On the north edge of the Renaissance city, on the edge of the long-gone Medici gardens, the Dominican Convent of San Marco was Cosimo il Vecchio’s favourite pious project; he became close friends with the prior Antonino Pierozzi (who was canonized in 1523) and in 1437 he commissioned Michelozzo to rebuild it, and the convent and cloister, and to add a library for all the religious books and manuscripts he donated to the monks (he kept the classics for himself).
The Medici library was confiscated by the Signoria in 1494 and brought here, and it became, briefly, Europe’s first lending library; the fines for neglectful borrowers were hundreds of florins. Pope Leo X, however, used Vatican funds to buy the library back for the Medici, and it’s now in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.
San Marco is best known for the works of the other-worldly Fra Angelico (c. 1400–55). His spiritual qualities were endorsed in 1982 when he was beatified by John Paul II; in 1984 the Pope declared him the patron of artists, taking over St Luke’s old job.
In residence here between 1436 and 1447, Angelico was put in charge of decorating the new convent constructed by Cosimo. His paintings and frescoes in San Marco, in a setting unchanged from the 1400s, offer a unique opportunity to see his works in the peaceful, contemplative environment in which they were meant to be seen.
Every painter in the 15th century earned his living painting sacred subjects, but none painted them with Angelico’s deep conviction and faith, communicating his biblical visions in soft angelic pastels, bright playroom colours and an ethereal blondness, so clear and limpid that they just had to be true. ‘Immured in his quiet convent’, wrote Henry James, ’he apparently never received an intelligible impression of evil; and his conception of human life was a perpetual sense of sacredly loving and being loved.’
He knelt to pray each day before picking up his brushes, and often wept in pity for Christ’s pains while painting Crucifixions. The gentle friar was entirely up to date in his art, and studied the works of Masaccio and artificial perspective in his technique.
A visit to San Marco begins with Michelozzo’s harmonious Cloister of Sant’ Antonino, decorated with corner frescoes by Fra Angelico. Just off the cloister, the Pilgrims’ Hospice, also by Michelozzo, has been arranged as a gallery of the master’s paintings, which have been gathered here from all over Florence. Here you’ll find his great Last Judgement altarpiece (1430), a serenely confident work, where the graves recede into the depths of a dark sky and dawning resurrection. All the saved are well-dressed Italians holding hands, led by an angel in a celestial dance. They are allowed to keep their beautiful clothes, while the bad (mostly princes and prelates) are stripped to receive their interesting tortures.
The charming Thirty-five Scenes from the Life of Christ, acted out before strikingly bare, brown Tuscan backgrounds, were painted as cupboard doors for Santissima Annunziata (three of the scenes are by Angelico’s apprentice, Alesso Baldovinetti). Sadly, the Madonna and Child with Angels and Eight Saints (c. 1440) commissioned by Cosimo il Vecchio was washed with acid during a botched 19th-century cleaning and has lost its brilliant colours, although Fra Angelico’s then novel creation of space still shines through – it is one of the very first panel paintings that makes use of perspective.
The noble, gracefully lamenting figures in the magnificent Deposition altarpiece from Santa Trínita stand before an elegant townscape dominated by Angelico’s ziggurat-style Temple in Jerusalem. The Tabernacle of the Linaioli (the flax-workers) has an exceptionally beautiful predella, as does the Pala di San Marco, which shows SS. Cosmas and Damian, patrons of medicine and the Medici, in the act of performing history’s first leg transplant. Other rooms off the cloister contain works by Fra Bartolommeo, another resident of the convent, whose portraits capture some of the more sincere spirituality of the late 15th century.
The Chapterhouse contains Angelico’s fresco Crucifixion and Saints, a painting over-restored and lacking his accustomed grace; in the refectory there’s a more pleasing Last Supper by the down-to-earth Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Stairs lead up to Michelozzo’s beautiful convent, where at the top your eyes meet the Angelic Friar’s masterpiece, a miraculous Annunciation, set in a garden portico, where the gentlest of peacock-winged angels gazes into the accepting eyes of a quietly austere Virgin Mary, a painting of such mystical stillness it’s no wonder John Paul II elevated Angelico into the realms of the Blessed.
