Prendendo spunto dall'articolo di blog dedicato a Firenze di Sarah White di Art Escape Italy, in cui Sarah giustamente suggerisce di visitare il Museo del Bargello, ecco un'altro museo assolutamente da visitare a Firenze, il Museo del Monastero di San Marco, famoso per la serie straordinaria di affreschi delle Storie di Cristo del Beato Angelico dipinte tra il 1442 e il 1445. Ecco come la guida Time Out Florence e il bel libro di Judith Testa, An Art Lover's Guide to Florence, descrivono il museo:
Museo di San Marco
Piazza San Marco 1 (055 2388608, www.polomuseale.firenze.it). Open 8.15am-1.50pm Tue-Fri, 1st. 3rd & 5th Mon of mth; 8.15am-4.50pm Sat, 2nd & 4th Sun of mth. Admission €4. No credit cards.
The Museo di San Marco is not only a fascinating coming-together of religion and history, but a wonderful place to rest and take in the general splendour. Housed in the monastery where he lived with his fellow monks, the museum is largely dedicated to the ethereal paintings of Fra Angelico (aka Beat Angelico), one of the most important spiritual artists of the 15th century. a man who would never lift a brush without a prayer and who wept whenever he painted a crucifixion. You're greeted on the first floor by one of the most famous images in Christendom, an other-wordly Annunciation, but the images Fra Angelico and his assistants frescoed on the walls of the monks' white vaulted cells are almost as impressive. Particularly outstanding are the lyrical Noli Me Tangere, which depicts Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in a field of flowers, and the surreal Mocking of Christ, in which Christ's torturers are represented simply by relevant fragments of their anatomy (a hand holding a whip, a face spitting).
The cell that was later occupied by Fra Girolamo Savanarola is adorned with portraits of the rabid reformer by Fra Bartolomeo. You can also see his black wool cloak and his cilith, which was tied around the thigh to cause constant pain in reminder of the suffering of Christ. Near the cells reserved specially for Cosimo de' Medici is the beautiful library designed by his favourite architect, Michelozzo, in 1441.
On the ground floor, in the Ospizio dei Pellegrini (pilgrims' hospice), are more works by Fra Angelico. The Tabernacle of the Madonna dei Linuaiuoli, his first commission from 1433 for the guild of linen makers, is here - painted on wood carved by Ghiberti, it contains some of his best-known images: the multi-coloured musical angels. You can also see a superb Deposition and a Last Judgement. The small refectory is dominated by a Ghirlandaio Last Supper (1479-80) in which the disciples pick at a repast of bread, wine and cherries against a symbolic background of orange trees, a peacock, a Burmese cat and flying ducks.
Time Out Florence (pp. 80-81; 2011)
The Monastery of San Marco
Piety and Politics in a Cloistered World
Few places in Florence seem more distant from the concerns, pressures, and values of the secular world than the Dominican monastery of San Marco. Although its exterior is undistinguished and it faces a busy piazza that swarms with cars, buses, pedestrians, and students from the nearby art academy on bicycles, the interior is one of the city's most serenely beautiful spaces. Constructed on harmonious lines and filled with luminous, deeply spiritual frescoes painted by Fra Angelico and his assistants, San Marco still offers a tranquil retreat from the stresses of urban life. But for all the seeming otherworldliness of its monastic ideals, continued by the
present-day Dominicans who still occupy a portion of the complex, both the circumstances surrounding the construction of San Marco and many of the paintings that filI its interior have connections with Florence's political life. This monument to Dominican piety is also a monument to the power of the Medici family.
Inside, San Marco looks much as it did in the 1400s. The public entrance leads to the main cloister, a spacious open square, with white stucco walls behind an arcade whose arches spring from columns of the gray-brown local stone known as pietra serena (serene stone). The cloister grounds are carpeted in grass and contain stately cypress trees - a perfect place for visitors to sit for a while in the shade. The interior hasn't changed a great deal, either. The whitewashed walls punctuated here and there with Angelico's exquisite frescoes, the chapter room, the grand staircase, the high-ceilinged corridors leading to three separate dormitories (one for novices, one for professed clerics, one for lay brothers), with each cell containing a devotional image painted or planned by Fra Angelico, are all still there, with the recently restored wall paintings looking as fresh as the day they were completed.
