Travel reminds us how small the world really is. We’ve had numerous encounters where we met people from our home state or local area. I once even ran into my college’s Vice-President of Finance in a bathroom at the vast complex that is the Vatican Museums! But the best of these happenstances occurred when a fellow historian informed me that my former professor and dissertation committee member, Liz, was in Florence at the same time as me. I rarely am thankful for Facebook, but this was an exception. Thanks to social media (and an observant colleague), we were united.
In Liz, I found a fellow Italophile who grooved on the history of that great country. She was a friend with whom I could muse about the past. Someone else who strove to know more, dig deeper, peel back the layers, and revel in the complex tapestry of a place, person, or time. The cherry on top was that her wonderful spouse also shared her love. Carol, Liz, Jon, and I found, in our companionship and shared affection, a home away from home.
The four of us enjoyed our time together that trip. I was thrilled to find out that they would be in Florence the same time as us this year and I was over the moon then when Liz asked if I would take her to one of my favorite places and show it to her through my Roaming Historian eyes. Writing about a place allows me to share my travels with a broad audience of people who enjoy learning about historical sites, but nothing is better than sharing the experience personally with someone who has just as much passion for a place.
Not only was I excited that the two couples would once again be in the bel paese, but I would get to share a historical experience with a woman who had been such an influential part of my life—building my confidence, influencing my scholarship, showing me how to navigate academia, and teaching me in many ways. This was going to be great!
As I love just about every place in Florence, picking the perfect spot for our historical hangout was a challenge. After giving several suggestions, we settled on Museo San Marco—a Renaissance monastery. Although an architectural, historical, and artistic treasure, the site receives far fewer visitors than many of the tourist haunts around. Plus, Museo San Marco provides the opportunity to see art in situ—in the place that it was made for.
We set out to see the monastery in the morning hours (it closes at 1:50 pm on most days). It was a crisp, but sunny day, and Liz, Carol, and I (Jon stayed home) were able to enjoy the grounds and buildings thoroughly. There is so much beautiful art on the walls that it can almost overwhelm—thankfully a group of rambunctious schoolchildren almost ran us over and broke the spell.
I highly suggest taking your time at the complex. The monastery is quiet and allows for peaceful reflection (schoolchildren aside) throughout. As with many Italian attractions, there are not a lot of signs to explain the site, so a good guidebook is helpful. Rick Steves has a free app (Rick Steves Audio Europe) that provides an informative and humorous walking tour of the facility. Within his app, there is a rough map of the complex that can help you get your bearings.
Museo San Marco is best just taken in though. You don’t need a map to understand the beauty. Although a guidebook will help identify who painted what, I’ve explored without one before and had a splendid time. Sometimes it is best just to let a place unfold before you. If you’re short on time though and need a little more direction, here are some of my favorite parts of San Marco Monastery in Florence.
A brief history of Museo San Marco: In 1439, Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici hired the architect Michelozzo to build a monastery complex within Florence for the Dominican monks who had been living in Fiesole (a hillside town outside the city). Cosimo would use the monastery as a place for reflection and solitude when things got rough. His palace was just down the road…about a five-minute walk away (you’ll notice his cells aren’t as austere as the others).
There were many talented artists who resided within this monastery, but all around you will see the work of Fra Angelico (the angelic friar). For centuries, the Italian painter, born Guido di Pietro, was known as Beato Angelico (the blessed angelic one). In 1984, Pope John Paul II made the gifted artist a saint. His prolific body of work dominates many walls, undoubtedly, inspiring religious contemplation from his fellow brothers.
Speaking of the brotherhood at San Marco…one of the most notable, one might say notorious, friars lived there—Girolamo Savonarola. He was a fire and brimstone preacher that railed against church corruption, despotism, secular art, riches, humanism, and anything he deemed wicked…which was a lot. He exhorted people to repent their sins and give up their “vanities” (jewelry, paintings, fine clothes, books, wigs, etc.). Large bonfires of these vanities occurred; Sandro Botticelli may have even thrown some of his works on the fire (this makes me ill just thinking about it). Savonarola’s gang of teens would go around and coerce Florentines to be more moral. It was a very repressive regime, but incredibly popular for a time. His anti-pope and anti-Medici stance resonated with many of the city’s citizens. Eventually people grew tired of his haranguing and on May 23, 1498, he was defrocked, hanged, and his body burned on a pyre in Piazza della Signoria, outside city hall.
What to see:
On the ground floor:
- Chiostro di Sant’Antonino—a peaceful cloister with a gorgeous garden just after the entrance. Stroll around the square and take in the faded frescoes on the wall.
- Ospizio dei Pellegrini (hospice)—a room on the side of the cloister by where you enter you will find a gallery of paintings by Fra Angelico. Some of my favorites are: Deposition from the Cross Altarpiece, Peter Martyr Triptych, Wedding and Funeral of the Virgin, Annalena Altarpiece, Altarpiece of Linen Drapers, and more.
- Bookstore—a Last Supper (Ultima Cena) by Ghirlandaio is housed within this shop hawking symbols of Florence, postcards, books, and trinkets.
- Capitolo (chapterhouse)—on the opposite end of the cloister from the entry contains Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion and Saints. Nearby, don’t miss Fra Bartolomeo’s haunting Portrait of Savonarola and several other of his masterpieces.
- Refettorio (refectory)—a fresco by Giovanni Antonio Sogliani of The Miraculous Supper of St. Dominic adorns this room.
On the first floor:
- The Annunciation by Fra Angelico—as you climb the stairs and reach the level where the monks lived, you will find yourself in front of one of the most arresting portrayals of the annunciation story ever painted. The angel who is giving Mary the news of her pregnancy has technicolor wings; the whole scene is soft with varying shades of pink. It is a strangely feminine fresco for such a masculine space.
- Monks’ cells—the former living quarters of the men who resided here. You will find simple cells with small windows and beautiful pieces of art. It’s fun trying to figure out which saints are being portrayed. I look for clues…blood on the head? It must be Peter the Martyr because he was crucified upside down. Many of the frescoes in the cells center around the themes of Jesus’ birth & crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the transfiguration. These paintings were meant for private meditation for those living within the room, unlike those for communal contemplation in the public spaces.
- Savonarola’s cell—in the space where the fiery preacher once lived, you can see his desk and artifacts from his life: crucifix, cloak, rosary, hair-shirt girdle, etc. It’s interesting to think of this space as the place where he launched an austere movement that changed the Florentine landscape for many years and repressed the humanistic efforts that had grown so strong.
- Cosimo de’ Medici—the patron of the monastery used San Marco as a place of retreat and contemplation. He was afforded a series of rooms much larger and more ornate than those of the other inhabitants. Notice the amount of light that shines in these rooms. Fra Angelico painted the Coming of the Magi at Cosimo’s request; the portrayal of wise men paying homage & tribute to the newly born ruler was a theme that the Medici would have painted again and again.
- Michelozzo’s Library—this symmetrical hall with bold columns showcases illuminated choir books and manuscripts. As the first public library of the Renaissance, it was a space dedicated to preservation and study where humanism thrived and the classics were revisited. Bibliophiles will not want to miss this space and the treasures within.
Official website for Museo San Marco (please note it is in Italian, but you can find out many of the details regarding time/price):
I hope you make the time for Museo San Marco; it is one of the great things to do in Florence. Having been numerous times now, I still find something new every time I visit. The piazza out front is a major bus stop, so you can easily get public transportation to and from. It is an easy walking distance from the Duomo area. In all, it is a Florence museum that shouldn’t be missed.
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