Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Il Beato Angelico

Saint Peter of Verona was a Dominican friar and evangelist who traveled throughout Italy in the first half of the 13th century, denouncing heresy and railing against people who professed to be Catholics but who did not live up to their faith in their daily lives. He was killed by an assassin who split his head in two with a large sharp object (an ax or a sword; pictorial representations differ) but St. Peter had enough time to write out "Credo in unum Deum" with the blood streaming from his wound before he went to his final reward. He was canonized less than a year later, in 1253.

Almost two hundred years afterwards, the Dominican monks from nearby Fiesole came down from the hills and took over the 12th-century monastery now known as the Museo di San Marco, where they stayed and prayed (Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, factorem caeli et terræ, visibílium ómnium et invisibílium) and worked until the 19th century. Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici, the first Grand Duke of the Medici rule of Florence, refurbished the convent for the monks, including a cell where he would go on regular personal retreats (as they say at Breitenbush). He was also a patron of the arts, and sponsored the architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, who did much of the reconstruction of the monastery of San Marco; the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi, who designed the tall dome of the Duomo that can be seen from nearly every part of Florence; Donatello, some of whose work we saw at the Bargello Museum; Fra Filippo Lippi, for whom I have voted in the Infinite Art Tournament; and Guido di Pietro, the Blessed Angelic One, better known as Fra Angelico, who lived at the monastery between 1436 and 1445, and whose paintings decorate Cosimo's cell and those of the other monks, on the upper floor of the building.

On the lower floor there are frescoes in the courtyard to look at, and rooms to wander through where the monks ate and studied, and a long hallway full of bits of marble and carved stone that was excavated from the area around San Marco, remnants from the city's long history. The buildings have been restored and renovated over the years, but there are still signs of the earlier construction, like this painted wooden ceiling in one of the rooms.

In the lower rooms and around the public courtyard there are frescoes on many of the walls. In the large receiving room, which now holds a small bookshop with souvenirs, there's a full-scale rendering of the Last Supper done by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the late 15th century. Eleven of the disciples (looking bored, interested, argumentative, and even falling asleep) have halos and are on the far side of the table with Jesus, and Judas - sans halo - is on the near side, his back to the viewer. Behind him there's a large grey cat whose expression has been lost to time and flaking plaster. Apparently cats were evil, back in the Renaissance.

The frescoes in the courtyard were painted by Bernardino Poccetti in the early 17th century, and depict the life of Saint Antoninus of Florence, who was the archbishop there when the monastery was first established. Antonius was focused on inequality of wealth, and lived an austere life himself, while encouraging the government to care for the poor. He also said that ethics needs to be an integral part of commerce and capitalism. Perhaps today's politicians should be sent some of St. Antoninus' writings on the subject, which include support for a living wage, not forcing a person to accept jobs at low wages simply "because [he] is poor and has to settle for much less than would be needed to provide for [his] family."

One of the miracles of St. Antoninus' life seems to be connected to finding a key inside a fish, but what the key was to (his cell at San Marco?) I never asked. And I can't find any clarifying documentation on line, though Google says some of the search results aren't being displayed due to European data privacy issues. If you know the answer, drop me a line and I'll update this post (I'm looking at you, Michael5000). "[Ovinto] the time reported by his cook [havendola] found in the bowels of a fish donated to the saint," or so the online translation machine renders the not-very-explanatory text below the fresco.

There are paintings in part of the building as well, some by Fra Angelico, others by artists I'd never heard of, like Giovanni Sogliani and Francesco Morandini and Francesco Curradi and Fra Bartolomeo and Jacopo da Empoli. I didn't make a note of whoever it was who painted the scary cherubs but they appeared in several different works, including some of Fra Angelico's frescoes upstairs, just heads with wings, either two or four.

I pittori non guastano mai: quando non possono fare un angelo, fanno un diavolo.
- Italian proverb

Sogliani (1492 - 1544) painted "St. Elizabeth of Hungary," who I have been pleased to also find in Saumur and Paris and Budapest, of course.

