The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence Italy, with his lateral entrance, almost forces people visiting the church to follow a “clockwise” path. This leaves the Strozzi Chapel as one of the last things to see and since the Basilica is filled with amazing works, people tend to overlook the beautiful frescoes by Filippino Lippi. The frescoes are so well done and realistic that a young boy, working for the master painter, made a terrible mistake but was forgiven by Filippino.
The Strozzi Chapel
The Strozzi Chapel is the burial place of Filippo Strozzi the Elder, a rich banker who also commissioned Palazzo Strozzi. When Filippo Strozzi acquired the patronage of the chapel, it was already decorated and dedicated to St John the Evangelist. As often happened, the old frescoes were destroyed and/or covered with the new ones. Along with new stories of St John the Evangelist, Filippo Strozzi also wanted the stories of St Philip the Apostle, because of his name. The work started in the late 1480s, but Filippino Lippi moved to Rome afterwards and in the end the chapel was completed only in 1502. The left wall of the Strozzi Chapel is dedicated to St John the Evangelist, with two stories of his life: the resuscitation of Drusiana and the martyrdom of the Saint. On the right wall are the stories of St Philip, with the Saint compelling the dragon and, again, the martyrdom of St Philip. The vault is decorated with the four patriarch of the Old Testament: Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jacob. The sepulchre of Filippo Strozzi was designed by Benedetto da Maiano, who was also directing the Palazzo Strozzi construction. On top of the tomb was a bust of Filippo Strozzi, that his family sold to the Louvre Museum in 1878.
The fake hole
A nice legend, also partly included by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives, is related to the story of St Philip and the dragon. As you can see from the Strozzi chapel particular on the left, Filippino Lippi painted the hole in the temple’s steps from where the dragon came out. We have to imagine that Filippino Lippi, like any other painter, had helpers who prepared the colors and the plaster: the art of fresco is something where you have to coordinate the efforts, because you haven’t much time to paint on fresh plaster. These helpers were paid at the end of the day: there were no holidays nor trade unions at that time, so the only way to get your salary was going to work. Looks like a sick helper, afraid of losing his daily salary, sent his young brother, a child, in his place, recommending him not to touch anything that wasn’t colors and plaster. Later in the day, the children had finished his work and was waiting to be paid by the master, who had left the Strozzi Chapel for a commitment and had to come back later. Hungry, he went home and came back with a bruschetta: a typical Tuscan snack made of a slice of bread with salt and olive oil. He started eating his snack, warned by the other workers that this was prohibited, but he couldn’t finish it because, suddenly, Filippino Lippi appeared in the church walking quickly to the Strozzi Chapel. Scared and not knowing what to do, the children tried to hide his snack in a hole, but that hole was not real… it was frescoed. After some endless seconds of suspense, Filippino told the boy: “If my fresco devised an innocent soul, it means I did a good job!”. And the children received a double salary!
There is another Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, that belonged to another branch of the family and was decorated by Andrea Orcagna and his brothers in the second half of the 14th century.