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Title: Filippo Lippi
Author: Konody, Paul G. (Paul George), 1872-1933
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Filippo Lippi" ***

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    ARTIST.                 AUTHOR.

    BELLINI.                GEORGE HAY.
    BOTTICELLI.             HENRY B. BINNS.
    BOUCHER.                C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    BURNE-JONES.            A. LYS BALDRY.
    CARLO DOLCI.            GEORGE HAY.
    CHARDIN.                PAUL G. KONODY.
    CONSTABLE.              C. LEWIS HIND.
    COROT.                  SIDNEY ALLNUTT.
    DA VINCI.               M. W. BROCKWELL.
    DELACROIX.              PAUL G. KONODY.
    DÜRER.                  H. E. A. FURST.
    GREUZE.                 ALYS EYRE MACKLIN.
    HOGARTH.                C. LEWIS HIND.
    HOLBEIN.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
    INGRES.                 A. J. FINBERG.
    LAWRENCE.               S. L. BENSUSAN.
    LEIGHTON.               A. LYS BALDRY.
    LUINI.                  JAMES MASON.
    MANTEGNA.               MRS. ARTHUR BELL.
    MEMLINC.                W. H. J. & J. C. WEALE.
    MILLAIS.                A. LYS BALDRY.
    MILLET.                 PERCY M. TURNER.
    MURILLO.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
    PERUGINO.               SELWYN BRINTON.
    RAEBURN.                JAMES L. CAW.
    RAPHAEL.                PAUL G. KONODY.
    REMBRANDT.              JOSEF ISRAELS.
    REYNOLDS.               S. L. BENSUSAN.
    ROMNEY.                 C. LEWIS HIND.
    ROSSETTI.               LUCIEN PISSARRO.
    RUBENS.                 S. L. BENSUSAN.
    SARGENT.                T. MARTIN WOOD.
    TINTORETTO.             S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TITIAN.                 S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TURNER.                 C. LEWIS HIND.
    VAN DYCK.               PERCY M. TURNER.
    VELAZQUEZ.              S. L. BENSUSAN.
    WATTEAU.                C. LEWIS HIND.
    WATTS.                  W. LOFTUS HARE.
    WHISTLER.               T. MARTIN WOOD.

    _Others in Preparation._


(In the Accademia, Florence)

In this earliest known picture by Filippo Lippi, the painter is still
entirely under the influence of his youthful training. It is just like
an illuminated miniature on a large scale, and is lacking in unity of
design or pictorial vision. Note the way in which the figure of the
Madonna is detached from the background, without having any real plastic
life; and how awkwardly the monk is placed in the corner. The rocky
landscape, with its steep perspective, is still quite in the spirit of
the early primitives, although certain realistic details, like the
cut-down tree-stump behind the Virgin, and the reflection of the sky in
the water, show his loving observation of Nature. The picture was for a
long time attributed to Masaccio's master, Masolino.]

    Filippo Lippi



    [Illustration: IN SEMPITERNUM.]

    LONDON: T. C. & E. C. JACK



      I.                                                        9

     II.                                                       19

    III.                                                       41

     IV.                                                       66


       I. The Virgin Adoring the Infant Saviour      Frontispiece
              In the Accademia, Florence

      II. St. John the Baptist with six other Saints           14
              In the National Gallery, London

     III. The Vision of St. Bernard                            24
              In the National Gallery, London

      IV. The Annunciation                                     34
              In the National Gallery, London

       V. The Coronation of the Virgin                         40
              In the Accademia, Florence

      VI. The Virgin and Child                                 50
              In the Pitti Palace, Florence

     VII. The Virgin and Child with two Angels                 60
              In the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

    VIII. The Virgin and Child with Angels and two Abbots      70
              In the Louvre, Paris



In Vasari's gossipy _Lives of the Painters_, and indeed in most art
histories written before the era of scientific critical research, there
is an inclination, in the absence of documentary material, to
reconstruct the old masters' characters and lives from the evidence of
their extant works. Many a charming legend, that was originally
suggested by the expression of the painter's personality in his art, and
has been handed down from generation to generation, had to be shelved as
dusty archives yielded new knowledge of indisputable prosaic facts to
the diligent searcher. Whilst the serious student owes a debt of deep
gratitude to those who devote their time and labour to the investigation
of documentary evidence, and to establishing critical standards for the
sifting of the great masters' works from those of their followers and
imitators, the elimination of romance from the history of art is a
hindrance rather than a help to the ordinary person who cares not a jot
about morphological characteristics, but loves nevertheless to spend an
hour now and then in communion with the old masters. For him,
paradoxical though it may seem, there is more significant truth in many
an entirely fictitious anecdote, than in the dry facts recorded by the
conscientious historian.

Thus we know now that Domenico Veneziano outlived Andrea dal Castagno by
several years, and could therefore not have been foully murdered by his
jealous rival. But does not the fable of this act of violence, suggested
no doubt by the fierceness and rugged strength of Andrea's art, help the
layman to understand and appreciate the qualities which constitute the
greatness of that art? We know now that Fra Angelico, far from
accounting it a sin to paint from the nude, was an eager student of
human anatomy; but the stories told of his piety and angelic sweetness
have become so fused with everybody's conception of the Dominican
friar's art, that even those to whom the spiritual significance of art
is a sealed book, search almost instinctively for signs of religious
fervour and exaltation in Fra Angelico's paintings. The stories of
Sodoma's habits of life and of his strange doings at Mont' Oliveto
belong probably to the realm of fiction, but they serve to explain and
accentuate the worldly tendencies of his artistic achievement.

