Fra Angelico

John Florens | Apr 8, 2023

Table of Content


Guido di Pietro, in religion Fra Giovanni (later known as Fra Angelico, sometimes Angelico and Beato Angelico for the Italians) or "The Painter of Angels", born between 1387 and 1395 according to sources, in Vicchio (Republic of Florence) and died on February 18, 1455 in Rome (Papal States), is an Italian painter of the Quattrocento of whom Giorgio Vasari said that he had a "rare and perfect talent". He was known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, in the Lives written before 1555, and as Giovanni Fra Angelico ("Brother Giovanni the Angelic").

He was beatified late, on October 3, 1982 by Pope John Paul II, under the name of Blessed John of Fiesole, even though after his death he was already called "Beato Angelico", both for the moving religiosity of all his works, and for his personal qualities of humanity and humility. It was Giorgio Vasari who added the adjective "Angelico" to his name in his Lives.

A Dominican friar, he sought to combine the pictorial principles of the Renaissance - perspective constructions and representation of the human figure - with the old medieval values of art: its didactic function and the mystical value of light.

He is commemorated on February 18 according to the Roman Martyrology.

Guido di Pietro was born around 1395 in the small town of Vicchio in the Mugello region, where the Medici family originated, and was named Guido or Guidolino, "little Guido". Vasari left few details about his family, except that his father Pietro was probably a well-to-do peasant, the son of a certain Gino, and that his brother Benedetto, a few years his junior, became a Benedictine monk. His sister Checca (Francesca), married around 1440, had a son Giovanni di Antonio who assisted the painter on the sites of Orvieto and Rome.


The first document mentioning Guido di Pietro dates from October 31, 1417. It indicates that a lay painter by the name of Guido di Pietro, sponsored by Battista di Biagio Sanguigni, joined the Confraternity of St. Nicholas of Bari, which belonged to the Order of the Dominican Observants, a minority Dominican branch of flagellants in which the original rule of St. Dominic was observed, requiring absolute poverty and asceticism (the "observance"), which Guido di Petro followed from 1418 to 1423.

Together with his brother Benedetto, he entered the convent of San Dominico di Fiesole, where they set up an illumination workshop. He was then sent to the convent of Foligno under pressure from the bishop of Fiesole, who refused to accept his strict observance. In 1414, the plague broke out and the community was forced to ask for hospitality in the convent of Cortona. Finally, in 1418, the bishop's pardon allowed them to return to Fiesole.

From 1423 onwards, he was called "Brother John of the friars of San Domenico di Fiesole" (fra being the title of friar in Italian) and it was only after his death that he was called Beato Angelico in Italy (Blessed Angelico). It was Giorgio Vasari who, in his Lives, added to his name the adjective Beato (and called him Fra' Giovanni da Fiesole) previously used by fra Domenico da Corella and by Cristoforo Landino.


His artistic education took place in Florence at the time of Lorenzo Monaco, Masaccio, Gentile da Fabriano and Gherardo Starnina. From the first, he took on the use of accentuated and unnatural colors, but also that of a very strong light that cancels out shadows and participates in the mysticism of sacred scenes, themes that are found in his production of miniatures and in his first compositions.

The art of miniature painting on manuscript is a rigorous discipline that served Fra Angelico well in his later works. With this activity, he composed figures with a perfect and impeccable style, on a small scale, often using expensive pigments such as lapis lazuli and gold leaf, dosed with extreme care, each contract specifying the quantity to be used. In January and February 1418, he is mentioned in some documents as "Guido di Pietro dipintore".

First works

In 1417, he is named in documents as "Guido di Pietro, painter of the parish of San Michele Visdomoni". In 1418, shortly before taking his vows in the convent of San Domenico di Fiesole, he painted an altarpiece, now lost, for the Gherardini chapel in the church of San Stephen in Florence as part of a decorative project entrusted to Ambrogio di Baldese, who may have been his master. The exact date he took his vows is not known, but it may be between 1418 and 1421 because novices were not allowed to paint in their first year and none of his works are documented between 1418 and 1423.

In 1423 he painted a cross for the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and is named in documents as "Brother Giovanni de' frati di San Domenico di Fiesole", proof that he was already a religious at that date. A Saint Girolamo in the Masaccesque style dates from 1424. His ordination to the priesthood dates back to the period 1427-1429.

