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The Renaissance in Florence

Renaissance, a word first used by Vasari in his work "Vite" (1550), encompasses a period in history between the end of the 14th century and the first half of the 16th century, marked by a "rebirth" (revitalization) of cultural and artistic life.

The phenomenon involves the entirety of Europe, but is undisputably rooted in early Florentine Humanism.

Rediscovering the study of antiquity from a secular, individualistic viewpoint, analyzing one's age critically, along guidelines set by ancient masters, turns the focus to man and his autonomous potential of thought and action, to individual freedom in all practical and intellectual fields, without the bonds and fetters of rigid, dogmatic Medieval theology.

At philosophical level, Renaissance essentially means naturalism, i.e. studying man and the cosmos without ressorting to metaphysics. Man becomes the nuclear cell of existence, the measure of all things, the maker by election, incorporating deep harmony between macrocosmos and microcosmos.

Niccoló Cusano, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Giordano Bruno, derive from the study of Plato, each in his own way, impulses to confront man with his knowledge capacities (Newplatonism). Alberti, Salutati, and Vergerio, rediscover values of human independence and dignity in Stoic philosophy. Lorenzo Valla, on Epicurus' track, claims an end to the authority principle (ipse dixit).

Pietro Pomponazzi's reinterpretation of Aristoteles, of whom he was a follower, is secular to the extent of denying immortality of the soul, and suggests a morality independent from religious considerations. Machiavelli furthers separation between politics and ethics. Bernardino Telesio removes metaphysics from natural sciences. Tommaso Campanella dares proposing a "natural religion" and a protocommunist uthopy.

Renaissance art, after the fracture represented by the Middle Ages, is a revival of classical ideals and forms, in cultural continuity with the antiquity. In Florence, in the space of a few years, an architect (Brunelleschi), a sculptor (Donatello), and a painter (Masaccio) introduce a revolutionary conceptual and functional change in the field of creative activities.

Art rises from a "mechanical" activity (manual craftsmanship) into a "liberalis", i.e. intellectual, activity.

This transformation becomes official with the publication of Leon Battista Alberti's theoretical works:: "De pictura" (1436) entitled to Filippo Brunelleschi, "De re aedificatoria" (1452), and "De statua" (1464).

Art turns into an instrument of knowledge and investigation of reality, into a properly called science relying on rational theoretical foundations, such as perspective standards.

The key concept, "imitation of the natural" is based upon classical versus Bizantyne tradition, but should be further understood as a mathematic-geometrical organization of visual data (the subject of painting) within a space (panel or wall to be frescoed).

Italian rulers sponsored this artistic refoundation, which extended and developed until it achieved its summits with Bramante, Raffaello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo, in the form of "classicism". Later, the followers of Raffaello and Michelangelo (who, as a boy, had lived in the home of Lorenzo il Magnifico, in close contact with Poliziano and other humanists of the Medici Court who used to meet at the "Orti" (gardens) of the San Marco Monastery) developed mannerism as a non-conformistic research of originality "per se", a reaction to anxieties only partly hidden by the screen of classicism.

The protagonists

Museo di San Marco

Chiesa di San Marco - Piazza San Marco, 3
Open weekdays 8:15 a.m. - 1:50 p.m.
Saturdays open until 7pm; on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of each month open until 7pm
Closed 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 1st, 3rd and 5th Sunday of each month


The original 1100 building, transformed into San Marco Church and Monastery in 1299, became part of the sphere of influence of the Medici family in the early 15th century, when Cosimo il Vecchio made it his favourite place for spiritual retreat. Just a few years before, the complex had gone over to the dominican order, and Cosimo appointed Michelozzo to refurbish it (1436-43), adding also the fine sacristy and some splendid architectural solutions, such as the monastery corridor and library.


Meanwhile, as of 1435, the Monastery hosted a painter friar who, like Giotto, came from the Mugello area: Beato Angelico, who would in fact produce his best within the Monastery. The "Orti" (gardens) of the piazza San Marco became an appendix of the Florentine humanist Academy, an exclusive circle where Cosimo, and later Lorenzo il Magnifico, assembled the highest intellects of the time. Here preached, among others, fra' Girolamo Savonarola, and, it is not casual that Pico della Mirandola and Agnolo Poliziano, both dead in the year 1494, are buried here: their memorial stones can be seen close to the second altar to the left.

Following changes by Giambologna (Salviati Chapel) and by Silvani two centuries later, the interior of the church has a late 16th century appearance and hosts a beautiful altarpiece by Santi di Tito (St. Thomas presenting his works to the Crucifix, first altar to the right), and a Sacred Conversation by fra' Bartolomeo (1509, second altar to the right). Over the high altar there is a Crucifix by Beato Angelico. The single aisle interior hosts, in the centre of the large carved ceiling, Pucci's 18th century Madonna in Glory.

Gherardini frescoed the Main Chapel with images of the Dominican Order Glory (1717). Holy. Antonino's altar, on the left side, contains the embalmed body of the saint. The facade in sober baroque style is a work by Giovacchino Pronti (1780). The entrance to San Marco Museum is on the right side.