In these instances, to which many others might easily be added,
the artists' personality and manner of life have been fancifully
reconstructed from the character of their work. Very different
is the case of Fra Filippo Lippi. Here criticism has seized upon
certain authentic facts of the Carmelite friar's life and amorous
adventures--facts that in their main current have been established
beyond the possibility of dispute, even though they have been
embroidered upon by imaginative pens--and has dealt with his art in the
light of that knowledge, reading into his paintings not only his
artistic emotions, but his personal desires and passions. Only thus
can it be explained that generation after generation of writers on art
have misconstrued the exquisite and touching innocence and virgin purity
of his Madonna type into an expression of sensuality. Again and again we
read about the pronounced worldliness of Fra Filippo's religious
paintings, about their lack of spiritual significance and devout


(In the National Gallery, London)

The companion picture to the "Annunciation" lunette is the first
rendering in Italian art of a Santa Conversatione in the open air. It is
just an assembly of seven saints, without any real inner connection, the
two pairs at the sides--SS. Francis and Lawrence on the left, and SS.
Anthony and Peter Martyr on the right--being absorbed in their own
doings and paying no attention to the blessing which St. John apparently
bestows upon SS. Cosmas and Damianus, the patron saints of the Medici
family. The little glimpse of a landscape background behind the marble
bench affords evidence of Fra Filippo's close study of Nature even at
that early period.]

Vasari, of course, is the fountain-head of this misconception of the
Carmelite's art. According to the Aretine biographer, "it was said that
Fra Filippo was much addicted to the pleasures of sense, insomuch that
he would give all he possessed to secure the gratification of whatever
inclination might at the moment be predominant, but if he could by no
means accomplish his wishes, he would then depict the object which had
attracted his attention in his paintings, and endeavour by discoursing
and reasoning with himself to diminish the violence of his inclination.
It was known that, while occupied in the pursuit of his pleasures, the
works undertaken by him received little or none of his attention."

It so happens that many of the discreditable incidents of the friar's
life, recorded by Vasari, have been confirmed by documentary evidence.
There is not a shadow of doubt that Fra Filippo did abduct the nun
Lucrezia Buti from her convent; that Filippino Lippi was the offspring
of this illicit union; and that the Frate subsequently did not avail
himself of the special papal dispensation to wed the nun. There is also
abundant proof to show that Fra Filippo, in spite of the high esteem in
which he was held as an artist, and which caused him to be entrusted
with many a remunerative commission, was for ever in financial straits,
was involved in many vexatious law cases, attempted to cheat his own
assistants, and had no hesitation to break faith with his patrons. But
all this does not affect his art. To read sensuality into his types of
womanhood can only be the result of prejudice, of approaching his
pictures in the light of the knowledge gathered from the pages of the
chroniclers. Worldly he is compared with the pure, exalted spirituality
of the Dominican Fra Angelico, but only in so far as he belonged already
to the new era which had discovered, and revelled in, the visible beauty
of this world of ours, whilst Fra Angelico, his contemporary, still
belongs to the earlier age that looked to the empyrean for all true
happiness. The art of both masters is planted in Gothic soil, though it
bore different fruit, that of Fra Angelico being still essentially
Gothic, though often tinged with a Renaissance flavour, whilst that of
Fra Filippo has all the richness and fullness of the Renaissance, of
which he was one of the great initiators.

That such conceptions as the Virgin in National Gallery "Annunciation,"
or the lovely Madonna in the _tondo_ at the Palazzo Pitti, and many
other authentic works by the master, are lacking in spirituality of
expression, cannot be seriously maintained by anybody who approaches
these pictures with an open mind and judges the artist by his
achievement, not by his manner of life. Even Mr. Berenson, the most
authoritative modern critic of Italian art, denies Fra Filippo a
"profound sense of either material or spiritual significance--the
essential qualifications of the real artist," although he admits in the
same essay[1] that "his real place is with the genre painters, only his
genre _was that of the soul_, as that of others--of Benozzo Gozzoli, for
example--was of the body." Browning, with the true poet's intuition,
states the case of Fra Filippo more clearly than the vast majority of
professional critics from Vasari to the present day, when he makes the
friar exclaim:

            "... Now is this sense, I ask?
    A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
    So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
    And can't fare worse!...

           *       *       *       *       *

    Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
    Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
    Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
    Both in their order?...

           *       *       *       *       *

    Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue,
    Can't I take breath and try to add life's flash,
    And then add soul and heighten them threefold?"


Whereas all questions concerning Fra Filippo's artistic education remain
largely a matter of conjecture and deduction, there is no lack of
documentary material for a fairly accurate reconstruction of his life.
Vasari remains, of course, the basis for any such attempt; but the
archives of Florence and Prato have yielded a rich harvest of
contemporary records, on the strength of which it is possible to clear
up the contradictions and to correct the numerous errors that have crept
into Vasari's life of _The Florentine Painter, Fra Filippo Lippi_.

Filippo was the son of Tommaso di Lippo, a butcher in a poor quarter of
Florence, and of Mona Antonia di Bindo Sernigi. None of the various
dates given in his wonted loose fashion by Vasari for the birth of the
artist, accords with ascertainable facts, which point to the years 1406
to 1409, with probability favouring the earlier date. According to a
document in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, confirmed by an entry in
the account books of the convent of the Carmine, in which "Philippus
Tomasi" is stated to have received his garments at the expense of that
establishment, Filippo took the habit in the year 1421. There are no
reasons to doubt Milanesi's well-reasoned suggestion that the artist was
fifteen years of age when he took the vow--which would place the year of
his birth about 1406.

"By the death of his father," continues Vasari, "he was left a
friendless orphan at the age of two years, his mother having also died
shortly after his birth. The child was for some time under the care of a
certain Mona Lapaccia, his aunt, the sister of his father, who brought
him up with great difficulty till he had attained his eighth year, when,
being no longer able to support the burden of his maintenance, she
placed him in the convent of the Carmelites." Since, however, an
income-tax return, discovered by Milanesi, proves Mona Antonia,
Filippo's mother, to have been still alive in 1427, and apparently in
tolerably comfortable circumstances, this account of Filippo's sad
childhood must be relegated to the sphere of fiction. Destined for the
Church, he was presumably at the age of eight placed with the Carmelites
to be prepared for his vocation. That he showed no inclination for
book-learning and "manifested the utmost dullness and incapacity in
letters," and that he preferred to daub his and the other boys' books
with caricatures, need not be doubted, for his extant letters prove him
to have been strikingly illiterate even for his days. Nor is Filippo the
only artist who evinced an early inclination for the artistic profession
in this manner.