The triptych of St. Peter Martyr, commissioned by the nuns of the monastery of St. Peter Martyr in Florence, dates from 1428-1429. In this work, Angelico shows that he knows and appreciates both the novelties of Gentile da Fabriano and Masaccio and that he attempts a sort of reconciliation between the two, gradually embracing the "Masaccesque style" over the years, but also soon developing, from the 1930s onwards, a personal style. If Fra Giovanni shows an undeniable penchant for ornaments, precious details, elegant and elongated figures (a constant of late Gothic art), he is also interested in placing them in a realistic space, governed by the laws of perspective, and in giving them a perceptible and balanced body volume.

Already in the triptych of St. Peter the Martyr, the robes of the saints are heavy and have folds that run straight down, with bright and luminous colors, just like in the miniatures; the space is deep and measurable, as suggested by the semicircular arrangement of the saints' feet.

A Madonna and Child, now in the Museo Nazionale San Marco, and a Madonna and Child with twelve angels in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt am Main, are among the works dated to this period.

In San Domenico di Fiesole (1429-1440)

In 1419, Angelico was at the convent of San Domenico di Fiesole where, on October 22, he was recorded as "Brother Johannes petri of Muscello" at a chapter meeting. He also appears in other chapter meetings in January 1431, December 1432, January 1433 (as vicar in place of the absent prior) and January 1435. He is also documented on January 14, 1434 in a lay appointment as judge for an estimate with the painter Rossello di Jacopo Franchi, of the painting by Bicci di Lorenzo and Stefano d'Antonio for the church of San Niccolò Oltrarno in Florence: the expertise of other established painters was often used then to decide on the remuneration to be paid to artists.

Between the twenties and thirties of the fifteenth century, he dedicated himself to large altarpieces for the church of San Domenico di Fiesole, which earned him considerable fame and prompted other religious institutes to commission replicas and variants from him. Between 1424 and 1425 he painted the first of three panels for the altars of the church of San Domenico: the Pala di Fiesole, a work that was retouched by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501 who redid the background. It is a very original altarpiece where the separations between the saints are now absent from the compartments of the polyptych, even if some cusps were later removed during the 16th century restoration.

In 1430 he painted The Annunciation (Prado Museum), with five stories from the life of the Virgin in the predella, the second painting for the church of San Domenico di Fiesole, a work in which new techniques inspired by Masaccio appeared: a diaphanous light, used for the first time, enveloped the composition, exalting the colors and plastic masses of the figures and unifying the image. It will become one of the most evident characteristics of his style. The altarpiece has a transitional setting between late Gothic and Renaissance, but it is especially in the five stories of the Virgin of the predella that the painter works with the most freedom and inventiveness.

The Annunciation, in which the archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become the mother of Christ, is a deeply felt theme in Florentine painting. Fra Angelico helps to cultivate this tradition while adopting modern designs with unified, rectangular compositions, with the Virgin seated in a colonnaded loggia open to a fenced garden. In the same work, in the background, appear the figures of Adam and Eve, symbolizing the first sinners from whom the God of Redemption became man, but also to emphasize that Mary consents to the Angel's request, transforming the name "Eve" (Eve

Two other large altarpieces follow (or precede) this work: the Annunciation of San Giovanni Valdarno and the Annunciation of Cortona.

Between 1430 and 1433, Angelico painted the Last Judgment (Museo Nazionale San Marco), a large panel intended to decorate the cymatium of a seat. Stylistically linked to the manner of Lorenzo Monaco, the rhythm of the planes demonstrates an emerging interest in the perspective organization of space. Between 1434 and 1435 he painted in tempera on wood The Imposition of the Name on Saint John the Baptist, part of an unidentified predella. The scene is placed in a courtyard built with an extremely precise perspective and with the help of a portal used as a perspectival funnel. The Deposition painted for Palla Strozzi for the sacristy of Santa Trinita and the Imposition of the Name to St. John the Baptist already show the obvious characteristics of the artist's maturity: soft figures and lines, colors, brilliant perspective construction, delicately regulated and rigorous.

