Fiesole: San Domenico

San Domenico.

The church and convent of San Domenico are not located in the centre of Fiesole, but in the lower part of the town. My recommendation would be to first visit the attractions in the centre – the convent of San Francesco, the Duomo and the archaeological museum – and then walk down the hill along the Via Vecchia Fiesolana. There is hardly any traffic on this old road. There is a bus stop right in front of the complex of San Domenico, so it is very easy to get back to the centre of Florence if you want. Although I had visited Fiesole on multiple occasions, I had not yet visited the church of San Domenico. This one time I wanted to enter the building there was a funeral going on, so obviously a visit was out of the question. However, in January of this year it was my lucky day and I had the church almost entirely to myself. I got the impression the convent was mostly or entirely inaccessible to the public. Most of its rooms are now used by the European University Institute.


The complex of San Domenico was founded in 1406 by Giovanni Dominici (ca. 1356-1419) and Jacopo Altoviti (died 1408). The former was a brilliant Dominican preacher and theologian. In spite of a speech impediment he managed to get ordained as a priest and was ultimately created a cardinal. The latter served as bishop of Fiesole between 1390 and his death in 1408. Both men were associated with the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Unfortunately work on the complex of San Domenico was suspended in 1409 as a consequence of the Great Western Schism and, more specifically, the Council of Pisa. Latin Christendom had known two popes since 1378. One resided in Rome, the other in Avignon. In 1409 the Ecumenical Council of Pisa was convened to end the conflict, but the council ended in disaster: instead of one pope Western Europe now had three. That third pope was Pietro Filargo, who took the name Alexander V. Although he got support from the largest part of Christian Europe, his reign was cut short by his untimely death in 1410. He was buried in the church of San Francesco in Bologna, the city where he had passed away.

View of the complex of San Domenico.

Interior of the church.

Alexander’s successor as “Pisan pope” was John XXIII (1410-1415), a man with a highly dubious reputation. John nevertheless had an excellent relationship with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429), founder of the Banco dei Medici and one of the most powerful men in all of Florence. Unfortunately this connection proved to be insufficient to save John’s pontificate. In 1415 the Council of Konstanz deposed him and in 1417 elected Oddone Colonna as the new and legitimate pope, who took the name Martinus V. The now former Pope John XXIII was held captive for a short while, but ultimately the Medici family paid for his freedom. John decided to submit to Martinus and withdrew to Florence, where he died in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), the son of Giovanni di Bicci, was one of the executors of his will, which stipulated that he wanted to be buried inside the Baptistery of the city. His wish was granted, and his beautiful tomb in the Baptistery can still be admired. It was made by Donatello and Michelozzo and provided with the provocative words IOANNES QVONDAM PAPA XXIII, “the former Pope John XXIII”.

In 1418 work on the complex of San Domenico was continued thanks to a generous donation by a certain Barnaba degli Agli. We will meet him again in just a moment. On 25 October 1435 the new church and convent were consecrated. After that it was time for a series of enlargements, effectuated between 1488 and 1592. The church was increased in length, the interior was remodelled and chapels were added to both sides of the nave. The bell-tower of the San Domenico dates from 1611-1613, while the façade and portico were added in 1635. The architect involved was either Matteo Nigetti (ca. 1560/70-1648) or one Andrea Balatri, whom I had never heard of. The nineteenth century was a difficult time for the Dominicans in Fiesole. Both in 1810 and 1866 they were evicted from the complex, and they were not allowed to return until 1879. The 1810 eviction had been preceded by a thorough round of looting by Napoleon’s forces. As a consequence various works of art from the complex of San Domenico can now be found at the Louvre in Paris. Many of these were painted by the great Fra Angelico (1395-1455).


Crucifixion – Jacopo del Sellaio.

The church of San Domenico is not very large. Its interior is hardly spectacular and visitors may just as well skip the frescoes from 1685 in the back of the building. According to my travel guide the complex still possesses two works of the aforementioned Fra Angelico. One of these, a Crucifixion, can probably be found in the chapter room, which I have not visited but which should be accessible to the public. Inside the church we also find a panel painting of the Crucifixion, which has the crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint Jerome. I initially thought this was the Crucifixion mentioned by my travel guide, but it is in fact a work of Jacopo del Sellaio (ca. 1441-1493). The panel painting is not very special, and the light in the chapel where we find the work (the first on the right) is rather bad.

The true highlight of the church of San Domenico is the altarpiece that is known as the Pala di Fiesole. It was painted by a man who was born as Guido di Pietro. When he was 21 he joined the Dominicans and changed his name to Fra Giovanni, brother John. At an unspecified moment Fra Giovanni settled at the complex of San Domenico. Still in his twenties, he quickly proved that he was not just a devout Catholic, but also an exceptional painter. In 1436 he left Fiesole and moved to the new Dominican complex of San Marco in Florence. But in 1449 he was back in Fiesole, where he served as prior of the convent of San Domenico until 1452. By now very few people outside the Dominican convents still knew him as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. Instead he was known as Fra Angelico, the “Angelic Brother”. Fra Angelico died in 1455 in Rome. In the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva one can still admire his tombstone.

Pala di Fiesole

The Pala di Fiesole is one of Fra Angelico’s early works. The precise dating of the work is debated, but 1423-1424 or 1424-1425 will not be far off. The altarpiece originally stood on the high altar. It was a triptych with a golden background. At the start of the sixteenth century such a golden background was presumably considered very archaic. The painter Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1459-1537) was therefore commissioned to “modernise” the altarpiece. He turned the triptych into a single scene and added the background with the landscape. It is of course a matter of taste whether the modernisation was an improvement (it probably is if you like a lot of sky). The altarpiece remained on the high altar until 1610. It was then moved to the first chapel on the left, where we can still find it. Unfortunately the Pala di Fiesole is not entirely complete anymore. The original predella is, for instance, now in the National Gallery in London. In the church of San Domenico we have to content ourselves with a copy.

Pala di Fiesole – Fra Angelico and Lorenzo di Credi.

The central figures of the altarpiece are a fully dressed Madonna and a fully naked Child. The Madonna sits on a throne with a baldachin, which is largely a creation of Lorenzo di Credi. The throne is surrounded by eight angels, six of whom are standing while two are kneeling. Both the kneeling angels and the Madonna are holding red and white roses. Four male saints are witnesses to the scene. On the far left is Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274), the great Dominican theologian. He is holding a book, and on the left page we can clearly read the Latin text “Rigans montes de superioribus suis de fructu operum tuorum satiabitur terra”. It is a text from a sermon and apparently based on Psalm 104. Next to Thomas is Saint Barnabas, an apostle from Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He was included in the scene because of the aforementioned generous donation by Barnaba degli Agli. To the right of the Madonna and Child are two more Dominican saints, Dominicus de Guzmán (ca. 1170-1221) and Peter of Verona (1205-1252). The former was of course the founder of the Order of Preachers, who were named Dominicans after him. Peter of Verona was the first martyr of the order: in 1252 he was murdered by a heretic. Just a year after the assassination he was canonised by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254). Peter of Verona is usually depicted with a hatchet or sword entrenched in his skull, but apparently Fra Angelico thought the palm branch of a martyr was sufficient in this case.

Part of the predella (copy).


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