Just up the road from our apartment is the Piazza San Marco. One side of the piazza is taken up by the walls of the church and convent of San Marco. Part of the convent that was is now the Museo de San Marco. The thing about San Marco that sets it apart from other religious houses is that it was once home and canvas to one of the greatest painters of all time: Fra Angelico.
Fra Angelico (c 1395-1455) was born plain old Guido di Pietro, in Rupecanina, Tuscany and he joined a religious community in around 1417. He’d already started painting. He joined the Dominicans in about 1423 and was then known as Fra Giovanni.
In 1436, along with a load of other friars, he moved to the Convent San Marco. It was at this time that Cosimo d’Medici decided to restore the convent to its previous glory. Along with other painters, Fra Giovanni lent a brush hand.
Eventually he became known for his brilliant work and his fellow monks called him Fra Giovanni Angelico (Angelic Father John) and, eventually the Giovanni was dropped.
Because he was so good, Fra Angelico was summoned to the Vatican by the Pope and he spent a lot of his remaining years painting stuff down there. However, what he left behind in Florence is simply magnificent.
The painting above is the first Fra Angelica painting you see as you enter the main cloister in San Marco. Around the four walls of the cloister are beautifully painted lunettes, each telling the story of Saint Antonino. Your first glimpse of these frescoes is amazing but then you see the crucifixion painted completely on one wall and you become transfixed.
His work is everywhere in San Marco and everywhere they seem touched by the divine. It’s easy to think that he was given some other worldly power to convey great emotions with merely a touch of paint.
The Pilgrim’s Hospice, a long hall off the cloister, is lined with his paintings and each one is more striking than the last. For me his Judgement Day is particularly brilliant. Of course I ignored the Heaven side and went straight for the hell and damnation section. His depictions of torture by demons and devils is delightfully macabre.
The rest of the downstairs is extraordinary. There are paintings by other monkish artists and they all have extraordinary skill. In particular the portrait of Savonarola is quite haunting. This is enhanced by the glass on the front of the painting which makes it look like the head is just floating in space.
However, as wonderful as the ground floor is, it doesn’t really come close to matching the magnificence of the monk’s cells.
On the first floor of the building, 43 plain cells were constructed and there is a painting in each of them. A small fresco for each monk to contemplate. Most of them are of the crucifixion but there are other scenes of Christ’s Passion. All of them seem to be gushing blood, something Angelico appears to have enjoyed painting to excess.
Interestingly, the biggest cells were two special ones. One of them, built on a split level with two paintings was the cell used by Cosimo d’Medici when he felt like getting away from it all. Which is odd given his house was only a couple of streets away.
The other cell consisted of three rooms and was used by Savonarola. All the other monks had one room. Savonarola also used the Medici room at times. For a monk who had forsworn any form of luxury and personal indulgence he seems to have enjoyed a bit more comfort than his fellow monks. Given his dislike of the Medici family, I can only think he was up to no good in the Medici cell.
Away from the hypocrisy and plain life there is also the library. A long, now almost empty hall which was once home to thousands of volumes on sacred, humanist, scientific, ancient and modern subjects. Everything, all knowledge was gathered here.
Nowadays, there are just a few volumes, in big glass cases standing against the wall, pages open at something beautifully illuminated. Strange creatures in the margins are always a treat to find. Like this by Zanobi Strozzi (1412-1468).
Or his equally delightful fire breathing dog:
It was all wonderful and we left feeling a bit more enlightened and entranced than when we first entered the museum. Of course, then it was time for lunch.
Two years ago we had lunch at the Accademia Restaurant opposite San Marco. Not wanting to buck tradition, we dined there once again. The food was lovely, the beer/wine equally so.
There was a moment of panic when we thought we’d bought a whole bottle for Mirinda to drink rather than a glass. The moment passed when the waiter took the bottle away rather than leave it on the table. Had it remained I know I’d have been forced to drink it.
At the end of the meal I made a school boy error. I broke the golden rule. Having paid and gathered together our goods and chattels, I headed out the door. Mirinda had suggested we go and look at the synagogue which has a museum attached and is of Moorish design. This sounded good. What I forgot to do was use the toilet facilities at the restaurant.
I’ve lost count over the years of how many times I’ve advised fellow travellers to use a toilet when you have one because you never know when the next will appear. It is advice that has stood me in good stead.
As we left the restaurant I felt I could wait until we reached the synagogue museum before things became necessary. That’s not exactly true. In fact, I didn’t feel like going until we reached the synagogue, which was quite a hike, given my sore knee.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned my knee. After the gout subsided I was left with an unsupportive knee which gives me sharp pains whenever I walk. It has nothing to do with the gout. I bashed it the day before we left.
The pain makes for very slow going with me shuffling along the street. The reason I’m pointing this out is because the synagogue wasn’t really that far. It was, however, far enough for me to need the toilet when we reached it.
Unfortunately, the synagogue and museum has a “very scary door.” Or so Mirinda claimed as we approached the ticket office, having held our breath while passing the man in the doorway with the rather smelly cigarette. My wife doesn’t like particular doors while I’m not sure why men have to smoke in doorways.
The door to the synagogue and museum meanwhile, appeared to be a glass revolving door type of affair. It was covered in stickers declaring what could and could not be done inside the building. For instance, there was to be no pets, no photos, no film, no bare legs and no short dresses. I would argue that my legs were bare beneath my jeans but at least I’d not worn a short dress.
Mind you, I could have worn a short dress because we didn’t end up going into the synagogue and museum because of the scary door. While I’d have liked to have visited, my bladder was by now in great distress over the possibility of a toilet that had been snatched away.
And so we headed back towards the Accademia, taking a parallel road to the one by which we had arrived. The walk was long and I knew we had to go to the market first for milk. I steeled myself for the walk back to the apartment. Then, having bought supplies, I was somewhat dismayed by Mirinda’s suggestion that we pop into the Patisserie San Marco for coffee and cannoli.
In France, Mirinda always likes to find a religeuse while in Italy I always like to find a cannoli. I usually manage it surreptitiously but today Mirinda decided we were both having one before returning to the apartment. My bladder was not happy.
And so, the hunt for an unoccupied toilet ensued.
The patisserie is part of the restaurant where we had the buffet on our first day. It seems that every hidden corner conceals a toilet. There are multiple little doors and very small signs. It took a while but eventually I found one that was available for use.
The long stroll back to the table felt very comfortable, I have to say.
And the cannoli was delicious.
Eventually back at the apartment we lazed around, watched some Voyager and booked a restaurant for dinner. Though not before I read out the Posts of Christmas Past in what has now become our Boxing Day tradition.
Ribeo is 189 metres from the apartment. It is small and delightful. The food was excellent and the service fantastic. I would definitely recommend it. The cheese and meat plate as a starter for two is particularly delicious.
Having eaten and returned we gradually went to bed.
It had been a lovely day (ignoring the scary door of course) particularly at the Museum of San Marco. One painting I haven’t mentioned was in the gift shop. This was once the small refectory and is, appropriately, dominated by The Last Supper.
It’s a lovely painting (I particularly like that Judas is on our side of the table) but my favourite bit is the 14th guest who is looking straight at us. A guest that almost unbalances the painting.
And, just to wrap up this already long post, here’s a video taken in the Saint Antonino Cloister.