From Gothic to Renaissance. Rooms 5-8 of the Uffizi.

Rooms 5-6. International Gothic.

Like Rooms 2 and 3, Rooms 5 and 6 were curated during the 1950s. Unlike Rooms 2 and 3, however, Rooms 5 and 6 house pieces that document the transition from Late Gothic to Early Renaissance art, a period known as International Gothic. As its name suggests, the International Gothic period witnessed a blend of the elegant Gothic style favored in northern European courts with the emerging naturalism seen in Italian art over the 13th and 14th centuries. It is typified by bright, jewel colors, slender, elongated figures, increased interest in the “exotic,” detailed depictions of nature, crowded picture planes, and an increase in the movement of figures’ bodies. The depiction of Mary also changed during this period. Inspired by the chivalric tradition of the north, Italian artists shied away from depicting the Virgin as a homely, formidable matron, choosing instead to show her as the fair maiden so often mentioned in French romances. She was now a beautiful young woman, slender and elegant, dressed in luxurious robes and always gracefully posed.

This work by Agnolo Gaddi was produced during his later years, around 1390, and thus is a transition piece between the Giottesque and the International Gothic.

Crucifixion, Agnolo Gaddi

Gaddi trained in his father’s workshop, alongside his brothers Giovanni and Niccolò. This work’s relatively small size indicates that it may have been part of a predella to a larger altarpiece, which has since been lost. It is unique for its inclusion of a tremendous amount of figures, all with his or her own individual expression. At the foot of the Cross are Mary and St. John, while the unrepentant thief is shown dying on Christ’s left. His soul is being taken by the devil. Beneath the impenitent thief are soldiers casting lots for Christ’s tunic.

Perhaps one of the greatest proponents of the International Gothic style was Piero di Giovanni, better known as Lorenzo Monaco (“Lorenzo the monk”), the name he took when he entered the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. It is likely that Lorenzo Monaco got his start doing miniatures in his monastery’s choral books, but he later trained in Agnolo Gaddi’s workshop and became the leading painter in Florence during the first decade of the 15th century. His most celebrated work, Coronation of the Virgin (1414), was commissioned by Zanobi di Cecco del Frasca for the high altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli. According to the inscription, the work was finished in February 1413 (1414 according to the modern calculation of time; Florentines began their year on the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, rather than on the more conventional 1st of January).

Coronation of the Virgin, Lorenzo Monaco

The work depicts Jesus crowning his mother Mary, flanked by angels and saints, including (from left to right) St. Benedict, St. Peter, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Andrew, and St. Romuald. St. Benedict and St. Romuald are of special note as this altarpiece was destined for a Camaldolese church (and was painted by a Camaldolese monk). St. Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese Order, a reformed branch of the Benedictine Order founded by St. Benedict. Lorenzo Monaco portrays the two men in white robes because, according to legend, Camaldolese monks adopted white robes after St. Romuald dreamt of men in white ascending the stairway to heaven. Mary is also depicted in white, eschewing her usual blue, to emphasize her relationship with the Camaldolese monks, especially important here due to the placement of this altarpiece at Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels).

Like his contemporaries, Lorenzo Monaco practiced a technique known as cangiante, derived from the Italian word “to change.” Cangiante was a technique used to create depth when an artist did not have the tones of color needed to depict shadows. Indeed, at the time, artists used tempera, a mixture of egg yolk, water, and pigment, to create color. This mixture lacked the layering abilities of oil paint (which was to become popular during the mid to late 15th century) meaning that it was very difficult to create shades of a particular color. Thus, rather than use a darker/lighter hue of the original color, the artist would change the color completely to a darker/lighter color. For instance, look at St. Andrew’s robe. Lorenzo Monaco changed parts of the robe from the original yellow to coral when he needed to add depth.

Lorenzo Monaco also created depth in his paintings by adding movement. Indeed, as mentioned above, the International Gothic school placed a higher importance on movement within the painting. Here, for example, Lorenzo Monaco inserted movement via angels swinging censers, giving the work depth, energy, and life.

Lorenzo Monaco’s other work in this room, Adoration of the Magi (c. 1420-1422), done in collaboration with Cosimo Rosselli, also demonstrates his desire to show movement in his paintings. For instance, the figures in the background of this piece are more contorted and elongated in an effort to convey motion. Moreover, the subject matter of this piece is not a static Madonna Enthroned or Coronation. Instead, it is a narrative subject matter, a subject matter wherein travel and motion are intrinsic to its depiction.

Adoration of the Magi, Lorenzo Monaco and Cosimo Rosselli

Also incredibly innovative is Lorenzo Monaco’s choice to include a receding landscape (albeit a rather fanciful one) as the background rather than the traditional gold. The receding landscape reinforces the notion of travel, as the Magi have no doubt transversed the harsh terrain to place their gifts at Christ’s feet. Interestingly, Lorenzo Monaco also departed from the traditional tricuspid altarpiece shape, instead opting for a rectangle, although he kept the conventional three arches.