But cloistered serenity can be deceiving. San Marco had a complicated and turbulent beginning that involved a good deal of what we'd call "politicking". The site originally held a monastery occupied by an order of Silvestrine monks, and if we can believe the Dominicans who wanted the land and buildings, the Silvestrines had allowed their property to fall into a scandalous state of disrepair, while the monks there were living dissolute, unchaste lives. As early as 1418 the Dominicans petitioned Pope Martin V to expel the Silvestrines and turn the property over to them, but their pleas brought no results.
Meanwhile, in the same neighborhood, the Medici familywas accumulating money, prestige, and political power, their road to riches launched in the early 1400s by the transfer of lucrative papal accounts to the Medici bank. By the early 1430s Cosimo de' Medici had become such a powerful figure in Florence that his position aroused the envy of his rivals, who had him exiled in 1433. When he returned triumphant a year later, and the Medici again established their political ascendancy over Florentine life, the Dominicans found their perfect patron in Cosimo. The wealthiest and most powerful man in Florence was ready to embark on a generous program of religious philanthropy.
Despite his worldly nature, Cosimo also had a spiritual side, and he was attracted by the austere life of the Observant Dominicans, who followed a more rigorous observance of St. Dominic's Rule than the rest of the order. Having learned that a group of Observants from a Dominican house in nearby Fiesole wanted to take over the Silvestrine convent in Florence, he put his considerable influence behind their efforts. When the new pope Eugenius IV was in Florence in 1435, at the request of Cosimo de' Medici and his brother Lorenzo the pope reopened the debate concerning the Silvestrines and ordered an investigation into that order's behavior at San Marco. To the dismay of the Dominicans and the Medici brothers, the papal commission concluded that the accusations against the Silvestrines were unfounded.
This put the pope in a difficult position. He didn't want to disappoint the Medici, who constituted the most important political power in Florence, or the Observant Dominicans, who were strong supporters of his papacy, so he compromised by granting the Observants a small church on the far side of the Arno, a decision that didn't satisfy anybody. The Medici brothers then persuaded the Signoria, the governing body ofFlorence over which they exercised a significant degree of control, to petition Eugenius IV to give the little church on the other side of the Arno to the Silvestrines and the convent of San Marco to the Dominican Observants.
The Medici had maneuvered the pope into a position where he had little choice but to do their bidding. If he left the Silvestrines at San Marco, he'd displease both the powerful Medici and the Florentine populace who supported them, and he'd be seen as allowing the convent to fall to ruin. On the other hand, if he granted San Marco to the Dominicans, he not only would satisfy a religious order that supported papal authority, he'd also gain the approval of the Florentines and please the Medici, whose support he needed, and who had declared themselves ready to finance the rebuilding of the convent. The Medici were, furthermore, the generous hosts of the pope who at that time was living in Florence, and in Rome they were bankers to the papal curia and thus to the pope himself. At this point it no longer mattered whether the luckless Silvestrines were as bad as the Dominicans claimed they were: this was an instance where financial and political considerations trumped religious ones. As of January 1436, the Silvestrines were out of San Marco and the Observant Dominicans were in.
Work began that same year on the rebuilding of San Marco, under the direction of Michelozzo, a favorite Medici architect, with funds coming directly from Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici. According to the official Cronaca, the chronicle of the monastery, construction proceeded with such speed that by 1443 the convent was ready to be occupied. We don't know precisely when Fra Angelico and his assistants began painting the more than fiffty frescoes that cover many of the wall surfaces inside San Marco, but a date of around 1440 seems likely.
