PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Filippo Lippi

Fra’ Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-8 October 1469) was born in Florence and lost both of his parents when he was only two years old. As a consequence, he was sent to live with his aunt, but because she was too poor to rise him, she decided to place him in a neighboring Carmelite convent when he was eight years old. By 1420 Filippo was admitted to the community of Carmelite friars of the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Florence, where he was ordained as a priest in ca. 1425 and remained in that community until 1432. According to Giorgio Vasari, Fra’ Filippo was inspired to become a painter after seeing Masaccio at work in the Brancacci chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine. The first paintings by Filippo, for example the Madonna of Tarquinia (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome) show clear influences from Masaccio, particularly in the attention to volumes. Due to the interest in painting that Fra’ Filippo was confessing, the prior of the convent decided to give him the opportunity to learn this art.

Madonna with Child (Tarquinia Madonna), tempera on panel, by Filippo Lippi, 1437, 151 x 66 cm (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome).  This painting was probably commissioned by Monsignor Giovanni Vitelleschi, the Archbishop of Florence. The painting is dated on a small cartouche at the base of the throne which reads “A. D. M. MCCCCXXXVII”. The construction of the figures and the treatment of their volumes here recalls the work of Masaccio; while the attention to the landscape, seen through the open window to the left and the light effects, were influences of the Flemish masters which Lippi studied. The center of the composition drawn by the lines of perspective is located at the face of the Madonna, who sits on a throne holding the Child.
Portrait of a Man and a Woman, tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1440, 64 x 42 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). By common agreement between art history scholars, this painting is considered as the first Italian portrait with a landscape background, and the first double portrait in Italian art. Filippo’s portraits are among the earliest in the Italian Renaissance. The detail on the right shows the landscape beyond the open window, painted in fairly naturalistic terms. It is very likely that Filippo was inspired by Netherlandish-style painting. The window, and the landscape beyond, leads the viewer’s glance to travel through the panel, from the portrait of the lady, through the male sitter to the left, and finally, beyond the window and down a country road passing some houses and villas to a distant range of mountains.
Annunciation with two Kneeling Donors, oil on panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1440-1445, 155 x 144 cm (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome). This panel was probably originally placed in the Church of Sant’Egidio (Florence). The portraits of the donors, recently identified as Folco Portinari and Folgonaccio, were probably painted with the help of an assistant. The Virgin occupies the center of the composition. In the background, on the right, two small figures of women are climbing a stair. The two donor portraits appear kneeling behind a cordonata*. As a new stylistic feat by Filippo, the donors were represented in the same size as the religious figures, and not smaller as it was customary.
The Martelli Annunciation, tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1440-1445, 175 x 183 cm (Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence). The name of this painting comes from the chapel (the Martelli Chapel funded by the rich Niccolò Martelli) for which Lippi was commissioned this work. This is a pleasant painting, in which Lippi developed a beautiful exercise in strong spatial perspective (see the buildings that recede into the distance). The painting was also novel in two aspects: the placement of both Gabriel and Mary on the right half the picture space, and the trompe l’oeil represented by the transparent vase at the bottom foreground (symbolizing the Holy Spirit), which appears ready to receive the lilies held by the angel. Here Lippi seems to mimic the works of the Flemish masters who were experts at rendering nature objectively. The predella panels feature scenes from the life of St. Nicholas. This altarpiece is considered the first known example of a squared of such works, without the addition of any traditional gothic decoration like pinnacles or cusps, in order to better match the simple architecture of the church, by Brunelleschi.

Despite the strong influence Masaccio had on his art, Friar Filippo’s original sense for the appreciation of nature was heavily displayed in his paintings, making them to stand out among those by other Florentine artists of the Quattrocento thanks to Filippo’s almost exotic note of lingering romanticism. He always portrayed the Virgin as a young girl, with white, almost translucent skin, placing her young hands together in prayer and looking down at the newborn Child with surprise, still unable to understand her own motherhood. Filippo’s accessory figures on his paintings are much less interesting than his Virgins were.

