During the initial lecture in my course on the High Renaissance here in Florence, I was conscious of how the excellent speaker was drawing together painting, sculpture, architecture, philosophy and history to create a vivid tableau of what it was like to live at that time. Each strand of knowledge complements the others in weaving a rich tapestry of understanding.
I was reminded of this this morning when I visited one of my favourite sites here, the museum of San Marco. This Dominican convent was founded in the 13th century but really came into being in the way we recognise today when it fell under the patronage of Cosimo (il Vecchio) de Medici who financed its rebuilding under the auspices of his favourite architect, Michelozzo, who he also gave patronage to for the design of the Medici Palace. It is widely held that Cosimo acted out of a desire to counter criticism of his sins of usury and ensure salvation for eternity.
Cosimo had a cell here in the convent where he regularly came to fast and pray. So to did the complex preacher Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who taught in the convent before leaving and beginning his tempestuous preachings which culminated in the ‘bonfire of the vanities’ and his eventual excommunication and death.
It is when one holds in mind the history, politics, religious ideation, art and architecture extant at that time that one fully appreciates what San Marco has to offer.
On entering one finds the harmony of Michellozo’s courtyard immediately instilling a sense of peace. Ahead is the first of the works by Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar whose luminous frescoes enrich the entire complex. Here he presents Saint Dominic contemplating the crucifixion.
As one looks more closely around the walls of the courtyard, the evidence of Medici patronage can be seen, in the form of their emblem – a shield with six balls or ‘palle’.
Around the courtyard are arranged communal rooms used by the monks. In the refectory, Fra Angelico painted a crucifixion across the entire wall; the monks would have contemplated this in silence as they ate.
Also exhibited in this room is a large wooden crucifix. The lifelike suffering of Christ resonated with the piety and views of Savonarola and no doubt served as a reminder of his tempestuous preaching.
The bell exhibited here was paid for by Cosimo and worked upon by Donatello and Michelozzo; even such an apparently functional object is imbued with artistic significance.
Fra Angelico painted a number of beautiful altarpieces which are exhibited in a room on the ground floor.
But the real beauty of his work becomes apparent as one ascends to the first floor where the monks cells are found. As one approaches the top of the stairs, his ‘Annunciation’ comes into view. With is simple lines and luminous colours it is breathtakingly beautiful and moving, one of my very favourite works of art.
Angelico has frescoed each of the monks cells. Any one is worthy of reproduction but I merely present a few to show how simple yet moving they are.
Also on this floor is the library designed by Michelozzo which in 1441 was Europe’s first public library. It has elegant colonnaded lines and exhibits beautifully illustrated manuscripts.
Savonarola has a set of two cells at the end of the corridor. Here are exhibited a desk at which he wrote some of his fire and brimstone sermons, a brooding portrait and a pictorial representation of his execution by fire in the Piazza della Signoria in 1498.
And then one comes to Cosimo’s cells. It is easy to imagine him praying here, hoping for salvation while at the same time planning the continuation of his dynasty. It must have been a difficult balancing act.
As one leaves this most beautiful, serene space, there awaits one final treat. In what now serves as the bookshop is a ‘Last Supper’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s colours are magnificent if the disciples are somewhat stilted and posed. My final lingering view is always one one of those details in which I delight – sitting in the foreground is a little cat.