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Museo di San Marco opens Fra Angelico Room with new layout and enhancements made possible by Friends of Florence

Reinstalled display of the most important collection of Fra Angelico panel paintings in the world caps yearlong celebration of Museum’s 150th anniversary

Florence, Italy…The Italian Ministry for Cultural Assets and Activities and Direzione Regionale Musei della Toscana announced the opening of the new Fra Angelico Room in the Museo di San Marco, which has been completely renovated thanks to support from Friends of Florence. This momentous event caps the celebrations marking the Museum’s 150th anniversary which began with the restoration of Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment and San Marco Altarpiece in October 2019.

Renamed the Fra Angelico Room, the large-scale hall had been known as the “Pilgrim Hospice” and subsequently the “Hospice.” The name change reflects that the space now exclusively displays work by the founding father of the Early Renaissance in Florence.

The new layout radically alters the design devised by then Director Giorgio Bonsanti in 1980. New structural elements, a subtle color scheme, and a state-of-the-art lighting system were installed. The works of art are now displayed in chronological order in harmony with the proportions of the hall itself and accompanied by didactics incorporating the latest scholarship and research for enhanced visitor engagement.

The stunning presentation comprises 16 outstanding masterpieces by the Dominican friar artist, including such monumental works as the Deposition from the Cross painted for the Strozzi Chapel in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, the Annalena Altarpiece, the imposing San Marco Altarpiece with the parts that survived its dispersal, and the Tabernacle of the Linaioli (or Linen Makers’ Guild). More intimately scaled paintings include the panels for the Armadio degli Argenti, highly sophisticated predellas, and reliquaries. The Lamentation over the Dead Christ has also been restored for the occasion, its lower half now on display following the removal of a covering applied during restoration over half a century ago.

The Bosco dei Frati Altarpiece, currently undergoing restoration by Lucia Biondi with the generous support of the Friends of Florence, and the Compagnia di San Francesco Polyptych being restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure will be returned when completed. Given that the room is devoted solely to works by Fra Angelico, the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels by his pupil Zanobi Strozzi, formerly on display here, was moved to the Michelozzo Library close to other works by the same painter.

“The Fra Angelico Room marks a crucial moment in the life and history of the Museo di San Marco,” said Musei della Toscana Regional Directore Stefano Casciu. “We have now been able to radically reimagine the display of Fra Angelico’s panel paintings thanks to the unfailing enthusiasm and generosity of the Friends of Florence and of all the American donors who have contributed so magnanimously. This room houses the most important collection of the artist’s moveable paintings in the world in the former Dominican convent that is so closely associated with the artist and the Medici family, its foremost patrons. San Marco was the beating heart of the Florentine Early Renaissance not only from an artistic standpoint but also in historical and religious terms.”

The new layout project was devised and developed under the supervision of Marilena Tamassia and completed by Angelo Tartuferi with the support of architect Andrea Gori. Maurizio De Vita and Ulrike Schultze designed the project, responding to various requirements and alterations that arose along the way.

Museo di San Marco Director Angelo Tartuferi said, “This project shines the international spotlight once again on this unparalleled collection of paintings by Fra Angelico. I truly believe it will arouse the enthusiasm of lay visitors and scholars alike. The display is supported by captions and panels in both Italian and English which also present reconstructions of the works in their original state and illustrate the surviving panels now in other museums both in Italy and abroad, thus giving visitors an idea of the dispersal of the great master’s vast output.”

“The Museo di San Marco has always been a very special place for Friends of Florence, an oasis of peace and serenity in the heart of the city,” said Friends of Florence President Simonetta Brandolini d’Adda. “We have sponsored a number of restoration projects here in the past, including most of the Cloister of St. Antonino and Fra Angelico’s extremely fine fresco depicting the Crucifixion and Saints in the Chapter House. Now everyone will be able to better experience the artist’s mastery. I thank Stefano Casciu, Angelo Tartuferi, Maurizio De Vita and his practice, De Vita & Schulze Architetti for designing this splendid room, and all those who participated. But above all, I would like to thank our generous and committed donors for their unflagging enthusiasm and love for Florence. Without them we would be unable to do any of the work that we do.”

This project was supported by Friends of Florence donors: David Canepari, Janet and Jim Dicke II, Angela LoRe, The Jay Pritzker Foundation, Stacy and Bruce Simon, Terri and Rollie Sturm, and Alison and Bonifacio Zaino.

The new display of the paintings in the Fra Angelico Room

The monumental Deposition from the Cross, painted before 1432 for Palla Strozzi’s chapel adjacent to the sacristy in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, is on the right when visitors enter the room. The painting was begun by Lorenzo Monaco with Gherardo Starnina who was chiefly responsible for the stylistic training of Fra Angelico, who finished the work after the Camaldolese monk’s death, completely altering both its iconography and style.

The wall opposite the entrance contains the earlier works: St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece, the better-known Last Judgment painted for the Camaldolese convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the imposing Compagnia di San Francesco Polyptych from Santa Croce completed c. 1430 (currently being restored). Also on view are San Marco Altarpiece (much praised by Vasari) and other parts still in situ. This grand polyptych was painted for the high altar of the church of San Marco between 1438 and 1440 and recently restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

The pivotal Annalena Altarpiece was probably painted for the Medici Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo c. 1435. Facing it are the surviving panels from the doors of the Armadio degli Argenti, formerly in the church of the Santissima Annunziata, another celebrated cycle which Piero de’ Medici commissioned from the artist in his mature years (1450–2).

Three display cases house reliquaries made at various times for the church of Santa Maria Novella, followed by one containing two tondos depicting the Crucifixion and the Coronation of the Virgin painted in the 1440s. They are displayed in their original condition as the two sides of a single panel which was later split in two at an unspecified date.

Another milestone in the artist’s career is the Bosco dei Frati Altarpiece from the Observant Franciscan convent of San Bonaventura in the Mugello (currently being restored by Lucia Biondi). Three examples of different moments in Fra Angelico’s practice include a small panel painting depicting The Naming of St. John the Baptist from a predella which has yet to be associated with any specific altarpiece, but which was certainly painted by 1430. The second has two Stories from the Life of the Virgin widely believed to be the predella of the heavenly Coronation of the Virgin painted for the church of Sant’Egidio c. 1440 and now in the Gallerie degli Uffizi.

The large panel depicting the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1436–41) was painted for the oratory of Santa Maria della Croce al Tempio, for which the artist was paid partly in kind with sixty bushels of corn. A corrugated element concealing the lower part of the panel, which was seriously damaged over time and applied during restoration by the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome seventy years ago, has now been removed. Direzione Regionale Musei della Toscana staff restorer Rossella Cavigli successfully renovated the part previously concealed with skilled retouching that is also reversible.

The final wall before the exit is dominated by the magnificent Tabernacle of the Linaioli (or Linen Makers’ Guild) in a splendid marble frame designed by Ghiberti. The tabernacle was painted in 1433–4, at a time when Fra Angelico was unquestionably the most important painter in the city.

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Fra Angelico Room in the Museo di San Marco, Florence, Italy. Tabernacle of Linaioli side. Photos by Antonio Quattrone Fine Arts Photographer