Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi

Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi
Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi self portrait

Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi was an Italian painter of the Quattrocento (15th century), who was also a Carmelite priest. He was perhaps the most important Florentine painter of the second half of the century and one of the great masters of the Early Renaissance. He was an artist of tremendous skill and dexterity who managed to strike a fine balance between the traditions of devotional art and the current humanist influences. Notwithstanding a reputation for sexual scandal and eccentric living, he produced intricate religious pieces, which brought an element of psychological realism to compositions of irregular perspective that combined fine coloring with detailed ornamentation.

He was also the master of a painting workshop in which he taught many Renaissance artists; two of his most distinguished pupils were Sandro Botticelli and Francesco di Pesello (called Pesellino).  His son, Filippino Lippi, also studied under him in the workshop and assisted in some of his late works.

CELEBRATED: Religion, art
ASSOCIATIONS: Renaissance Art
ADDITIONAL KEY INFO: Religious art
Lived 1406- 1469
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: Italy

Filippo Lippi, an Italian painter of the Quattrocento (15th century) who was also a Carmelite priest, is perhaps the most important Florentine painter of the second half of the century, and one of the great masters of the Early Renaissance.

He was an artist of tremendous skill and dexterity. was born into a large and poor family in Florence, on a side street Ardiglione, in 1406 to Tommaso, a butcher, and his wife. Since his mother died soon after his birth and his father died when he was only 2 years old, he was sent to live with his paternal aunt, Mona Lapaccia. As he grew, he eventually became an unruly and headstrong child, and because she was too poor to raise him, Zia Mona sent him (and a brother) to the care of the Carmelite monks at the Santa Maria del Carmine convent. There he started his education at the age of 8. In 1420 (at around the age of 14), he was admitted to the novitiate of the Order of the Carmelites at the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Florence, taking religious vows the following year. He was ordained a priest in 1425 and remained in residence at the priory until 1432. Giorgio Vasari writes that Lippi was inspired to become a painter by watching Masaccio at work on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine Church (1426-1427). He writes: “Instead of studying, he spent all his time scrawling pictures on his own books and those of others.” Since it was obvious to the Prior that Lippi was most interested in painting and not in his academic studies, he decided to allow him the opportunity to learn painting (Vasari, II p.1).

In 1432, Lippi quit the monastery, although he was not released from his vows. After leaving the monastery, according to Vasari, Lippi then went on to visit Ancona and Naples. Vasari recounts that here Lippi was abducted with some companions by Moor pirates on the Adriatic and held as a slave for 18 months. He was said to have drawn a full-length portrait of his master with a shard of coal. The master was so astonished at the uncanny realism of the picture that he ordered Lippi’s release, and he was freed at the port of Naples.(Ibid., p. 2) This story is felt by historians to be a fanciful tale. What is known about Lippi at this time was that in 1434 he was in Padua. None of the works that he executed while he was at Padua are known, but his influence is recognizable in the paintings of others who were also there at that time, such as Andrea Mantegna.

The Early Development of Artistic Talents

In 1437 Lippi returned to Florence, protected by the powerful Cosimo de’ Medici who became his patron, and was commissioned to execute several works for convents and churches under his auspices. The qualities he had acquired during his years of travel are affirmed with clarity in two works of 1437, immediately after he returned from Padua: Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels with St. Frediano and St. Augustine (aka The Barbadori Altarpiece) and The Enthroned Madonna and Child (aka Tarquinia Madonna). In both of these altarpieces, the influence of Masaccio is evident, but that influence is realized uniquely, having the pictorial effect of bas-relief, rendered more evident by lines, so that it resembles the sculptures of Donatello. In these works, the color is also warm, toned down with shadings that approach the lucid variety of colors of his contemporary Fra Angelico.

lippi madonna tarquinia
Fra Filippi Lippi, The Enthroned Madonna and Child (aka Tarquinia Madonna), 1437, Tempera on panel

The Barbadori Altarpiece is the earliest of Lippi’s altarpieces; it was named for the family who commissioned it for the Barbadori Chapel that was dedicated to San Frediano in the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence. It demonstrates characteristic aspects of his art in the early stages of his career. In this piece, he disregarded perspective; he tended to clutter the space with inventive but nonstructural architecture, while at the same time showing little interest in rendering his figures and the objects that surround them in a consistent scale. For example, the Virgin and the Child are quite large in size (emphasizing their importance to the overall picture); they are much larger than the two saints (Frediano and Augustine) who kneel before them, while the angels are an intermediate size. Lippi reverses, as it were, the whole spatial order in this work to emphasize his meaning.