Fra Angelico remains one of the most beloved of Italian Renaissance painters, an artist known for his gentle, ethereal depictions of angels, saints, and the Holy Family. Perhaps because of his later nickname (he wasnt called Angelico in his lifetime), the tendency persists to see him as literally angelic, rather than as a talented and devout monk, and also a practical man. He was already well into adulthood and a successful, widely known painter before he discovered his religious vocation and entered the Dominican order around 1420. He is first recorded as a friar at the Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1423, where he became known as Fra Giovanni. The initial mention of him residing at San Marco, the convent so closely associated with his name, occurs in 1441, a move probably dictated by his responsibilities as the artist in charge of producing the paintings for the convent's interior.
Although modern scholars love to posit the existence of a "theological advisor" to artists involved in creating large programs of religious subjects (a learned individual who dictates to the artist what he should portray), there's no need for any such figure with regard to Fra Angelico. He was a fully professed member of the Dominican order, familiar with theology as well as with the order's Rule, so the prior of the convent must have given him a relatively free hand. The artist may have consulted with the prior, and perhaps also with his fellow monks, in choosing the subjects to be portrayed, but there's no comprehensive program to the frescoes at San Marco, beyond their fidelity to Observant Dominican traditions, and an important subtheme of homage to the convent's benefactors, the Medici.
Angelico's frescoes - beautiful as they may be - were not intended as decoration but more as aids to meditation and prayer. In the case of the frescoes in the individual monks' cells, that prayer and meditation would be private, but in all but one of the instances where the frescoes adorn the public spaces of the convent - the hallways, the chapter room where the convent conducted its daily business, and the church -those communal prayers took place before images that brought to mind the Medici.
The answer to the question of how Fra Angelico referred to the convent's secular patrons in religious paintings without disturbing the spiritual balance of those works becomes clear when the viewer identifies the saints portrayed in the paintings. On the back wall of the chapter room Angelico painted a large Crucifixion with several unique features that pertain both to the Observant allegiance of the San Marco community and to their debt to their Medici patrons. As we'd expect, St. Dominic has a prominent place, kneeling in prayer at the right of the Cross. Beyond him on the right is a group of monastic figures, most of them not Dominicans - instead, they're the founders of especially rigorous forms of monastic life of the kind led by the Observant Dominicans. On the left Angelico placed St. Cosmas and St. Damian and, to their right, St. Lawrence and St. Mark, none of them often portrayed in Crucifixion scenes. But there's logic to their presence here. St. Mark is the convent's patron saint, and the others are Medici patron saints: Cosmas and Damian were the particular protectors of Cosimo, and St. Lawrence of Cosimo's brother Lorenzo. Since the chapter room was central to the life of the convent, the site where the entire community met every morning, the monks had daily reminders of Medici patronage before their eyes.
Similar reminders occur in a fresco in the east corridor, the location of the friars' dormitories. An image of the Madonna and Child with eight saints, the work is surprisingly sumptuous. The figures stand before a wall adorned with classical-style pilasters, and the Virgin and Child are seated on a throne-like bench covered with a richly brocaded cloth. The painting also includes saints flanking the Virgin's throne. There are several expected figures: the convent patron, St. Mark, and the order's founder, St. Dominic, as well as the Dominicans'greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. But here, as in the fresco in the chapter room, the other saints all have Medici connections. Cosmas, Damian, and Lawrence appear again, this time joined by St. Peter Martyr, probably to honor Cosimo's son Piero, and St. John the Evangelist, the patron saint of Cosimo and Lorenzo's father, Giovanni, and of Cosimo's son of the same name. Through this work, three generations of Medici men would be remembered in the friars' prayers every morning when they grouped around the painting.
