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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fra Filippo Lippi

Every day we read about the wild carrying on of actors, musicians, rock groups, sports stars, and others in the entertainment industry. And for every story we read, there are probably ten that don't make the tabloids or the court dockets because of who's involved, their money, and their talent. Painters today have long since slipped below the status of celebrity stars of the entertainment world where individuals can get away with anything (even murder) if they have a big enough name and talent. But five or six hundred years ago that was not the case.

Fra Filippo Lippi Self-Portrait,
ca. 1450
In 1408, in Florence, a child of two was orphaned and placed in the custody of his aunt. When he was eight, worn down by poverty, she was forced to give the young boy over to the local Carmelite convent where he completed his studies and took the vows. He was sixteen. At the time, Masolino and Masaccio were in the process of decorating the Carmelite Brancacci chapel. Their work was responsible for revolutionizing Florentine painting. It also sparked the imagination of the teenage boy-monk. He may even have helped them with their work. His name was Fra Filippo Lippi.

Though his talented hand and eye were immediately apparent, never was there an individual less suited for the cloistered life. Though having taken vows of poverty and chastity, he was anything but chaste. And though his reputation and talent grew quite rapidly; and he was paid handsomely for his work, the poverty vows he had no trouble keeping in no small part because of his lack of chastity. His portraits depict a flat-nosed, thick-lipped, sensual face with a vivacious, outgoing personality. The Florentine court documents of his time are peppered with his name. His most important client, Cosimo DeMedici, had to literally lock him up to get him to complete commissions, and even then, the young rapscallion tied sheets together, end to end, and escaped out a second floor window on one occasion to "do the town." He was constantly in financial trouble and was known to resort to forgery on occasions to extricate himself from various economic difficulties, which in turn only led to further legal embarrassments.

Madonna and Child with Stories from the Life of St. Anne, 1452, Fra Filippo Lippi
But the man had talent. Quite apart from being his jailer from time to time, the house of Medici was also his protector, no doubt sheltering him from retribution for his misdeeds that would have gotten a lesser man hanged. Likewise the church, though undoubtedly embarrassed by his shenanigans, recognized his talent for annunciations, nativities, and adorations; and also served to shelter "one of their own." His tondo (round painting) Madonna and Child with Stories of the Life of St. Anne (above) from 1452 is typical of his work during the middle years of his life. It bears Medieval traces but also the influence of Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and the Florentine architect, Brunelleschi.

Filippino Lippi Self-Portrait, ca. 1480
In 1456, the "frolicking frater" (as Cosimo DeMedici called him) went too far. He had an affair with a Carmelite nun named Lucretia Buti and got her pregnant. They eloped. A son was born the following year; and like his father, he too became a painter. Eventually, Pope Pius II saw fit to release the two wayward Carmelites from their vows and they were married in 1461. A daughter was born in 1465.  Yet despite his scandalous private life (which really wasn't very private), all during this time, the "good father" continued to wear his monk's robes (even after being defrocked) and do some of his most impressive work for the church. His most notable pupil was the Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli.  "Fra" Lippi's influence can be seen even a generation after his death in 1469 in the painting style of Leonardo da Vinci.

The Vision of St. Bernard, 1468, Filippino Lippi
His son, Filippino, was twelve when his father died. Botticelli took the young boy under his wing, taught him how to paint, and though he never achieved anything like the greatness of his father as an artist, much of his father's influence, and that of Botticelli, can be seen in his work, such as his 1468 painting, The Vision of St. Bernard (left). It's a nervous, busy piece of work. To modern eyes it gives the impression of the Virgin Mary checking into a local Ramada Inn with a rambunctious entourage of childlike angels. Nonetheless it stands as a remarkable narrative painting exemplifying some of the best Florentine art had to offer during the early Renaissance.

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