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  • Writer's pictureJoe Nickols, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of San Marco in Florence

What is the Museum of San Marco?

The Museum of San Marco is a former Dominican monastery that's home to political intrigue, architectural delights and phenomenal frescoes.

Museum of San Marco

Freepenguin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Museum of San Marco History

The monastery of San Marco was founded in the 12th century but only became socially and politically prominent during the 1400s on receiving the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, founder of the famous Florentine ducal house. The complex was initially occupied by Benedictine monks; however, they were pressured into vacating the property in 1418. Cosimo had wanted to install a Dominican order in Florence on the site since 1420, and after returning from exile a decade later was able to achieve this. Additionally, he commissioned the favourite architect of the Medici, Michelozzo, to renovate and expand the buildings. Michelozzo had been in charge of many other significant projects for the family, including the nearby Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The design of San Marco focusses on functionality, offering the monks a practical yet elegant space in which to live, work, preach and study.

The upper storey houses the cells of the friars, each of which is decorated by the fine hand of Fra Angelico and his assistants. He was a Dominican monk as well as a great painter and illuminator of manuscripts. Apart from their skilled use of perspective, the frescoes in San Marco are notable for their sparseness and simplicity. Unlike publicly displayed paintings, these images were only viewed by those following the monastic rule. This allowed Fra Angelico to concentrate on developing innovative designs that would facilitate religious contemplation. Intended to be aids to meditation, these paintings often miss out the iconographic flourishes that would usually be included in works displayed in more accessible settings.

Fra Angelico’s most famous painting is the Annunciation scene that you’ll see at the top of the stairs. The setting mirrors the architecture of the monastery’s small cloister. The linear perspective of the arches demonstrates Fra Angelico’s awareness of other early Renaissance artists who were popularising similar techniques. The depiction of this scene as taking place outdoors is revolutionary but fitting; the setting allowed Fra Angelico to emphasise Mary’s virginity and innocence. The hortus conclusus (or enclosed garden) had been viewed as a symbol of her purity since the 1330s. The crushed glass that the artist mixed into the pigment allows Gabriel’s wings to shimmer, adding an element of otherworldliness to the image. This painting also served the practical purpose of prompting the monks to pray.

The paintings in each of the small cells on the first floor are notably more reserved, designed to inspire deep reflection. The only exception is the large cell that Cosimo constructed for his own stays at the monastery. Here there is the use of gilding, and expensive azurite pigment is incorporated into the otherwise sparse decoration, reminding us of the Medici wealth. The choice to depict the adoration of the three kings is apt as it’s one of the rare occasions in the Bible when wealthy and privileged individuals are praised and accepted by Christ.

Famous clergyman Girolamo Savonarola lived here in the 1480s and ’90s while campaigning against what he saw as the declining morals and ostentatious wealth of the Florentines. Savonarola campaigned against the Medici family and encouraged people to burn irreligious valuables at the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, only to be hanged and burned the following year after his fall in popularity.

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