San Marco Convent in Florence: a Milestone of the Renaissance

San Marco Church in Florence

San Marco Church in Florence

Origins of San Marco Convent in Florence

San Marco Convent in Florence is one of the most important destinations for Renaissance lovers and for Fra’Angelico’s devotees in particular. The large number of frescos, together with the fact that every artwork was made for this same place, makes this museum really unique. The frescos had to celebrate the Dominican Order and create comfortable spaces apt to friars’ meditation. Since the 1200’s San Marco Convent was held by the Silvestrine monks. In 1436, Pope Eugene IV assigned the convent to the Dominicans of San Domenico di Fiesole. This followed the donation of a lavish sum of money to refund the convent by the rich Florentine banker Cosimo the Elder. He also gave consistent funds to sustain the friars’ community, bound by the vow of poverty. The Florentine architect Michelozzo was in charge of the renovation. The reconstruction was concluded by Epiphany in 1443, year of the consecration by the same pope.

The Dominicans at San Marco Convent in Florence

Saint Dominique of Guzman was born in 1170 in Castilla (Spain). He distinguished himself for poverty and charity. Furthermore, he was convinced of the necessity of bringing the church back to its austerity. He founded the Order of Preaching Friars, based on beggars life, traveling preachers and in-depth study of religion. He died in Bologna in 1221 and he was canonized shortly after in 1234 by Pope Gregory XI. This fact demonstrates how popular this friar was amongst the people. Moreover, San Marco is tightly linked to the name of Beato Angelico (or Fra’Angelico). He was baptized Guido di Piero and he was born in the countryside around Florence towards the end of the XIV century. “Angelico” is the epithet given to him after his death for his religiosity and humility. He was a Dominican friar who tried to join together the new Renaissance principles, such as the perspective and the attention on the human figure, with old medieval aspects, like the educational function of art and the mystic value of light.

Fra’ Angelico’s frescos at San Marco

San Marco Convent in Florence

Fra’ Angelico, Crucifixion in San Marco cloister

Fra’ Angelico was called from Fiesole to Florence to supervise the fresco decorations of the entire convent. In particular, the decoration consisted in episodes of the New Testament or Crucifixions in every cell, where Saint Dominique or other Dominican saints were portrayed. Actually, the friars had to follow their examples and their virtues (compassion, prayer, meditation, prostration, etc). His frescoes in San Marco Convent are a real milestone of Renaissance art. Their force derives from their absolute harmony and simplicity which tend to evoke in the friars a devoted contemplation. These are the masterpieces of Angelico’s maturity, characterized by formal rigor, desert backgrounds, ethereal figures, a metaphysical light and a very delicate palette of colors. All this creates a sensation of real abstraction. Dominican saints are depicted in these scenes to update the holy episode to the real life of the Dominican congregation.

Fra’ Angelico’s Crucifixion

The years of the realization are still debated, as well as the authorship of Angelico of every fresco. It appears certain that he conceived and drew all the frescoes. However, it’s still open if he was flanked by collaborators and how much he painted. He supervised the entire work, and, due to the big amount of frescoes painted in a relatively short period, we can be sure that he had apprentices and co-workers. One of Fra’ Angelico’s masterpieces in San Marco is the Crucifixion in the main cloister. The symbolic abstraction, the figures who are extrapolated into a space without time, the surreal intense blue color of the azurite background, represent one of the highest moments of this painter.

San Marco Convent in Florence

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Fra’Angelico’s Annunciation

Another great work is the famous Fra’Angelico’s Annunciation on the upper floor. This is the first thing that you see arriving from the stairs. The Virgin Mary sits down on a simple stool that represents her simplicity, in her house, that could be a Renaissance loggia. Simultaneously, the angel suddenly arrives to bring her the message of the Incarnation. On the background a garden with luxuriant trees, representing the world’s temptations. Both figures are portrayed in an attitude fully subdued to a greater will. Mary is the model for charity, humility and love, virtues of the Dominicans. Every descriptive detail that could distract the view from reflecting on the mystery of faith has been eliminated by the painter. The result is a very ethereal and rarefied atmosphere.

Girolamo Savonarola, painted by Fra' Bartolomeo (1497).

Girolamo Savonarola, painted by Fra’ Bartolomeo (1497).

Girolamo Savonarola at San Marco Convent in Florence

But San Marco is not only Renaissance painting. It’s strictly bound to the historical and political figure of Girolamo Savonarola. Born in Ferrara in 1452, Savonarola was ordained Dominican friar in 1475. In 1482 he arrived to Florence, as a lector at San Marco Convent in Florence, with the duty of recounting the Holy Scriptures from the pulpits of the Florentine churches. He was assigned the pulpit of San Lorenzo, the Medici’s church, on Easter of 1484. His reception was bad, due to his Ferrarese accent that might sound barbarian to the refined ears of the Florentines. He was a vehement preacher, he announced that humanity was going to be flagellated by catastrophes like pests, hungers and the Anti Christ, because of all the human vices.

Rise and decline of Savonarola at San Marco Convent in Florence

After a period spent in northern Italy, he came back to Florence, this time called by Lorenzo il Magnifico (what a bad trick of fate!). The main member of the Medici family wanted the friar in Florence because he understood his potential and his charm on people. He might have been a good ally. But Lorenzo’s previsions were wrong. Savonarola proclaimed that the good and the evil of a city come from its rulers, but they were corrupted and superb, they exploited the poor imposing high taxes. In the meantime he became Prior of San Marco Convent. Lorenzo il Magnifico couldn’t contrast Savonarola’s popularity. He died in 1492 in his villa: Savonarola denied him the last rites. In 1497 Savonarola even organized a bonfire of vanities in Piazza della Signoria, giving to the flames artworks, pagan paintings, lavish dresses, precious vases. Sadly, this provoked an uncountable damage for the Florentine Renaissance. e was excommunicated by Pope Alexandre VI in 1497; he was burnt at the stake with the condemnation of heresy one year later, where his famous bonfire of the vanities took place.

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