A stark contrast to Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration is Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration (1423), which is generally thought to be the most important example of International Gothic painting in Italy. Not only does Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration retain the traditional tricuspid shape, it is also steeped in realism, as opposed to the otherworldliness of Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration. The colors, lighting, focus on details, and naturalistic figures of Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration all combine to create a very different picture of the exact same episode. In fact, many scholars argue that it is the first painting in history to use a single natural light source.

Gentile da Fabriano’s work was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a Florentine banker, for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The Strozzi family was a chief rival to the Medici, and therefore Palla used the occasion of this commission to show off his wealth and power, hence the heavy use of gold. His desire to “out do” the Medici, as it were, likely informed the subject of the painting; the procession of eastern kings with their retinues gave occasion for Gentile da Fabriano to paint luxurious silks, rich brocades, and “exotic” animals, as the “East” was commonly associated with luxury and splendor at the time.

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano

The altarpiece is centered on “threes.” Indeed, it depicts the journey of the three wise men in three distinct stages, each separated by the arches of the frame. First, the wise men see the star; second, they pause at Herod’s palace; third, they return home. Moreover, the three wise men represent the three stages of life: old age (represented by the kneeling wise man), middle age (the bowing wise man), and youth (the standing wise man).

Behind the standing wise man is a portrait of Strozzi, holding a falcon, a nod to his family name (strozzieri was the Tuscan word for “falconer”). Many times patrons would include themselves in the works of art that they commissioned. Although, here, rather than include himself as a devout worshipper, as was generally the case in previous work, Strozzi chose to portray himself looking out and connecting with the viewer, as if to say, look at what I – and my wealth – created. Art was becoming less of a means of worship and more a method of displaying power.

The predella (the platform that forms the base of the altarpiece) portrays scenes from Jesus’ childhood, including the Nativity, the Presentation at the Temple (which is actually a modern copy, the original is located at the Louvre), and the Flight into Egypt.

Beginning signs of the Renaissance can be detected in the predella, where Gentile da Fabriano used blue rather than the traditional gold background to depict the sky, thereby showing artists’ new attention to nature that would serve as a foundational element of the Renaissance.

Gentile also included the loggia of Brunelleschi’s Spedale degli Innocenti in the cityscape of the Presentation at the Temple panel.

Spedale degli Innocenti
Presentation at the Temple

Rooms 7-8. The Early Renaissance

The next room houses those paintings that began what we now call “The Renaissance.” In these paintings, the focus shifted from the simple act of worship to the more complex question of defining man’s relationship to God.

Tommaso Cassai, better known as Masaccio, is generally believed to be the first “great” painter of the Italian Renaissance. Masaccio was influenced by the great sculptors and architects of his time, Brunelleschi and Donatello, and derived his use of mathematical perspective from their work. Those influences tend to give his work a more formalized and monumental style, which is accentuated by his lack of concern for ornamentation and details, as well as his use of a single source of light. His work Saint Anne Metterza (c. 1424), done in collaboration with Masolino, was originally intended for Sant’Ambrogio Church in Florence; it was commissioned by Nofri d’Agnolo del Brutto, a cloth merchant. Art historians believe that Masolino painted St. Anne and the angels (aside from the angel on the top right), while Masaccio painted Mary and Jesus.

Saint Anne Metterza, Masaccio and Masolino

The austerity of the faces is of the Byzantine tradition, but their softness is of the 15th century. The Christ-child is also very 15th century; he is not portrayed as more-or-less a child in adult form, but as a true child. Moreover, his build reflects the emerging influence of classical sculpture.

The term Metterza was derived from the medieval latin word “met,” meaning “the same,” and tertius, meaning “third.” It was used to describe the common iconography of Mary sitting between her mother’s legs and the Christ child sitting between his mother’s legs. The depiction demonstrated St. Anne’s place as third in the hierarchy of the divine family as well as her role as protector of Mary and of Mother Church. It is not for nothing that the silhouette of il Duomo can be made out in St. Anne’s protecting embrace. As il Duomo protects Florence, so too does St. Anne protect Mary.

Although Masaccio’s overall structure was influenced by Brunelleschi and Donatello, you cannot miss Giotto’s influence in the drapery of Mary’s cloak, demonstrating Giotto’s continuing importance, even beyond the Gothic period and into the Renaissance.

Masaccio himself was also a major influence on artists, including another of Florentine’s most famous artists, Guido de Pietro, better known known as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico was a brother at the recently constructed San Marco Monastery, which he had a major hand in decorating. Although all of his works are of a religious nature, they took on innovations that spurred what is known as the High Renaissance. Room 7 contains Fra Angelico’s Pontassieve Madonna (c. 1435).

The Pontassieve Madonna, Fra Angelico

This piece was likely originally part of a larger altarpiece, the side panels of which have since been lost. The work is typical of Fra Angelico, however, as can be seen in the soft features of the faces, elongated fingers, monumental posture, and statuesque folds of cloth. These attributes are echoed in his Coronation of the Virgin (1435), also in Room 7 of the Uffizi.