The works of this period are often exercises in the theme of light, such as the dazzling Coronation of the Virgin at the Uffizi and the one in the Louvre dating from around 1432 and 1434-1435 respectively. The Coronation in the Louvre is the third and final panel for the altars of the church of San Domenico di Fiesole; here light builds the forms and explores them in great detail.

In July 1433, the Guild of Linen Weavers (Arte dei Linaioli e Rigattieri) of Florence entrusted Fra Angelico with the realization of the set of paintings of the Tabernacolo dei Linaioli, sculpted by Lorenzo Ghiberti, now in the San Marco National Museum. In this work the Virgin is of Masaccesque imprint while in the isopteric angels Angelico refers to the expressiveness of Ghiberti's sculpture.

In 1438, Angelico was involved in the events related to the transfer of San Domenico to San Marco in Florence. In 1439-1440 he traveled to Cortona on behalf of Cosimo de Medici to donate the old altarpiece of San Marco, a late Gothic work by Lorenzo di Niccolò, to the friars of the local Dominican convent. Angelico had already left two works in the city; on this occasion he painted a lunette on the portal of the convent church with the Madonna and Child with Saints Dominic and Peter Martyr.

Angelico probably kept his studio in San Domenico well into 1440 when he had already begun and staged the Pala di San Marco.

In San Marco, Florence (1440-1445)

From 1440 onwards, Cosimo de' Medici entrusted him with the decoration of the convent of San Marco, the rooms and the individual cells of the monks, work that his friend Antoninus of Florence, who was to become archbishop of the city in 1446, directed. Angelico was the protagonist of this irreplaceable artistic period which, under the patronage of the Medici, reached its peak in 1439 with the Council of Basel-Ferrare-Florence-Rome and during which great public works, including the convent of San Marco, were carried out.

In 1435, a few friars from San Domenico di Fiesole moved to San Giorgio alla Costa in Florence, and a year later, in January 1436, to San Marco, after resolving a dispute with the Sylvestrinis monks who were claiming the same site. In 1438, Michelozzo, commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici, began the construction of a new convent that was both functionally and architecturally avant-garde. Angelico did not follow his companions to San Giorgio alla Costa and San Marco because he was vicar of Fiesole. However, around 1440, Cosimo entrusted him with the direction of the pictorial decoration of the convent. The first documented evidence of the painter's presence at San Marco dates back to August 22, 1441.

Among the documented traces of Angelico at San Marco are his participation in the chapter in August 1442 and in July 1445, when he signed with others the act of separation of the Florentine community from the original Fiesolane community. In 1443 he was "sindicho" of the convent, a function of administrative control.

The decorative intervention at San Marco was decided with the help of Michelozzo, who left large white walls to be decorated. It is an organic work, involving all the public and private spaces of the monastery: from the church (the Pala di San Marco on the altar) to the cloister (four lunettes and a Crucifixion), from the refectory (Crucifixion destroyed in 1554) to the chapter house (Crucifixion and saints), from the corridors (Annunciation, Crucifixion with St. Dominic, and Madonna of the Shadows) to the individual cells. Finally, the pictorial decoration is the most extensive ever imagined for a convent until then.

The decoration includes, in each cell of the friars, a fresco with an episode from the New Testament or a Crucifixion, where the presence of St. Dominic indicates to the friars the example to follow and the virtues to cultivate (prostration, compassion, prayer, meditation, etc).

Much has been written about the attribution to Angelico alone of such a large number of decorations, executed in a relatively short time. The frescoes on the first floor are unanimously attributed to him in whole or in part. That of the forty-three frescoes in the cells and three corridors on the second floor is more uncertain and controversial. If contemporaries, such as Giuliano Lapaccini, attribute all the frescoes to Angelico, today, by simple calculation of the time necessary for an individual to realize a work of this kind and by stylistic studies highlighting three or four different hands, is rather attributed to Angelico, all the superintendence of the decoration, but the realization of a limited number of frescoes, the other ones having been painted from his drawing or in his style by pupils, among which Benozzo Gozzoli.