Regarding the Tarquinia Madonna, Lippi probably received the commission for the painting from Monsignor Vitelleschi, who was the Archbishop of Florence from 1435 to 1437. Vitelleschi owned a palace at Corneto and had close family ties to the Augustinian convent of San Marco there. It was there that Lippi’s Madonna and Child in all likelihood was once housed. The painting is characterized by its spatial and perspective structure. The figures are substantial, especially the Child, whose large head, thick limbs, and heavy trunk are almost grotesque. The Child’s inexplicable pose is also unusual. The Madonna, with her nearly round head, is a characteristic type of Lippi; her rigid right arm and square, stumpy hands with short fingers, and the ponderous, almost exaggerated draperies continue to appear in Lippi’s art of this period. The perspective is also somewhat forced, but the sharply foreshortened upper shutter of the window is relatively novel. Another effective feature of the painting is the vigorous light and shadow used both for building forms and for illumination within the interior space, although the source of light is not consistently distributed throughout the piece.

Lippi continued to be an obstinate and difficult person under the patronage of the Medici. Cosimo had to imprison him in a room in his house at one point to compel him to work and even then, Lippi escaped by a rope made of his bed sheets. (His life was filled with many similar tales of lawsuits, complaints, broken promises, and sexual scandal. His escapades threw him into financial difficulties from time to time throughout his life, which he did not hesitate to extricate himself sometimes by forgery.)

annunciation fra filippo lippi
Fra Filippo Lippi, Annunciation, 1441-1443

When Lippi did work and fulfilled his commissions, he showed that his artistic powers were prodigious. His development was further shown in the Annunciation, which was once thought to be a late work, but is now dated early in his career–between 1441 and 1443. The painting is composed in a new way, using the newly discovered effects of perspective and skillful contrasts between color and form. The suggested movement of the garments is pictured with such sensitivity as to anticipate the works of Sandro Botticelli, who was Lippi’s most illustrious pupil.

In 1441, Lippi painted an altarpiece for the high altar of the church of the Benedictine nuns of Sant’Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) in Florence that was celebrated in Robert Browning’s well-known poem Fra Lippo Lippi (1855). The painting represents the Coronation of the Virgin among angels and saints, including many Bernardine monks, following her assumption into heaven. Seated on a throne, God the Father crowns Mary, in the presence of numerous angels and saints. The Virgin, kneeling, humbly accepts the divine will with her hands folded. The angels near the throne are holding the long priestly stole that God the Father wears over his cloak, while the other angels are carrying white lilies, a flower associated with Mary’s purity. The background is formed by blue and light blue concentric bands, probably depicting the heavens which, according to medieval cosmology, made up the celestial sphere. Among the saints, St. Ambrose can be identified as the bishop standing on the left, the titular saint of the church for which the work was intended, to whom John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, corresponds symmetrically on the right. In the foreground, there is a whole family of martyrs killed at the time of Christian persecution under the Roman Empire, namely Saint Eustace, wearing a blue robe and orange mantle, together with his wife Theopista and their sons Theopisto and Agapius. One of the monks, placed to the right, is a half-length figure originally thought to be a self-portrait of Lippi, pointed out by the inscription Is perfecit opus (he finished the work) on an angel’s scroll. (However, it was later believed instead to be a portrait of the benefactor who commissioned the painting, the canon Francesco di Antonio Maringhi, procurator of the Monastery of Saint Ambrose.)

In 1442 Lippi was made rector of the church of San Quirico at Legnaia, a section of Florence. (This shows that he had not renounced his vows when he left the monastic life 10 years earlier). His life, however, was constantly more eventful around this time, and tradition has given him the reputation (borne out in great part by many documents) of a man dominated by love affairs and amorous pursuits of women, and impatient with methodical or tranquil conduct. This was all to build to a contentious point several years later.

The Mature Period of Artistic Development

Toward the middle of the 15th century, Lippi’s pictures became more finely articulated and his surface design became more complex. The bright and active city of Prato, a short distance from Florence, became Lippi’s second home and here he executed many successful commissions. He returned to Prato often, staying there for long periods, painting frescoes and altarpieces. By the time he first moved to Prato, he certainly had a large workshop, and the hand of his assistants may be observed in the important fresco decorations that he began in 1452 in the choir chapel of the Prato Cathedral. Accompanied by his Carmelite friend, Fra Diamante, who had been his companion and collaborator since he was a young man in the monastery, Lippi began to redecorate the walls of the choir of the Cathedral in 1452. He returned in 1463 and again in 1464, remaining in the city this time until 1467.