Coronation of the Virgin (Paradise), Fra Angelico

In Fra Angelico’s Coronation, the angels act as the meditators between the divine company and the human world. Beneath the Virgin and Christ is a mass of winged heads; the blue wings indicate that they are cherubim (as opposed to the red wings of the seraphim; seraphim had red wings to reflect that they were inflamed with the love of God). Also beneath the Virgin are clouds, subtly, yet effectively, enhancing the perspective produced by the foreshortening of the angels in the background. Fra Angelico’s focus on movement goes even further than the motif of the angel swinging a censer and includes angels actually dancing, their robes swishing with motion.

Fra Angelico’s Coronation was commissioned to pair with Lorenzo Monaco’s Adoration, discussed above, in the Church of Sant’Egidio.

Whether to match the shape of its companion piece or to make some other statement, Fra Angelico also did away completely with the tricuspid shape and opted for a fully rectangular altarpiece.

One of Fra Angelico’s most successful successors was Fra Filippo Lippi, who lived from around 1406 to 1469. Filippo Lippi was a frequent house guest of Cosimo de’ Medici. He had been a Carmelite monk, but allegedly left the order after a scandalous affair with a nun. According to Giorgio Vasari:

It is said that he was so amorous, that, if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humour he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; wherefore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly—passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labour; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.

Lippi’s Coronation of the Virgin (c. 1435), once located on the main altar in Sant’Ambrogio, was produced in collaboration with various artists, including Piero di Lorenzo, Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini da Urbino, Fra Diamante, Manno de’Cori, and Domenico del Brilla. In this Coronation, Lippi includes St. Ambrose and St. Eustace (kneeling with his two sons and wife, Theophista). On the right, in a mantle of red, is the donor, kneeling next to the inscription, “IS PERFECIT OPUS” (“He finished the work”). Interestingly, Lippi’s focus is on the spectators rather than the actual coronation (unlike the depictions done by Fra Angelico, which centers on Mary and Jesus). Lippi was deeply interested in the individual and would model his angels off young women that he saw in the street.

Cosimo de’Medici commissioned Filippo Lippi to paint another altarpiece, known as The Novitiate Altarpiece (c. 1445), for the recently constructed Novitiate Chapel in the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce. Lippi paid homage to his patron by including red Medici balls across the top of the frieze and inlaid in the marble. He also included the Medici patron saints, Cosimo and his late twin brother’s namesakes, St. Cosmas and St. Damian (on the left and right of the Madonna, respectively). The other two saints are St. Francis, the patron saint of the church for which the altarpiece was destined, and St. Anthony of Padua.

The architecture is classical in nature, although the classical scallop shell ceilings allude to the Virgin and the divine conception. (Many confuse the concept of “immaculate conception” with the divine conception; the immaculate conception actually refers to Mary’s birth, free of sin, not Christ’s birth, divinely inspired). Scallop shells were often symbols of fertility in ancient times, a meaning which Christians co-opted and subsequently narrowed to signify only the birth of Christ rather than births and fertility in general.

Another great early Renaissance artist, Domenico Veneziano, also moved away from the traditional medieval triptych with his Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece (c. 1445). Like Lippi, Veneziano places his Virgin in the same space as the saints.

Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Altarpiece, Domenico Veneziano

Additionally, Veneziano emphasizes his innovative attention to architecture by placing his scene in a classical setting, dominated by three arches inlaid with green and rose marble, remenscient of the marble used in the Duomo.

This piece is considered a masterpiece due to the innovative use of light. Indeed, you can see the shadow crossover the Virgin and Child, and St. John the Baptist’s foreshortened foot casts a shadow over the floor. In the foreground are (from left to right) St. Francis, St. John the Baptist, St. Zanobius, and St. Lucia. Also look at St. John’s subtly defined musculature in his right arm. Such a detail looks much more classical than Gothic.

The predella is distributed between the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, U.K., and the Berlin State Museum in Berlin, Germany. One of the episodes depicted in the predella (and located in D.C.) is Saint John in the Desert.

Saint John in the Desert, Domenico Veneziano, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

In this episode, Veneziano depicts St. John exchanging his worldly clothes for a camel shirt. Shying away from traditional iconography of St. John as an old hermit, Veneziano chose to depict him at the moment of his spiritual conversion and thus as a young man in the classical model. Interestingly, this work is one of the earliest known depictions of such a model that would become the norm throughout Renaissance art. The piece, however, still retains several gothic elements, most glaringly of which is the representation of the mountains. They are more symbolic than realistic and are not at all in proportion to St. John.

Another episode (also in D.C.) is St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Domenico Veneziano, Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

Here too, the proportions of the figures are not in keeping with the landscape. For instance, look at the small red book next to Brother Leo, St. Francis’ secretary. Yet, the episode demonstrates the growing concern for realistic landscapes and increasing reluctance to depict events “out of time” as they had been so often during the previous centuries.

