Painters Of Florence – Fra Filippo Lippi

AFTER the death of Masaccio, the foremost artists in Florence were two friars, the Dominican Fra Angelico and the Carmelite Fra Filippo Lippi. But although both were members of religious orders, and both worked at the same period, the lives and art of the two men present the greatest possible contrast. While Fra Angelico was a saint who saw in every picture a direct act of worship, Fra Lippo was a gay and pleasure-loving worldling, who felt ill at ease in his friar’s habit, and gladly availed himself of his art as a means of escape from the cloister. ” He was very fond of good company,” says Vasari, ” and himself led a free and joyous life.” His dreams were all of earth, and his thoughts never soared beyond the gladness and beauty of the natural world. He paints the merry, curly-headed boys whom he met in the streets of Florence as cherubs, takes his mistress as a model for his Madonnas, and peoples the court of heaven with fair maidens in rich attire and dainty head-gear. A thorough-going realist at heart, his naturalism differed wholly from that of his contemporaries, Paolo Uccello or Andrea del Castagno. He never troubled his head with scientific problems or new technical methods. The old tempera painting was good enough for him, and he carried this form of art to the highest point of perfection, while at the same time he profited by all the advance which Masaccio and his followers had made, and gave a marked impulse to the new realism by the strong human element which he introduced in his works. His genial delight in all bright and pleasant things, in the daisies and the springtime, in rich ornament and glowing colour, in splendid architecture and sunny landscapes, in lovely women and round baby-faces, fitted him in an especial manner to be the herald of that fuller and larger life which was dawning on the men and women of the Renaissance.

This painter, who was to carry out Masaccio’s principles and continue his teaching, began life in the convent of the Carmelite church, where that short-lived master painted his great frescoes. Filippo Lippi was a butcher’s son, and was born in 14o6, in a street behind the Carmine Church. His mother died at his birth, and his father two years afterwards, and at the age of eight the boy was taken to the neighbouring convent by his aunt, Mona Lapaccia, who could no longer support him. The friars taught him to read, and placed him in the novices’ school; but instead of learning grammar the boy drew figures on his copy-book, and turned musical notes into arms and legs. Fortunately the Prior encouraged these artistic tastes, and sent young Lippo to learn of Lorenzo Monaco, from whom he acquired the skill in handling colour and glazes that distinguished his tempera-paintings. Afterwards he studied in the Brancacci Chapel, where his greatest delight was to watch Masaccio at work, and where he so far excelled his comrades that people said Masaccio’s spirit had entered into the body of Fra Lippo. On the 8th of June 1421, the young artist took the vows of a Carmelite friar and became a member of the Order, but he still worked diligently at his profession, and painted many frescoes in the church and cloister, which were destroyed in the fire of 1771. We find the word ” painter” affixed to Fra Lippo’s name in the convent records of 1430 and 1431, at the end of which year he left the monastery to devote himself solely to art. By this time the Carmelites were probably satisfied that he had no vocation for the cloister, and did not seek to detain him, but he remained on friendly terms with them, and always signed his pictures ” Frater Philippus.”

Soon after this, according to a well-known story which is not only told by Vasari, but was current in Florence towards the close of the century, and is placed by the novelist Matteo Bandello in Leonardo’s lips Fra Lippo fell into the hands of Moorish pirates, when he was sailing in a pleasure-boat off the coast of Ancona, and was taken captive to Barbary, and there sold as a slave. Here the skill with which he drew his master’s portrait in charcoal on his prison-wall produced so favourable an impression on the Moors, that at the end of eighteen months he was released and returned to Florence. Whatever may be the truth of this strange story, it is certain that we hear nothing of Fra Lippo between 1431, and the summer of 1434, when he was employed in painting a tabernacle for the basilica of Il Santo, at Padua.

