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Florentine, c. 1395 - 1455
Beato Angelico, il; Giovanni da Fiesole; Guido di Pietro
Fra Angelico was born in the town of Vicchio di Mugello, northeast of Florence, at the end of the fourteenth century. His birth date, which Vasari reports as 1387 and which has been restated by some scholars as about 1400, was probably about 1390-1395, since in 1417 Guido di Pietro, still a layman, was already documented as a painter, and the following year he was paid for the prestigious commission of part of an altarpiece for the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte. Just before 1423, Guido donned the habit of the Domenican friars in the convent of San Domenico at Fiesole, taking the name Fra Giovanni. The appellation "Fra Angelico" became current only in the nineteenth century; it derives from an abbreviation of the epithet "pictor angelicus," which was first applied to him in early Dominican sources and has been common since Vasari's time.
The artist's early production, for which no certain points of reference survive, is still the subject of discussion. Recent criticism tends to move the date of the triptych of Saint Peter Martyr (Florence, Museo di San Marco) back to about 1425-1427, although it was not paid for until 1429. An even earlier date, about 1422-1423, should be assigned to the altarpiece for the high altar of San Domenico di Fiesole (the main panels are still in the church today). Several other paintings have been grouped with this work, and if they are indeed by Angelico, they show that his training was influenced not so much by the late Gothic tradition of Lorenzo Monaco, as had been thought, but by the presence in Florence of Gentile da Fabriano (from 1420 to c. 1425-1426) and by the artistic innovations introduced by Ghiberti, Masolino, and Masaccio.
By the 1430s Fra Angelico was already one of the leading artists in Florence, and a series of documented works allows us to reconstruct his development more clearly: the Deposition painted for the Strozzi chapel in the church of Santa Trinità by 1432 (Museo di San Marco, Florence); the slightly later Coronation of the Virgin, painted for San Domenico by 1435 and today in the Musée du Louvre; the Tabernacle of the Linaioli (Museo di San Marco), commissioned in 1433 and finished in 1436; and the painted reliquary panels executed for Fra Giovanni Masi (three in Florence in the Museo di San Marco and one in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), executed between the end of the 1420s and the beginning of the following decade, but certainly complete before 1434. Angelico expressed profound human sentiments in his figures; he modeled with light and intense, brilliant colors, as opposed to Masaccesque chiaroscuro. His mastery of Brunelleschian perspective permitted daringly innovative compositions with convincing spatial effects in architectural settings.
Fra Angelico's extraordinary realism is evidenced also by such works as the Lamentation for Santa Maria della Croce al Tempio (1436) and the more or less contemporary Annalena altarpiece (both in the Museo di San Marco), where lively, statuesque figures are arranged in open, balanced compositions bathed in an atmosphere of luminous color.
In 1438 renovation of the Dominican convent and church of San Marco began, commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici and directed by Michelozzo; the new church was consecrated by Pope Eugenius IV on 6 January 1443. Fra Angelico, who had by then moved to the order's headquarters in Florence, was entrusted with the execution of an altarpiece for the high altar (the majestic Sacra Conversazione, now also in the Museo di San Marco) and the decoration of various areas of the convent. From the vast Crucifixion in the chapter house to the small frescoes in the cells, rich narrative is restrained in favor of a sublime spiritual and poetic message, dominated by an analytical vision that owes much to contemporary Flemish models.
In 1445 Fra Angelico was in Rome at the behest of Pope Eugenius IV, and in 1446 in Orvieto, where he began to fresco the vaults of the chapel of Saint Brizio in the duomo, finished several decades later by Signorelli. The following year he may have been in Perugia to paint the San Domenico polyptych (now divided between the Galleria Nazionale in Perugia and the Pinacoteca Vaticana), and then he was back in Rome to paint scenes from the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence in the private chapel of Pope Nicholas V in the Vatican. From 1450 to 1452 he was prior of the convent in Fiesole, and this is probably when he painted the scenes from the life of Christ on the doors of the silver chest for Santissima Annunziata (Museo di San Marco). In 1454 he was again in Perugia, and then in Rome, where he died on 18 February 1455. [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
 In the Theotocon of Fra Domenico di Giovanni da Corella (manuscript in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence), written in the second half of the fifteenth century, he is called "angelicus pictor" for the first time; see Ordinis praedicatorum... 1960, 20.