Finally, one of the more recognizable pieces located in Room 7 is the Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino (Portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro) by Piero della Francesca (c. 1467-1470). Here at last we come to humanism in its truest form, the celebration of man, in and of himself. In a stark move away from the worship, or at least the pretense of worship, of God, Piero della Francesca focuses this piece entirely on his patron, the Duke Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his wife, the Duchess Battista Sforza (1446-1472). The piece was part of Vittoria Della Rovere’s dowry for her marriage to Grand Duke Ferdinand II de’Medici. (Vittoria Della Rovere was the daughter of Duke Federico Ubaldo della Rovere, and thus a descendant of Duke Federico da Montefeltro). Interestingly, Duke Federico Montefeltro was actually Lorenzo de’Medici’s godfather (although this did not preclude the Duke from subsequently betraying Lorenzo for Pope Sixtus). Montefeltro received the title of “duke” from his papal overlord after his daughter, Giovanna, married Pope Sixtus’ nephew Giovanni della Rovere and in exchange for his services as condottiere (i.e. mercenary captain).

The Duke and Duchess are depicted in profile, in the Imperial Roman tradition. Yet, Duke Federico is depicted facing left, which is not in strict conformance with classical predecessors, which generally faced right. Some art historians posit that this break with tradition was done to hide the Duke’s missing eye, which he lost fighting in a tournament, while others believe it was intended to allow the couple to face each other. Regardless, this piece is striking due to the attention to the sitters’ features, even the more unattractive features (like the Duke’s broken nose). Some art historians believe that the Duchess’ paleness alludes to her early death (she died in childbirth at age 26). The background is the Marches landscape, over which the Duke ruled and sought to demonstrate his dominance over with this portrait. The pieces were inspired by Florentine perspective and lenticular representation (a painting technique that emphasized depth) used in Flemish painting. It is no wonder that Piero della Francesca was the author of De Prospectiva pingendi, an important treatise on perspective that would influence the artists of the High Renaissance.

San Marco Cells

He is not an artist properly so-called, but an inspired saint.

John Ruskin, on Fra Angelico

On the second floor of the San Marco monastery, visitors will find the monks’ dormitories. Each cell, once occupied by a single friar, contains a fresco depicting an event from Christ’s life. Yet, the central focus of the frescoes is not the event, but the witnesses to the event. Indeed, the Renaissance artist Fra Angelico and his team painted each fresco with the intention that the friars emulate the holy witnesses to Christ’s life so that they themselves may be worthy of teaching it. Therefore, the frescoes were simplistic in design, presenting a mental image more akin to icons rather than a full narrative.

Lamentation over Christ Deposed from the Cross (Cell 2)

For instance, the event depicted in Cell 2 is the Lamentation over Christ, quite literally, the passionate expression of sorrow or grief over Christ’s body. Yet the scene downplays the dramatic trauma of laying Christ to rest via its horizontal construction. Indeed, the only vertical movement is St. Dominic himself, the figure upon whom the viewer is to mediate.

The scene in Cell 6 is, admittedly, slightly more dramatic, with the figure of Christ radiating light in the center. Compare it to Raphael’s Transfiguration, however, and its simplicity is better appreciated.

In Fra Angelico’s version, Saints Peter, James, and John are reacting to Christ, but Mary and St. Dominic are mere observers of the narrative and do not take part. It is therefore Mary and St. Dominic who are the intended focus of the friars’ mediations. Although centered and radiating, Christ’s body is postured in the shape of a cross, becoming a symbol to revere rather than an actor in the narrative and shifting focus back to Mary and St. Dominic.

Transfiguration (Cell 6)

Included are the floating heads of Elias and Moses. You may notice that Fra Angelico chose to depict Moses with horns. This depiction is based on St. Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew phrase “wēlō’ yāda ‘ki qāran’ ôr pānāyw” found in Exodus 34:29. Jerome translated the Hebrew word “qāran” as “cornuta esset,” rendering the phrase to state (as translated into English) “Moses did not know that his face was horned.” Some scholars argue that Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew word qāran as “horned” when it should have been translated as “rays of light.” Recent scholarship, however, has questioned whether it was really a mistake, arguing that “Jerome was no doubt aware of the metaphysical association of horns with divinity and power in the ancient world in general and the Greco-Roman world in particular, as in the episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (15.565-621) where Cipus looks at his reflection in a clear stream and sees horns springing from his head. When Cipus and his horns are observed by an Etruscan seer, the seer cries out, ‘All hail, O King!’ …” Broderick, Herbert R. Moses the Egyptian in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch (2017).

In Cell 10 is the depiction of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple. Thanks to recent restoration work, the shell semi-dome has been rediscovered.

Presentation in the Temple (Cell 10)

This work is one of a few frescoes that do not include St. Dominic as witness, but rather St. Peter the Martyr and a woman some art historians identify as St. Catherine of Siena on the right. Joseph, standing behind Mary, is carrying a basket with two doves, a gift of atonement.

In Cell 26, Fra Angelico returns to horizontal movement as a method of creating simplicity.

Homo Pietatis (Cell 26)

Here, Christ is shown standing in his tomb, wounds visible on his hands. Above him are the symbols of his Passion: the lance, the sponge, the cross, and the column. Also above him you see the head of Judas kissing Christ (top left), Peter and the handmaiden (directly beneath Christ and Judas), and the mocking of Christ (top right). Once again, St. Dominic and the Virgin are depicted as witnesses to the scene.