On his return to Florence he found a generous patron in Cosimo de’ Medici, who took the lively friar under his especial protection, and not only appreciated his talent, but looked indulgently on his freaks and follies, saying that men of his rare genius were angels of light, and must not be treated like beasts of burden. But Fra Lippo’s idle and dissolute habits were a sore trial to his employers, and once, when Cosimo, in despair of ever seeing him finish the picture upon which he was engaged, locked him up in a room of the Via Larga Palace, the friar knotted his bed-clothes into a rope, and let himself down into the street from the window ! Yet Cosimo himself and all the members of his family looked kindly on the way-ward artist, and not only employed him to paint pictures for their own houses and chapels, but sent his works as gifts to the Pope and the king of Naples. Through their powerful influence, he was appointed rector of S. Quirico, at Legnaia, in 1442, and ten years later became chaplain to the nuns of S. Niccolò in Florence. Among the first works which Lippi painted for the Medici Palace were the two charming lunettes of the Seven Saints and of the Annunciation in the National Gallery. The patron Saints of the family, Cosimo and Damiano, figure prominently in the first group, and the Annunciation bears the badge of the Medici three feathers held together by a ring. Both of these little paintings are executed with the brilliancy and finish of a miniature, and are among the most exquisite examples of tempera in existence. The same freshness and charm distinguish the youthful Virgin adoring the Child sleeping on the flowery meadow with the little St. John in the background, which Fra Lippo painted for Cosimo’s wife. This subject is repeated with a figure of St. Bernard and a finely wooded landscape in the background, in a lovely picture at Berlin, which may have been the altar-piece that once adorned the chapel in the Medici Palace, where Benozzo Gozzoli painted his frescoes of the Journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem. It was evidently a favourite with the Medici, and we find a third version in another altar-piece which Fra Lippo painted by their command, for the nunnery of Annalena. But of all the works which he executed for these generous patrons, the best-known is the delightful little Uffizi picture of two boy-angels holding up the Child before his Mother, who sits with clasped hands, in front of an open window. The muslin frills of the fair-haired Virgin’s veil, the chubby-faced Child stretching out his little arms to his Mother, above all the mischievous look in the eyes of the boy-angel with white tunic and purple wings, who is said to represent the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, are all in Fra Filippo’s happiest manner. Through the open window we see a river winding its way over rich plains, and on the rocky heights beyond we catch a glimpse of distant towers steeped in the glow of the evening sun. Fra Lippo excelled in designing these small pictures for household altars, and was one of the first to adopt the round form, or tondo, which became so popular with Florentine painters and sculptors. An admirable example of this class of picture by his hand is the Madonna and Child with the pomegranate, in the Pitti. As before, Masaccio’s influence is apparent in the modelling of the heads and hands,- and graceful women-figures and architectural accessories are introduced in the background with a highly decorative effect. The original drawing for this sweet, mournful Virgin-face is in the Dreyfus collection in Paris, and is said to be a portrait of the fair novice Lucrezia Buti who afterwards became Fra Lippo’s wife. The picture evidently belongs to the friar’s maturer years, and was probably painted when he was at Prato. To an earlier date we must ascribe the Madonna and Angels in the Louvre, which was ordered by the Captain of Or’ San Michele for a chapel in S. Spirito, in 1336, and which Lippi complained would cost him five years of incessant toil I