Coronation of the Virgin, tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, 1441-1447, 200 x 287 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This altarpiece, was destined for the main altar of the Church of Sant’Ambrogio in Florence. Filippo included several characters: in the area below Mary and in the foreground is a group of accompanying saints pictured in a smaller scale compared to the people at the sides. The sides of the composition are dominated by the figures of Saint Ambrogio, the patron of the church (left), and Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence (right). Departing from traditional iconography on this subject, Filippo depicted Mary being crowned not by Christ, but by God the Father. The elevated pavement of the sides creates a perspective triangle whose apex is Mary’s head. The whole painting displays vibrant and strong joy which is highlighted by the white lilies being carried by angels located below the arches at each side. Although the scene is set in Heaven, Filippo replaced the old fashion gilded background with a striped sky which alludes to the seven sectors of the Paradise. Behind the figure of St. John the Baptist (right), is the kneeling donor, while from below an angel enters the scene, a device that will find an echo later, in the art of Andrea Mantegna and in the frescoes of Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinità. Originally this painting included a predella, which is now mostly lost, with the exception of a small panel with a Miracle of St. Ambrose, now housed in the Berlin State Museums. On the left is a self-portrait of Filippo wearing the robes of a Carmelite monk (as he was).
Annunciation, egg tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, 1448-1450, 68 × 151.5 cm (National Gallery, London). In this Annunciation scene, Filippo graphically depicted the miraculous penetration of the Virgin’s sacred body and the ensuing fecundity of the body implicit in the passage of the Annunciation: the dove of the Holy Spirit is shown in serial images progressing down toward the Virgin’s swollen belly where there is a small opening in her dress emitting golden rays. God’s hand, visible at the lunette’s top, is blessing Mary through the dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost. This work is a pendant to Filippo’s Seven Saints (see picture below, also in the National Gallery). These two lunette paintings were commissioned as part of the decoration of the Palazzo Medici in Florence, where they were probably placed above a door or a bed. The inclusion of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici’s coat of arms (three feathers crossed by a ring with diamond and cartouche) at the base of the small column topped with a vase, points to the patron who commissioned this work.
Seven Saints, egg tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, 1448-1450, 68 x 151 cm (National Gallery, London). This painting, as a pendant of the Annunciation pictured above, suggests that both paintings were part of the furnishings of two separate but related rooms of the Medici palace in Florence, either as bed heads or as panels situated above a bed or door. While the Seven Saints panel illustrates a dynastic theme through the male member of the family, the Annunciation panel would have been more suitable for a woman’s room. The saints depicted in this panel are linked to the male members of the Medici family. In the center of the composition is Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, flanked by the Saints Cosmas and Damian (protectors of the Medici, and in particular of Cosimo de’ Medici). On the right, in the foreground, is Saint Peter of Verona, protector of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici, and next to him is Saint John the Evangelist, protector of his brother Giovanni. On the left, in the foreground, are Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron of Pierfrancesco the Elder (Piero’s cousin), and Saint Lawrence, patron of his uncle, Lorenzo the Elder.

Filippo quit the monastic life in 1432, although he was not released from his vows, and by that same year his paintings had become popular in Florence. The Medici family was aware of it and begun his patronage. They commissioned him with The Annunciation and with the Seven Saints. Tales were popular about how Cosimo de’ Medici had to lock Filippo up in order to push him to work, with the painter escaping by using a rope made of his sheets. His life included many similar escapades, tales of lawsuits, complaints and scandal that usually threw him into financial difficulties.

View of the fresco cycle in the Prato Cathedral, by Fra Filippo Lippi, 1452-1466 (Choir of the Cathedral of Prato, Tuscany). The Prato frescoes (in the picture the central chapel) develop stories of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen, and were executed with the help of Filippo’s workshop assistants. The fresco cycle occupies the two lateral walls and the end wall of the Cappella Maggiore, covering a surface of 400 m2 in total. The end wall, at the side of the stained glass window (also designed by Lippi), includes two saints in painted niches and, below, bent around the corners, are the martyrdoms of St. Stephen (left) and St. John the Baptist (right). The vault frescoes represent the Four Evangelists. The two saints’ stories are to be read from the top to the bottom, and mirror each other on the opposite walls: the two lunette depict scenes of the birth of the two saints, while in the central scenes is their abandon of the secular life to take the vows; finally, the lower scenes show their martyrdom (central wall) and their death or funeral (side walls).
View of the frescoes of the left (north) wall of the main chapel of the Prato Cathedral, by Filippo Lippi, 1452-1465 (Prato, Tuscany). The frescoes of this wall represent scenes of the life of St. Stephen, the titular saint of the church and patron saint of Prato. In the lunette: Birth and boyhood of St. Stephen. In the middle register (from left to right): Stephen is consecrated to the priesthood and takes leave of Bishop Julian, Returns home, exorcises the changeling, and Disputes with the Pharisees. In the bottom register: The funeral of St. Stephen and, extending across the east wall, his martyrdom.
View of the frescoes of the right (south) wall of the main chapel of the Prato Cathedral, by Filippo Lippi, 1452-1465 (Prato, Tuscany). This wall include the frescoes dedicated to scenes of the life of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of nearby Florence. In the lunette: The birth of John the Baptist and the Naming by Zacharias. In the middle register: John taking leave of his parents and praying in the wilderness (right) and the sermon to the multitude (left). In the bottom register: the Feast of Herod and Salome’s Dance, to the left of which, and extending across the altar wall, the beheading of John the Baptist, and to the right where Salome extends the severed head on a platter to Herodias.