Slightly more action packed are those frescoes now believed to have been painted by Benozzo Gozzoli, including one known as The Kiss of Judas. Missing from this fresco are the usual witnesses, St. Dominic and the Virgin Mary. Instead, the scene focuses on the narrative: Judas and his interaction with Jesus. Also interesting is the inclusion of Judas’ halo, which has been painted black.

Kiss of Judas

Although most art historians agree that Gozzoli so perfectly imitated Fra Angelico’s style that it is hard to tell them apart, there are subtle differences. Those frescoes identified as Gozzoli’s contain more figures, dressed in vibrant colors. Additionally, Gozzoli’s lush landscapes differentiate themselves from those sparse backgrounds seen in the frescoes painted by Fra Angelico.

Like The Kiss of Judas, the fresco in Cell 34 was likely painted by Gozzoli. Here, Mary and Martha serve as models for the friars, fulfilling the injunction to “watch and pray,” whereas the three apostles, languishing in their despair, serve as examples of what not to do.

The Agony in the Garden (Cell 34)

You can really see Gozzoli’s adoption (and expansion) of Fra Angelico’s innovative use of perspective. Using perspective, Gozzoli was able to depict the wall as though it is jutting out towards the viewer, creating a pronounced three dimensional space. Compare Gozzoli’s use of perspective to that of Fra Angelico:

As in the general composition of the frescoes, Gozzoli’s use of perspective less subtle and more dramatic.

Another fresco likely painted by Gozzoli is The Sermon on the Mound. Although the background lacks the lush greenery of The Kiss of Judas and The Agony in the Garden, it is harsher than those painted by Fra Angelico and Gozzoli’s figures wear the same vibrant colored cloths as in his other works.

The Sermon on the Mound

Again, Judas’ halo is black, but here his face has been obscured, perhaps to avoid “contaminating” the purity of the scene.

Likewise, in The Last Supper, Judas’ face is hidden behind that of the other apostles (he is one of the four kneeling figures in the bottom right hand corner). Odd is also Mary’s placement at the scene. She typically does not show up in Last Supper scenes, as the Gospels make no mention of her being present. Perhaps her inclusion is a return to the focus on the witnesses rather than the narrative.


The Institution of the Eucharist (The Last Supper) (Cell 35)

It is likely that the majority of this fresco was painted by Fra Angelico’s assistants, evidenced by the rather repetitive details of the apostles’ heads, the ambiguity of the apostles’ positions (are they seated or standing), and the distance between Jesus’ outstretched hand and St. John’s mouth. Yet, it is still a fascinating work due to the unknown artists’ inclusion of the windows. The windows in the work reflect the same view that the physical window provides (and would be seen in this photo had it not been so sunny outside).

The Annunciation

Fra Angelico’s celebrated Annunciation is also located on the second floor of the monastery. The Annunciation has been dubbed the quintessential Renaissance piece because it combines the three novelties of the 15th century: light painting, classical architecture, and spatial/perspective severity.

Like most Annunciations, Mary is enclosed in a walled garden, reminding viewers that she remains separate from and untouched by the sinful world and evoking the Garden of Eden. She returns Gabriel’s greeting by crossing her arms over her chest, mimicking the angel’s own gesture. Yet, unlike conventional Annunciations of the time, Fra Angelico’s does not contain embossed wording.

Indeed, up until this point, the angel Gabriel was typically portrayed with a ribbon ballooning from his mouth (See detail of the Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, dated 1333). Fra Angelico was one of the first artists to do away with this tradition. (Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is dated c. 1442).

Here, Mary is almost life-sized, and the small grated window in the background is reminiscent of those window located in the monks’ cells. These aspects combine to achieve the effect that Mary is actually present in the room.

Cosimo de’Medici

Cosimo de’Medici reserved these rooms for himself during the construction of the new monastery, and interestingly, Pope Eugenius IV slept in this cell the night of Epiphany 1443 when he came to consecrate the new church. Notably the consecration occurred on Epiphany, not St. Mark’s feast day, as would have been usual since St. Mark is the patron saint of San Marco Monastery. The Epiphany commemorates the moment when the three Magi come to give Christ their gifts, and it is this event that is frescoed on the wall of Cosimo’s cell.

Perhaps significantly, the Adoration of the Magi was a continual theme in the iconography of the Medici. Indeed, the Medici wished to equate themselves to those princely Magi who bestowed their gifts on Christ by bestowing gifts on the Church. Moreover, the Magi are relatively alone in achieving entrance to the heavenly kingdom while maintaining their wealth. Moreover, the three generations of kings paralleled the three generations of the Medici alive at the time (Cosimo, his son Piero, and his grandson Lorenzo). To cement the link, the family paid for lavious processions on the Feast of the Epiphany, which would parade through the city, ending at San Marco. Additionally, Piero de’Medici ignored the conventional practice of waiting only three days between birth and baptism to baptise his son Lorenzo (subsequently known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) on the Feast of the Epiphany. Cosimo and Lorenzo were both members of the Confraternity of the Magi.

