9 October 2020

Fra’ Filippo Lippi - Renaissance painter

Mentor of Botticelli who led life of scandal

Filippo Lippi, a self-portrait within a fresco in Spoleto's historic cathedral
Filippo Lippi, a self-portrait within a
fresco in Spoleto's historic cathedral
The controversial 15th century painter Fra’ Filippo Lippi, who famously eloped with a nun who had agreed to pose for him at a Dominican monastery in Prato, died on or close to this day in 1469 in Spoleto, a city in Umbria then part of the Papal States.

He was aged 62 or 63. Because of the scandalous nature of his life, there was speculation after his death that he had been poisoned, possibly by relatives of Lucrezia Buti, the nun who fell for his charms and was the mother of two children by him.

Aside from his colourful private life, Lippi was an important figure in the development of painting.  Influenced himself by Masaccio and Fra’ Angelico, he developed a signature style of his own that was colourful and decorative and characterised by clarity of expression.  His own influence was seen in the works of his pupil Sandro Botticelli and his son, Filippino Lippi.

Born in Florence in 1406, the son of a butcher, Lippi was orphaned when he was two years old. Until he was eight, he lived with an aunt, who then placed him in a Carmelite convent. In 1420 he entered the community of friars at the Monastery of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, where he took religious vows at the age of 16. It was there that he first came across Masaccio, who was working there on some frescoes in the Brancacci chapel that would become some of the most revered works of the Renaissance.

He did not take to studying, often occupying his time drawing pictures, and was allowed to leave the monastery to pursue his interest in painting, although he was not released from his vows.

A scene from Lippi's fresco series in the  cathedral in the Tuscan city of Prato
A scene from Lippi's fresco series in the 
cathedral in the Tuscan city of Prato
He began travelling around Italy, visiting Padua, Ancona and Naples. The art historian Giorgio Vasari claimed that Fra’ Lippi was captured by Barbary pirates during a boat trip and kept as a slave for 18 months, supposedly securing his release only after he drew a picture of his slave master on the wall, using a piece of coal, that was such an accurate likeness that it was assumed he had some miraculous powers.

By the time he returned to Florence, in the 1430s, his reputation as a painter was growing and he was commissioned by a number of prominent families, including the Medicis. At the same time, however, his private life became increasingly turbulent, and when his employers were not dealing with complaints about his behaviour and settling lawsuits, they were paying off the debts he ran up.  The Medici became so exasperated with his unreliability they are said to have kept him locked up at night until he completed various commissions.

He produced his best work after moving to Prato, where he painted frescoes in the choir of the city’s cathedral depicting the stories of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen. The scene showing the ceremonial mourning over Stephen's corpse is believed to contain a self-portrait of the painter. One of his scenes from his fresco series, Scenes of the Life of the Virgin, in the cathedral in Spoleto, is also said to include a self-portrait.

Lucrezia Buti is thought to be depicted  in Lippi's 1455 Madonna and Child
Lucrezia Buti is thought to be depicted
 in Lippi's 1455 Madonna and Child

It was in Prato that the major scandal of his life occurred. He had been appointed chaplain of the monastery of Santa Margherita and it is said that Lippi asked the mother superior for a nun who could pose for him for a picture he was painting, either of the Madonna or Santa Margherita.

He was sent Lucrezia Buti, the daughter of a Florentine family who, like him, has been sent to a convent as a child.  Lippi was taken with her beauty and seduced her. Soon afterwards, while Lucrezia was taking part in a procession, Lippi effectively kidnapped her. They moved into his house in Prato. Their son, Filippino, was born in 1457, followed a few years later by Alessandra, their daughter.

Given that Filippo and Lucrezia had both taken vows, they were living in sin, which at the time was considered highly scandalous. Eventually, Pope Pius II agreed to dissolve their vows, although they never married.  Lippi frequently depicted Lucrezia in his paintings, including a celebrated Madonna and Child painted in around 1455 that influenced Botticelli’s depictions of the Madonna. The painting hangs in the Uffizi in Florence.

In 1467, accompanied by Filippino and his friend and fellow painter, Fra’ Diamante, Lippi left for Spoleto, where he had been commissioned to decorate the choir of the Duomo. They worked together on the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Death of Mary, and the Coronation. He died in 1469 before the work was complete. He was buried in the cathedral, where a monument to him, commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent, was designed by his son.

The Palazzo Pretorio is one of a  several important buildings in Prato
The Palazzo Pretorio is one of a 
several important buildings in Prato
Travel tip:

The city of Prato is just half an hour from Florence yet is almost Tuscany's forgotten gem.  It has a commercial heritage founded on the textile industry and its growth in the 19th century earned it the nickname the "Manchester of Tuscany". Prato is the home of the Datini archives, a significant collection of late medieval documents concerning economic and trade history, produced between 1363 and 1410, yet also has many artistic treasures, including frescoes by Lippi, Paolo Uccello and Agnolo Gaddi inside its Duomo and the external pulpit by Michelozzo and Donatello. The Palazzo Pretorio is a building of great beauty, situated in the pretty Piazza del Comune, and there are the ruins of the castle built for the medieval emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II.

Spoleto's beautiful cathdral, where Fra' Filippo Lippi is buried
Spoleto's beautiful cathedral, where
Fra' Filippo Lippi is buried
Travel tip:

Spoleto is an historic and beautiful Umbrian hill town, where the 12th century cathedral is one of a number of interesting buildings including, standing on a hilltop overlooking the town, the imposing 14th century fortress, La Rocca Albornoziana.  There is a Roman amphitheatre, close to Piazza Garibaldi, which dates back to the middle of the first century BC and the early days of the Roman empire.  Two marble busts unearthed nearby, thought to be of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus and his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, may have been part of the decoration of the wall of the stage, which was destroyed in the Middle Ages during the construction of the adjoining Sant’Agata monastery and church, which now houses an archaeological museum.  The town is the home of the Festival dei Due Mondi music festival.

Also on this day:

1221: The death of historian Salimbene di Adam

1562: The death of anatomist Gabriele di Falloppio

1963: The Vajont Dam disaster


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