(In the National Gallery, London)

The Vision of St. Bernard, although at present the mere ghost of a
picture from which almost every vestige of the original colour has faded
away, is an important landmark in Fra Filippo's life, as it is one of
the few works about which we have definite dates. It is mentioned by
Vasari as being one of two pictures intended to be placed over doors in
the Palazzo della Signoria, Florence. A contemporary record states, that
on May 16, 1447, Fra Filippo received 40 lire for having painted "the
figure of the Virgin and of St. Bernard." The companion picture, which
represented the "Annunciation," has disappeared.]

And now Vasari loses himself in a tangle of incorrect and contradictory
assertions. First, that the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine had "then"
just been finished by Masaccio, and so delighted the young Carmelite
that he "frequented it daily for his recreation," and so completely
absorbed Masaccio's style "that many affirmed the spirit of Masaccio to
have entered the body of Fra Filippo." At this period he painted several
frescoes in the Carmine, and one in _terra verde_ in the cloister of
that church. As a result of the high praise bestowed upon him for these
early efforts, "he formed his resolution at the age of seventeen, and
boldly threw off the clerical habit."

To begin with, the account books of the Carmine show that Fra Filippo
remained at that monastic establishment at least until 1431, when he was
about twenty-five years of age. That even then he did not throw off his
clerical habit is clearly proved by the fact that he subsequently held
the posts of abbot of S. Quirico a Legnaja, and of chaplain to the nuns
of Sta. Margherita at Prato. Of the early frescoes recorded by Vasari
and other writers, every vestige has disappeared, so that it is
impossible to trace through them the supposed direct or indirect
teaching of Masaccio. But there is something wrong about the dates.
Masaccio wrought his Carmine frescoes between 1425 and 1427, so that his
could not possibly have been the earliest influence upon the young
monk's impressionable mind. Nor is there even a hint of Masaccio's
monumental style in the earliest known works by Filippo: the two
"Nativities" in the Florence Academy, and the "Annunciation" in the
Pinakothek in Munich. That Fra Filippo, like all the masters of the
Florentine Renaissance, was, in his later life, powerfully influenced
by the genius of Masaccio, is only natural, and cannot be doubted by
anybody who has seen his frescoes at Prato. For his earliest
inspiration, however, one has to look for other sources; and modern
criticism is pretty well agreed upon this point, that the pictures
painted by the friar in his youthful years are based on the trecento
tradition, and that the only late Giottesque who could have been his
master is the Camaldolese, Lorenzo Monaco.

Lorenzo Monaco's teaching, at any rate, is suggested by Fra Filippo's
first "Nativity" at the Florence Academy, which suggests the methods of
the school of miniaturists in which Lorenzo had been trained, although
these tendencies are clearly tempered by the influence of Masolino,
Masaccio's precursor in the decoration of the Brancacci Chapel, and
also of Fra Angelico. Indeed, this "Nativity" was actually for a long
time attributed to Masolino. Throughout his life, Fra Filippo, in his
steady advance from Giottism to such triumphantly vital achievement as
his Prato frescoes, evinced the greatest eagerness to absorb what was
newest and best. No doubt he watched Masolino at work at the Carmine,
and later on Masaccio, whose influence clearly appears in Fra Filippo's
mature work. But he also learnt from the example of all the other
masters who wrought in and near Florence in the early part of the
fifteenth century. Sir Frederick Cook's _tondo_ clearly shows the
influence of Gentile da Fabriano. Of Fra Angelico we are reminded by the
profound devotional feeling and mystic intentness of his early works.
From Pier dei Franceschi he acquired afterwards the feeling for
atmospheric effects which was unknown to the Giottesques, to Fra
Angelico, and even to Masaccio. Nor did he fail to study the reliefs of
Donatello, of which we are forcibly reminded by the "Madonna and Child
with the laughing Angel" at the Uffizi. And since Miss Mendelssohn has
shown that the dancing Salome in the Prato fresco is practically copied
from the figure of "Luna descending from her Chariot" in the relief on
the Endymion sarcophagus, we have proof that Lippi was also a student of
the antique.

The patronage which the powerful Medici family, and especially Cosimo
de' Medici, bestowed upon Fra Filippo Lippi, probably dates back to the
time when the friar was still working within the walls of the Carmine.
The "Nativity" (No. 79) at the Florence Academy was painted in the early
thirties of the fifteenth century for Cosimo's wife, who commissioned
it for the Camaldoli hermitage. For Cosimo himself he painted the two
lunettes now in the National Gallery: "The Annunciation" and "St. John
the Baptist with six other Saints," which were originally placed over
two doors in the Riccardi Palace. Other pictures by their protégé were
sent by members of the Medici family as gifts to the King of Naples and
other Italian princes. And there is no lack of documentary evidence that
the friar frequently petitioned members of that powerful family for
pecuniary or other assistance, for his disorderly habits of life brought
him into many a scrape, and resulted in constant financial stress. Thus
in a letter of August 13, 1439, to Piero de' Medici, he describes
himself as "one of the poorest friars in Florence," whom God left to
look after six unmarried, infirm, and useless nieces. The object of the
letter was to beg his patron to be supplied with wine and corn on

When Cosimo was banished from Florence in 1433, and took up his
residence at Padua, he was accompanied by a small army of courtiers and
artists. It is very probable that Fra Filippo was of their number.
Vasari's brief reference to paintings executed by the master in Padua is
supported by Filarete and the Anonimo Morelliano, and may therefore be
relied upon, although every trace of these works has vanished. There is
nothing in the extant records of the artist's movements to make his
presence at Padua in 1433-4 appear impossible. On the other hand,
Vasari's story of Filippo's capture by pirates on the coast of the
Marches of Ancona, his long-extended captivity and final liberation by
his master whose favour he had gained by the excellence of art, and his
visit to Naples on the home journey, belongs to the realm of fable.

In or before 1437, Fra Filippo was certainly back in Florence, since the
_Deliberazioni_ of the Company of Orsanmichele show that in that year he
was commissioned to paint the great altarpiece of the "Madonna and
Child, with Angels and two Abbots" for the Barbadori Chapel in Santo
Spirito, which is now one of the treasures of the Louvre. It is this
picture to which Domenico Veneziano refers in a letter to Piero de'
Medici, dated Perugia, April 1, 1438, asking to be entrusted with the
commission for an altarpiece, since "Fra Filippo and Fra Giovanni have
much work to do, and especially Fra Filippo has a panel for Santo
Spirito which, should he work day and night, will not be done in five
years, so great is the work." Yet in the following year we find him
writing a begging letter to the same Piero de' Medici.


