The large Dominican monastery in the hamlet of San Domenico just below Fiesole is the place to see frescos. A young man, Guido di Pietro (later known as Fra Angelico), entered this convent around 1407 and soon became famous in the Renaissance world for his religious paintings. Fra Angelico’s career took him throughout Tuscany and Umbria and to Rome, sometimes fleeing the plague and papal disputes and more often to work on commissions, and he painted some his best known work in the convent of San Marco in Florence and in Cortona; many of his other works are in museums around the world. On display here are some one of this earlier pieces. The best of them is in the church and known as the Fiesole Altarpiece, with the very popular 15th-century theme of the Maestà, or Madonna Enthroned. The Virgin is on a throne holding the Christ Child, who clutches two roses, one white, for purity, and one red, for the passion with which he would redeem humankind. Flanking them are angels, saints of the Dominican order, and St. Barnabus, namesake of the wealthy Florentine who had just footed the bill to restore the monastery. Two qualities stand out: Fra Angelico’s training as an illuminator, a discipline that taught him the art of minute detail (notice the finally embroidered robes) and a deep spirituality and religious conviction—the friar believed that it was essential to portray Christ with absolute perfection and spent long hours at prayer before paining sessions. He also did a Crucifixion and a Madonna and Child for the Convent, in the Chapter House (ask a custodian to let you in).
It’s a pleasant walk of about 1km ( 1/2 mile) from Fiesole down to San Domenico on the shady Via Vecchia Fiesolana, and you’ll pass villas that Florentines once used as summer retreats (you can also take the number 7 bus back down the hill). Among them is the Villa Medici, built for Cosimo il Vecchio in the mid–15th century as gathering places for artists and men of letters, with beautiful gardens cut into the hillside. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries the villa was home to wealthy English and American expatriates (it can only be visited by prior arrangement; call [tel] 055-2398994).