, of Mary. The window is identical to those found in the monks cells.
There's a seriousness, an intimacy, to the scene, and there are few symbolic objects: no memento mori or crown of thorns, no lily, no book. This is not an art work that tells you how to feel. Rather, it summons you into its world.
The Annunciation is the last thing the monks saw before retiring to bed. It was a reminder for them to say their prayers. And it's the start of the cycle of frescoes that depict the life and passion of Christ in the monks cells to follow.
8. Monks Dormitory Cells and the Most Important Fra Angelico Frescos
The ability to visit actual monks cells is very rare and a highlight of a visit to San Marco. There are 43 cells with low ceilings arranged along three corridors. The walls are white, like powdered clay, and the floors are a cool terracotta.
Each room has a customized devotional fresco. Most were painted by Fra Angelico. Some were completed by his workshop aids, including fellow friar-painter Benozzo Gozzoli. The pure beauty of the frescos is in stark contrast to the plain rooms. (Although having your own room in this epoch of history was a rarity.)
The frescos are meant to inspire prayer and meditation. Each fresco is placed next to a window. You could see a real window into physical world and a painted window into the spiritual world, side by side. The simplicity or complexity of the fresco’s theme was tailored to the seniority of the monk.
Novices might receive an image of a saint. Seasoned adherents got a narrative scene. For the most senior and educated, like a priest, the fresco would depict a more complete metaphorical image, through which the devout could derive their own interpretations.
The most profound religious subjects are found in Cells 1, 3, 6, and 9. In Cell 1, Noli Me Tangere, you see the beautiful image of the moment where Mary Magdalene realizes the gardener she's talking to is actually Jesus. She lunges for him and he says he is unclean because he has not yet ascended.
In Cell 3, there's an exquisite pink Annunciation (shown above), which is more complex and intimate than the one at the top of the stairs. The figure of St. Peter Martyr stands off to the left peering in. He's a fictional character and wasn't at the biblical annunciation. Why is he there? Because he serves as an non-divine intercessor or witness -- a theological teddy bear to whom the monks could relate, thereby linking the real world and the painted world.
Cell 6 was the cell of Giorgio La Pira, twice mayor of Florence. His cell boasts the dramatic The Transfiguration. The fresco shows the figure of Jesus radiating light in the center, body postured in the shape of a cross. There are more intercessors, the Virgin Mary and St. Dominic, who are in shadows in a chiaroscuro effect.
Fra Angelico depicts Moses with horns, as Michelangelo would do later for the Tomb of Julius II. To me, this is a more appealing and simplified transfiguration than Raphael's Transfiguration in the Vatican Museums.
In Cell 9, Mary's coronation is of course a big deal. Mary and Christ are painted against a white background. Plenty of saints are in attendance. Who actually put the crown on Mary's head? It's unknown. But the reigning pope thought it was Jesus, and so that's how the fresco was depicted.
9. Other Important Historic Cells Not To Miss
Cell 7 has one of the monastery's weirdest paintings, The Mocking of Christ. Dressed in white, Christ is blindfolded and shown as a suffering king. His tormentors are disembodied parts -- pulling his beard. blowing on him, and whacking him with a rod. The painting is a dreamlike meditation, showing Christ's thoughts rather than presenting an accurate visual record.
In Cells 12-14, you can visit the rooms of the fanatical and odious Savonarola, who I discussed above and who lived in San Marco. Savonarola cell consists of three plain rooms.
It was in these rooms that Savonarola launched a movement that would temporarily dethrone the Medici, establish a theocracy in Florence, and change the course of religious history ushering in the Reformation. There are artifacts from his life -- a cloak, crucifixion, hair shirt girdles, rosary, etc. There's also the painting (shown above) of his execution in the Piazza della Signoria.
Cell 31 was Antoninus' personal cell, when he was prior from 1439-46. It's decorated with a fresco of Christ in Limbo, a Dickensian vision of risen spirits. It has a funny vignette of a demon being squashed.
Cell 33 was Fra Angelico's personal room. He chose to decorate it with The Arrest of Christ. It's a rather violent wresting scene with an intense palette, the opposite of The Annunciation. In it, Judas is about to kiss Christ, who looks him squarely in the eyes knowing a brutal event is about to transpire. That's what Fra Angelico chose to meditate on ...
In Cell 35, there's a Last Supper painting called Communion of the Apostles. Fra Angelico's painting is unusual for Last Supper paintings in that it ignores Judas' betrayal. Though Judas is shown by the black color of his halo. Instead, Fra Angelico depicts Chris distributing the Eucharist in a simple and bare room to all of the apostles including Judas.
Fra Angelico's assistants likely helped him with this fresco, which is also unusual for its inclusion of windows.
The dormitory's more action packed frescos were painted by Gozzoli, such as The Sermon on the Mount (Cell 32) and Agony in the Garden (Cell 34). While similar in style to Fra Angelico, Gozzoli's frescos contain more people and are more vibrantly colored with lusher backgrounds.
At the north end of the hall, in Cells 38-39, are the rooms of Cosimo the Elder. As the monastery's patron, he was given a series of larger cells. One room is decorated with Fra Angelico's charming Adoration of the Magi, in a broad horizontal lunette. He was likely assisted, perhaps substantially, by Benozzo Gozzoli. Only 10 people can enter Cosimo's cell at a time.
The image was intentionally chosen. It's part of the iconography of the Medici family, who wanted to equate themselves with the princely magi who bring gifts to Christ. It's similar in style and theme to the Chapel of the Magi in the Medici-Riccardi Palace, which was also painted by Gozzoli.
In the painting for Cosimo, three generations of biblical kings parallel the three generations of the Medici who were alive then -- Cosimo the Elder, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent. Like the kings, the Medici magi brought gifts for the salvation of the civil community.
10. The Michelozzo Library
A left turn off of Cosimo's cells leads to the Michelozzo Library. This was the first public library of the Renaissance and Michelozzo's architectural masterpiece. Putting a library on the highest floor gave readers more light and helped protect the books from flooding. The library is one the museum's best loved spaces.
Michelozzo's design harkened back to Classical times, using the standard Roman basilica shape. It's a rectangular space divided on its longer axis into a nave and two aisles. The aisles housed the readings desks, to which the manuscripts were formerly chained. Natural light floods into the room with an airy arcade of Ionic columns and a barrel vaulted central roof.
The library was originally built to house the book collection of the humanist Niccolo Niccoli. But Cosimo the Elder was also an avid collector and expanded the collection. He obsessively collected classical literature -- philosophy, religion, history, mythology -- some of it purchased after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. As a result, in this symmetrical hall, the study of humanism thrived.
The Michelozzo Library became the nexus for classical knowledge in the Western world. Today, the library houses the Medici's valuable manuscripts. In 2014, it was beautifully restored and panels were added depicting its history.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting San Marco Monastery
Address: Piazza San Marco 3
Hours: Monday to Friday 8:15 am to 1:50 pm, Sat & Sun 8:15 am to 4:50 pm. The museum is closed on the second and fourth Monday of each month.
Entry fee: 16 euros, the museum accepts the Florence Card. You can reserve a time slot ticket online here. San Marco is usually fairly empty. But, in the summer months, you may want to purchase a ticket online in advance here.
How To Get There: San Marco is just a half block north of the Accademia, so you could combine the two museums. There's a city bus stop in the Piazza San Marco.
Pro tip: There's not much signage at the monastery. But Rick Steves has a free app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, which provides an informative walking tour. Or, you can simply let the art flow over you.
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