Gozzoli painted not only this Adoration for the Medici, but also painted a much grander (and more well known) for the (at the time) newly constructed Medici Palace (now known as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi). (Sandro Botticelli also painted an Adoration for the Medici, now in the Uffizi).

Library

Cosimo de’Medici and the Dominicans came to an agreement in 1441 to build a “public” library within the convent for the use of elite humanists as well as the friars (although touted as a public library, one still needed permission from the library’s trustees to access it).

Cosimo, along with several other humanists, had recently come into possession of the late Niccolò Nicoli’s extensive book collection. Indeed, Nicoli had bequeathed his collection to 16 trustees, including Cosimo, for the purpose of creating Italy’s first public library. Over the years, the library’s collection increased under Cosimo’s careful curation. According to the 15th century poet Ugolino di Vieri, the library contained “so many thousands of volumes written by the Greek and Latin fathers that it could rightly be called the archives of sacred doctrine.” Unfortunately, most of the volumes were transferred to the Biblioteca Laurenziana during the 19th century suppression of the monasteries.

San Marco Museum

The San Marco Museum occupies part of a complex that has served as the San Marco Monastery since its consecration in 1443. The monastery belongs to the Dominican Order (also known as “The Order of the Preachers” and commonly referred to as “The Black Friars,” derived from their black cloaks as opposed to the white cloaks worn by the Carmelite Order and the grey worn by the Franciscans).

The building was constructed atop the foundations of a medieval Sylvestrian monastery and was paid for by the Medici family, the ruling family in Florence. Cosimo de’Medici (il Vecchio) commissioned Michelozzo, one of the Medici’s favorite architects, to design the new building. It was Cosimo’s intention to relocate the Dominicans of Fiesole to Florence. (Fiesole is a small town about 15 minutes outside of Florence and coincidentally, where my husband and I stayed during our honeymoon).

View of Florence from Fiesole

After the building’s completion, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, perhaps better known as Fra Angelico, a member of the Order and a friar of the San Marco monastery, was commissioned to fresco the interior.

Fra Angelico was born around 1395 and became a Dominican friar sometime before 1423. His frescoes, intended for the friars’ private use, are typified by sparse settings meant to encourage the friars to focus on the religious purity of the work. Angelico’s frescoes may be seen in sharp contrast to his altarpieces, which were made for public consumption. Indeed, Angelico’s altarpieces reflect the ornate churches for which they were destined; they were more reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts that he likely decorated while studying in Lorenzo Monaco’s workshop than similar to the frescoes he painted within the monastery.

Sant’Antonino Cloister

The Sant’Antonino Cloister is named for St. Antoninus Pierozzi, the first prior of the San Marco Monastery, vicar general of the Dominican Observants, and Archbishop of Florence. It is dominated by Fra Angelico’s fresco of St. Dominic and the Cross.

St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix (Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix focuses entirely on the interaction between St. Dominic and Christ, a result achieved by the lack of substantive background. The viewer’s attention is, therefore, drawn towards St. Dominic’s adoration and Christ’s serene acceptance of such. The fresco’s fixation on the communion between Christ and St. Dominic indicates that its purpose was not merely decorative. Indeed, its location within the cloister, generally a place of study and contemplation, affirms that the work was intended to invoke a spiritual response within the friars.

This work also demonstrates Fra Angelico’s important artistic contributions that have inspired some art historians to name him as the first painter of the Renaissance. For instance, instead of the golden background that was common at the time, Angelico chose a natural blue (albeit sparse) sky. Another significant innovation is the realistic, almost portrait-like details of the figures’ faces. Such detail was generally lacking in contemporary painting, as was the technique known as perspective, without which paintings tended to look flat. But here, Angelico used perspective to create space behind the figures, giving the fresco three dimensions and a more realistic feel.

The fresco was set in a marble frame and surrounded by 17th century frescoes when the Fabroni family turned this side of the cloister into their family burial vault. In fact, St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix along with five lunettes were the only frescoes painted in the cloister until the 17th century when the other twenty-two lunettes were decorated with a cycle dedicated to the life of St. Antoninus. The coats-of-arms of the Florentine families who financed the cycle are depicted in the frescoes.

One such lunette depicts the investiture of the saint to the See of Florence.

St. Antoninus is Made Archbishop of Florence (Bernardino Poccetti and Pier Dandini)

Perhaps surprisingly, as this painting was completed during the reign of the Medici dukes, is the inclusion of Fra Savonarola on the right. Fra Savonarola, a Dominican monk and a prior of this very monastery (elected in July of 1491), was responsible for the short-lived exile of the Medici in 1494. It is therefore surprising that he should be celebrated in this fresco, especially as he was born only a few years prior to St. Antoninus’ death, making his inclusion anachronistic. Whether included as an act of defiance or simply as an act reverence towards an important member of the monastery, Fra Savonarola’s presence does demonstrate his lasting influence on San Marco and on Florence.