Elisabetta!
La furibonda Elisabetta! io volli
Per la pietà del sesso mio salvarla.
Tu non sai; l’empia mi spregiò; negommi
Il titol di regina, e orrende cose
Mi profetò. L’abbandonai.
- Silvio Pellico, "Tommaso Moro" Act I, Scene II (1834)

A few of the paintings were just underpaintings, the sketches in sepia and black that show how the artist was thinking about lines and forms, and I liked those a lot. There was an exhibit at the Portland Art Museum a few years ago that featured works from the Crocker Art Museum, the "master drawings" from Michelangelo and many others showing the bones of future painted works and the ideas taking shape in the artists' heads and hands. At about this time I was starting to stop paying attention to artists' names, especially since I didn't recognize most of the names anyway, and the mostly-religious themes were starting to blur together. However, once we went up the stairs to the former living quarters of the monks, I woke up again.

Because that's where I saw this lovely work, the famous "Annunciation" of Fra Angelico, covering the wall space right at the top of the staircase. It was truly amazing to be standing there in person in front of this image, and I kept coming back to it. I could have stayed there longer, but there were other people in line, and more frescoes to see in the individual monks' cells, all painted by Fra Angelico, Il Beato Angelico, the Blessed Angelic One. Cosimo I commissioned him to paint these and other frescoes scattered around the monastery and church buildings, which took him five years to complete (1438 to 1443). The cells are small, dominated on one wall each by a window-shaped fresco giving that particular monk something to contemplate during his prayers.

In mense autem sexto, missus est Angelus Gabriel a Deo in civitatem Galilaeae, cui nomen Nazareth, ad Virginem desponsatam viro, cui nomen erat Ioseph, de domo David, et nomen virginis Maria. Et ingressus Angelus ad eam dixit: Ave gratia plena: Dominus tecum: Benedicta tu in mulieribus. Quæ cum audisset, turbata est in sermone eius, et cogitabat qualis esset ista salutatio. Et ait Angelus ei: Ne timeas Maria, invenisti enim gratiam apud Deum.
- Luke 1:26-30

I recognized another work of Fra Angelico's that I didn't vote for in the Infinite Art Tournament (he lost to Albrecht Altdorfer, at least in my opinion) but I was happy to see "jazz hands" Jesus in one cell, and an even jazzy-handier fresco in another cell that I had never seen before.

After looking at and commenting on the frescoes along two walls, we walked into the restored scriptorium and library that once held hundreds of huge leather-bound parchment-paged books, and the benches and desks and tools with all of the equipment to do the lettering and ornamentation in those illuminated manuscripts. The exhibit at the end of the long room shows some of those tools, including glue made from fish and rabbit skins, and bowls with piles of ground powder in bright colors: cinnabar, azurite, lapis lazuli, malachite, white lead, manganese, charcoal, saffron. All of the manuscripts on exhibit show not only words and illustrations, but also musical notations for psalms and antiphons and graduals and other liturgical chants.

Quam dilecta tabernacula tua, Domine virtutum! Concupiscit, et deficit anima mea in atria Domini; cor meum et caro mea exsultaverunt in Deum vivum. Etenim passer invenit sibi domum, et turtur nidum sibi, ubi ponat pullos suos: altaria tua, Domine virtutum, rex meus, et Deus meus. Beati qui habitant in domo tua, Domine; in saecula saeculorum laudabunt te. Beatus vir cujus est auxilium abs te: ascensiones in corde suo disposuit, in valle lacrimarum, in loco quem posuit. Etenim benedictionem dabit legislator; ibunt de virtute in virtutem: videbitur Deus deorum in Sion. Domine Deus virtutum, exaudi orationem meam; auribus percipe, Deus Jacob. Protector noster, aspice, Deus, et respice in faciem christi tui. Quia melior est dies una in atriis tuis super millia; elegi abjectus esse in domo Dei mei magis quam habitare in tabernaculis peccatorum. Quia misericordiam et veritatem diligit Deus: gratiam et gloriam dabit Dominus. Non privabit bonis eos qui ambulant in innocentia: Domine virtutum, beatus homo qui sperat in te.
- Psalm 83

If you go to Florence, be sure to visit the Museo di San Marco (Piazza San Marco, 3, 50121 Florence), and take your time. There's a lot to see, and it's all beautiful, inside and out.

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