The large Coronation of the Virgin, in the Accademia, was ordered in 1441, by the Prior of S. Ambrogio, but only completed six years later, when the painter received the sum of 1200 lire. Here the painter’s conception of the scene is strikingly original. Three rows of angels crowned with roses, and holding tall white lilies, stand around the throne ; saints and bishops, monks and nuns mingle with little children in the crowd of worshippers below and in the right hand, conspicuous among these splendid robes and wealth of ornament by his shaven head and Carmelite habit, is Fra Lippo himself, clasping his hands devoutly, while a laughing Angel holds up a scroll with the words Iste perfecit opus. In the same year that he finished this important work, he received another forty florins from the Signory of Florence for the small Vision of St. Bernard, in the National Gallery, which originally hung in a hall of the Palazzo Pubblico. But in spite of increasing fame and of the large sums which he received for these works, the friar was always poor and needy, beset with impatient creditors, and writing begging letters to the Medici. In August 1439, he addressed a querulous epistle to Piero, complaining that his illustrious patron had not sent him a farthing, although he insisted on keeping his picture, and calling himself the poorest friar in Florence. And since it is his grievous misfortune to have six orphan nieces, sickly and in-capable girls of marriageable age, depending upon him, he implores Piero for God’s sake to send him a little corn and wine, in order that they may not starve during his absence. ” I cannot leave home,” he adds in conclusion, ” for I have not enough to buy a pair of socks, and if I stay here I am a dead man, so great is the terror I live in ! So I entreat you to reply at once, and send word to your house that something may be paid me.” In his distress, he occasionally had recourse to the most unscrupulous measures, and, in 1450, forged a receipt for the sum of forty florins, which he owed to one of his assistants. A law-suit followed, and Fra Lippo, being put to the rack, confessed his crime, and in May 1455, was deprived of his benefice of S. Quirico, partly because of his misdeeds, and partly because, in spite of repeated warnings, he never visited his church or parish. Nothing daunted, the guilty friar appealed to Pope Calixtus III., but his Holiness only con-firmed the sentence, and declared the said Fra Lippo to be guilty of many and great wickednesses.

After this disastrous affair Lippi. retired to Prato, where he had been engaged four years before, to paint the choir of the Pieve, or parish church, which Fra Angelico had been unable to undertake. Here he bought a house close to the convent of Santa Margherita, and was appointed chaplain to this community and requested by the Abbess to paint a Madonna for the nuns’ chapel. Although he was al-ready past fifty, the incorrigible Friar now fell in love with his model, a beautiful orphan girl of twenty-one, named Lucrezia Buti, the daughter of a Florentine silk-weaver, who had been placed in the convent by her brother, and had taken the vows two years before. On the festival of the Holy Girdle, which was celebrated with great pomp at Prato, the Friar carried off Lucrezia to his own house, where she was soon followed by her elder sister Spinetta, who, like herself, had little vocation for the cloister. Towards the end of 1457, Lucrezia gave birth to a son, the painter Filippino Lippi ; but two years later, both she and her sister were compelled to return to the convent, and, on the 23rd of December 1459, solemnly renewed their vows, in the presence of the Bishop of Pistoia. Before long, however, Lucrezia and her sister found the con-vent rule intolerable, and once more sought refuge in Fra Lippo’s house. This time a charge of unlawful abduction was brought against the painter, who appealed to his powerful friend Cosimo, at whose intercession Pope Pius II. absolved both the guilty parties from their vows and declared them to be lawful man and wife. The whole story is a curious illustration of contemporary morals, and throws light on the habits and practices of religious communities of the age.

The Friar’s adventures, as might be expected, excited not a little merriment among his friends in Florence.

” I laughed heartily,” wrote Cosimo’s younger son, Giovanni de’ Medici, ” when I heard of Fra Filippo’s escapade.” In the same letter, addressed to a Florentine envoy at the Court of Naples, Giovanni alludes to the picture by Fra Lippo which he had presented to King Alfonso, and which had greatly pleased His Majesty. This little panel, a Madonna and Child with Angels and a youthful St. Michael, was painted by the Friar in 1457, after repeated delays and interruptions. On the 20th of July, he addressed a letter to his “dearest and most illustrious, lord,” Giovanni de’ Medici, who was spending the summer in his villa at Fiesole, professing himself to be his willing slave, and sending a sketch of the proposed picture, but asking for supplies of money, that he may obtain gold and silver leaf for the armour and wings of St. Michael. As usual, he is without a farthing, and has been unable to work for three days for want of gilding, ” And I entreat you to answer,” he adds ; ” for here I am dying, and only long to get away.” This anxiety to leave Florence was not entirely due to the heat of the season, or even to the Friar’s desire to see Lucrezia and her new-born son, for, six weeks later, a servant of the Medici, Francesco Cantansanti, writes to inform Giovanni, that up till Saturday evening he has been vainly urging Fra Filippo to finish the picture, and now hears that the goods in his shop have been seized by his creditors, and that he himself has disappeared. But what risks the man runs ! ” is the conclusion with which the long-suffering agent ends his tale. The picture in question was eventually finished by the following spring, and sent to Naples in May 1458. The next year Fra Lippo found himself engaged in another tedious law-suit respecting a picture of St. Jerome, which he had agreed to paint for Lorenzo de’ Manetti. As usual the unscrupulous artist had taken the money without painting the picture, and was condemned to be publicly excommunicated by the Archbishop.

