Thanks to the outer guidance of friends and the inner guidance to just keep my feet moving, I find the Museum of San Marco at the other side of the Ponte Vecchio where I have been wandering, yet so close to Via Gino Capponi where I have been living.
It’s all here for me, all the time.
Small cloistered places can hold even more spectacular secrets than their larger, grander counterparts. And this cold, grey, drizzly day is the best possible time to explore being cloistered away like the 15th century monks who lived, painted, and prayed for answers at San Marco.
My good friend Gail told me not to miss this museum’s collection of the sweet frescoes the Dominican Prior Fra Angelico, a monk whose ethereal, innocent spirit differed from the more muscular artists of the Renaissance, but with a vision no less powerful.
What my friend didn’t prepare me for was that San Marco is not a museum; this was the convent of the15th century Dominican monks who actually lived here, illuminating manuscripts and illuminating their spirits.
The 40 or so celle of San Marco – “cells” because they are too tiny to be called rooms – are cavelike, with low rounded wooden doors and one window on a bare white wall leading to a domed ceiling. But there is one little thing makes each celle huge beyond measure: a single fresco by Fra Angelico or his scuola.
It is one moment that defies all boundaries of time. Fra Angelico’s combination of naturalistic landscapes and strangely solid yet almost weightless figures exist somewhere between heaven and earth.
The Museum of San Marco was restored for the elder Cosimo de’ Medici by his favorite architect Michelozzo in the early 1400s into a place large enough to house under one roof the effervescence of opposites: Beato Angelico and Gerolamo Savonarola.
Beato Angelico’s simple quiet exudes an inner magnificence. The monks who prayed and slept under these frescoes undoubtedly spent much time in silent awe. And, in looking in on them, I am speechless.
But the Italian tour guide just ahead of me is not.
She is excited about how Fra Angelico used only three colors to express such intense depth. She delivers the details in fast paced staccato Italian; she is clearly talking to native Italian language speakers.
At the far end of the hall, she says, is the celle of Savonarola, a room of his relics, and his Library. I know very little about Savonarola; I’ll just go home and Google him on the Internet, I tell myself.
But wait – there’s an Italian tour guide here.
She doesn’t speak English. And my Italian is still embarrassing. And I don’t want to be the Stupid American.
Yes, I do.
“Tutti i freschi sono da Fra Angelico?” Are all these frescoes by Fra Angelico? I ask, starting with just the smaller linguistic mistakes of a single Italian question.
The ones in the left cells, then around the corner on the right, and onward down the hall, as well as the larger murals on the main hallway, she answers.
Then I risk further: “Chi era Savonarola?”
She lights up and begins to enact the story of Savonarola, the great orator and passionate man of the people, in animated Italian (are there any periods in Italian syntax?)
I follow the excitement of her storytelling of this complex good guy/bad guy, an Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. Savonarola is famous for burning books, and for the destruction of what he considered immoral art. Quite a complex guy; a priest who preached against the moral corruption of the clergy and the Church of Rome and has as his main enemy a Pope.
He considered himself a champion of the people. But in the end, the people didn’t agree.
In 1497, Savonarola led the first Bonfire of the Vanities: a burning of mirrors, cosmetics, pictures, books, gaming tables, musical instruments, fine dresses, hats, and – gasp – the works of “immoral” and ancient poets including Botticelli and Michelangelo.
Now the story gets hot.
Like all followers of zealots, Florence soon became tired of Savonarola. The city had became an unhappy place and the people needed someone to blame. Savanarola was soon executed in the same place where he had burnt the paintings and books.
Be careful what you wish for.
I could never have gotten all that from my computer. The clack of the keyboard is no substitute for the lilt in a voice.
She excused herself momentarily to scold some tourists taking photos of the frescoes. I, too, had desperately wanted some photos, but in most places here in Florence, I know it is forbidden.
“Does the flash of the camera damage the freschi?” I ask. She sighs and leans in closer. “Non lo so,”she says. “That’s what they tell us to say. I think it’s purely politics; if you can take your own photos, you won’t buy the ones for sale in our gift shop. And our economy is….well, you know.”
I did know this:
Human connections cannot be transmitted via the Internet, no matter how many smiley faced icons you send. Period.
I am grateful beyond measure for all the great works I see here in Florence. For the sweetness of Fran Angelico and even the misguided passion of Savonarola.
But a shared intimate moment right now, even with a stranger, is better.
Sometimes, one face to face conversation is all I need to bring me back to the present moment, the best time and place from which to live.