We might wonder what Fra Angelico, himself an Observant Dominican, thought of this luxurious image occupying such a highly visible place in the convent. A subtle clue appears in the text readable in a book held open by St. Dominic, who stands on the far left. The inscription begins with a customary command of that saint: "Have charity, preserve humility, possess voluntary poverty." But the text continues with some unexpected words: "I invoke God's curse and mine on the introduction of possessions into this Order." It is difficult to imagine that either the prior, who had accepted Medici money on behalf of the convent, or Cosimo and Lorenzo de' Medici, who provided the money, would have wanted such a statement included in the fresco. Perhaps smuggling it into this painting, whose luxurious setting suggests the "possessions" that St. Dominic warned against, was Angelico's own idea, a small, nearly unnoticeable protest against the Medici largesse that had rescued the convent from ruin, but perhaps at the price of compromising Observant ideals.
The frescoes in the monks' cells are quite different from these public expressions of gratitude to the convent's patrons. All the subjects are drawn from the life of Christ or Mary, the two great objects of Dominican devotion, and all are painted in an austere style, with no references to the Medici. Among the most characteristic is the Annunciation, in Cell 3. The composition is severe and simple - Mary occupies a room as plain as the Dominican cell in which the fresco is painted. A small, paper-thin figure in a pale pink garment, Mary seems to huddle against the wall rather than kneel on the bench in front of her, the very emblem of humility and supreme obedience to the will of God, virtues every Dominican strove to emulate. The Angel Gabriel stands looking down at her, an unusual arrangement, as Mary is almost always shown at a higher level than the angel. Between them is empty space that's not, on closer inspection, empty at all, but full of a radiant light that powerfully suggests the miracle taking place there.
Just outside the loggia where Mary receives the angel stands a Dominican monk in an attitude of prayer - another exemplar for the monk whose cell contained the painting. Many of the paintings in the monks' cells show a similar figure accompanying the biblical scene. These witnesses to the religious narratives may be reflections of the Observant Dominicans' close attention to a widely circulated thirteenth-century Dominican treatise on prayer, De modo orandi, which offered instruction on the proper way for Dominican monks to commune with the divine.
The monks' cells were more than a place to sleep - they were also used for prayer, meditation, study, and preparations for preaching, the latter among the most important duties of Dominican friars. The Dominicans appear to have invented the use of private cells for individual monks, rather than having a single, large dormitory for all the monks, a space used only for sleeping. The prior and members of the San Marco community must have believed that paintings in the monks' cells would play an important role in their devotional lives. Although we have no information about how the subjects were distributed, it would be reasonable to think that those original, fortunate friars who were Angelico's fellow Observant Dominicans each chose a favorite theme for his cell, and Angelico provided it. The decision to decorate each cell in a monastic dormitory with a fresco had never before been considered by any other Dominican convent, or by any other religious order, a fact that makes Angelico's frescoes even more extraordinary.
Although no references to the Medici intrude on the friars in their personal cells, Cosimo de' Medici was nonetheless a presence at the convent. He had his own quarters, reserved for his use whenever he wanted to spend time praying and meditating or merely retreating there to escape the pressures of his life. This was a most unusual privilege, granted only to royalty in places other than Italy, and only one Florentine before Cosimo had enjoyed a private space in a religious institution. Well aware of this, Cosimo made sure his quarters were modest - two interconnected cells (numbers 38 and 39) on the north corridor where the lay brothers lived, so his presence would not interrupt or interfere with the lives of the Dominican clerics.
Although there's nothing luxurious about Cosimo's quarters, the paintings in them make clear references to the Medici. The first of Cosimo's cells (number 38) has a Crucifixion painted on its wall, quite similar to others in the convent, but with unique features that associate it with the Medici family. In addition to the customary figures of the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist, St. Cosmas and St. Peter Martyr kneel at the foot of the Cross - the patron saints of Cosimo and his son Piero. John the Evangelist does double duty, both as a traditional figure and as the patron saint of Cosimo's younger son and his father, both named Giovanni.
