Tag Archive: San Marco


Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John on Fiesole) was a Dominican monk and painter who was probably born in 1395 and died in 1455. He is one of the great Renaissance artists, a significant painter who made great contributions to art. His work is an essential link between the gothic look of the middle ages and the Renaissance. What sets him apart is his exceptional skill with a brush and his deep devotion to his Lord. All of his paintings are of Christian subjects. Florence in the Renaissance was a place bursting with humanistic ideas. Artists were increasingly fascinated with mythological themes from antiquity at a time when the churches control over culture remained strong from the Middle Ages. Consider Donatello’s “David” from the 1440s- also made in Florence, the first free-standing nude sculpture since ancient times, yet also a biblical subject.

Contrast that with Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, who maintained the high church or gothic subjects of the middle ages while infusing them with quiet grace and emotion. To him, painting these scenes was an act of devotion to God, so much so that according to Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists” from 1550 he could never handle a brush without fervent prayer and could not paint a crucifixion without tears streaming down his cheeks. Says Vasari- “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” For this reason, he is called Fra Angelico, “the Angelic Friar”. He was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1982 as the patron saint of Catholic Artists.

For all the great advances of the Renaissance, Fra Angelico remained a humble and devout friar and turned down opportunities to move up within the order. Instead, he devoted himself to a life of prayer, service, and painting. It’s pretty clear to see from his work that he viewed the 3 as 1 and the same. The work above is one of many Fra Angelico scenes of the “Annunciation”, the moment that the angel Gabriel reveals to the virgin Mary  that she will give birth to the savior. Check out this link to see another Fra Angelico “Annunciation”. He paints his subjects supremely delicate in a typical Italian structure, which makes use of perspective to show depth to the vaulted porch (Perspective was still a very recent innovation at the time, developed in Florence by Brunelleschi and put to use by Masaccio). The faces and the drapery still appear very gothic in nature, but the entire work conveys a sense of quiet holiness common to all Fra Angelico paintings. He is not interested, as many other Florentine artists were, in challenging the rules and pushing the boundaries of art. Rather, he is continuing the tradition of medieval Christian art with tremendous talent and excellence. His works are built around an uncommon and profound simplicity that enhances the biblical narrative of his paintings.

One of Florence’s great artistic treasures is the Convent of San Marco, a few blocks north of the Duomo. It’s far less crowded than other museums, and is filled with Fra Angelico’s frescos. It was newly built in 1436 and Fra Angelico was among the friars who moved in. As a talented painter, moving to Florence meant that he was surrounded by the greatest patrons of the arts. The story is that Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and godfather of the Renaissance, kept a cell for himself at San Marco in order to have a quiet place to retreat to. It was there that he encountered Fra Angelico, and urged him to decorate the place. There are 45 frescos in all, decorating each of the individual rooms and areas of the hallway.

Each fresco is designed to enhance the act of devotion and worship. They take the rounded shape of the vaulted ceilings in each room and contain minimal backgrounds in the paintings. giving the illusion of the painting as a window into another room. Many of the scenes, such as the crucifixion and the annunciation, are repeated. Here we see “The Transfiguration” from cell 6, which shows the glowing Christ on the mountain flanked by the hovering heads of Moses and Elijah on his right and left. At his feat, the disciples shield their eyes and bow in reverence.

Like Michelangelo 60 years later, Fra Angelico was summoned from Florence to Rome by the Pope in order to decorate the walls and ceilings of the Vatican. The room is a small chapel named after Pope Nicholas V, and is on the Vatican tour today. It was not long after completing this that Fra Angelico fell ill and died while in Rome. Today, San Marco is a tremendous place to visit to see the best of Fra Angelico’s work. The cells have been restored in the last decade and are bright as they originally where. One of the cells was home to Savonarola decades after Fra Angelico, and his personal items are still there. There is also a great museum in the basement which includes many small wooden altarpieces by the artist. Fra Angelico has been in the news as recently at 2007, when a woman in Great Britain revealed 2 small paintings on wooden panel from her attic, purchased by her father for 100 pounds each in the 60s. As it turns out, they are both missing pieces to a larger Fra Angelico altarpiece and they sold for millions. Today, they are at San Marco too. Here’s a great youtube clip that shows many of Fra Angelico’s paintings in  great color and detail.

