Friday, 25 September 2015

Fra Angelico at San Marco and San Domenico, Florence

I first went to the former monastery of San Marco in Florence ten years ago and I still remember it well, that first baptism in Fra Angelico, Il Beato, first known as Giovanni of Fiesole. The monastery is now a museum and gallery celebrating the works of Fra Angelico next to the church of San Marco, just ten minutes walk from the Medici Palace and slightly further away, Il Duomo in the heart of the city. It's an inconspicuous place that looks, from the outside, like many other churches in Florence, no fuss or fanfare, no big signs or anything to suggest the wonders that are inside. But this is Fra Angelico central, for the sheer number of paintings all in one place. The sun shines on San Marco and the sky is blue.

You go in through a door to the side of the grand entrance to the church, buy a ticket and walk into the cloister with faded frescoes on the walls. First stop is the gallery of paintings  largely by Fra Angelico, some grand altarpieces with vibrant compositions and colours. You can now take photos without flash so people cluster to take their snaps. The first surprise was that the first altarpiece wasn't there, instead it was replaced with a sign that said it was being restored following weather damage in 2014. A couple of other works by the Fra were out on loan to exhibitions but the amazing Madonna and Child altarpiece and the Deposition altarpiece were still on show along with many others.

In another room further around the cloister is a huge fresco of the Crucifixion with an extended cast by the Fra. It's in the Chapter Room and it takes up the whole of the wall facing the door and is a big wow experience. To the left side of the painting we see the people we're told were at the Crucifixion while on the right are latter day and contemporary saints and monks mourning their Lord as if to say we were there too, if only in spirit. It's quite affecting to see this huge painting that you can't escape, the poignancy of Christ in the middle of the two thieves all suffering the same fate.

In contrast, on the right wall of the Chapter Room, is a small fresco of a saint holding his finger before his lips for silence and I couldn't help but smile at this sign. Even back then people had to be reminded to be respectfully quiet and the Fra found a lovely way of putting out that message.

There are other rooms around the cloister with other, later paintings but they're not by the Fra so are of lesser interest to me.

Another door off the cloister leads into a corridor and you turn right and start up a wide staircase, heading away from the 'public' areas of the monastery and up to the more private area for the monks. Up that first flight of stairs, turn right again and up another set of stairs and there, right in front of you on the landing is the Annunciation, probably the Fra's most famous fresco. It really is quite astonishing to be faced with this painting as you ascend the stairs, out of nowhere there's the glory of the Angel and the Virgin foretelling the birth of the Christ. It's much larger than you might think and is both a surprise and a welcome. I can only wonder how it was received by visitors 500 years ago who had probably never seen anything like it in its humanity and vibrant colours.

On closer inspection you can that the Angel's wings glitter and sparkle - was this a trick of the paint or is it the base rock of the wall shining through the paint? I've no idea but the wings sparkle and attract attention. Along the bottom of the painting, on the marble of the loggia the Virgin sits in, is writing in medieval Latin - is this the Fra's writing or was it added later?

Moving further into the upstairs area is the most private part of the monastery, the monks' cells. All are small and unfurnished but all include a small devotional painting by Fra Angelico on the wall beside the small window. There are various scenes from the Bible and the life of Christ, with many crucifixion scenes and scenes of him rising from the tomb. Most of the crucifixion scenes include one or more saints from monastic orders, the predecessors of the monks sleeping in these cells. All of the scenes are dominated by Fra Angelico's personal interpretation and vision of what is happening before him, created by his brushes and paints.  What must it have been like to wake up in the morning and the first thing you see is one of these paintings? Right there in front of you every morning and every moment you're in that room is a scene of your Lord. Can you image being assigned one of these small cells at random and waking up after your first night in the monastery to see a depiction of your risen Lord in all his glory shining from the wall in front of you? What does that do to the soul?

The scenes cover the whole life of Christ and there's even one of him leading the souls of the dead into Heaven. Here's a selection of some of what you can see, all painted in the same space in the cells on the wall beside the small window:

At the end of the corridor is the cell that houses some of the furniture used by Savonarola, a rebel friar of visions who established a republic in Florence for a short time. He was later hanged and then burned in Piazza Signoria with two other friars. This is a suite by comparison with the other cells, with three interlinked rooms. At the end of the corridor the other way is a cell for the Medicis' that includes an altar room up a few steps from the floor. There's also a large light and airy library for the monks which was also the workshop where they - including Fra Angelico - produced their illuminated manuscripts.

San Marco is a marvellous place and has a quiet, peaceful feeling to it - or at least it has each time I've visited. I can't imagine the mad scramble of tour groups in these spaces but it probably happens. It's not in the heart of Florence and there's nothing major to visit beyond San Marco so you need to want to visit to be in that part of the city. 

In the square in front of San Marco are the bus stops of some of the main bus routes north of Florence and it's the terminus for the Number 7 bus. That bus route goes up into the hills outside Florence to Fiesole, Fra Angelico's home town. The route also drives right past the church and monastery of San Domenico in which Giovanni first became a monk. The church is still open and holds regular services and it is still a Dominican monastery for the monks in their white robes. These days they use mobile phones as I know since there was a group of them coming from a coach they'd been on to attend the beatification of one of their former monks at a church in Florence.

It's a quiet little church with a lovely altarpiece by Fra Angelico in a small chapel not far from the door. It's just one of many paintings not signposted or singled out in any way other than having a switch on the wall to switch on the lights for three minutes so you can see the painting.  

The predella to this altarpiece is now in the National Gallery in London and I've seen it often, made of five small and very intricate paintings with Christ as king of heaven in the centre, surrounded by his biblical ancestors and prophets as well as saints of the Christian era.

On the wall to the left of the altarpiece is a plaque that commemorates the beatification of Fra Angelico in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.

Fra Angelico was born near Fiesole in 1395 and died in Rome in 1455. He was buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. That his works are still vibrant and still treasured says a lot about him and his vision. His epitaph is reported to read:


When singing my praises, don't liken my talents to those of Apelles.
Say, rather, that, in the name of Christ, I gave all I had to the poor.
The deeds that count on Earth are not the ones that count in Heaven.
I, Giovanni, am the flower of Tuscany.


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