(In the National Gallery, London)

This charming lunette and its companion, "St. John the Baptist and Six
Saints," were painted for the decoration of an apartment in the Riccardi
Palace, by order of Cosimo de' Medici, whose crest--three feathers in a
ring--is introduced in the stucco ornamentation of the balustrade. They
were painted about 1438, towards the end of Fra Filippo's first
Florentine period, and show far greater richness of colour and better
management of light than his earlier known works at the Florence
Academy. The perspective is still faulty, and the vase in the centre of
the picture is terribly out of drawing. It has been suggested that this
picture and the "Seven Saints" were the very panels on which Filippo
Lippi was at work when he effected his romantic escape from Cosimo's
palace, which is the subject of Browning's well-known poem.]

There can be no doubt that the gay friar led the life of a true
"Bohemian"--that he was fond of women and wine, and wasted his substance
in the company of his boon companions. He spent his money as rapidly as
he earned it, and was therefore in constant financial difficulties,
which involved him in no end of litigation. His most prosperous years
apparently began in 1442, when, probably through Cosimo's intervention,
Pope Eugene IV. made him rector of the parish church of S. Quirico a
Legnaja, of which post he was deprived by papal decree as a result of an
action brought against him by his assistant, Giovanni da Rovezzano.
Giovanni sued him for the amount of forty florins due to him for work
done, and Fra Filippo did not shrink from producing a forged receipt. To
this at least he confessed on the rack "when he saw his intestines
protruding from his wounds." Whether much weight can be attached to a
confession obtained by such means is another question, but there is
nothing in the career of Fra Filippo to make such disgraceful conduct
appear impossible.

An appeal to the Pope led to another investigation of the case. The
judgment of the Curia was confirmed, the Pope referring on this
occasion to Fra Filippo as a painter _qui plurima et nefanda scelera
perpetravit_. Nevertheless, some years later, our artist is still
mentioned as _rettore e commendatario di San Quirico a Legnaja_. From
which it may be assumed that the judgment deprived him merely of his
spiritual office, and left him in enjoyment of the revenue connected
with the post.

The ups and downs of Filippo Lippi's career in the fifties of the
fourteen-hundreds are more than a little confusing. Of commissions there
was no lack. And certain emoluments must have come to him from his
ecclesiastic appointments. His disgraceful conduct towards Giovanni da
Rovezzano, and the notorious looseness of his morals--one need only
recall the well-known anecdote of his escape through a window of the
Medici Palace in search of amorous adventure--did not stand in the way
of his being made chaplain to the nuns of S. Niccolò de' Fieri, in
1450,[2] and of Santa Margherita in Prato, in 1456. He bought a little
house at Prato in 1452, and another in 1454. During this whole period he
had so much work on hand that he was unable to fulfil his contracts,
which led to further unpleasant litigations. Yet in 1454, as we learn
from Neri di Lorenzo di Bicci's diaries, he found it advisable to
deposit some gold-leaf with the said Neri, in order to save it from
seizure by his creditors. On July 20, 1457, he writes to Giovanni de'
Medici to ask for an advance payment for work in hand--the same work,
presumably, over the execution of which he was so tardy that Francesco
Cantamanti had to visit his studio daily to urge its completion on
behalf of his patron. In his report to Giovanni de' Medici, dated August
31, 1457, Cantamanti states that on the preceding day Fra Filippo's
studio was seized by his landlord for arrears of rent.


(In the Accademia, Florence)

The crowning achievement of Filippo Lippi's second Florentine period,
the great "Coronation of the Virgin," was commissioned by Francesco de
Maringhi, chaplain to the nuns of Sant' Ambrogio, who died long before
the completion of the picture, having provided in his will of July 28,
1441, for the manner in which settlement should be effected. Thus, in
1441, Filippo was already engaged upon this altarpiece, which he did not
complete before 1447. On June 9 of that year he was paid the stipulated
fee of 1200 lire. Although the picture has suffered considerably, it is
even in its present condition one of the most entrancing creations of
Florentine art. That the painter himself was proud of the result of his
labours, may be gathered from the fact that he introduced his own
portrait in a prominent position. In Borghini's _Riposo_, published in
1797, it is stated that the painter's name, "Frater Filippus," was then
to be seen somewhere near the centre of the picture.]

Meanwhile the Carmelite's art had made prodigious progress. Filippo
Lippi, the pupil of the last Giottesque, was now swimming abreast of the
mighty current of the Renaissance. If his early Madonnas recall
something of the spirituality and naïve faith of Fra Angelico, the
altarpieces of his later Florentine period, and, above all, the
superb "Coronation of the Virgin," painted for Sant' Ambrogio, and
now in the Florence Academy, are inspired by the beauty of this visible
world. The atmosphere is of this earth, and not of the celestial
regions. His types are no longer ethereal, but realistically robust. In
the "Coronation of the Virgin" he has left us a portrait of himself at
the age of about forty, in the figure of the kneeling monk on the left,
towards whom an angel raises a scroll with the lettering IS PERFECIT
OPUS. The features are rather coarse and heavy, but scarcely express
that low sensuality which his biographers have tried to read into them.
The expression of his eyes in particular is intelligent, frank, and


The Sant' Ambrogio altarpiece must have added enormously to the
reputation which the Carmelite painter enjoyed among his
contemporaries. It was only natural that he should have been chosen by
the _proposto_ Gemignano Inghirami and by the magistrates of Prato to
undertake the fresco decoration in the choir of the cathedral of that
city, when Fra Angelico, in spite of repeated urging, refused to accept
this important commission, his time being fully occupied by the
completion of the series of frescoes at the Vatican. In the spring of
1452, Fra Filippo, accompanied by his assistant, Fra Diamante, took up
his abode at Prato, and entered upon the most eventful and artistically
the most significant period of his career. As we have seen, he still
kept up his workshop in Florence, where his temporary presence is
repeatedly testified by documentary evidence during the next few years.
Thus, although he began to work in the choir chapel immediately after
his arrival at Prato, as may be seen from the entry in the _Libra delle
spese_ in the _Archivio del Patrimonio ecclesiastico_ in Prato,
recording under date of May 29, 1452, the payment of fifty lire to "Fra
Diamante di Feo da Terranuova, gharzone di Fra Filippo di Tommaso," his
frequent absence and general dilatoriness were the cause of so much
delay that the decoration of the chapel was not completed before 1468, a
year before the master's death.

