As I write a very strong and icy wind is sweeping across Italy bringing ever more misery to the earthquaked cities, towns and villages of central Italy and our first snowflakes here. This morning I woke up to a house without electricity but, fortunately, still supplied with gas and a good stock of wood.
The Museo San Marco, which I visited on my recent trip to Florence, seems eons away, especially the divine tranquillity of its cloisters and the frescoes in the friars’ cells painted by Beato Angelico.
January and February are particularly good months to visit Florence’s great cultural heritage. The tourist masses have not yet arrived and it’s often possible to have the place to oneself. At San Marco I was the only person there for most of the time – it was wonderful!
How did this monastery come to be created and who was Beato Angelico?
The foundation of the monastery by Silvestrine monks (a sub-order of the Benedictines) dates back to before 1300 and there are some frescoes below ground which still remain from this period.
In 1418 the monks were told to leave because of irregularities in their order but it wasn’t until 1420 that, thanks to Cosimo de Medici, they were replaced by Dominican friars from Fiesole. The friars found a very dilapidated structure mainly consisting of wooden huts so in 1437 Cosimo commissioned the great architect Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery according to renaissance ideals. In 1443 San Marco was finally consecrated.
The structure is of great beauty and contains two large cloisters (St Anthony and St Dominic) with painted lunettes:
and two smaller ones.
In addition to the friars’ cells
San Marco also includes a chapter house, two refectories, dormitories, a library and a pilgrim’s guest house.
The library may be confidently said to have truly sparked off the great advancement of learning, particularly the rediscovery of classical texts, which underwrote the whole renaissance adventure and marked a break from the previous age of mediaeval scholasticism. Without this library we might well still be speculating on the number of angels on the top of a pin…..
Among the greats of this new learning curve were humanist Agnolo Poliziano (Politian) and Pico Della Mirandola who are both buried in the adjoining church. (Incidentally these writers together with Marsilio Ficino are part of the teaching of the School of Economic Science in London whose events and courses we have attended).
(Tombs of Politian and Pico della Mirandola with statue of Savonarola in Florence’s San Marco church)
How perfect it must have been to have one’s mind opened by studying texts in this airy and light-filled library!
There is a good display showing how the illuminated manuscripts were produced. The parchment was made from animal skin which then had to be coated with gesso to produce a workable surface.
All the colours had to be ground from their sources. Blue was particularly prized.
Then, of course, there was all the binding to be done after the writing and illuminating:
What a difference from word-processing a document today and how much more beautiful the end product!.
The heart of the monastery are, however the rows of Dominican friars’ cells decorated by frescoes by Beato Angelico in the 1440’s. Beato Angelico was actually beatified, (by Pope John Paul II in 1982), but his transcendence as a painter earned him the title of ‘Beato’ soon after his death. Artistry and adoration are magnificently combined by Beato Angelico:
(The frescoes of episodes from Christ’s life don’t follow a chronological sequence down the cells but I have arranged them above as they succeeded one another)
For those with sight difficulties there was a tactile representation of one of the frescoes – the Annunciation:
Giovanni da Fiesole, to give him his original name, started off as a miniaturist very much in the late mediaeval tradition. Indeed, Beato Angelico illuminated one of the books in the library:
Born in Vicchio in 1395 Giovanni’s aims were to combine mediaeval devotional painting in the post-byzantine idiom with the new rules of perspective, light and shade of renaissance art. In this he succeeded admirably. In one sense Beato Angelico might be regarded as a naïf painter but he certainly knew his contemporary artists well and was fully up-to.-date with what was happening creatively around him.
It’s no wonder that Beato Angelico is the patron saint of artists – his day is celebrated on February 18.
Two of the cells provided a retreat for Cosimo de Medici:
Another was home to the fundamentalist priest Savonarola who railed against the decadence and luxury of renaissance Florence and even persuaded Botticelli to burn some of his more sensual pictures.
Not surprisingly he eventually finished up at the stake in Piazza Signoria (his burning place is marked by a plaque today):
I think the portable chair Savonarola invented was the best thing about him: take a dowel out and the chair folds flat:
The museum has further works by Beato Angelico in the old pilgrims’ hostel.
This includes the restored wonderful Pala Annalena which had arrived from the workshop just a few days previously :
and also works by Fra’ Bartolomeo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti, Jacopo Vignali, Bernardino Poccetti and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani:
I particularly like Ghirlandaio’s last supper with those lovely birds and that well-fed cat by the table. I feel that the cat is there to celebrate an animal whose intervention in capturing vermin from the granary stores safeguarded provisions for the Last Supper – or indeed any supper for that matter…I’m glad the birds flying above are safe from his claws!
PS In case you are confused by the difference between priest, monk and friar see http://aleteia.org/2015/12/07/what-is-the-difference-between-a-friar-a-monk-and-a-priest/
In short not all priests are monks or friars and not all monks or friars are priests.