The Basilica of San Marco in Florence is one of the most important churches in the historic city centre. It is located in Piazza San Marco and it was built between the 12th and 18th centuries in Baroque style based on a project by architect Michelozzo. It dominates one of the most important squares in Florence and it is a point of reference for the surrounding urban area.
Where it is and how to reach it
The Basilica is in the heart of Florence, in Piazza San Marco. It can be easily reached from the Florence Santa Maria Novella railway station, at just one kilometre away, along Piazza della Stazione, Largo Fratelli Alinari, Via Nazionale, Via Guelfa, Via Camillo Cavour.
The Basilica has a neoclassical facade, dating back to 1777, built by Fra’ Giovan Battista Paladini and it is divided into three orders. The side bands are decorated with two niches with statues, ribbons and festoons. In the upper register we find a decorative bas-relief and a tympanum surmounted by an iron cross.
The bell tower was built in 1512 to a design by Baccio d’Agnolo.
Inside it, it has a single nave and numerous side chapels designed by Giambologna and decorated with 16th-17th century tables.
At first, the walls were decorated with 14th century frescoes, later lost or covered with plaster.
In any case, walking along the side areas, we can see some traces of these frescoes among the various chapels.
Most of the works inside it date back to the 16th century. Among these we find:
- Altarpiece of Santi: made by Santi di Tito (1593) and placed on the first altar;
- Thomas in prayer: created by Santi di Tito (1594), always on the first altar;
- Madonna with Saints: created by Fra Bartolomeo;
- Large mosaic of the Virgin, once located in the ancient Basilica of San Pietro in the Vatican and dating back to the year 750;
- Salviati Chapel and Sacramento Chapel, created by Giambologna;
- Dome: frescoed by Giambologna and Bernardino Poccetti;
- Works on the walkway: made by Domenico Passignano;
- The walls of the Sacrament Chapel: accessible only from the museum, also frescoed by Bernardino Poccetti. Inside the Chapel we find works by Santi di Tito, Jacopo da Empoli, Daniele Crespi (Milanese), Francesco Curradi and Francesco Morandini.
- Crib: a classic scene of the Nativity composed of a Child Jesus from Donatello’s workshop, the Virgin, Joseph and other characters created by Giovanni della Robbia;
- Counter-façade: here we find the best remains of fourteenth-century paintings, including a large Crucifix from the Orcagna school and an Annunciation;
- Transfiguration: canvas by Giovanni Battista Paggi, on the left side of the counter-façade;
- Vision of St. Thomas Aquinas (1593): on the first altar on the right, by Santi di Tito;
- Madonna and Saints (1509): by Fra Bartolomeo, on the second altar;
- Madonna of the rosary and angels carrying San Domenico to heaven (1640): canvas by Matteo Rosselli;
- Statue of San Zenobius: by Giambologna, on the arch that frames the altar;
- Miracle of San Vincenzo Ferrer (1593): by Passignano, on the left altar;
- Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (1690): copy from Fra Bartolomeo by Anton Domenico Gabbiani;
- Heraclius carrying the cross (1594): work by Cigoli, on the third altar.
Inside the complex we find the Museum of San Marco. Next to the church there is the Sant’Antonio Cloister, decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico and other Florentine artists. In the Pilgrim’s Hospice we can admire a rich collection of paintings by Fra Angelico and his followers.
At the top of the staircase leading to the dormitories we find the Annunciation by Fra Angelico.
The museum houses the largest collection by Fra Angelico’s works in the world. The visit follows a route that crosses the Sant’Antonio cloister, the Hospice Room, the Refectory Room, the Chapter Room and the monks’ cells.
Among the most important works by Beato Angelico we find the Annunciation, the Deposition, the Triptych of San Pietro Martire, the Annalena Altarpiece, the Last Judgment, the San Marco Altarpiece, the Madonna and Child and the Linaioli Tabernacle.
Inside the museum there are other important works: the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, the Madonna and Child by Paolo Uccello, paintings by Fra’ Bartolomeo and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, terracottas by Della Robbia and the portrait of Girolamo Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo.
The Basilica was born in the 12th century on the same spot where it once stood an oratory dedicated to San Giorgio and subsequently, a Vallombrosan monastery.
San Marco was founded in 1267 by the monks of the Silvestrine Congregation, a branch of the Benedictine Order.
In 1418 the monks were removed from the structure, only to return almost twenty years later, in 1437.
The structure, in poor condition, was subjected to numerous works and renovations. The first to work on it was Michelozzo, an artist faithful to the innovations brought by Brunelleschi. The artist enlarged the chapel by adding a new apse, redistributing the interior spaces in the best possible way and creating cells within the walls of the nave.
The wall decoration was entrusted to Beato Angelico and his collaborators, among which Benozzo Gozzoli.
The church was consecrated during the Epiphany night of 1443 in the presence of Pope Eugene IV.
The complex was definitively confiscated in 1866 and partly transformed into a museum. Until 2019, the church and part of the convent hosted a community of Dominican friars.
At the moment, the community of Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella is in charge of pastoral care and of the activities both in San Marco and in Santa Maria Novella.
Characteristics and curiosities
The Basilica was full of works of great artistic value. Works that today are kept elsewhere.
Let’s find out what these works are and where you can admire them:
- San Marco Altarpiece by Beato Angelico. Today at the San Marco Museum in Florence;
- Healing of Deacon Justinian by Beato Angelico. Today at the San Marco Museum in Florence;
- Burial of Saints Cosmas and Damian by Beato Angelico. Today at the San Marco Museum in Florence;
- San Cosma and San Damiano saved from drowning by Beato Angelico. Today at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich;
- San Cosma and San Damiano before Lysias by Beato Angelico. Today at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich;
- Pieta by Beato Angelico. Today at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich;
- Crucifixion of Saints Cosmas and Damian by Beato Angelico. Today at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich;
- Beheading of Saints Cosmas and Damian by Beato Angelico. Today at the Louvre Museum in Paris;
- Condemnation of the Saints Cosmas and Damian burning by Beato Angelico. Today at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin;
- Healing of Palladia by Beato Angelico. Today at the National Gallery of Art in Washington;
- Altarpiece of the Goldsmiths by Sandro Botticelli. Today at the Uffizi in Florence;
- Pitti Altarpiece by Fra Bartolomeo. Today at the Palatine Gallery in Florence;
- Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo. Today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.