During this period of sixteen years Fra Filippo continued to be employed
by the members of the Medici family, by the _proposto_ Gemignano
Inghirami, and by many other patrons in Prato and Pistoja. In addition
to his frequent absence in Florence, he no doubt undertook several other
journeys, of one of which at least we have certain knowledge: his
sojourn in 1461 at Perugia, whither he was called to value Bonfigli's
frescoes in the Palazzo del Comune--an honourable task which devolved
upon him as the sole survivor of the three artists chosen for it by the
Signory of Perugia, the other two being Fra Angelico, who died in 1455,
and Domenico Veneziano, whose death occurred in the spring of the very
year that witnessed the completion of Bonfigli's frescoes.

But quite apart from such interruptions in the execution of that superb
series of frescoes at Prato, depicting scenes from the lives of St. John
the Baptist and St. Stephen, as were due to professional causes, there
was enough excitement and disturbance in the artist's private life to
account at least in part for his tardiness in completing the work which
constitutes his greatest claim to immortal fame. For Prato was the scene
of the great romance of Fra Filippo's life, by which his name has become
familiar even to those who know little of, and care less about, his
artistic achievement. The abduction of the nun, Lucrezia Buti, by the
amorous monk, who was then entering upon the sixth decade of his life,
is on the whole correctly recorded by Vasari, and has formed the subject
of many a literary romance and pictorial rendering. Subsequent doubts
thrown upon it by such eminent critics as, among others, Messrs. Crowe
and Cavalcaselle, who maintain that the story rests upon the sole
testimony of Vasari, and that "contingent circumstances tend to create
considerable doubts of Vasari's truth," almost succeeded in relegating
the amorous friar's daring exploit into the realm of fiction, until
Milanesi's researches established the substantial truth of the romantic
story. The facts, briefly stated, are as follows:

On the death of the Florentine silk merchant, Francesco Buti, in 1450,
his son, Antonio, found himself charged with the responsibility of a
not too profitable business, and a large family of twelve brothers and
sisters. The eldest of these sisters, Margherita, was married off to
Antonio Doffi in 1451, and in the same year two other sisters, Spinetta,
born 1434, and Lucrezia, born 1435, were placed with the nuns of Sta.
Margherita at Prato, Antonio paying the required fee of fifty florins
for each of them. Needless to say, the two girls thus committed to a
living tomb at the very time when life beckoned to them with all its
joys and seductions, were not consulted in this matter any more than was
Fra Filippo when, as a mere child, he had to enter the establishment of
the Carmelites in Florence. Presumably the two lively, handsome girls
had no more vocation for the cloistral life than the pleasure-loving
friar--which circumstance may be pleaded in mitigation of the
scandalous offence of which they subsequently became guilty.

Whether Fra Filippo had become acquainted with the Buti maidens before
they entered the nunnery of Sta. Margherita, which was then in charge of
the Abbess Bartolommea de' Bovacchiesi, it is impossible to say. Certain
it is, on the other hand, that the Madonna of the Pitti _tondo_, painted
in 1452, already bears the features of the model who, in other pictures,
has been identified as Lucrezia Buti. From this it may be assumed that
Fra Filippo, who came to Prato only a year after the two sisters, and
who lived there in a house opposite the convent of Sta. Margherita, must
have known Lucrezia at least four years before she sat to him for the
"Madonna della Cintola" in 1456, the year of her abduction. It is quite
possible that the love-struck monk used the influence of his powerful
protectors to secure his appointment as chaplain of Sta. Margherita, so
as to facilitate intercourse with the object of his affection and
desire. Nor did his by no means untainted reputation and the papal
stigma (_qui plurima et nefanda scelera perpetravit_) stand in the way
of the coveted post being actually conferred upon him in the year 1456.

In the same year, as soon as he had entered upon his new duties, the
Abbess of Sta. Margherita commissioned the new chaplain to paint an
altarpiece for the high altar of the convent church. This afforded Fra
Filippo a welcome opportunity for carrying out what must have been a
carefully and cunningly devised scheme. He begged the Abbess to allow
Lucrezia Buti, "who was exceedingly beautiful and graceful," to sit for
the head of the Madonna; and, having obtained this favour, presumably
did not fail to advance his cause. His clerical habit and the great
difference of age between the monk and the nun--he was then about fifty,
and Lucrezia twenty-one--may have helped to disarm suspicion: they did
not prevent the young nun from taking the fatal step which was bound to
bring disgrace and dishonour upon her; which, indeed, was accounted a
crime, for Lucrezia was not, as Vasari has it, "either a novice or a
boarder," but one of the eight "choral and professed nuns" who formed
the establishment of Santa Margherita.


(In the Pitti Palace, Florence)

Painted at Prato, soon after the abduction of Lucrezia Buti by the
amorous monk, the central group of this _tondo_ may be reasonably
assumed to portray Lucrezia and Filippo Lippi. The incidents in the
background, which have been a source of inspiration for many succeeding
artists, including Raphael himself, who echoes the figure of the
basket-carrying woman in his "Incendio del Borgo," depict the birth of
Mary, and the meeting of St. Anne and Joachim. The motif of the Birth of
the Virgin is in reality a convenient excuse for the painting of a
charmingly rendered scene of Florentine domestic life. The distribution
of light and the harmonising of the strong colour-notes are managed with
consummate skill.]

The plot came to a successful issue on the 1st of May 1456, during the
celebration of the feast of the Madonna della Cintola--Our Lady of the
Girdle. On that day it was the custom to exhibit at the Cathedral a
sacred relic, purporting to be the miraculous girdle given to St. Thomas
by the Virgin, who appeared to him after her death. That day was one of
the rare occasions when the nuns of Sta. Margherita left the precincts
of their convent to join the worshippers in the Duomo. On May 1, 1456,
there were eight nuns who set out to pray before the sacred girdle--but
seven only returned to the convent. Lucrezia Buti had been carried off
by her monkish lover to his house; and if any attempts were made to
induce her to return, either to Sta. Margherita, or to her relatives in
Florence, she lent a deaf ear to these appeals. Vasari relates that "the
father of Lucrezia was so grievously afflicted thereat, that he never
more recovered his cheerfulness, and made every possible effort to
regain his child." This, of course, is pure invention, since Francesco
Buti had been mouldering in his grave for six years when the abduction
took place.

