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Florence’s Monastery of San Marco, Starring Fra Angelico and Savonarola

Florence, Italy

Fra Angelico lovingly painted holy figures in down-to-earth settings in the cells of his monastery. A later resident, Savonarola, denounced Renaissance decadence and sponsored the Bonfire of the Vanities, but he himself was burned at the stake.

Complete Video Script

A block away is another monastery — with simpler cells than our hotel…but better art. The Monastery of San Marco, with its peaceful cloister is now a museum — welcoming the public to enjoy the greatest collection of frescoes and paintings by Fra Angelico.

Working in the mid-1400s, Fra Angelico — equal parts monk and painter — fused medieval spirituality with early Renaissance techniques.

In this painting, he creates a realistic scene set in what many consider the first great Renaissance landscape. Christ is mourned by both haloed saints, and contemporary Florentines. The scene is holy, but rather than in heaven, it’s set on a lawn in Tuscany…among real trees and people.

The monks lived above the cloister and greeting them at the top of the stairs was Fra Angelico's sublime Annunciation. The quiet beauty and exquisite detail in these 500-year old frescos can put even a busy tourist in a peaceful and reflective state of mind.

The halls are lined with monk’s cells, each with a single meditation-enhancing fresco. Studying these religious scenes, we can see how Fra Angelico thought of painting as a form of prayer and why it’s said he couldn’t paint a crucifix without shedding tears.

This is the cell of Savonarola, the charismatic monk who, by giving fiery sermons denouncing the decadence of the Renaissance threw out the Medici and, for a time, turned the city into a theocracy.

Ruling the city, he sponsored “bonfires of the vanities” — in which his followers would collect and burn jewelry, fleshy paintings, anything considered too modern, hedonistic and humanistic. Even the Florentine painter Botticelli got caught up in this moralistic hysteria — tossing some of his own “decadent” paintings onto the fires of Savonarola.

Finally, when Florence decided it preferred the Renaissance to a Church-sponsored return to the Dark Ages, Savonarola himself was burned.