The frescoes of San Marco are not only a milestone of Renaissance art, but are also Fra Angelico's most famous and admired. Their strength comes, at least in part, from their absolute harmony and simplicity, which allows them to transcend the immediate purpose for which they were painted, namely that of pious contemplation by providing appropriate signs for religious meditation. The frescoes thus mark a new phase in Angelico's art, characterized by a parsimony in the compositions and a formal rigor never used before, fruit of the artist's expressive maturity.

The evangelical facts are thus read with greater efficiency than in the past, free of superfluous decorative distractions and closer than ever to the narrative and psychology of Masaccio's great works. The figures are few and diaphanous, the backgrounds are deserted or composed of clear architectures flooded with light and space, reaching the heights of transcendence. The figures appear simplified and lightened, the colors more subdued and dull. In these contexts, the strong plasticity of form and color, derived from Masaccio, creates by contrast a sense of vivid abstraction. The Dominican saints often appear in the scenes as witnesses, updating the sacred episode by inserting it into the principles of the Order.

The light that permeates Angelico's paintings is a metaphysical light: "Moreover, if (as Filippo Brunelleschi said) space is a geometric form and the divine light (as St. Thomas Aquinas said) fills space, how can we deny that the geometric form is the form of light?

The period of execution of San Marco's pictorial works is not precisely known, but it is generally situated from 1437 (or 1438), with the realization of the Pala di San Marco to begin with, to about 1440

The frescoes in the cloister seem to have been done after the Crucifixion in the chapter house, and the fresco of Calvary with St. Dominic is generally considered to be the last work of the master before his departure for Rome in 1445. The frescoes in cells 31 to 37 cannot be dated with certainty, but must have been completed in 1445. The Annunciation in the northern corridor and the Madonna of the Shadows, are in a more mature style and are dated after his return from Rome, in the 1450s.

When the convents of Fiesole and San Marco separated in 1445, Fra Angelico returned to Fiesole, closer to the principles of St. Dominic, because the installation of the library in San Marco in 1444 had disturbed the peace of the convent. It is in this same year 1445, that the pope Eugene IV summons him to Rome.

Some works from the cells of the San Marco convent

Among these, The Nativity represents the birth of Christ (cell 5). It is one of the earliest paintings of perspective, with a "clumsy" attempt at angels on the roof of the stable. Christ is on the ground "in front of" the stable, not in the manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, as well as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Peter the Martyr. The ox and donkey are in the background, in the stable, in front of the manger. One can see from the background that the scene is set in a cave or, more likely, in the mountains, which is a common idea of this scene in the Renaissance period.

In Rome (1445-1449) and Orvieto (summer 1447)

On an unknown date, probably in the second half of 1445, Fra Angelico was summoned to Rome by Pope Eugenio IV, who had lived in Florence for nine years and had certainly had the opportunity to appreciate his work when he had resided in San Marco. In that year, the see of the Archdiocese of Florence became vacant and it seems that, according to persistent rumors, the pallium was offered to Angelico, who declined, suggesting to the pope the appointment of Antonino Pierozzi in his place (January 1446). It is clear that Angelico was sufficiently esteemed intellectually to be able to give his opinion on an appointment to the pope, as was also stated by six witnesses during the process of Antoninus' canonization, and even to be able to administer an archdiocese.

Angelico stayed in Rome from 1446 to 1449 where he resided in the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. In 1446, he frescoed the Sacrament Chapel, known as the "parva", with the Stories of Christ, destroyed at the time of Paul III: the decoration was to have a "humanist" character, with a series of portraits of illustrious men mentioned by Vasari. The painter Jean Fouquet also had a close relationship with Angelico, perhaps already begun in Florence, when he was busy painting a portrait of Pope Eugene IV between the fall of 1443 and the winter of 1446. On February 23, 1447, Pope Eugene died and on March 6, his successor Nicholas V was elected. Among the few documents preserved on his activity in the Vatican, three payment receipts (dated May 9 to June 1) refer to his only papal commission visible today, the frescoes in the Nicoline Chapel.

These frescoes extend over three walls with the stories of the protomartyrs Stephen and Lawrence, on the vault with the evangelists and eight life-size figures, the Fathers of the Church, on the sides, which Angelico painted with his assistants, among whom Benozzo Gozzoli. In these frescoes, the figures, solid, with calm and solemn gestures, move in a majestic architecture. Angelico must have been particularly familiar with the pope as he worked in his apartments, and he was certainly able to engage with Nicholas V's humanistic interests and broad cultural horizons. These stimuli are fully manifested in the works painted for the papal court, where the lavish style conceptually evokes ancient imperial and early Christian Rome, with reminders also of contemporary Florentine proto-Renaissance architecture.