The second cell (number 39) is somewhat larger and, with a vaulted ceiling, may have been Cosimo's private oratory, a miniature chapel. Against the back of a small, arched niche in the center of the north wall is a painting of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. This niche may have held the Sacrament, which by papal decree Cosimo was allowed to have in his chapel. On the wall above, and rising to the vaulting, is a large, detailed painting of the Adoration of the Magi. This subject was especially popular with the Medici, since the precious gifts given by the Magi to the Infant Jesus legitimized the serving and glorifying of God through liberal giving in the cause of faith. The artist -most probably Angelico's chief assistant, Benozzo Gozzoli - later painted a brilliant and much more elaborate version of the subject on the walls of the chapel in the Medici Palace, which Cosimo began building shortly after the dedication of San Marco in 1443.
Although the Magi themselves are not saints, the Florentines celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) with elaborate pageantry, and the Medici regarded the Three Kings as their special patrons. The men of the family took an active part in the Confraternity of the Magi, and the city's annual Magi Procession on ]anuary 6, which began at the cathedral and ended at San Marco, was an occasion when Medici power was much in evidence. The inclusion of Orientals and Africans in the entourage of the Magi in the San Marco fresco may be a reference to the Church Council that took place in 1439 in Florence (thanks to Cosimo's success in having it moved there from Ferrara), and which attempted to reconcile the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The presence of the Adoration in Cosimo's cell can therefore be seen as an expression of the seamless blending of politics and religion the Medici were so accomplished at sponsoring.
There's one more painting by Fra Angelico at San Marco where the Medici are much in evidence: the panel that once adorned the high altar of the convent church. No longer in the church, the painting is now displayed in the Museo di San Marco, located in what used to be the convent's guest quarters, just to the right of the entrance. Along with many other paintings by Fra Angelico, brought there from churches and convents in and around Florence, we find what once must have been a spectacular work of art now severely damaged by a disastrous nineteenth-century cleaning with caustic soda. Despite its sad state, the altarpiece is worth examining both for its unusual formal qualities and for its connections with the Medici.
The San Marco altarpiece displays a traditional subject, the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints and angels, but that's its only traditional aspect. The more conservative friars at San Marco may have been startled, perhaps even disapproving, of an altarpiece with no gold ground behind the sacred figures to suggest heaven, no disparity of scale to make the Virgin and Child larger than the other figures, and most surprising of all, an entire sacred scene set in a realistic environment with a convincing sense of three-dimensional space. At bottom center there appears to be a small panel of the Crucifixion overlapping the painting, but this is an ingenious illusion - a painting within a painting - that's meant to be understood as vertical, in contrast to the flat floor that extends behind it.
The composition is designed so that the viewer seems to look down on the richly patterned carpet that leads up to the steps of the Virgin's throne. On this carpet the artist has arranged with great care a group of eight saints. Closest to the Virgin and Child are St. Mark (on our left), the patron saint of the church and convent, and on our right, St. Dominic. Once again, the rest of the saints refer to the Medici. St. John the Evangelist, patron of Cosimo's father and son, stands next to St. Mark. Next to St. Dominic is Francis of Assisi, a surprising inclusion in a Dominican altarpiece, but understandable because he and the third monastic saint on the right, Peter Martyr, were the co-patrons of Cosimo's elder son, Piero. St. Lawrence, patron of Cosimo's brother Lorenzo, who had died in 1440, is farthest from the Virgin on the left. Cosimo's own patron saints, Cosmas and Damian (seeming larger than the others because of their placement), kneel in the foreground. Cosmas, on the left, turns and looks out toward the viewer, indicating the Virgin and Child with his right hand, while Damian remains in adoration. Like a pair of pillars, the two Medici saints literally support the scene, just as the Medici brothers supported the Dominican convent and its church.
The face of St. Cosmas is so strongly individual that some scholars have claimed it's a portrait of Cosimo de' Medici. This is unlikely, since the features bear no resemblance to portraits of Cosimo, but the sad, haggard visage is unlike any other painted by Fra Angelico. A further unusual feature is the saint's contemporary Florentine clothing, which is distinct from the tunics and toga-like garments worn by the other saints on the left side of the painting. His flat red hat is equally unique. What remains indisputable is that the name saint of Cosimo de' Medici quickly attracts the viewer's attention, and that the saint then directs our attention to the Virgin and Child. By this means, the artist links the patron's benevolence with the hoped-for benevolence of the Mother of God, which would include both the Medici and the monastery. This emphasis on Cosimo's patron saint-and, by extension, the donor family-must have been a deliberate decision by Fra Angelico, the artist's and the community's response to the new political realities of Florence under the indirect but unmistakable rule of Cosimo de' Medici.
