It is part of the enormous group of related buildings composed of the monastery and church of the same name in the Piazza San Marco in the university area of town. The townships’ decision to turn a large section of the complex into a museum was made in 1866. It was inaugurated in 1869 after modifications and restorations were performed. The result is that the main collection of sacred art in Florence is to be admired here in the Museum of San Marco.
In the 1100s The Vallombrosan Order owned the site where the current monastery lies. The same site was turned into the Sylvestrine convent (a monastic branch of the Benedictines). After 1530 the Dominicans left Fiesole to settle in Florence with the help of Cosimo the Elder who had the monastery rebuilt and enlarged at his expenses. They moved to the convent the Sylvestrine had lived in.
Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, student and assistant to Donatello, and the architect who used to do all architectural works for Cosimo the Elder, was in charge of the works of reconstruction in 1436.
Michellozzo was faithful to the Renaissance features of Brunelleschi. Michelozzo was highly regarded for the plan and sculptures inside the complex. Dominican friar Fra Angelico was hired by the Cosimo the Elder to decorate its indoors.
The church was consecrated in 1443 and became since then on an important hive of activity in the fields of religion, thinking and art which some of its friars were involved in. One of them was Fra Angelico, who began painting at 17 and became a member of the order at 18. He lived in the monastery from 1436 to 1445. The others were St. Antonino da Firenze, Archbishop of Florence, who stayed in the monastery between 1446 and 1459, and then the theologian and thinker Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who became monastic prior in 1491 and, between 1494 and 1498, ruled the Republic of Florence. He died at the stake as the Inquisition Court had believed him guilty of heresy. His two loyal friars Fra Silvestro and Fra Domenico da Pescia followed the same luck and died in Piazza della Signoria. Where the stake was today is a plaque in his memory.
Sometimes with the assistance of other Dominican students of his, Fra Angelico executed the enormous number of frescoes created to enhance the faith of the monks and visitors. They are the depiction of a prayer on the walls of the cloister, Capitular Hall, sacristy and library, in the accesses and forty five cells or apartments for celebrated people. More pieces of the friar were bought to the museum from other places and private collection to be housed here.
Some of the highlights are:
the pieces placed in the altar Pala di San Marco, Pala di Annalena and the wonderful La Deposizione (a panel included in Pala Strozzi ) housed in the former hospice;
The Linaioli Tabernacle, executed by both Fra Angelico and sculptor, goldsmith, architect and art writer Lorenzo Ghiberti which includes Madonna e Bambino in Trono con S. Giovanni Battista e S. Marco, Il Predicamento di San Pietro ed Il Martirio di S. Marco.
Armadio degli Argenti, formed by cycle of panels representing event in Jesus’ life. Some highlights are the wonderful L’Annunciazione della Vergine and La Fuga in Egitto.
La Natività , La Resurrezione, L’Incoronazione della Vergine and La Chiamata di Pietro, an illuminated minute painting in the little missal 558 of the monastery.
The outstanding pieces of art La Crocifissione, preserved in the Capitular Hall; San Domenico adorante la Croce makes the biggest fresco in the cloister on the first storey ; Il Sepellio painted in cell nº 2; La Derisione di Cristo on the external wall of cells nº 7 and 8; L’Annunciazione is on the entrance to cell nº 32; La Madonna delle Ombre is on the outer wall of the cells nº 25 and 26; La Madonna in Trono con due santi is displayed in the dormitory corridor.
Noli me Tangere , Le Tre Marie alla Tomba , L’Adorazione dei Magi , La Trasfigurazione , Il Cammino ad Emmaus and many versions of La Crocefissione are exhibited in the cells.
The Museum of San Marco (open daily 8.15 am-1.50 pm,; Sat-Sun open -7pm; closed on 2nd and 4th Sun and on 1st, 3rd and 5th Mon monthly; admission ticket €4.00) was enlarged by Michelozzo. He added two floors of which the first level was available to public while the second level was for the monks’ retreat.
The entrance to the hospice, a large building which accommodated pilgrims or important guests, is located on the right of the entrance to the Cloister of San Antonino da Firenze. The frescoes of the cloisters were executed by Mannerist Tuscan Bernardino Pocetti in the first part of the 17th century.
Off the ancient hospice is the refectory which preserves pieces of art dating back to the period ranging from the 16th century to the 18th century. Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, an exponent of the Counter Reformation school in Tuscany, executed the fresco in large size called la Providenza dei Domenicani. Mariotto Albertinelli ‘s pieces are on another wall. His art was an example of High Renaissance with influences of Fra Angelico and the formal characteristics of Raffaello.
Luca della Robbia created the polychromatic terracotta sculptures Madonna col Bambino which is exhibited outside the refectory.
The Sala del Lavabo, preserving Fra Angelico and Paolo Uccello’s frescoes, is off the refectory. Among them is the moving Uomo di dolori tra la Vergine e S. Giovanni Evangelista in 1436 approximately. The mosaics spoilt in the 1426 fire had been restored by Uccello some years earlier.