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The story of the Medici is truly fascinating. The family of bankers became the rulers of Florence, and through their patronage brought about the Renaissance and  changed the western world forever. It was Cosimo de’Medici who first took control of Florence, commissioning the completion of the great red dome of the Florence Duomo by Brunelleschi. Part 1 of the Medici film concerning Cosimo is found here.

When he suddenly died, his son Lorenzo took charge. He would become known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, as he brought about some of the greatest works of art ever through his patronage. It is staggering how many great artists and thinkers came out of Florence at this time, and considering how small Florence is they must have been elbow to elbow with each other. One of the most important Renaissance painters that came about under Lorenzo deMedici was Sandro Botticelli. It was Botticelli who created the first overtly pagan images at a time when the church of the middle ages was still large and in charge, an act that would never have happened had Lorenzo not relaxed the attitude of the city toward ancient “non-church” ideas. This sort of attitude resulted in enormously free creativity in art, as well as in writing and in the sciences. All of it was happening in Florence.

The greatest painting in Florence today is in the Uffizi gallery, once the offices of the Medici palace (the word uffizi means Offices). It’s this painting here by Botticelli from 1486, called “The Birth of Venus”.

 

The painting is a true masterpiece of Renaissance art. In it, the mythical goddess Venus is blown into the shore on a shell and received into the world on land. The story from mythology is far more detailed (and downright gross but you’ll have to research that yourself). The image is a true celebration of beauty, an exercise in pure pleasure on the part of the artist. Botticelli elongates the figures, adding to their grace and movement. Just look at Venus’ neck… super long, yet he makes it work. Until this time, feminine nudes just weren’t very common, except in images of Adam and Eve from the garden. Here’s a great short video that picks the painting apart:

We must remember that the church in the 14 and 1500’s still held enormous sway even in free-thinking places like Florence, and the reception towards such images as “the Birth of Venus” and Donatello’s “David” was still highly controversial. This painting was a private commission from Lorenzo deMedici, as were many other revolutionary works. Public attitude was another matter. Enter the radical Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola.

In 1490, Savonarola came to Florence. He took residence at San Marco (where his monastic cell is still seen today) and began preaching firey sermons about the last days. To a zealous preacher like Savonarola, Florence was filled with evidence of the devil’s work. Free-thinking was everywhere, as were symbols of vast Medici wealth. He saw they entire city going straight to hell, and made sure that everyone heard the message. He claimed to have the gift of prophecy, and foretold that Lorenzo would die soon (as it turns out, he was right). Savonarola must have been a very persuasive preacher, because he soon held the city in his hand. Even Botticelli, the painter or beautiful “pagan” paintings, fell under his spell. The Medici had no choice but to flee the city and Savonarola took charge of Florence in 1494. He set about cleansing the city and returning it to God.

He held an enormous public burning in the Piazza della Signoria that came to be called “the Bonfire of the Vanities”. Florentines came to cast all kinds of evils into the flames, including books and manuscripts, symbols of wealth, jewelry, ancient relics and statues, cosmetics, fine clothing, mirrors, musical instruments and many priceless works of early Renaissance art. Botticelli cast his own paintings into the flames. No one knows how many works were destroyed by the artist himself, but it must have been truly gut-wrenching for him. His work was his life, yet he feared- as many Florentines did- for his eternal soul and had no other choice. Over the next few years,  public opinion turned on Savonarola. The city was used to Medici wealth and all the benefits it brought, something Savonarola wanted no part of. Eventually, things got so bad that the city revolted, and Savonarola himself was burned at the stake in the same spot as the bonfire. The entire episode was a black eye on the city and took years to recover from. The Medici returned, but under very different circumstances.