The support offered by Cosimo to San Marco was unprecedented in both its scope and its duration. For one family and, after the death of Cosimo's brother Lorenzo, one man to sponsor a project as extensive as the rebuilding and decorating of San Marco, was extraordinary enough, but Cosimo also pledged continuing support to the community. Every week until his death in 1464 he ordered generous amounts of food for the convent; he allocated money for things as disparate as wood, salt, footwear, and medicines; from time to time he provided money for the purchase of feathers, linen, and cotton for pillows and beds, and fabric for the making of habits; for festivals he gave money for candle wax; and he was always willing to pay for any books needed by the monks for their studies.
Cosimo's motives for such largesse have been much discussed by historians. Vespasiano da Bisticci, Cosimo's contemporary and earliest biographer, suggested that the Medici patriarch financed the rebuilding of San Marco and many other projects to atone for his guilt about usury - lending money at interest - as this was considered a sin by the Church. But there must have been other reasons for Cosimo's patronage, among them both sincere piety and sound political judgment. To sponsor the construction of fine, beautifully decorated buildings intended to honor God was a civic virtue as well as a religious one, an act of generosity and benevolence that brought credit both to himself and to his city. San Marco, so little changed since the 1400s, is a site where this subtle interrelationship of politics, religion, and art remains on full display.
An Art Lover's Guide to Florence - Judith Testa (pp.119 - 128; Northern Illinois University Press; 2012)
Ecco come Tim Parks spiega, nel suo bel libro, Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence, il ruolo di mecenate di Cosimo de' Medici nella ristrutturazione del Monastero di San Marco:
But contradictions, of course, were there to be overcome. That had always been Cosimo's attitude. And when it came to the conflicting claims of Christian devotion and secular fame, the most effective way to resolve the problem, as Cosimo had learned from the commissioning of Giovanni XXIII's tomb, was through art and architecture. "I know the Florentines," Cosimo told his bookseller and later biographer, vespasiano da Bisticci. "Before fifty years are up we'll be expelled, but my buildings will remain." Most of those buildings were religious. You lavished money on the sacred, to gain earthly fame. And a place in heaven. Apparently you could have your cake and eat it too. Or have your wife drunk and the wine keg full, as the Italians say.
Having "accumulated quite a bit on his conscience," Vespasiano tells us, "as most men do who govern states and want to be ahead of the rest," Cosimo consulted his bank's client, Pope Eugenius, conveniently present in Florence (hence more or less under Cosimo's protection) as to how God might "have mercy on him, and preserve him in the enjoyment of his temporal goods." This was shortly after his return from exile.
Spend 10,000 florins restoring the Monastery of San Marco, Eugenius replied. lt was the kind of capital required to set up a bank.
The monastery, however - a large, rambling, and crumbling structure within two minutes' walk of both the duomo and, Cosimo's home - was presently run by a bunch of second-rate monks of the Silvestrine order reported as living "without poverty and without chastity". Unforgivable. I'll spend the money if you get rid of the Silvestrines and replace them with the Dominicans, Cosimo said. Those severe Dominicans! Only the prayers of men whose very identity was grounded in poverty and purity could be of use to a banker with an illegitimate child.
This was 1436, the year pope Eugenius reconsecrated the duomo upon the completion, after more than fifteen years' work, of Brunelleschi's huge dome. With a diameter of 138 feet, the dome was the most considerable feat of architectural engineering for many hundreds of years. Its red tiles rose even higher than the white marble of Giotto's slender ornamental tower beside the cathedral's main entrance, and the two together completely dominated the skyline of the town in yet another ambiguous combination of local civic pride and devotion to faith. The Florentines, in fact, had for years been anxious that the dome would collapse, thereby inviting the ridicule rather than admiration of their neighbors.
