Well, we had a moment of sadness during the tour a few weeks ago when the shopping trip to the designer outlets was cancelled.... but, of course, I was ready with Plan B. I was delighted to show my client one of my favorite places in Florence, the Museum of San Marco.
On a busy square (most city buses stop here) about a block from the Galleria dell'Accademia and its magnificent David, you'll find a former convent that not only allows you a glimpse into monastic life during the 15th century, but also contains some of the most lovely and best preserved frescoes in this city of glorious frescoes.
The convent of San Marco had been occupied since the 12th century by monks of various monastic orders, but in 1435, it was granted to a group of Dominicans from nearby Fiesole. These monks shrewdly appealed to Cosimo Medici the Elder for funds for a major renovation of the convent, and he graciously complied. In fact, Cosimo hired the finest architect of the day, Michelozzo, to completely re-do the place in fine (that is, elegant, refined, and functional) Renaissance style. Perhaps the best place to appreciate his work is in the peaceful cloister (photo).
Cosimo also commissioned Fra Angelico (one of the Dominicans living in the convent), a devout monk and an innovative painter to paint frescoes in virtually every room and area of the complex, including the cloister, refectory, library and even the sacristy (where priestly vestments are stored). Even more unusual, were the paintings on the walls of each individual monk's cell, a place for private meditation and devotion. The Dominican's were the only order to use imagery in this way.
In the hall where the novices lived, Fra Angelico painted all seven cells with similar works--depictions of St. Dominic worshipping at the foot of the cross. I just recently learned that there is more to these seemingly simple paintings than meets the eye. For example, there is meaning in the specific gesture or pose of the saint. If he is shown with outstretched arms then this shows that he is imploring the Divine, as he is depicted here. Each cell shows a different pose, and together they form a memory aid for studying scripture and also serve as a kind of primer for the Dominican's deep meditation practice. (I'll give you the full story on the tour).
Another hall has paintings for the cells of the other members of the monastery. These 20 works depict scenes from the life of Christ, Mary, and a few saints. There is also a lovely and famous Annunicaton at the top of the stairs.
You can also see the sumptuous rooms Cosimo the Elder built for his own use, presumably contemplation and meditation, when he visited the monastery. And then there's the cell and items that once belonged to Savonarola, the fiery preacher who inspired the Bonfire of the Vanities and nearly drove the Medicis from power in the 1490's. He ultimately angered the Pope Alexander VI and was burned at the stake right in the middle of Florence's Piazza della Signoria.
This is a wonderful place to visit, and never very crowded. And, I don't even have space here to tell you about the other paintings displayed here. Almost always, too, there's an interesting temporary exhibit (often of illuminated manuscripts).
It can easily be seen on a day when you visit another favorite of mine, the nearby Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (where Cosimo once lived), and the Accademia. Although we had been ready for a day of shopping, we had a perfect day here on the tour.