And now we come to the most amazing chapter of this fifteenth-century
romance. Fra Filippo Lippi, the monk who had broken his vow and was
openly living at Prato with the equally guilty nun, actually continued
to administer to the spiritual welfare of the nuns of the convent that
had been so irretrievably disgraced by his conduct! That his misdeed was
allowed to pass unpunished and uncensured, may have encouraged others to
follow his and Lucrezia's example. Whether or not the Carmelite was
instrumental in helping the other nuns to escape, the fact remains that
before long Spinetta Buti had joined her sister in Filippo's house,
whilst three other nuns deserted the convent to live in illicit union
with their lovers. The unfortunate Abbess, Bartolommea de' Bovacchiesi,
whose portrait is to be seen as kneeling donor in the so-called "Madonna
della Cintola," now in the Municipal Palace at Prato, died of shame and
grief before the year came to a close.

The remote resemblance of the figure of St. Margaret, on the extreme
left of that picture, to Lucrezia Buti as she appears in authentic works
by the master, in addition to the fact that the "Madonna della Cintola"
was originally in the church of Sta. Margherita, has given colour to the
theory that this is the very altarpiece which figures so prominently in
the chief romance of Filippo Lippi's life. The same claim has been
advanced for the "Nativity" (No. 1343) at the Louvre. Much as one would
like to identify either the one or the other with the picture referred
to by the chroniclers, if only for the sentimental interest that would
be attached to it, neither of the two can be accepted as authentic works
by our artist. The best recent expert opinion has ascribed the Paris
panel in turn to Fra Diamante, Pesellino, Stefano da Zevio, and
Baldovinetti, agreeing only on the one point, that it cannot be by Fra
Filippo. As regards the "Madonna della Cintola," critical analysis of
the picture can only lead to the conviction that from beginning to end
it is inferior bottega work, with never a trace of the master's own
brush, although it may well be based on a design by Fra Filippo. It is
true, the time that elapsed between the placing of the commission for
the Sta. Margherita altarpiece and the abduction of Lucrezia was so
short, that the picture may have been only just begun and left to be
finished by some other inferior painter. On the other hand, there is no
reason for this assumption, since Filippo Lippo continued to be
connected with the convent in his capacity of chaplain.

In the year following that memorable feast of the Sacred Girdle,
Lucrezia presented the friar with a son, who was to become known to fame
as Filippino Lippi. The house in which he was born bears a commemorative
inscription put up by the citizens of Prato in 1869:


"Filippo Lippi bought and inhabited this house when he painted the
stupendous frescoes of the Cathedral, and here was born in 1459 (it
should read 1457) Filippino, the precursor of Raphael."

If proof were needed that the escape of the other nuns was closely
connected with the abduction of Lucrezia, it may be found in the fact
that, when Lucrezia, for some unknown reason, found it advisable to
feign repentance and to return to the convent of Sta. Margherita at the
end of 1458, all the other fugitives followed her example. They had to
submit to the formality of twelve months' probation before they took the
veil again, in a solemn ceremony, in December 1459. Perhaps the reason
for Lucrezia's return is not altogether dissociated from the financial
troubles that beset her lover, as we have seen, about the time of
Filippino's birth. The sincerity of her renewed vow of chastity is to be
gathered not only from the fact that in 1465 she presented Fra Filippo
with another child--a daughter, who was given the name Alessandra--but
in the clear indictment set forth by an anonymous accuser in a
_tamburazione_ under date of May 8, 1461. In this _tamburazione_, or
secret accusation, addressed to the "officers of the night and
monasteries of the city of Florence," a pretty state of affairs is
revealed at the convent of Sta. Margherita, which "has been frequented
and continues to be frequented by Ser Piero d'Antonio di Ser Vannozzo,"
who has "begot a male child in the said convent.... And if you wish to
find him, you will find him every day in the convent, together with
another man called frate Filippo. The latter excuses himself by saying
that he is the chaplain, whilst the former says he is the procurator.
And the said frate Filippo has had a male child by one called Spinetta.
And he has in his house the said child, who is grown up and is called

The anonymous accuser, of course, was mistaken in mentioning Spinetta,
instead of her sister, as the mother of Filippino, who in his will
expressly refers to "domine Lucretie ejus delicte matris et filie olim
Francisci de Butis de Florentia," and thus removes every possible doubt
as to his parentage. The mistake finds an easy explanation in the
fact that both the sisters were for some time under Fra Filippo's


(In the Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Painted for the chapel in Cosimo de' Medici's palace, this picture was
transferred to the Uffizi Gallery from the Royal store-rooms in 1776.
More, perhaps, than in any other work by the master, the whole
arrangement of the picture and the management of the planes reveal the
influence of the relief sculpture by Donatello and his followers. It is
particularly akin in spirit to the art of Rossellino. The landscape seen
through a window opening behind the heads of the Madonna and the Infant
Saviour, as well as the laughing angel in the foreground, are entirely
new conceptions in Florentine painting. That the picture must have been
much admired by Filippo Lippi's contemporaries is proved by the
innumerable slightly modified versions of it which were produced by the
next generation of Florentine painters.]

What was the end of Lippi's romance? There are no contemporary records
to throw clear light upon it. In Milanesi's edition of Vasari it is
stated that Pope Eugene granted the monk a special dispensation to marry
Lucrezia. If any such dispensation ever was granted, it must have been
by Pius II., and not by Eugene. Under any circumstances, it seems very
improbable that Fra Filippo, as we learn from the same source, should
have refused to avail himself of this permission to legalise his union,
because "he preferred to continue living the sort of life that pleased
him." He was then a man of considerable age, near the end of his life,
and past the times for "sowing his wild oats." The papal dispensation,
if actually given, must have been sought for, in which case Filippo
would presumably have availed himself of it; or, if granted on the
Pope's own initiative, could not have been lightly set aside by a humble
member of the Church, who was largely dependent on the emoluments
accruing from his clerical appointments. The mere fact that Lucrezia's
features are to be recognised in the friar's latest works, the frescoes
in the Cathedral of Spoleto, tends to prove that the old man's affection
was not transferred to different quarters; and Vasari's suggestion that
his death was due to the libertinism of his conduct, which led to his
being poisoned by certain relatives of a woman with whom he had become
entangled, may be dismissed as a fable.