In 1452 Filippo was appointed chaplain to the nuns at the Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene in Florence. By June 1456 he was living in Prato (near Florence) to work on a commission for the fresco decoration of the choir of the cathedral. It was during this period, in 1458, that he met Lucrezia Buti, a beautiful novice of the Order. Lippi asked permission so that she was allowed to sit for the figure of the Madonna he was working on. Filippo abducted her to his own house and kept her there despite the nuns’ efforts to bring her back. This relationship resulted in their son, Filippino Lippi, who was also a famous painter.

The Funeral of St. Stephen, fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1460 (Cathedral of Prato, Tuscany). This is one of the more complex and monumental scenes in the fresco cycle of the Stories from the Life of St. Stephen. The right portion of the fresco depicts the Martyrdom (by stoning) of Saint Stephen which extends into the adjacent wall. The saints’ funeral is depicted in the interior of a contemporary church. The deceased saint is laid out on the central axis of what seems to be a Paleo-Christian basilica, distinguished by large columns and clustered pilasters, at a point which must be recognized as the crossing. St. Stephen’s body is surrounded by mourners, including two women seated on the ground to his left and right, one of which may be the saint’s mother. On either side are standing figures in contemporary fashion who are in many cases portraits of actual citizens of Prato. In the distance there’s the simply decorated main altar with a cross, which casts its shadow on the curved surface of the niche-like apse. The spatial perspective is carefully displayed through the lines of the tiled floor and the coffered ceiling. Though the scene was portrayed inside a church, at the right of the scene, through an open door, there is a glimpse out onto the sharp incline of a mountainous landscape. The portraits in this fresco include a red-dressed Pope Pius II, Carlo di Cosimo de’ Medici behind him, and, next to them, the artist’s self-portrait.
Herod’s Banquet, fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1452-1465 (Cathedral of Prato, Tuscany). This fresco corresponds to one of the scenes from the cycle with Stories from the Life of St. John the Baptist (see pictures above). The biblical source for the painting is Matthew 14:6-11 or Mark 6:21-8, where the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced for her stepfather, Herod, on his birthday. As a reward he promised her anything she wanted and, prompted by her mother, she chose the head of Saint John the Baptist, which she then carried to Herodias on a silver charger.
Details from the fresco of the Herod’s Banquet (see picture above) by Filippo Lippi (Cathedral of Prato, Tuscany). To the left a detail with The dance of Salome which is perhaps a portrait of Lucrezia Buti, the artist’s wife. To the right: Detail of a couple.
Madonna and Child, tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1450-1465, 95 x 62 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). This extremely well-known and popular work that has been repeatedly reproduced is considered as one of the highest and most lyrical expressions of Filippo Lippi’s art. It certainly foretaste style and themes that would be later developed by Botticelli, Pollaiuolo and Leonardo. The delicate profile of the Virgin Mary, who’s seated by a window, is clearly outlined against the rocky landscape inspired by Flemish paintings, while two angels hold up the Christ Child, who reaches toward his praying mother. Mary is wearing an elaborate coiffure with a soft veil and pearls, both elements typical of the fashion of the mid-1400s that were, at the time, re-used in numerous late 15th century works in Florence. The angel in the foreground turns with a picaresque and mischievous smile toward the spectator. This painting is one of the few works by Filippo which was not executed with the help of an assistant and later became an influential model for later depictions of the Madonna and Child. The face of the Madonna is traditionally identified with the portrait of Lucrezia Buti, as were most of the Madonnas Fra Filippo painted.

Around 1459, Filippo painted the Mystical Nativity destined for the altar of the Magi Chapel of the Medici Palace (today housed in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin). In this painting, Saint John was portrayed as an intelligent child with chubby shapes in a landscape of fantastic beauty, all illuminated by mysterious lights. The painting’s forests and phosphorescent rocks seem to foresee Leonardo’s romantic backgrounds. The forest floor is filled with beautiful flowers, light falls in straight rays from the heavens, opened in a dark sky, from which the Father and the Holy Spirit emerge. The trees are also the pines from the forests of Italy, like Benozzo Gozzoli portrayed them in his fresco, and on the ground, between the rocks, the herbs bloom abundantly in the dead of winter. Perhaps this deep love for free nature, which Filippo felt beyond all rule, gave his paintings their great youthful value. Some of his Madonnas reproduced the same woman, who seems to have been Lucrezia Buti, the nun from Prato mentioned before, and whom he later married.