The Pilgrims’ Hospice

The Pilgrims’ Hospice was, as its name implies, used as a reception area for guests (“ospite” is the Italian word for “guest”). The room’s function is reflected in Fra Angelico’s fresco above the door, known as Christ the Pilgrim Welcomed by the Dominicans. Now the room functions as part of the museum, housing the biggest collection of Fra Angelico’s panel paintings.

As I mentioned above, Angelico’s panel paintings are clearly meant for public consumption as compared to his contemplative frescoes located on the monastery’s walls. For instance, compare the cooler palette used in St. Dominic Worships the Crucifix with the warm, rich colors used in his altarpieces.

Tabernacle of the Linen-drapers (Linaiuoli Altarpiece)

The Linen-drapers’ Guild commissioned the Linaiuoli Altarpiece in 1433 to adorn their meeting house. Fra Angelico’s attention to light (an innovation of early Renaissance painting) is evident throughout the piece. Moreover, instead of the traditional flat golden background, Fra Angelico inserted a golden drape, creating depth and demonstrating his knowledge of perspective as well as the influence of Masaccio, who is credited as one of the forerunners of the technique.

St. Mark is present both on the interior side of the panels as well as the exterior. “Therefore,” explains Padre Marchese, the 19th century Dominican art historian, “they wished that whether the tabernacle were open or closed, he should be always in their sight.” St. Mark was the patron saint of the Linen-drapers’ Guild.

The frame of this piece was commissioned to Lorenzo Ghiberti, and some art historians posit that he is the influence behind the statuesque bearing of the figures. The Predella depicts St. Peter preaching in the presence of St. Mark (the patron saint of the monastery), the Adoration of the Magi, and St. Mark’s Martyrdom.

The Chapterhouse

This room contains Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion and Saints. Giorgio Vasari, 16th century artist and art historian, tells us:

“This father was so greatly beloved for his merits by Cosimo de’ Medici, that, after completing the construction of the Church and Convent of S. Marco, he caused him to paint the whole Passion of Jesus Christ on a wall in the chapter-house.”

Giorgio Vasari. “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” Studium Publishing.

Unfortunately, the sky in this piece has lost its blue coloring over time and the red used to prep the wall is now visible. The fresco, however, is still impressive.

The main scene is enclosed within a semi-circle, which contains small portraits holding unfurling scrolls. The first scroll on the right, held by the only portrait without an accompanying name, states, “Deus nature patitvr” (“The God of Nature Suffers”), words attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, an Athenian judge and possibly the first bishop of Athens. Allegedly, when Dionysius witnessed the eclipse that followed Christ’s death, he proclaimed, “Aut deus naturae patitur aut mundi machina dissolvitur.” Following the unnamed portrait, from right to left are the portraits of: Daniel, Zechariah, Jacob, David, a pelican feeding its young, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, and the Erythrean Sibyl. (The imagery of the pelican feeding its young with its own blood was associated with redemption). Each of their banners are as follows:

Daniel“Post
edomades VII et LXII occidet XPS.”
“Et post hebdomades sexaginta duas occidetur Christus.”“And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined.”Daniel 9:26 (KJV)
Zechariah“His plagatus sum.”“Et dicetur ei quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum et dicet his plagatus sum in domo eorum qui diligebant me.”“And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”Zechariah 13:6 (KJV)
Jacob“Ad praedam descende, fili mi! Dominus accubuit ut leo.”“Catulus leonis luda a praeda fili mi ascendisti requiescens accubuisti ut leo et quasi leaena quis suscitabit eum.”“Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up?”Genesis 49:9 (KJV)
David“In siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”“Et dederunt in escam meam fel et in siti mea potaverunt me aceto.”“They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”Psalms 69:21 (KJV)
Pelican“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis.”“Similis factus sum pelicano solitudinis factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.”“I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”Psalms 102:6 (KJV)
Isaiah“Vere languores nostros idem tulit et dolores nostros.”“Vere languores nostros ipse tulit et dolores nostros ipse portavit et nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum et percussum a Deo et humiliatum.”“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.”Isaiah 53:4 (KJV)
Jeremiah“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte, si est dolor sicut dolor meus.”“O vos omnes qui transitis per viam adtendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus quoniam vindemiavit me ut locutus est Dominus in die irae furoris sui.”“Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.”Lamentations 1:12 (KJV)
Ezekiel“Exaltavi lignum hile.”“Et scient omnia ligna regionis quia ego Dominus humiliavi lignum sublime et exaltavi lignum humile et siccavi lignum viride et frondere feci lignum aridum ego Dominus locutus sum et feci.”“And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish: I the Lord have spoken and have done it.”Ezekiel 17:24 (KJV)
Job “Qui det de canibus ei ut saturem?”“Si non dixerunt viri tabernaculi mei quis det de carnibus eius ut saturemur.”“If the men of my tabernacle said not, Oh that we had of his flesh! we cannot be satisfied.”Job 31:31 (KJV)

The Erythrean Sibyl holds a banner that proclaims, “Morte morietur, tribus diebus sonno susceptus/ trino ab inferis regressus ad lucem veniet primus” (“He must die, and sleep for three days. On the third day, returning from hell, he will be the first to come to the light”).