On May 11, 1447, Angelico and his workshop, with the consent of the pope, went to Orvieto to spend the summer months working on the vault of the San Brizio chapel in the cathedral. They stayed there until mid-September and painted two pendants with the Judgment of Christ and the Prophets. The speed with which the veils were completed is a testament to the efficiency of the workshop. Angelico's autograph is predominant, the idea and design entirely his own, with help in execution from his "partner" Benozzo for some parts. The works, although they have attracted relatively modest critical interest compared to the Vatican frescoes, are characterized by spacious compositions and majestic figures. They were finished by Luca Signorelli.

Angelico returned to Rome where he completed the Niccolina Chapel in 1448. On January 1, 1449, he was already busy in another part of the Vatican, decorating the cabinet of Nicholas V, adjacent to the Niccolina Chapel. The cabinet is smaller than the chapel and is covered with partially gilded wooden inlays; no trace of it remains because it was destroyed during a later extension of the building. By June 1449, the decoration must have been well underway, for the master's principal assistant, Gozzoli, returned to Orvieto; by the end of the year or in the early months of 1450, the decoration was complete and Angelico returned to Florence.

Return to Tuscany (1450-1452)

On June 10, 1450, Angelico, back in Tuscany, was appointed prior of San Domenico di Fiesole, replacing his deceased brother. He was maintained in the position of prior for the normal two years, and in March 1452 he was still in Fiesole, when a letter from the provost of the cathedral of Prato was delivered to Archbishop Antoninus of Florence in which he requested that Angelico fresco the apse of the cathedral in Prato. Eight days later, the request was also formalized to the painter, who agreed to return with the provost to Prato to evaluate the conditions of the request. Angelico negotiated with four delegates and the podestà, but they did not reach an agreement (April 1, 1452), probably because the artist already had many commissions in progress and did not want to undertake such an important work. The work was entrusted to Filippo Lippi.

For the following years, documentation is non-existent or scarce. Some, such as John Pope-Hennessy, indicate that the first works painted after his return from Rome were the frescoes in the convent of San Marco of the Annunciation in the north corridor and the Madonna of the Shadows, in which he would have made good use of the Roman lesson, while others date them rather from the 1440s. The same uncertainty surrounds a late dating of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Louvre, while the Altarpiece by Bosco ai Frati, commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici, can be dated after 1450 with certainty: in fact, on the predella is painted St. Bernardine of Siena with the halo, whose sanctification dates back to 1450. The dating of the Armadio degli Argenti , a series of painted panels that make up the double door of a votive cabinet in the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata, commissioned by Peter I of Medici between 1451 and 1453, is also undisputed. In these panels, depicting stories from the life and passion of Christ, we find many themes already addressed by Angelico in previous years, but it is surprising to see how his inventiveness, even in the late phase of production, did not diminish.

Although not all the paintings are by his hand, some stand out for their original composition, vividness and spatial and luminous effects, such as the Annunciation (a recurring theme of Fra Angelico's throughout his production) and the Nativity.

On December 2, 1454, he was asked, together with Filippo Lippi and Domenico Veneziano, the two other most respected Florentine painters of the time, for an estimate of the frescoes of the Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia.

The tondo with the Adoration of the Magi, perhaps begun in 1455 and later completed by Filippo Lippi, is generally considered his last work.

Second stay in Rome and death

In 1452 or 1453, Angelico returned to Rome to paint the chapel of Nicholas V (Cappella Niccolina) and to create various works for Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the motherhouse of the Dominican order: the main altarpiece, probably an Annunciation, including three sections of the predella with stories of St. Dominic, and the large cycle of frescoes, painted in terra verde (an iron oxide and silicic acid pigment), depicting the meditations of the Spanish Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, in the cloister. This cycle has been lost, but can be reconstructed from handwritten and printed documents.