Mystical Nativity (also known as Adoration in the Forest), oil on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1460, 127 x 116 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). This painting was placed in the altar of the chapel of the Medici palace (now the Medici-Riccardi palace) in Florence which was decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli with his Journey of the Magi fresco. The painting not only depicts the Adoration of the Child, but also the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Christ. The painting is also unusual in that it depicts the scene of the Nativity placed in a mountainous forest setting, with debris from woodcutting all around, rather than in the familiar stable in Bethlehem, and without the company of the other usual figures and animals around the mother and child. To the left, the infant John the Baptist stands, while carrying a small cross on a long staff and a banderole inscribed Ecce Agnus Dei (“Behold the Lamb of God”). Above John the Baptist is the praying figure of Saint Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese order of monks, to which the Medici family had connections. At the top of the painting, over the Nativity, are the two other persons of the Christian Holy Trinity, God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the last represented as a dove. All these figures form a rough circle, slightly off-center to the left. The scene is set on a steep slope in a dark forest, mostly consisting of pine trees, which runs right to the top of the composition, so that no sky can be seen. Various evidence of woodcutting is all around, and Lippi signed his name (“FRATER PHILIPPUS P[inxit]” (“Brother Phillip painted this”) along the handle of an axe struck into a stump in the bottom left-hand corner. A small stream runs down the right side of the painting, crossed by a rough bridge of planks. It is believed that the forest in the painting represents the thick pine forests on the steep slopes around the monastery of the Camaldolese monks. Woodcutting was also a part of daily life for this religious community. The cut down trees also refer to the words of John the Baptist, given in the Gospel of Matthew 3:10, and John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence and of the Camaldoli monastery.
Madonna and Child, tempera on wood panel, by Filippo Lippi, ca. 1460-1465, 76.9 x 54.1 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

Filippo spent the last years of his life at Spoleto (Umbria), where he was commissioned to paint scenes from the life of the Virgin for the apse of the cathedral. Filippo died in Spoleto, on or about 8 October 1469. The events that led to his death are not well confirmed. Apparently, the pope granted Lippi a dispensation for marrying Lucrezia, but before this communication arrive to Filippo he was poisoned by either the upset relatives of Lucrezia, by Lucrezia herself, or by some other lady in the list of the painter’s inconstant affections. Filippo was buried in the Cathedral of Spoleto despite Lorenzo the Magnificent’s request for the remains to be returned to Florence.

Fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary, by Filippo Lippi, 1466-1469 (Cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria). The cycle includes 4 fresco panels depicting different episodes of Mary’s life. At the abrupt death of Filippo, the frescoes were completed by his workshop assistants (including his then young son Filippino) in around three months. The fresco program develops in four scenes. In the half-dome apse, the Coronation of the Virgin. Below the apse are three more panels, they include from left to right: the Annunciation, the Dormition, and the Nativity. The priestly grandeur of the images is drafted with graphic clarity.
Annunciation, fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1467-1469 (Apse of the Cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria). From the fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary (see picture above).
Nativity, fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1467-1469 (Apse of the Cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria). From the fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary (see picture above).
Dormition of Mary (Death of the Virgin), fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1467-1469 (Apse of the Cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria). From the fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary (see pictures above).
In the fresco with the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin (see picture above) Filippo included a self-portrait in the group of mourners located at the feet of the Virgin.
The Coronation of Mary attended by angels and saints, fresco, by Filippo Lippi, 1467-1469 (Apse of the Cathedral of Spoleto, Umbria). From the fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary (see pictures above). The Coronation of the Virgin is depicted in a heavenly areola, surrounded by angels and saints, and suspended above the green hills of an earthly landscape. The richness and variety of material employed in these frescoes are increasingly evident in the final decades of Filippo’s life. In the frescoes at Prato and Spoleto, he selectively applied gold leaf, both on the flat surfaces and in relief, to highlight the luminosity and to decorate the elaborate costumes, accessories, and architecture.

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Cordonata: (From Italian derived from “cordone”). In architecture the term means “linear element which emphasizes a limit”. It also refers to a sloping road interrupted at regular distances by low (8-10 cm) steps in the form of transversal stripes (cordoni) made of stone or bricks. It has a form almost similar to a flight of steps, but allows the transit of horses and donkeys.

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