The “Annunciation” by Fra’ Angelico is the highlight of a visit to the San Marco Museum in Florence.
For anyone wanting to see some of the finest frescoes in Florence, San Marco Museum is the place. It’s a former convent where the Early Renaissance artist Fra’ Angelico left behind the very best of his work.
Renaissance frescoes can often be a bit overwhelming, with so much colour and detail to take in. This isn’t the case in the San Marco Convent. This is an atmospheric space filled with the spirit of Beato Angelico (“blessed angelic”), the Dominican friar and skilful painter who adorned the walls of the monk’s cells and some public spaces with his art.
The former convent is today a Museum dedicated to his work and that of his contemporaries. The graceful cloister was designed by Michelozzo.
What to see in San Marco Museum:
On the ground floor the halls host works by Beato Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Baldovinetti and Fra’ Bartolomeo. You can admire the splendid “Crucifixion” by Fra Angelico in the Chapter Hall, that supposedly brought the painter to tears.
The most moving of all are the frescoes on the second floor. This is the famous “Annunciation”, found at the top of the stairs leading to the cells. Beato Angelico, helped by some pupils, also frescoed the 43 cells between 1436 and 1445 with scenes from the life of Christ, wanting to inspire devotion and peaceful meditation.
There’s nothing grandiose about his figures. Nothing lavish, and nothing to distract from the spiritual experiences of the people depicted in all their anguish and adoration. The style is minimalistic, the colours are sombre and the figures are very human, with genuine pain visible in the crucifixion and flagellation scenes.
San Marco Museum – Highlights
“The Annunciation” – One of the most copied of all Fra’ Angelico’s frescoes. You’ll find it at the top of the stairs to the cells, delicate and sombre and filled with human feeling. You can almost feel Mary’s emotion as she makes the same gesture as the angel, both showing mutual respect.
“Noli me tangere” – Cell 1. Christ, after his resurrection, appears to Mary of Magdala who doesn’t recognise him at first, supposing him to be the gardener.
“Transfiguration of Chirst” – Cell 6. The light that shines from Christ’s body seems to blind the apostles. At the edge of the fresco stand the Virgin and St. Dominic in positions indicative of prayer.
“Mocking of Christ” – Cell 7. In a plain-walled room Christ sits in a white robe and tunic. Behind him is a screen on which are painted the emblems of his indignities: the head of the spitting soldier, the hands of the buffeters, and the hand and stick forcing the thorns down on his head. On a low step at the front of the picture sit the Virgin and St Dominic. Neither regard Christ, but sit with their backs turned towards him in intense contemplation – showing friars the depth of contemplation they should aspire to.
“Adoration of the kings” – In cells 38 and 39. These were the adjoining cells reserved for Cosimo the Eldest de Medici, patron of the convent. The subject was perhaps a reminder of the importance of the gifts Cosimo gave to his city, as it was thanks to him that the convent was rebuilt.
Finally, on the way towards the exit, don’t miss Ghirlandaio’s “Last Supper”.
Beato Angelico was much admired by Vasari, who wrote of him: “But it is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” He went on to say “In their bearing and expression, the saints painted by Fra Angelico come nearer to the truth than the figures done by any other artist.” High praise indeed.
Did you know? Famous people in San Marco Convent
Some very important Florentine citizens were involved with the San Marco Convent.
These extraordinary works were made possible thanks to the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici the Eldest, the wealthy banker and unofficial head of State who started the political dynasty of the Medici family. He paid for the reconstruction of the convent after returning from exile in 1434, partly to earn goodwill from his fellow citizens.
Savonarola was Prior here from 1490 – some of his belongings are visible in the last cell in the left corridor. In Florence he established a kind of theocratic democracy, filled with fanatic moral zeal. He ended up getting on the wrong side of the Pope and being burned in Piazza Signoria. You’ll see a painting about this scene in the same cell.