The 18th century facade of the San Marco church dominates the all but tranquil square; buses, students, tourists and locals cross this piazza in droves from early morning till late at night. However, all that hustle outside the doors of the church does not infiltrate the tranquility nor bismirch the beauty behind those large wooden doors.
San Marco was founded in 1267 by the Silverstrine monks, an Order of the Benedictine Reformed. Over the next 150 years, the Florentines became disillusioned with the monks less than proper religious conduct and, in 1418, pleaded with the Pope to remove the monks from the monastery. However, it was only in 1437 with Cosimo il Vecchio's intervention and persuasion of the Pope that the Dominican monks of Fiesole were invited to move into the convent.
The new inhabitants found the structure in deplorable conditions partly because the disgruntled Silverstrine monks practically striped the church and convent of all its worldly goods, and in part due to a fire years earlier which destroyed sections of the structure. This was the first of many restorations and “redecorating” the church was to undergo over the coming years.
The first to work on the structure was Michelozzo, not only Cosimo’s favorite architect but also an artist who was faithful to the Renaissance features of Brunelleschi. His work consisted of structural interventions: the extension of the chapel with the addition of a new apse and the redistribution of the interior spaces, the aisle with the construction of the walls which would eventually support two altars (one for Saint Thomas Aquinas, and another called the Holy Cross.)
- The church seems to have been in constant renovations and restoration.
- The bell tower was re-built in 1512 on the design of Baccio d'Agnolo.
- There was the addition of numerous side chapels, designed by Giambologna in 1579.
- Then in 1679 the carved grandstand and carved ceiling on a design by Pier Francesco Silvani.
- The dome was raised by Angelo Ferri by 1712 and is decorated by frescoes by Alessandro Gherardini (1717).
- And in 1725, a canvas was added to the center of the ceiling, the work of Giovanni Antonio Pucci.
- Not to mention the continuous work on the wooden beams that support the church’s roof - which became so much heavier with the new carved ceiling.
- Even the façade, in Neo-Classical style, was built in a much later addition in 1777–1778.
Highlights within the Church
After coming in from the wide open space of Piazza San Marco, the church gives you two immediate impressions: 1) gray and full of shadows and 2) not as deep as one expects. But despite that, the subtle Gregorian chants that play in the background do much to cover the noise of the traffic outside and create an inviting atmosphere.
Formerly the walls were covered with 14th-century frescoes which have been lost or covered with plaster. However, today, as you walk down the side aisles, you can still see traces of these frescos in between the newly built chapels. Much of the artwork that adorns the interior of the church dates after the 16th century, but there are a few interesting earlier pieces that grace the church walls.
As you enter to the right, the first altar on the right is decorated with the “Pala di Santi”, by Tito (1593) Santi di Tito’s S. Tommaso in Preghiera ( circa 1594) sits over the first right altar. This Florentine artist guided the shift from the counter-reform to Mannerism to Baroque.
The second altar features a “Madonna with Saints” by Fra Bartolomeo, a painter turned monk after listening to the Savonarola message. He gave up painting, but was later instructed to continue creating for the good of his brothers.
The third, is a bit of a surprise: a large mosaic of the Virgin which once stood in the ancient Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican from the year c. 750. It arrived in Florence around 1596, when the altar was built.Not the carved wooden box underneath accented in gold, this holds some of the churches reliques.
Cappella Salviati and the Cappella del Sacramento (accessed only from the museum) located in the Basilica are two highlights among the chapels created by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor and architect who was much celebrated for his marble and bronze statuary in a late Renaissance or Mannerist style.
The Mannerist and one of the Florentine “reformers,” Bernardino Poccetti, painted the dome with frescoes while the frescoes on the walls just before the chapel were executed by Domenico Passignano, a painter from the late 1500’s, early 1600’s . His technique was described as “clarity in formal order and legibility in content” practically the essence of the counter-reform, which asked for strong images in a structured setting - easy to read and interpret for all viewers.
The “Cappella del Sacramento”(accessed only from the museum) hosts frescoes by Bernardino Poccetti. Many of its pieces were executed by 16 and 17th century Tuscan artists such as Santi di Tito, Jacopo da Empoli, Daniele Crespi (Milanese), Francesco Curradi and Francesco Morandini.
The statue that you see is of a man who, at least for a limited time, changed the destiny of Florence: Savonarola (1498) was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. He was known for his prophecies of civic glory, the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. PS. Notice how is sandwiched in between some of those original frescoes mentioned above.
The last piece to look at is the "Presepe" an interesting mix of pieces. The Christ child is from the Donatello botega and the Virgin Mary, Joseph and other pieces are by Giovanni della Robbia. Almost life-sized, this touching family scene graces the church year long.
Next door to the Church is the Chiostro di Sant' Antonino, decorated with faded frescoes by Fra Angelico and other Florentine artists. In the Ospizio dei Pellegrini, where pilgrims were cared for, there is a superb collection of free-standing paintings by Fra Angelico and his followers. At the top of the staircase on the way to the dormitories is Fra Angelico's Annunciation (1440), an image of great tenderness and grace.
Read more about the San Marco museum here »