Italian Paintings – Fra Filippo Lippi

Fra Filippo was one of the best artists of his time; he was the son of Tommaso Lippi, a butcher of Florence; he was born about 1412. Left an orphan at an early age he fell to the care of his Aunt Lappacia, who had no fondness for him, and when he was eight years old put him in the convent of the Carmine in Florence. He developed an extraordinary talent for drawing and painting. He left the con-vent about 1432. He was always called Fra Filippo. His life was most irregular, but he had for his patron and friend Cosimo di Medici, who was powerful enough to protect him in all that he did. There are many fine pictures by Fra Filippo in the galleries of Florence, Munich and Berlin. He died in Spoleto in 1469. A monument was erected to him there by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Browning, in his poem, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” makes him tell his own story to the man who arrested him one night in one of his escapades.

He ends his story with this:

“That is you’ll not mistake an idle word Spoke in a huff by a poor monk Tasting the air this spicy night, which turns The unaccustomed like Chianti wine. Oh, the church knows ! don’t misrepresent me, now, It’s natural a poor monk out of bounds Should have his apt word to excuse himself; And hearken how I plot to make amends. I have bethought me : I shall paint a piece ; There’s for you! Give me six months, then go, Something in Sant Ambrogio’s! I shall paint God in the midst, Madonna and her babe, Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel brood ; Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet As puff on puff of grated orris-root When ladies crowd to church at mid-summer, And then in the front, of course, a saint or two St. John, because he saves the Florentines, St. Ambrose, who puts down in black and white The convents’ friends and gives them a long day; And Job, I must have him there past mistake. Well, all these. Secured at their devotion, up shall come Out of a corner when you least expect As one by a dark stair into a great light, Music and talking, who but Lippo ! I Mazed, motionless and moon-struck I’m the man ! Back I shrink what’s this I see and hear? I, caught up with my monk’s things by mistake, My old serge gown and rope that goes all round, I, in this presence, this pure company! Where’s a hole, where’s a corner for escape? Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing Forward, puts out a soft palm ‘Not so fast!’ Addresses the celestial presence ‘Nay -” He made you and devised you, after all, Though he’s none of you! Could St. John then, draw His camel-hair make up a painting brush? We come to Brother Lippo for all that. ‘ Iste perfecit opus.’ ”

The picture thus explained is “The Coronation of the Virgin,” now in the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. The picture explains the poem, and the poem explains the picture. St. John Baptist stands in the right. Kneeling by him, his hands clasped, is Fra Filippo himself. A genuine portrait. Just in front of him is a kneeling cherub, from whose mouth come the words, “Iste perfecit opus.” (He made this perfect work.) On the left stands St. Ambrose and near him is Job kneeling, across his breast a baldric, and on it “J. O. B.” This is Job “past mistake.”

The “bowery, flowery angel brood” stand round the throne, and in front is “the slender slip of a thing,” with her soft palm out-stretched, addressing the celestial presence.