Museo di San Marco ☆☆

"Communion with the Apostles" (1440–42) by Fra Angelico in Cell No. 35, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
'Communion with the Apostles' (1440–02) by Fra Angelico in Cell No. 35

San Marco is a Renaissance monastery frescoed by the angelic Fra' Angelico and haunted by the memories of the demonic "Mad Monk" Savonarola

This gorgeous monastery—designed by the premier early Renaissance architect Michelozzo in 1436–46 for his patron, Cosimo Il Vecchio de' Medici, who would come here on soul-searching retreats—is renowned for two famous former residents, one saintly, the other...not so much.

Many of the walls—of the public rooms, the cloisters, and even individual monks' cells—were decorated by the monastery's most illustrious resident, the brilliant Renaissance monk and painter Fra' Angelico.

The "Angelic Brother"—born Guido di Pietro in the hills near Florence—is actually known to more Italians by his honorific title, Beato Angelico (beatification is one step below sainthood, and quite an honor for a man who had no miracles to his credit and was famed only for his skills as an artist—though possessing a serenely pious and humble temperament didn't hurt).

Downstairs

One of Fra' Angelico's master works, an amazing Crucifixion, fills one wall of the Chapter House. He also frescoed the corners of the Cloisters of S. Antonio.

The monastery has spent the past century gathering more of the artist's works (and those of some contemporaries), which are now displayed in a small museum in the old Pilgrim's Hospice downstairs

It's not an Angelico, but also downstairs don't miss the Small Refectory (dining room), on the wall of which, in keeping with tradition, Renaissance great Domenico Ghirlandaio painted a scene of the Cenacolo (Last Supper).

The Dormitorio

Upstairs in the dormitory is where San Marco really shines.

As you reach the top of the stairs to San Marco's star sight, the Dormitory of monks' cells, you'll see above you Fra' Angelico's Annunciation, one of his most famous works.

At the top of the stairs are two hallways: one leading off the right, the other stretching directly before you. Go straight first.

Fra' Angelico himself frescoed the Madonna Enthroned with Saints on the right wall, and all but the second of the cells down the left side of the hall (cells no. 1-11)—though an assistant might have done Madonna and Child in cell no. 11.

Assistants also frescoed the scenes in the cells on the right side of the hall (nos. 23–29).

At the end of this hall, turn right but not before popping into cell no. 22(on the corner on the right) to see, under glass, the remains—complete with a bit of 13th century fresco—of the earlier convent upon which Michelozzo built this version.

Halfway down this side hall on the right is cell no. 17, which also contains some fragments of paintings from the earlier convent. These images—probably of San Antonio Abate and the convent's founder, Silvestro Gozzolini—were painted sometime between 1290 and 1310 and are among the oldest surviving frescoes in Florence.

At the end of this corridor is a suite of cells (nos. 12–14) that were once occupied by Fra' Girolamo Savonarola from Ferrara (decorated with a few portraits of him by another resident monk, and Savonarola acolyte, Fra' Bartolomeo.)

Known (later) as the Mad Monk, iron-fisted Savonarola commanded his short-lived theocratic rule over Florence from this modest suite of cells. This chapter of Florentine history is so odd and so compelling, Savonarola gets his very own page describing his autocratic reign of theological terror.

(To encourage you to click and read more about Savonarola, I offer this juicy tidbit: in the suite of cells are some of the furniture, Crucifix, etc. that actually belonged to the Mad Monk—including the uncomfortable little three-legged, hard-backed stools that have since been named after him. There's also a small, anonymous painting that is a kind of aerial view of Piazza della Signoria. Look more closely at it. In the center of the piazza is a bonfire. Atop that bonfire is Savonarola.) » more

Retracing your steps to the top of the stairs, turn left down the final corridor, the cells again frescoed mostly by Fra' Angelico' assistants.

At the end of the corridor, to the right, is another tiny suite of cells—this time decorated with an Adoration of the Magi by Fra' Angelico's star pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli.

These two rooms were the once set aside for Cosimo Il Vecchio and his frequent contemplative retreats into the monastery he financed.

The Library

Returning back up this corridor to the stairs, look to the left halfway along to see the beautiful Michelozzo-designed Library stretching off into the distance. This was a favored place for Lorenzo de' Medici and his humanist friends to meet, consult ancient texts, and philosophize.

When it's open, you can wander amid the columns and peruse glass tables filled with gorgeous medieval illuminated manuscripts. Most of these came from convents and churches that were suppressed in the 19th century (thanks, Napoleon).

Unfortunately, little of the library's original collection remains—another victim of those 19th century suppressions. I point this out since it is heartbreaking to think about it in light of the following fact: this collection, in this space, constituted Europe's very first public library.

The attached Church of San Marco

The church itself is no great shakes—dark and moody, with only a few minor works.

It was redesigned by Giambologna, and contains some decent works by his late Renaissance contemporaries, like Alessandro Allori and Il Passignano.

There are also a few nice pieces by Fra' Bartolomeo (don't hold the Savonarola connection against the poor guy; Botticelli became a fervent Savonarola-follower, too) and a cool 8th century mosaic of the Madonna Praying from Constantinople (look closely: you can see the seam where they cut it in half to transport it over here).

In 1984, the church—perhaps embarrassed not to have anything by its most famous one-time resident—placed a small Fra' Angelico Crucifix above the altar.

Photo gallery
  • The church and monastery of San Marco, Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • Cell no. 7 frescoed with an amazingly modern
  • Monk
  • Cell no. 1 frescoed with a
  • Cell no. 2 frescoed with a
  • Cell no. 3 frescoed with an
  • Cell no. 5 frescoed with an
  • Cell no. 6 frescoed with a
  • Cell no. 8 frescoed with a
  • Cell no. 9 frescoed with a
  • Cell no. 10 frescoed with a
  • , Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Nave of the Basilica di San Marco, Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo by Mentnafunangann)
  • Nave ceiling of the Basilica di San Marco, Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo by Txllxt TxllxT)
  • The Cappella Serragli in the Basilica di San Marco, Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo by Sailko)
  • A terracotta
  • The organ in the Basilica di San Marco, Museo di San Marco, Italy (Photo by Jebulon)
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Tips

Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

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How long does Museo San Marco take?

Give it about 1 hour—there are lots of frescoed cells to wander in and out of, plus the rooms filled with paintings, and you should take some time to pop into the conventual church next-door.

The ticket office closes 30 minutes before the museum.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).