The entrance to the Sala di Fra Bartolomeo is in the Sala del Lavabo. The room is dedicated to the art of Florentine Fra Bartolomeo Baccio della Porta, a student of Cosimo Rosella when an adolescent. He had entered the Dominican Order at 18 inspired by Girolamo Savonarola, a man he looked up to. He started painting again in 1504 still following Savonarola’s idea of austerity.
Sala di Alessio Baldovinetti, is by the room above. It preserves pieces by the Early Renaissance artist it is named after. Among them is the celebrated Stendardo (a big banner) by the celebrated Tuscan painter. Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano had been Baldovinetti’s students. The Stendardo, which used to be taken for processions, depicts San Antonino da Firenze in Adoration of the Crucifix.
The Capitular Hall, whose indoors are dominated by Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion, sits opposite the Cloister of Saint Antonino da Firenze. By it lies the Sala del Cenacolo (the little Refectory) presided by the masterpiece Last Supper executed by Florentine Domenico Ghirlandaio. It is the smallest (400 x 800) and his last depicting this theme (1486). His first Last Supper, executed in 1476, is exhibited in the Refectory of the Badia dei Santi Michele e Biagio in Passignano sul Trasimeno. The second fresco (1480) is preserved in the Church of Ognissanti (Florence).
Off the Sala del Cenacolo is the Foresteria, which is a group of rooms destined to show visitors some parts of old Florence now lost. Ancient bells, objects, paintings saved from the attempt to destroy the monastery, fragments of sculptures and pieces of buildings torn down in the second half of 19th century that belonged to the historic centre.
The cells where friars lived in the ancient monastery are on the upper floor, whose construction follows the same style of the Cloister of S. Antonino da Firenze. Fra Angelico painted each cell with a fresco whose theme is always a religious scene. Cells 12-15 of very bare style were Savonarola’s. He used to study and relaxed here. The celebrated Annunciazione and La Trasfigurazione are here as well as Fra Bartolomeo’s portrait of the Dominican friar and ruler of Florence (1498). The cells keep relics of Fra Savonarola.
The biggest cells are cells 38 and 39. They were used by Cosimo the Elder when he retreated to the monastery to meditate. Between cells 42 and 43, when the wide corridor begins is the door to the wonderful Library of San Marco.
It was planned by Michelozzo who remained faithful to the structure of a colonnaded hall. The Library is regarded a fine prototype of Renaissance architecture. It features a large central nave and two narrower lateral structures. Long ago there were 64 worktables for the friars and visitors to devote themselves to study. At present it exhibits a wonderful collection of illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, books on science and philosophy, ancient Greek and Latin grammar books, poems and a large collection of ancient enchanting missals, made in the Monastery. The library was the first public library throughout the continent.
In the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent the library was a favourite place for intellectuals. grammarian, poet and writer Agnolo Poliziano, Lorenzo himself and philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who used to work in it. The philosopher became a monk in the twilight of his life in this monastery.
Agnolo Poliziano was the translator of The Iliad. Lorenzo the Magnificent was so amazed by his translation from Greek to Latin that he let him work in the library. At 21 he became later on instructor of Piero de Medici, son of Lorenzo.
The Church of San Marco (open daily 7am-noon & 4- 8pm), whose rebuilding was executed by ichelozzo . It was consecrated in 1443. It is a single naved church lined with chapels planned by Giambologna in the 16th century. Its carved ceiling and the renewals of the whole church date back to the second half of the 17th century. Its renovation was made by Florentine architect Pier Francesco Salviati and the Neo-Classical façade was executed in 1778 approximately. The counter facade sports a 14th century wooden crucifix. There is another crucifix by Fra angelico above the high altar (around 1426).
Santi di Tito’s S. Tommaso in Preghiera ( circa 1594) sits over the first right altar. This Florentine artist guided the shift from Mannerism to baroque in town. He was also one of the main artists of the Counter Reformation. Fra Bartolomeo ‘s Madonna e Santi canvas is on the second altar.
Cappella Salviati and the Cappella del Sacramento are two highlights among the chapels created by Giambologna.
The Salviati, connected to the Medici by the marriage of Giacomo Salviati and Lucrezia Medici, had Giamgologna designed the chapel. The master ended its construction in 1589. The Mannerist Bernardino Poccetti painted the dome with frescoes while the walls’ frescoes were executed by Domenico Passignano with the depictions of Il Trasferimento ed il Funerale di S.Antonino Perozzi. Passignano was trained in the school of Venetian lines and was inspired by Tintoretto. Ferdinand I de Medici gave him many commissions to embellish his properties.
The Cappella del Sacramento sports frescoes by Bernardino Pocetti. Many of its pieces were executed by 16 and 17th century Tuscan artists such as Santi di Tito, Jacopo da Empoli, Daniele Crespi (Milanese), Francesco Curradi and Francesco Morandini.
Pico della Mirandola and of Agnolo Polizianos sepulchres and many other celebrated figures’ are in this church.