On the occasion of the consecration, Cosimo bargained publicly with Eugenius to get an increase in the indulgence that the Church was handing out to all those who attended the ceremony. The pope gave away: ten years off purgatory instead of six. It cost no one anything and brought both banker and religious leader great popularity. On the matter of San Marco, the pope again proved flexible. The Silvestrines were evicted. The rigid Dominicans were moved in from Fiesole. Their leader at the time was Antonino, later Archbishop Antonino, a priest with a streak of fundamentalism about him. What would our Saint Dominic think, he wrote after the expensive renovation was complete, if he saw the houses and cells of his order "enlarged, vaulted, raised to the sky and most frivolously, adorned with superfluous sculptures and paintings"?
But this fundamentalism was indeed only a streak - only a would-be severity if you like - otherwise the priest could hardly have worked together with the banker for as long as he did. For the story of Cosimo's relationship with Antonino, who oversaw the lavish San Marco renovation project and then became head of the Florentine church for most of Cosimo's period of power is the story of the Church's uneasy accommodation with patronage of dubious origin. "True charity, should be anonymous," Giovanni Dominici, founder of the Dominicans, had insisted. "Take heed," Jesus says, "that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." The position is clear: no earthly honor through Christian patronage. But Antonino and Cosimo were both sufficiently intelligent to preserve those blind spots that allow for some useful exchange between metaphysics and money: in the ambiguous territory of art. In return for his cash, the banker would be allowed to display his piety and power. And superior aesthetic taste. The Church would pretend that all this beauty was exclusively for the glory of God, as it readily pretended that the building of the duomo's cupola had nothing to do with Brunelleschi's megalomania. Without such dishonesty, the world would be a duller place.
Mchelozzo, more than ever Cosimo's personal friend after sharing his period of exile, was the architect. The monks' cells would be suitably austere. The library, with its rows of slim columns supporting clean white vaults, was a miracle of grace and light. Cosimo donated the books. Many were copied specifically for the purpose. Many were beautifully illuminated. The main artist in the project was Fra Angelico, otherwise known us Beato Angeiico, a man who wept as he painted the crucifixions in all the novices' cells. Quarrel with that if you will. Antonino insisted on crucifixions, especially for novices. The true purpose of art is to allow the Christian to contemplate Christ's agony in every awful detail. But at the top of the stairs leading to those cold cells, Angelico's Annunciation presents two sublimely feminine figures generously dressed as if by Florence's best tailors. And in the church below, the monastery's main altarpiece , The Coronation of the Virgin, shows just how far Cosimo has come since the tomb of Giovanni XXIII.
Holding her unexpected child, the Virgin sits crowned with banker's gold in a strangely artificial space, as if her throne were on a stage, but open to trees behind. It was the kind of scene the city's confraternities liked to set up for their celebrations, funded of course by benefactors such as the Medici. Aside from San Marco and San Domenico (patron saints of the monastery and of its nerwly incumbent order), the figures grouped around the Holy Mother are all Medici name-saints: San Lorenzo, for Cosimo's brother, who had recently died; San Giovanni and San Pietro for Cosimo's sons. Kneeling at the front of the picture, in the finest crimson gowns of the Florentine well-to-do , are San Cosma and San Damiano. Cosma on the left, wearing the same red cap that Cosimo prefers, turns the most doleful and supplicating face to the viewer, the Florentine congregation. Apparently he mediates between the people and the Divine, as Cosimo himself had done the day he got the pope to hand out ten years' worth of indulgences instead of six. Damiano instead has his back to us and seems to hold the Virgin's eyes.