Vasari is at fault again in ascribing the commission for the decoration
of the chapel in the Church of Our Lady at Spoleto, Fra Filippo's last
important work, to the influence of Cosimo de' Medici. Fra Filippo went
to Spoleto in 1467, and Cosimo had been buried in 1464. If any member of
the Medici family had acted as mediator, it must have been Piero, who
had always been a patron and protector of our artist. Of the four
frescoes at Spoleto illustrating the Life of the Virgin, only the
"Coronation" and the "Annunciation" are, so far as one can judge in
their much restored condition, from the master's own hand. "The Death of
the Virgin" and the "Nativity," though undoubtedly designed by him, are
vastly inferior in execution, and are almost entirely the work of his
assistant, Fra Diamante, who accompanied him to Spoleto, and stayed
there several months after his master's death to complete the unfinished

Fra Filippo died on the 9th of October 1469, and left his son Filippino
under the guardianship of Fra Diamante. He was buried in the church
which had witnessed his last labours. The esteem in which he was held
by those who knew how to appreciate his art--and among them, surely, the
Medici must be placed at the top--found expression in the rivalry
between Florence and Spoleto over his remains. When Lorenzo the
Magnificent, some years after the great Carmelite's death, passed
through Spoleto as ambassador of the Florentine Commonwealth, he
demanded Fra Filippo's body from the Spoletans, for re-interment in the
Duomo of Florence. The Spoletans' reply is characteristic of the spirit
of the age: they begged to be left in possession of the remains of the
master, since they were so poorly provided with distinguished men,
whereas Florence had enough and to spare. Lorenzo must have been touched
by a request presented in such flattering terms, for he not only allowed
Filippo Lippi's body to remain in its original resting-place, but he
commissioned from Filippino Lippi, the inheritor of the monk's artistic
genius, a marble tomb, on which can be seen to this day the jovial
features of the master thus honoured, the arms of Lorenzo and of the
Lippi, and the commemorative inscription composed by the great humanist,
Angelo Poliziano.



It is not within the scope of this brief sketch of the life and art of
Fra Filippo Lippi to enter into a detailed critical discussion of his
extant works. I am not here concerned with questions of debatable
attributions, or with the share that Fra Diamante and other assistants
or pupils may have had in the execution of works that pass generally
under his name. All that can here be attempted is, to gather from the
cumulative evidence of the pictures that are unquestionably by the
master's own hand, the real significance of his great achievement and
the place he occupies in the evolution of Italian art. In the progress
of his style from the early "Nativities" to the Prato frescoes is
reflected the whole course of Early Renaissance art from Gothic
awkwardness to full freedom. Of course, Fra Filippo lived in a period
of transition and of passionate striving for expression; and to a
certain extent every artist is the product of the spirit of his time.
The tendencies which resulted in the full blossoming of Renaissance art
were at work, and would, no doubt, have conquered in the end, even if
Filippo Lippi had never existed. Nevertheless, he was one of the
greatest initiators of the Renaissance in painting; and it is his
peculiar merit that, at a period of artistic pupilage, when every
painter's training was directed towards the close assimilation of his
particular master's peculiarities, and when progress consisted largely
in the grafting of some personal note or other on to the inherited
tradition, Fra Filippo not only liberated himself from the narrow
confines of his early training by his readiness to benefit from the
example of any native or "foreign" master who had added some new word
to the language of art, but he was also ever ready to learn direct from
the greatest source of artistic inspiration--from Nature.


(In the Louvre, Paris)

This altarpiece was commissioned in 1437 by the Company of Orsanmichele
for the Barbadori Chapel in Santo Spirito. It is the picture referred to
by Domenico Veneziano in a letter to Piero de' Medici, dated April 1,
1438, in which he says that by working day and night Fra Filippo could
not finish it within five years, which was probably a correct estimate
of the time actually taken. Even in its present state of deterioration
this stately altarpiece, which shows how much Filippo had learnt from
the study of Masaccio's Carmine frescoes, justifies the high praise
bestowed upon it by Vasari. The two figures kneeling before the steps of
the throne are St. Augustine on the right, and St. Fredianus on the

From his earliest beginnings, which rather suggest illuminated
miniatures on a large scale, we see him grow step by step, acquire
knowledge of perspective, of design, of colour harmonies, of the effect
of light and atmosphere, of movement. We find him initiating advance in
many directions. The circular composition, which was scarcely known
before his days, is carried by him to such perfection, that it becomes
the favourite device of most later Florentine painters. He is the first
Florentine who shows a real appreciation of the beauty of Nature, who
allows real daylight to enter into his pictures, and who studies
reflections. The Florentine School was never a school of _painters_ in
the strict sense of the word, like the Venetian School. Its work was
always based on linear design, upon which colour was superadded--an
afterthought, as it were. The Florentine did not think in terms of
colour. But Fra Filippo, without abandoning the essentially Florentine
insistence on linear design, came nearer the true pictorial conception
than any of his contemporaries or successors. In his first "Nativity" at
the Florentine Academy he gives not the slightest hint of the astounding
development his art was to undergo before he left Florence for Prato.
The colour is purely localised, like the flat tones of the Gothic
miniaturists in whose school he had been trained. The Madonna looks as
if she were cut out and pasted on to the landscape. What a step from its
hard delineation to the _morbidezza_, and the cool shimmering tones and
all-pervading sense of atmosphere in his "Coronation of the Virgin,"
which, in this respect, remains a unique achievement in Florentine art.
Both his Florentine "Nativities" are as awkward and clumsy in design as
could be. Lopped-off figures of praying monks are squeezed into the
extreme corners; the landscape background is seen in steep perspective,
almost as in a bird's-eye view, and has no relation to the figures in
the foreground; the perspective and the whole arrangement of the ruined
building in the one are childish. And a few years later he had arrived
at the noble architectonic design of the "Virgin Enthroned," at the
Louvre, in which, notwithstanding here and there a reminiscence of
Gothic awkwardness, the figure of the angel on the left foreshadows the
easy grace of similarly poised figures in Andrea del Sarto's art.

