The most significant event in Fra Angelico history was the decision of the Italian government to house most of the painter’s works within the institution of San Marco in Florence; the holdings comprise more than half of the artist’s work. In 1436, the ruler of Florence, Cosimo de’ Medici gave the Dominicans the church and convent of San Marco, which had previously been owned by the Slyvestrine Brothers. The architect Michelozzo was charged with the task of re-structuring the building, and Fra Angelico with the decoration of its walls. The frescoes work on a number of levels; firstly, they seem to function as aids to contemplation for the Dominican monks within the cells; secondly, they comprise a complex theological programme based on Dominican doctrine. As Gabriele Bartz notes, finding a unifying strand or theme within the cycle is fraught with problems; the diversity of ideas seems to indicate a heterogeneous audience comprising novices, clerics and lay brothers- rather than a programme conceived for the edification of the Dominican hierarchy alone.
The first twenty cells in the dormitory on the upper floor were built in 1437; the north dormitory however wasn’t started until 1440. A library wing followed in 1441, and finished in 1444. Finally in 1442 the south wing was built over the hospice. Sadly, many of the frescoes have been destroyed because the original flat ceilings made way for vaults with arches that even intruded on the wall pictures. The wall paintings are introspective in nature, aids to the reflections and devotions of the monks, who like St Dominic in the “Mocking of Christ” were meant to ponder scripture. Note also the presence of Mary next to Dominic in this cell; according to their legend, Dominic received the habit of the order from the Virgin’s own hands. Stylistically, the cell paintings are stark, iconic in character rather than dramatic.
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1442-43, Fresco, 230 x 321 cm, Convento di San Marco, Florence.