Here is the news, delivered by an angel. The Virgin Mary is pregnant. The son of God is on his way. In this exquisite painting, by a Florentine monk, the split-second of the telling appears to be the very moment of conception itself. Mary listens in astonishment, hands crossed over her body as if receiving a blessing, but also as if protecting the new life there. Her face is a graceful portrait of awe, bewilderment and emotion: the sudden revelation made visible.
The subject was a favourite with Florentine artists, not only because it was a severe test – expressing a divine revelation in a composition of strict economy – but because the Annunciation, falling near the spring equinox, was New Year’s Day for Florence until the Medici finally adopted the pope’s calendar in the 1600s.
The Dominicans of San Marco each had a small white cell with a window and a fresco to serve as a focal point for their meditations. Angelico and his assistants painted 44 of these; those believed to have been done by the master are along the outer wall (cells 1–9, the Noli me Tangere, another Annunciation, a Transfiguration, a Harrowing of Hell, a Coronation of the Virgin, and others). He also painted the scene in the large cell used occasionally by Cosimo il Vecchio and other visiting celebrities.
The cells in one corridor are all entirely painted with scenes of the Crucifixion, all the same but for some slight difference in the pose of the Dominican monk at the foot of the Cross; walking past and glancing in the cells successively gives the strange impression of watching an animated cartoon.
The Prior’s cell at the end, where Savonarola lived, has simple furniture of the period and a Portrait of Savonarola in the guise of St Peter Martyr (with an axe in his brain) by his friend Fra Bartolommeo. In a nearby corridor hangs a copy of the anonymous painting in the Corsini Gallery, of Savonarola and two of his followers being burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria.
The Library, entered off the corridor, is one of Michelozzo’s greatest works, as light and airy as the cloisters below, radiating serenity in its vaulted nave and aisles; it contains a collection of beautiful choir books.
San Marco was rebuilt, along with the convent, in the 15th century, although the interior was later rearranged with new side altars by Giambologna and the Baroque façade added in 1780. It has several works of note: the right aisle has a large Ravenna-style mosaic (705) of the Virgin praying originally in Pope John VII’s Oratory in Rome, with the addition of SS Dominic and Raymond; an excellent painting by Fra Bartolommeo, the Madonna and Six Saints and Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1593), the masterpiece of Santi di Tito.
To the left of the altar is the theatre-like Salviati Chapel by Giambologna for the remains of St Antoninus, archbishop of Florence, with frescoes by Domenico Passignano depicting the translation of his body; among the paintings is a Resurrection (1584) by Alessandro Allori .
The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament has more works by Santi di Tito, Passignano and Jacopo da Empoli; the Crucifixion on the high altar is by Fra Angelico.
In the left aisle, by the second altar and a statue of Savonarola, the tombstones of three great humanists from the circle of Lorenzo il Magnifico: Angelo Poliziano (d. 1494), Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (d. 1494) and Girolamo Benivieni (d. 1542).
Also have a look at the famous fresco of the Annunciation on the back wall, by Jacopo di Cione, brother of Orcagna (1371, but later repainted), and a large Crucifix by the school of Giotto.
Cosimo de' Medici also commissioned the casting of the church's famous bell, some say by Verrocchio, others say by Donatello and Michelozzo. Florentines nicknamed it La Piagnona ('the crybaby'), not after its sound, but after the followers of Savonarola, who wept during his sermons.
After the execution of Savonarola in 1498, the Florentines, still seething with anger and resentment, put the bell on trial as well, taking it down from San Marco and whipping it before it was found it guilty, and sent it into exile for 50 years at San Miniato.
After its punishment, it was allowed back, but never tolled—until 2010, when a non-profit group called The Bells of Florence, researched and restored it and made it chime again.
Piazza San Marco
Hours Tue-Fri 8.15am-1.50pm (also open the first, third and fifth Monday of the month), Sat 8.15am-6.50pm, Sun open second and fourth Sun of each month, 8.15am-6.50pm
Adm €4; €2 reduced, under 6 free
+39 055 2388608
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, Sailko, GNU Free Documentation License, Carulmare, Creative Commons License