Fra Filippo Lippi (Florence about 1406 – Spoleto 1469) was a Carmelite friar and painter. Restless personality, divided between passions and religious condition, he had an artistic career marked by continuous experimentation. Happy for the great innovations developed at that time in Florence, he followed Masaccio’s lesson on perspective and highlighted light and color like Fra Angelico. But he’s also famous for his love affairs…
Born for a poor family, Filippo Lippi lost his parents when he still was a child, and his aunt, unable to maintain the nephew, sent him to the convent of Santa Maria del Carmine, where he became a Carmelite friar. Here, he could continuously observe a work by Masaccio and Masolino da Panicale, who between 1424 and 1428 decorated the Brancacci Chapel. In 1428 Filippo Lippi moved temporarily into the Carmelite monastery in Siena, where he stayed for about a year with the office of sub-prior, thus having the opportunity to know in depth the local art, quite different from the Florentine. Of his early career we have the remains of a large fresco in the cloister of his own convent in Florence, and an altarpiece in San Lorenzo, depicting the Annunciation, where he shows his ability in representing linear perspective.
“It is said that he was so amorous, that, if he saw any women who pleased him, and if they were to be won, he would give all his possessions to win them; and if he could in no way do this, he would paint their portraits and cool the flame of his love by reasoning with himself. So much a slave was he to this appetite, that when he was in this humor he gave little or no attention to the works that he had undertaken; where fore on one occasion Cosimo de’ Medici, having commissioned him to paint a picture, shut him up in his own house, in order that he might not go out and waste his time; but after staying there for two whole days, being driven forth by his amorous—nay, beastly— passion, one night he cut some ropes out of his bed-sheets with a pair of scissors and let himself down from a window, and then abandoned himself for many days to his pleasures. Thereupon, since he could not be found, Cosimo sent out to look for him, and finally brought him back to his labor; and thenceforward Cosimo gave him liberty to go out when he pleased, repenting greatly that he had previously shut him up, when he thought of his madness and of the danger that he might run. For this reason he strove to keep a hold on him for the future by kindnesses; and so he was served by Filippo with greater readiness, and was wont to say that the virtues of rare minds were celestial beings, and not slavish hacks.” (all the credit to this translation goes to Adrienne DeAngelis)
You wouldn’t expect this from a friar, would you? I love so much this excerpt from Giorgio Vasari, not only it gives precious information on the personality of Filippo Lippi, but it explains exactly why The Medici family was popular and successful: they were very tolerant with artists, not being bothered by their sexual preferences or by moral constraints and this freedom of expression was what ultimately led to the Renaissance.
Cosimo the Elder favorited Filippo Lippi in his career, in 1456 the friar was appointed chaplain of the convent of Santa Margherita in Prato, where he met Lucrezia Buti, a nun he fell in love with. Their love affair generated an illegitimate son, Filippino, later a great painter himself. Both accused by an anonymous complaint, which was unveiled after the birth of their son, they were were finally released by their votes and legitimately married. It was Cosimo de Medici, again, to plead directly with the Pope to allow Filippi Lippi and Lucrezia to get married. Most of the works made in this mature period are at the Uffizi Gallery, including the wonderful Madonna and Child which is most probably a portrait of his wife. This painting will influence Botticelli, who was a pupil of Filippo Lippi and made a copy of the painting, but we can also see some analogy with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, especially in the landscape. In the Duomo of Prato, Filippo frescoed the choir.
In the final part of his life, Filippo Lippi moved to Spoleto, where he frescoed the apse of the Cathedral. He’s buried right there. When he died, the Medici sent the writer and poet Agnolo Poliziano to write the epitaph.