Again and again Fra Filippo acts as initiator and sets the fashion for
whole generations of artists. He is one of the first to experiment
with devices for producing the illusion of depth, either by the
interpolation, between the foreground and the background figures, of
architectural elements, as in the Louvre "Madonna"--the idea had already
served Donatello in the sister-art of sculpture--or by the skilful
disposition and lighting of the subsidiary figures in the background, as
in the episodes from the life of St. Anne, which form the setting to the
adorable "Madonna and Child" of the Pitti _tondo_. If Michelangelo's
nude athletes in the background of his "Holy Family" _tondo_ are based
upon the similar figures in Luca Signorelli's circular "Madonna and
Child" at the Uffizi, Signorelli himself clearly derived from Filippo
Lippi the use of the background figures, one of whom turns his back to
the spectator just like the women on the extreme right of Lippi's
_tondo_, for the purpose of enhancing the sense of depth and space.
This woman with the boy clinging to the folds of her dress, as well as
the one by whom she is preceded--a rapidly moving figure, with clinging
diaphanous garments and with a basket poised on her head--will be found
again and again during the next half-century of Florentine art, just as
the Uffizi "Madonna adoring the Divine Child," who is supported by two
boy-angels, became the prototype of a long succession of similar
pictures. In the dancing "Salome" of the Prato frescoes, again, we have
the forerunner of the type of figure and movement that received its
highest development in the art of Botticelli, Filippo Lippi's greatest

Every phase of the triumphant progress of Renaissance art finds an echo
in Filippo Lippi's painting. Masaccio helped him to shake off Gothic
awkwardness and to achieve a certain degree of statuesque dignity. From
Gentile da Fabriano he took the delight in gay, festive attire and
sumptuous pageantry, which is clearly expressed in Sir Frederick Cook's
_tondo_, and in a modified form in the Academy "Coronation." Pier dei
Franceschi's great conquest of the realm of light and air did no more
fail to leave its mark upon the Carmelite's art, than did Paolo
Uccello's discoveries in the science of perspective. The classic thrones
of his Madonnas and the architectural backgrounds of some of his
pictures proclaim his enthusiasm for the forms and decorative details of
the Renaissance churches and palaces that were then rising, under the
influence of the new learning, in every part of Florence. Nor is it
possible to over-estimate the prodigious effect produced upon the
artist-monk's receptive mind by his study of the works of Donatello. The
Uffizi "Madonna" is in reality a relief by Donatello or one of his
followers translated into paint. Take any photographic reproduction of
that picture, and examine the head of the roguishly smiling angel, the
arms of the Infant Saviour and of the Madonna, and the way the whole
group is set against the window-frame. The illusion is extraordinary. If
it were not for the landscape seen through the opening in the background
and the transparent folds of the veil over the Virgin's head, it would
be pardonable to mistake the picture thus reduced to black and white for
a bas-relief of the Donatello School.

Thus, with the shrewd intelligence of which his features in the
auto-portrait introduced into the "Coronation" are so eloquent, Fra
Filippo knew how to take hints and suggestions from the art of all his
great contemporaries. But he applied the same keen intelligence to the
study of the living world around him. The knowledge imparted to him by
other masters was thus allowed to filter through his personal
observation of Nature. And whilst it is possible to trace in his work
the most varied artistic influences, his own personality was never
eclipsed or obscured. Always ready to learn and to assimilate new
principles, he never stooped to the imitation of mere mannerisms. From
any such inclination he was saved by his temperament, his human
sympathy, his artistic curiosity. Only to his earliest Madonnas cling
reminiscences of Giottesque types and formulas. Even before he had
reached full maturity, the typical had become ousted by the individual.
And in this respect he was again an initiator in Florentine art. He
was one of the first painters of his school who makes us feel that
almost every character in his pictures is the result of personal
observation--is practically a portrait. He is the first true genre
painter of his school. Benozzo Gozzoli, it is true, went far beyond him
as a pictorial raconteur of Florentine fifteenth-century life; but the
origin of Benozzo's genre-like treatment of scriptural incidents, which
makes his frescoes at Pisa and San Gimignano such precious documents, is
to be found in Fra Filippo Lippi.

The Prato frescoes introduce several delicious incidents of this nature,
like the leave-taking of St. John from his parents, or the child-birth
scene in the episode in the life of St. Stephen. But they are not absent
either from his altarpieces. The exquisitely recorded happenings in the
house of St. Anne, which form the background of the Pitti "Madonna and
Child," are pure genre-painting, and are, moreover, a daring departure
from all the earlier conventions which ruled the rendering of this
favourite subject. The earlier "Coronation of the Virgin" shows
something of the same tendency in the charming group of a female saint
and two children in front of the kneeling monk. The saint, like the
Virgin Mary herself, is just an elegantly attired Florentine lady of the
period. The very angels surrounding the throne of the Heavenly Father
are humanised, as it were, by being divested of their wings. Even in the
stately and formal "Virgin Enthroned," at the Louvre, Fra Filippo could
not resist the temptation to introduce a roguish urchin on each side
peeping over the balustrade, and thus transferring the scene from the
heavenly region to this earth.

Fra Filippo loved the world in which he found so much beauty. For all
that, his art reveals neither sensuality nor worldliness. He was indeed,
as Mr. Berenson so happily describes him, a genre-painter, whose genre
was that of the soul, as that of others was of the body. But he
expressed the soul through the body. As M. André Maurel has it: "Before
painting faces, he looked at them, which was a new thing.... He was a
great painter, because he was a man."

    The plates are printed by BEMROSE & SONS, LTD., Derby and London
    The text at the BALLANTYNE PRESS, Edinburgh


[1] _The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance_, by Bernhard Berenson
(G. P. Putnam's Sons).

[2] He retained this post until July 1452.

Transcriber's Note:

Table of Contents added by Transcriber.

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