Please take the time to watch part 2 of the Medici film, called “The Magnificent Medici”. It is a great movie on all that was discussed here, and really brings to life this crazy time in Florence. Enjoy-

 

 

The Italian Artistic Renaissance was a monumental movement that forever changed the western world. The ideas of the Renaissance demonstrate a significant cultural change from that of the middle ages, and it’s important to remember that of course it didn’t happen overnight. It began slowly and grew gradually in Florence from the late 12 hundreds with artists like Cimabue (pronounced Chi-ma-boy) and his pupil Giotto (widely considered the first great Renaissance master), and lasted until the mid 1550s with Michelangelo and Raphael as the greatest masters. That’s a period of 250+ years- longer than America has been a country. It seems everywhere you go in Italy (particularly in Florence and Rome) you are likely to find little churches that still contain the work of artists from this period. There are many artists who are not the household names today, but still were important artists that made advances in artistic thinking and passed those discoveries onto the next generation of artists. When you look at works of art and analyze their context and content, you can often spot similarities.

One of the most important painters of the Renaissance is Masaccio. He died at 26 years old and only 4 works of his survive, but in that time made huge advances in art that greatly impacted later artists. He is the first painter to use true linear perspective in a painting. For a century, artists had been trying to create a system for perspective without success. Masaccio established the use of a horizon line and vanishing point to create the illusion of 3-dimensional depth on a wall in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The work, made in 1427 and called “The Holy Trinity”, depicts God the Father and Christ directly above a skeleton, symbolic of Adam and the death of man being conquered by the Trinity. Setting the subject aside, the figures reside in a false room painted to match the vaults in the rest of the church. The bottom of the work is 6 feet off the ground- so standing below, the illusion of a real room is created. It was seen as a huge triumph.

 

Just across town is the Brancacci Chapel, just a block from the monastery we’ll be staying at. Inside are large frescos by Masaccio. They were recently cleaned in the last few decades, and are as bright and impressive as ever. One of the scenes in these paintings is Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden”, a highly influential work that other artists no doubt knew about and learned from. In the work, Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and realized their nakedness. As a result, sin has entered the world and they are being escorted out of the garden of Eden by an angel wielding a large sword. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. Eve is trying to cover herself and crying and anguish, while Adam can only hide his face a weep. These figures are not the stiff and emotionless figures of paintings from the middle ages. Their pain is evident. In the painting, Masaccio has used some stunning lighting effects. The bodies of Adam and Eve are much more lifelike than those of previous painters.

 

How influential was Masaccio? We can tell by looking at other depictions of the “Expulsion” from other artists. It’s not at all unusual to see an artist pay homage to a previous one by borrowing the visual language of that artists interpretation. It’s not an act of copying, but rather a subtle gesture of gratitude. The first example is from Fra Angelico (which means “Angelic Friar”), a devout dominican monk who was also an astounding painter who lived in Florence the around same time as Masaccio but survived a while longer. We’ll learn lots more about him later and we’ll see many of his works at San Marco in Florence. Here’s his painting from 1430-32 called the “Annunciation”.

In the work, Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be giving birth to the Christ child. She also receives the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove). Through her son, God will redeem humanity from the sin of Adam and Eve. Fra Angelico strangely places Adam and Eve in the background to make the theological significance of the moment complete. His Adam and Eve are clothed, but also ashamed and bewildered as they are escorted by an angel in an orange robe with a sword.

The most fitting tribute to Masaccio and his far-reaching influence is on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. There, between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo chose to borrow directly from the painting that was among his favorites in Florence. Have a look at his amazing “Expulsion” scene, one of 9 panels from the old testament on the ceiling:


Adam and Eve are shown in a before and after scene, reaching for the forbidden fruit and banished as a result. Michelangelo’s figures are large and exceedingly muscular, painted as a true sculptor might paint them. In the banishment, Michelangelo also portrays a humiliated and naked Adam and Eve, and an angel in orange with a sword, only this sword it at Adam’s throat, which really drives home the serious consequence of Adam’s action.

Part of what makes studying art so complicated is the vast reach of artistic influences and the way they manifest themselves in different work. It’s also what makes art history so insanely interesting if we’re willing to dig deeper and look for similarities like these… much more to come on Florentine painters and the Sistine Ceiling.