Meanwhile the frescoes in the church at Prato, which Filippo had engaged to execute, in 1452, and for which he had already received considerable sums, were still unfinished. After repeated entreaties and remonstrances, Carlo de’ Medici, the illegitimate son of Cosimo, who became Rector of Prato, in 146o, at length induced the Friar to resume the long-neglected work, and the frescoes were finally completed in 1464. On the right wall of the choir, the artist painted scenes from the life of the Baptist ; on the left he represented the history of St. Stephen, the patron-saint of Prato. These frescoes are Fra Lippo’s most important- works, and reveal his really great powers of design and execution. The grandeur of the composition and dramatic vigour with which the story is told, the animation and variety of the individual figures and the admirable proportions and perspective of the architecture justify the high praise bestowed upon the friar’s works by Morelli, who compares them with Mantegna’s frescoes at Padua, and pronounces them to be among the noblest creations of the fifteenth century. The early subjects from the Baptist’s life abound in fascinating episodes and graceful figures, whose classical design and flowing lines prove Fra Lippo to have been an attentive student of antique models. Especially attractive is the simple and touching scene in which the young St. John takes leave of his parents and receives their farewell blessing before the eyes of a sorrowing company of friends. But the most striking composition is the Feast of Herod, a scene of worldly splendour, in which the Friar’s love of stately architecture, rich costumes and youthful loveliness has full play. The group at the supper-table, where Salome, kneeling before her gorgeously-arrayed mother, offers her the Baptist’s head in a charger, recalls Masolino’s Castiglione fresco, only that here, the horror-struck maidens clasp each other in a close embrace, as they turn aside from the sight. The early scenes of St. Stephen’s life have suffered severely, but the fresco of his Burial is unrivalled in solemn and majestic beauty. In the nave of a spacious Renaissance church, with double aisles and classical pillars, we see the young martyr, laid out on his bier, with quietly folded hands, clad in a red robe. In the foreground two women are seated on the marble pavement, weeping bitterly, while an imposing assembly of lay and ecclesiastical dignatories chant the last offices, and two youthful disciples kiss the feet of their beloved teacher. The expression of the aged priest, who stands behind the officiating minister, clasping his hands in anguish, and lifting his eyes to heaven with prayerful resignation, is singularly natural and pathetic, and reveals the Carmelite friar in a new light. Among the prelates at the foot of the bier, the portly Carlo de’ Medici is introduced, robed in full canonicals and wearing a red cap, and in the black-robed figure further back we recognise the portrait of the artist, whose name, Frater Filippus, is inscribed on the pediment in the opposite corner.

