We have never quite understood why this place is not mobbed; perhaps because it showcases, almost exclusively, the work of Fra’ Angelico, Dominican monk and Florentine painter in the style known as “International Gothic.” His decorative impulses and the sinuous lines of his figures mark his work as standing right on the cusp of the Renaissance. This is the most important collection in the world of the master’s altarpieces and painted panels, residing in this former 13th-century convent the artist-monk once called home.
The most moving and unusual work is his “Annunciation” and frescoed scenes from the life of Jesus painted not on one giant wall, but scene by scene, on the individual walls of small monks’ cells that honeycomb the upper floor. The idea was that these scenes, painted by Fra’ Angelico and his assistants, would aid in the monks’ prayer and contemplation; and the paintings are intimate and entrancing. The final cell on the left corridor belonged to the fundamentalist firebrand preacher Savonarola, who briefly incited the populace of the most art-filled city in the world to burn their paintings, illuminated manuscripts, and anything else he felt was a worldly betrayal of Jesus’ ideals. Ultimately, he ran afoul of the pope and was burned at the stake. You’ll see his notebooks, rosary, and what’s left of the clothes he wore that day in his cell, as well as an anonymous panel painted to show the day in 1498 when he was burned at the stake in Piazza della Signoria.
There is much more Fra’ Angelico secreted around the cloistered complex, including a “Crucifixion” in the Chapter House. The former Hospice is now a gallery dedicated to Fra’ Angelico and his contemporaries; look out especially for his “Tabernacolo dei Linaioli”, glowing after a 2011 restoration, and a seemingly weightless “Deposition”.
If you are planning a visit here, beware the unusual opening hours.