In later years, other managers of the Medici bank - Francesco Sassetti, Tommaso Portinari, Giovanni Tornabuoni - would have themselves introduced directly into biblical scenes. Solemn in senatorial Roman robes as they gazed on the holy mysteries, they showed that at least in art there need be no contradiction between classical republic and city of God, between banker and beatitude. Cosimo had more tact. He appeared only by proxy, in his patron saint. Or saints. For he never forgot to include brother Damiano, perhaps half hidden by Cosma's body turned toward the Virgin, or the crucifixion, as if half of the living Cosimo were already beyond this earth, in heaven, with his dead twin brother. No doubt this generated a certain pathos. "Cosimo was always in a hurry to have his commissions finished," said Vespasiano da Bisticci, "because with his gout he feared he would die young." He was in a hurry to finish San Marco, in a hurry to finish the huge renovation of his local church, San Lorenzo, then the beautiful Badia di Fiesole, the Santissima Annunziata, and many others as the years and decades flew by, including the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Ever in a hurry he grew old fearing he would die young. Perhaps it was this that made him such a master of the ad hoc.
When the restoration of San Marco was finally finished in 1443, Pope Eugenius, now with his bags packed ready to return to a pacified Rome, agreed that the church should be reconsecrated under the name San Marco, San Cosma, and San Dami- ano. So Cosimo reminded everyone of his part in the project, but unobtrusively, as with the Good Men of San Martino. Not for him the gesture of the banker Giovanni Rucellai, who advertised his personal patronage by having his name written in yard-high letters right across the façade of Santa Maria Novella. All the same, an
attentive observer would have noticed, in that San Marco altarpiece, a line of red balls around the lovely carpet on which the family name-saints knelt before the gorgeous Virgin. Were they really the red balls of the Medici family emblem? There were no Last Judgments in Cosimo's San Marco. Discreetly, head bowed and cap in hand, the profane invaded the sacred space and made it comfortable.
Cosimo practiced the banker's art of unobtrusive proximity. It wasn't enough that men dedicated to poverty had accepted his money and its role in their scheme of things, thus giving tacit approval to his business practices; they must also admit him right into their community, accept that he was one of them. So he had a cell built for himself beside the monks' cells. Except that Cosimo's cell had two rooms. It was larger and pleasanter. Over the door, engraved in stone, were the words of the papal bull that granted him absolution from all sins in return for his expenses. Few eyes would see this, but Cosimo wanted it written down, indelibly, like a bank contract that only the interested parties need consult. "Never shall I be able to give God enough to set him down in my books as a debtor" he remarked humbly of his huge outlay for San Marco. Yet clearly that was the kind of relationship he would have preferred.
Opposite the door of the first room of Cosimo's cell, or a wall that novices might glimpse as they walked along the corridor, was one of Fra Angelico's crucifixions. How could the monks not approve? But in the larger, private cell behind, with more expensive paints and stronger colors, Cosimo had the younger, more cheerful artist, Benozzo Gozzoli, assist Angelico in painting a procession of the Magi. It was Cosimo's favorite biblical theme. He would be responsible for at least half a dozen such pictures in his lifetime. All in bright colors. Fifteen years after San Marco, around three walls of the tiny chapel in the heart of his great palazzo, he and his son Piero had the same Gozzoli paint a lavish Magi procession in which, for the few who penetrated that sanctum, Cosimo himself at last appeared in person, riding on a mule behind the youngest of the three Magi. Common to many of the Florentine elite, the Magi obsession is easily explained. What other positive images of rich and powerful men did the New Testament offer?
Cosimo's extension of his Church patronage beyond his own neighborhood and eventually all over town, the numerous depictions of Saints Cosma and Damiano, the raising of the Medici arms, the red balls on a golden field, in one sacred place after another - all this has been read, rightly no doubt, as the symbolism of political ambition. Certainly it caused resentment among those who felt their territory had been invaded, those exiles who lost their family chapels to members of the Medici clan.
Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence - Tim Parks (pp. 121 - 130; Profile Books; 2005)
Ed ecco due video in cui Andrew Graham-Dixon e Alberto Angela visitano il Monastero di San Marco a Firenze:
E, per finire, ecco un documentario su Fra Angelico del 1998:
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