After finishing these magnificent works, which Michelangelo, we are told, not only admired, but strove to imitate, Fra Filippo left Prato in 1465, taking his wife, who had lately given birth to a daughter named Alessandra, and his two children with him, and went to Spoleto. Here his old patrons, the Medici, had obtained the important work of decorating the choir of the Cathedral, for this strange protegé, whom they had helped through so many difficulties, and whom, in spite of his sins, they never forsook. During the next four years, Fra Lippo devoted his energies to these frescoes at Spoleto. Chief among them is the great Coronation, on the vaulting of the semi-dome, with its grand central group encircled by a living, moving host of angels, dancing on the clouds, singing and scattering flowers, playing harpsichords, or swinging censers in the air. There is none of the blessed peace and repose of Angelico’s Paradise, but all is gaiety and movement, light and joy. The robes of the Madonna herself, and of Angels and Saints, are thickly embroidered with gold, roses bloom on the trees of the garden, and glittering seraphs wave tall lilies in their hands or stoop and gather flowers. The fresco has been sadly damaged and badly restored, but enough remains to show us the fine conception and glowing colour of the original work, which made Vasari exclaim, when he stopped at Spoleto, on his way from Rome, ” Cosa molta bella ! Fù gran uomo ! ” —” What a beautiful thing ! Truly, the Friar was a great man ! ” The Death of the Virgin, on the wall of the choir, recalls the Burial of St. Stephen, at Prato, and the sorrow-stricken expression on the face of St. John, who kneels with the other Apostles near the bed, is touchingly represented. But instead of taking place in a church, the scene is set in a rocky landscape, and the form of Christ is seen throned on the clouds receiving the Virgin’s soul into heaven. Fra Diamante, the Carmelite friar of Prato, who had become Fra Filippo’s assistant, and had shared his good and evil fortunes, worked under him here and executed the chief part of the remaining frescoes in the choir, after his master’s death. For, long before the work was ended, Fra Lippo died, on the 9th October, 1469, leaving his orphan son in the charge of his faithful follower, who finished the frescoes and gave the boy a share in the 200 ducats which he received from the Municipality of Spoleto. The master himself was buried in the Duomo, where he had his last works, under a tomb of red and white marble. Many years afterwards, Lorenzo de’ Medici begged the citizens of Spoleto to allow Fra Filippo’s bones to be removed to Florence, and when this request was refused, sent the painter’s son, Filippino, to erect a monument above his resting-place, and employed Angelo Poliziano to celebrate his memory in a Latin epitaph. In his old convent of the Carmine the friar was not forgotten, and the following record of his death may be found in a book which gives the names of the Carmelites who died in the year 1469:

” On the 9th of October, F. Philippus Thomae Lippi de Lippis, of Florence, the famous painter, died at Spoleto, where he was painting the choir of the Cathedral, and was buried with great honour in a marble tomb in front of the central door of this church. So rare was his grace in painting, that scarcely any other artist came near him in our times. The Chapel of Prato and many other marvellous works show how great a master he was.”

He had been guilty of many crimes and follies, but the Church forgave him for the sake of the grace and excellence of his ‘art, and the friars of the Carmine were still proud to call him their brother.


Florence.—S. Lorenza: Annunciation and Predella.

” Accademia : 55. Madonna and Saints ; 62. Coronation ; 79. Madonna adoring the Child ; 82. Nativity ; 86. Predella of St. Augustine, St. Frediano and the Virgin ; 263. St. Anthony and Baptist ; 264. Annunciation.

” Uffizi: 1307. Madonna and Child with two Angels.

” Pitti : 338. Madonna and Child with Pomegranate.

Prato.— Duomo : Frescoes — Choir : Life of St. Stephen and of the Baptist ; Transept : Death of St. Bernard.

Rome.—Lateran: Coronation, Saints and Donors.

” Doria Gallery: Annunciation.

” Mr. Mond : Annunciation.

Spoleto.—Duomo, Choir: Frescoes—Coronation and Life of Virgin (in part).

Turin.—Gallery: 140, 141. Fathers of the Church.

Berlin.—Gallery: 58. Madonna; 69, Madonna adoring Child; 95. Madonna della Misericordia.

London. — National Gallery : 248. Vision of St. Bernard ; 666. Annunciation ; 667. Seven Saints. Sir Francis Cook : Adoration of Magi, Archangel Michael and St. Anthony.

Munich.—1005. Annunciation ; 1006. Madonna and Child.

Paris.—Louvre: 1344. Madonna and Child with Angels.