Campaigners battle to save 600-year-old Florence convent as number of friars dwindles to just four

A 600-year-old monastery in Florence that has been described as “the centre of the world” is to close as the number of resident friars dwindles to just four.

The Convent of San Marco, a jewel in the crown of the Dominican Order and a cradle of the Renaissance, boasts priceless paintings and a rich tapestry of history that reaches back to the Medicis.

But with so few monks now calling it home, the monastery is slated to be closed down, highlighting the Catholic Church’s problems in recruiting enough priests and monks in an age of rising secularism and resistance to its celibacy requirement.

The number of seminarians – young men training for the priesthood – fell by nearly 4,000 to 116,000 between 2012 and 2016, in what the Vatican calls a “crisis of vocations”.

The shortage of priests and friars is particularly acute in Europe and North America.

The Convent of San Marco is slated to close after the number of Dominican monks living there dwindled to just fourCredit:
John Kellerman/Alamy

“The closure of a historic place like this is an act of cultural and societal suicide,” said Bash D’Abramo, the head of Beato Angelico for the Renaissance, a cultural association that is linked to the monastery.

“It’s shameful. The history of the convent goes back to the Medici family. It’s part of the identity of Florence. Closing it is unbelievable. There’s something strange going on behind the scenes.”

The historic monastery has been “suppressed” or closed by the local head of the Dominicans, with the remaining brothers due to be transferred to another Dominican establishment in Florence, the convent of Santa Maria Novella.

The cost of maintaining the monastery was no longer sustainable, said Aldo Tarquini, the provincial head of the Dominican Order.

“So it has been decided that there should be a single community of Dominicans in Florence, based at Santa Maria Novella,” he said.

A cloister within the 600-year-old San Marco Convent in FlorenceCredit:

Campaigners are still fighting to reverse the decision to close the monastery, pointing out that it was once home to the celebrated 15th century painter-monk Fra’ Angelico, known to Florentines as Beato (Blessed) Angelico, famous for his religious frescoes.

Among his works in the convent is a Last Judgment in which the damned are boiled in cauldrons and tormented by monsters.

One of the cells was lived in by Girolamo Savanarola, the fire-and-brimstone preacher who railed against the corruption of the Church, the tyranny of government and the influence of Humanism in the 15th century.

After the Medici family were overthrown, he became Florence’s sole ruler and ordered the Bonfire of the Vanities, when Florentines threw books, mirrors, cosmetics, playing cards and even musical instruments into the flames in the city’s Piazza della Signoria in 1497.

A close-up of a fresco by the 15th century monk and artist Fra' Angelico, who lived in the Convent of San MarcoCredit:
Chris Warde-Jones

But the city eventually turned on the religious fundamentalist and he was burned at the stake, in the same spot, a year later.

The monastery was also home to a celebrated mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira, who lived there from 1934 until his death in 1977.

“Florence is the centre of the world. And San Marco is the centre of Florence,” he once said.

Campaigners have staged protests in Florence, to no avail.

They are particularly incensed by rumours – denied by the authorities – that the convent could be turned into a luxury hotel.

They now say the only hope of salvation lies with the very highest authority in the Catholic world – the Pope himself.

A section of the convent is a museum and open to visitorsCredit:
Chris Warde-Jones

Last week they presented a petition bearing more than 18,000 signatures to Pope Francis during his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square in Rome.

The petitioners pointed out that the monastery was of unique importance. “Since the 15thcentury, San Marco has been an integral part of the history and identity of Florence. San Marco is the most famous Dominican convent in the world and one of the richest in works of art,” the petition read.

“We haven’t had a response yet,” said Mr D’Abramo, who presented it to the pontiff. “But I’ve asked for a private audience with the Pope and I just received a call from the Vatican, so things might be moving.”

A Vatican spokesman said the Pope was not minded to intervene in the matter. “It’s a question for the Dominican Order,” he said.

But campaigners are refusing to give up. “The monastery is the centre of Florence, the centre of the Renaissance – the centre of the world. The battle continues,” said Mr Abramo.

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