The early bird gets the morning light

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in January 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

On my last full day in Florence, I ran across a postcard of The Annunciation by Fra Angelico in some gift shop or other, and suddenly remembered that it was somewhere in the city, though I had initially made no plans to go see it. I sought to remedy that by waking up early the next morning before it was time for me to catch the bus that would take me to Pisa. Florence was kind enough to reward me for my efforts.

Convento di San Marco

Comprising of a church and a convent, this religious complex was historically important throughout the Renaissance, and was the home of two famous friars: Fra Angelico and Girolamo Savonarola. The convent is today home to the Museo Nazionale di San Marco, and also to a famous collection of manuscripts held in a library built by Michelozzo.

Saint Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion by Fra Angelico

Though a Sylvestrine monastery had existed on this site, in 1437 the order was ordered to vacate the building, which was then taken over by the Dominicans. Much of it in ruins, they appealed to Cosimo de’ Medici to fund a renovation of the monastery and he, eager to prove his piety after returning from exile, complied. This is how Michelozzo, responsible for the work on the Palazzo Medici, came to work at the monastery.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

That moment when you’re just casually climbing the stairs to go to the friars’ dormitories and you turn the corner and are presented with this sight? Yeah, pure magic.

With Cosimo’s funding of the renovation of the convent came new commissions, among them frescoes by Fra Angelico to decorate the walls, around fifty in total. Credited with inventing this convention of Gabriel visiting Mary in an outdoor setting to announce the coming of Christ, this is not the first time he painted such a scene, nor is it the only one in the convent.

The painting does do something singularly: demonstrate spatial awareness. It is thus considered a bridge between the Gothic and Renaissance periods. It was placed, as you can see above, atop the stairs leading to the dormitories, so that it could be part of the daily lives and meditations of the monks.

Christ in Limbo by Fra Angelico

The library, designed by Michelozzo, displays a number of illuminated manuscripts. Presently, its collection specializes in the fields of theology and philosophy.

Mocking of Christ by Fra Angelico
Portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Francesco della Robbia

I’ve mentioned Savonarola a few times in these posts — like the Medici, it is difficult to not mention him at least once when talking about the Renaissance — but I haven’t gone into much detail about who he was. You see, I don’t like him very much, seeing as he almost very nearly broke the Renaissance.

Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who came into prominence during the Renaissance, and who started by being friendly with the Medici. Soon, however, he stood strongly against them, repulsed by the corruption and impiety of the city. Savonarola is most famous for the Bonfire of the Vanities, when he and his supporters collected and burned thousands of objects that might tempt one to sin, including mirrors, cosmetics, musical instruments, works of art, and books.

Later that same year (1497), Savonarola was excommunicated by the Pope, and the following year he was executed in a very colorful fashion (hung from a cross and burned to death) at the Piazza della Signoria. He died alongside his supporters Fra Domenico and Fra Silvestro Maruffi, and all their ashes were gathered and scattered in the Arno to prevent them being used as holy relics.

Sacra Conversazione by Fra Bartomoleo
Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico
Deposition from the Cross by Fra Angelico
Triptych of St. Peter de Martyr by Fra angelico
Crucificion with Saints by Fra Angelico

After my visit to San Marco, I returned to my hotel to pick up my things. Once everything was packed up, and I stood beside the door giving the hotel room one last look, Santa Maria del Fiore (which was right next door) began tolling its bell. Call me sentimental, but I’ve always thought of it like the city saying goodbye. I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel at all, let alone revisit Florence, but trust me when I say going back to the Tuscan capital is certainly very high on the list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s