The scene itself consists of the typical three crucifixes, with Jesus between the “good thief” Dismas and the unrepentant thief, who allegedly died with his mouth open to utter a final blasphemy. The skull at the base of the Cross alludes to Golgotha (also known as Calvary), translated as “the place of the skull” and so named because it is believed to be the site where Adam is buried.

Beneath the crucifixion gather a venerable group of saints, specifically chosen for their links to either the monastic orders, Florence, or the Medici. For instance, the three figures on the far left are Saints Cosmas, Damian, and Laurence. Saints Cosmas and Damian were the patron saints of the Medici (and the namesakes of Cosimo and his twin, who died young) while Saint Laurence was Lorenzo (the elder) de’Medici’s patron saint. Next to the Medici saints are Saint Mark, the patron Saint of San Marco, and John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. While on the opposite side of the cross are the founders of the monastic orders, St. Francis, founder of the Friars Minor, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian order, John Gualberto, the Vallombrosan Order, St. Benedict, the Benedictine Order, and Romuald, the Camaldolese Order.

It would perhaps be prudent to briefly explain some of the differences between the major monastic orders here. The Friars Minor (Franciscans) is a mendicant order founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The Mendicants lived in abject poverty, surviving solely on the charity of others. Franciscan ideology was focused on mirroring Christ’s life of simplicity and devotion to service.

The Benedictine Order was founded in the 6th century by St. Benedict. The Benedictines emphasized manual labor and daily prayer, in contrast to the Dominican emphasis on preaching/teaching.

The Cistercian Order was an offshoot of the Benedictine Order, founded by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 at Citeaux Abbey, France. The Cistercians split from the Benedictines due to perceived laxity, and therefore the Cistercians tended to emphasize extreme simplicity in all things.

The Dominicans followed the rule of St. Augustine. St. Augustine, one of the most well-known of the early Church Fathers, believed that the purpose of cloistered life was to learn and study, which brought the monk closer to God, and to teach through preaching, which brought the community closer to God (thus the order’s formal name, the Order of the Preachers). The Dominican emphasis on teaching engendered the Order’s priorities: theology and intellectual study.

Simplified Structure of Dominican Order

At the bottom of the fresco are influential Dominicans starting in the center with St. Dominic, who is holding the branches of the order, which give birth to the “fruit” (i.e. the other Dominicans).

Upon close examination, each Dominican has rays emanating from his head, demonstrating that they have been blessed; although, some halos have been subsequently added to those Dominicans who have been canonized.

Buoninsegna Cicciaporci

Gruesomely martyred at Antioch via a saw to the center of the head (which he holds in his left hand while holding a palm, the symbol of martyrdom, in his right hand).

Remigio Girolami

Successor to Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris, where Aristotelianism reigned supreme. His two treatises, De Bono Communi and De Bono Pacis, emphasized the necessity of suppressing individual ambition as a means of achieving civic peace.

Nicholas of Paglia

Allegedly Nicholas joined the Order after hearing St. Dominic preach in Bologna. He served as the third prior provincial of the Roman Province.

Jordan of Saxony

Second Master General of the Order after St. Dominic.

St. Antoninus

Prior of San Marco and Archbishop of Florence.

Paul of Florence

Served as the Patriarch of Grado (the Patriarchy of Grado was incorporated into the archbishopric of Venice during the 15th century).

Hugh of Saint-Cher

The first Dominican cardinal.

Pope Innocent V

The first Dominican pope.

St. Dominic

Founder of the Order.

Pope Benedict XI

Served as Master General prior to becoming Cardinal, then Pope.

Cardinal John Dominici of Florence

Selected by Pope Gregory XII to represent him at the Council of Constance, the Council that ended the Western Schism.

Pietro della Palude (aka Peter Paludanus)

Served as Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Albert the Great

Served as Bishop of Ratisbon, taught and befriended St. Thomas Aquinas, and established the study of nature as a recognized science within the Christian tradition. Thus, he is the patron saint of those who study the natural sciences.

Raymond of Peñafort

Canonized in 1601 and known for the codification of canon law, which was promulgated in 1234.

Chiarito da Sesto

Served as the first Prior Provincial of the Roman Province.

Vincent Ferrer of Valencia

Helped end the Western Schism by persuading King Ferdinand I of Aragon to withdraw his support of Benedict XIII. He is also well known for his conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity, although there are contradictory accounts (some rather damning) as to the means he used to do so. He was canonized in 1455.

Bernard of Florence

Martyred.

Vestibule

The Good Samaritan (Iacopo Vignali)

Vignali’s The Good Samaritan hung in the monastery’s Antica Spezieria (Old Apothecary). The Antica Spezieria, founded by St. Antoninus, was famous for its medicines, which were sold to finance the maintenance of the monastery. This painting, dated to around 1630, is believed to have been a gift for the medicines produced during successive waves of plague in the early 17th century.