Friday, March 21, 2008

Savonarola's cell in San Marco

Today we had the most intriguing "museum" visit so far. Most museums are old palaces, fortresses, villas, or town halls. Today we visited the church and monastery of San Marco, within walking distance of our apartment.

This marvelous monastery and cloister was home to Fra Angelico (one of our personal favorites), Fra Bartolomeu and the controversial Savonarola. The ground floor is the hospice (visitors' quarters), refectory (dining room), chapels and rooms for monkish type work: illuminating manuscripts--of which we saw quite a few--teaching, disputing, and disciplining.

It is a Dominican monastery, so Dominic was in 90% of the paintings, signified by a little red cross above his head. Peter the Martyr, not to be confused with St Peter, was also in many pictures with his head bloody (but unbowed). Apparently he was martyred by a serious knife hack from the back. The ground floor had excellent frescoes and in rather good condition, but the best was upstairs in the cells of the monks. Each cell had a painting for the monk to contemplate. Each picture was a part of the life of Christ. In the novice wing the pictures were simple story telling. As the seniority of the monks increased, the symbolism and complexity of the pictures increased as well. Fascinating progression.

Just before we started the cell progression, we saw an annuciation which had natural light coming in from a nearby window. Fra Angelico had put glitter in his paint, so when you rock back and forth in front of the picture you see little sparkles in his wings. His name, by the way, comes from his angelic representations of people: they are all pretty, with nicely combed hair, clean clothes and beatific faces. Even Judas looks like a nice guy but with a dark halo. And Peter the martyr always had the blood flowing tidily from the gash in his head.

Savonarola, the alleged arch-enemy of the renaissance, in the name of turning people back to a true faith in God, attempted to clean up the gambling, prostitution and other blatant sin which made Florence a hotbed. He was ardently followed by many people who wanted reform, but as a zealot he met the resistance of those who were not spiritually focused. He was tortured and burned in the very piazza where he burned gambling cards, dice, and immoral art. In his simple cell we saw his very simple possessions: the patched and worn dark blue cloak of his order, a hair shirt, a crucifix and a desk with some books. He was probably a remarkable leader, but he resisted a very powerful and dangerous tide.

The weather has turned nippy. Today is good Friday and we will be heading out to church tonight. The bells have rung throughout the day at important intervals.

Oh, we made our reservations for Venice and discovered to our chagrin that the Eurail passes we bought are not a great savings at all and we still have to pay to make reservations for seats. It was a disappointment and I wish I had known the fine print in the passes beforehand. Take this as a warning, all those who wish to travel in Italy in future, the Eurail pass is not a bargain and may even cost you more than just buying the tickets. (I was was unable to check prices before we bought them; be sure to ask a travel agent.)

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