Fra Giovanni died in Rome on February 18, 1455, a few weeks before Nicholas V. He was buried in the church of the Minerva. The tombstone of his marble tomb, an exceptional honor for an artist of the time, can be seen near the high altar. Two epitaphs are written, probably by Laurent Valla. The first, lost, was on a wall plaque, and the second epigraph is inscribed on the marble plaque decorated with a relief of the painter's body with the cassock in a Renaissance niche.


The Dominicans decided to formally ask the Holy See for the beatification of Angelico during the General Chapter of Viterbo in 1904. In 1955, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, his body was exhumed and the canonical recognition of the relics continued. With the motu proprio Qui res Christi gerit of October 3, 1982, Pope John Paul II granted the Dominican order by indult, the celebration of Mass and the office in honor of Angelico, and on Saturday, February 18, 1984, at the Basilica of the Minerva, the blessed was proclaimed patron saint of artists, especially painters.

Fra Angelico integrated the stylistic innovations introduced by the Florentine Renaissance masters such as Masolino da Panicale and Paolo Uccello (interlocking interiors thanks to artificial perspective), initiating the artistic movement known as the "painters of light" by playing on shadows and light to give depth to his paintings or modelling to his figures, thus abandoning the flat tints.

The importance of his work can be seen both in his collaborators (Piero della Francesca and Melozzo da Forlì will abandon his way of treating the light.

Already a few years after his death, Angelico appears as Angelicus pictor Johannes nomme, not Jotto, not Cimabove minor in the De Vita et Obitu B. Mariae of the Dominican Domenico da Corella. Shortly after, he is mentioned with Pisanello, Gentile da Fabriano, Filippo Lippi, Pesellino and Domenico Veneziano in a famous poem by Giovanni Santi. With the advent of Savonarola, art was used as a means of spiritual propaganda and the figure of Angelico, artist and friar, was taken as a model by the followers of the Ferrara friar. This reading, which presupposed Angelico's artistic superiority due to his pre-eminence as a man of the cloth, was already included in the first account of the artist's life published in a volume of Dominican eulogies by Leandro Alberti in 1517. Vasari drew from this work, integrated with the stories of eighty-year-old Fra Eustachio, who passed on to him various legends related to the artists of San Marco, the material for the biography of the Lives of 1550.

In the nineteenth century, the interpretation of Vasari, which was itself inspired by the Counter-Reformation, was used to emphasize the devout character of his painting. Contemporary commentators prefer to place the artist in the perspective of the early Renaissance, emphasizing his innovative effort and the initial influence of Masaccio. Among commentators of the time, Angelico's spiritual life takes on a romantic and legendary air, as found in various writers. In the 20th century, his figure is better contextualized by placing him among the fathers of the Florentine Renaissance, those who developed the new language that spread throughout Europe.

Georges Didi-Huberman begins his book Devant l'image with an analysis of The Annunciation (cell 3) from the San Marco convent.

The Jacquemart-André Museum is the first French museum to have dedicated, at the end of 2011-beginning of 2012, an exhibition Fra Angelico. This exhibition showed in particular how the works of the painter influenced his pupil Benozzo Gozzoli or how his treatment of light is found in the paintings of other "masters of light" such as Fra Filippo Lippi, Melozzo da Forlì, Piero della Francesca or Benozzo Gozzoli. However, there are no frescoes transferred to canvas or sinopias on masonite and even illuminated elements at the origin of the Beato art.


  1. Fra Angelico
  2. Fra Angelico
  3. a et b Date controversée : 1387 selon Giorgio Vasari au XVIe siècle, vers 1400 selon les recherches documentaires de Stefano Orlandi (1964)
  4. James H. Beck, « Fra Giovanni Angelico (né Guido di Pietro)… », La peinture de la renaissance italienne,‎ 1999, p. 70.
  5. Lionello Venturi
  6. ^ Vari filosofi e teologi della Scolastica medievale avevano elaborato una "teologia della luce".
  7. ^  Lipsește sau este vid: |title= (ajutor)
  8. ^ a b c  Lipsește sau este vid: |title= (ajutor)
  9. ^ National Gallery of Art - Collection
  10. ^  Lipsește sau este vid: |title= (ajutor)
  11. ^ Considered to be a posthumous portrait of Fra Angelico.

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