At the center of his activity in Prato stand the frescoes in the cathedral’s chancel, with the four Evangelists and scenes from the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen. Perhaps the most solemn scene of the frescoes of the life and death of St. Stephen is The Funeral of St. Stephen (1460); at the sides of the funeral bed of the saint stand a crowd of prelates and illustrious persons in mourning, among them Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici, Fra Diamante, and Lippi himself.

Fra Filippo Lippi, The Feast of Herod–Salome's Dance
Fra Filippo Lippi, The Feast of Herod–Salome’s Dance, 1467

Lippi painted astonishing portrait likenesses and combined figures and space with an animated surface rhythm, the best example of which can be seen in the Feast of Herod, one of the last scenes in the Prato Cathedral cycle. It tells about the death of St. John the Baptist, who was imprisoned by King Herod. Herod held a feast and persuaded his stepdaughter, Salome, to dance for him and his guests. He promised to give her whatever she wanted. Herodias, Salome’s mother, persuaded the young woman to demand John’s head as her reward. Salome obliged Herodias, and while she danced the saint was executed. Then, she was presented with his head on a platter that she presented to her mother and King Herod.

In the painting, Lippi has inscribed three important “points” of the gospel plot at one glance. In the center: Salome is dancing with the seven veils. At the left – she receives the head of John the Baptist. At the right – she is presenting it to Herod. Lippi has painted Herod in a non-descript way. If Salome is recognizable by her costume, and Herodias attracts attention with an expressive gesture of a pointing hand, then Lippi deliberately emphasizes the insignificance of this “king”, who obeyed the orders of Rome and recklessly promised the seductive stepdaughter whatever she wanted.

(After delays and strong protests, this commission was finally completed in 1466). These cycles he painted in the Prato Cathedral were an important monument of Early Renaissance painting, and it demonstrated Lippi’s more mature style. It showed him to be witty, original, and well-versed in all the artistic accomplishments of that period, to which he himself also contributed. Through the fairly new device of linear perspective, Lippi was able to render a convincing illusion of recession and plausible three-dimensional figures. He also knew how to express emotions in his subjects, and he showed he also was a keen observer of nature.

fra filippo lippi madonna with the child and two angels web
Fra Filippo Lippi – Madonna with the Child and two Angels, 1465 (tempera on wood)

In the Prato frescoes as well as in his contemporary panel pictures, such as the Madonna and Child with Two Angels (aka Uffizi Madonna), and in the tondo of the Madonna with the Child and Scenes from the Life of St Anne, 1452 (aka Pitti Tondo), Lippi anticipated later developments in 15th-century painting. In these pictures are to be found the technical and artistic sources of Botticelli’s work.

Far Filippo Lippi, Virgin with the Child. Scenes from the Life of St Anne, 1452, 53" diameter.
Far Filippo Lippi, Virgin with the Child. Scenes from the Life of St Anne, 1452, 53″ diameter.

The Pitti Tondo is one of the most celebrated and most beautiful works of Lippi. The shape of the tondo (round) panel, which was a favorite in the 15th Century for religious compositions, is used by Lippi with perfect skill. The face of the Virgin coincides almost exactly with the center of the panel, as it is also the spiritual fulcrum. She and the Child, who is posed with infantile grace, constitute the principal object of veneration and of the vision. The two lateral scenes, which are linked together by the beautiful figures of the women who approach the newly made mother, St Anne, lying on the bed on the left, form almost exactly two segments of the circle. In allusion to the future birth of the Virgin is the Meeting of Joachim and Anne (her mother and father) at the Golden Gate on the right above the small figures that stand out in the luminous geometry of the walls, windows, and staircase.

Amorous Affair and Flight from Prato

Lippi’s amorous adventures continued throughout this time and finally culminated in 1456 in his romantic flight from Prato—where he was painting in the convent of the nuns of Santa Margherita— with a young nun of the convent, Lucrezia Buti. She had served as his model of the Madonna for several of the paintings done in Prato and later. From 1456 to 1458 Lippi lived with Lucrezia, her sister, and a few other nuns. The sisters of the order tried to get her back for several months after he took her away but finally gave up the enterprise. His conduct, together with his apparent inability to fulfill commission contracts on time, got him into trouble with the Civil and Church authorities. He was arrested, tried, and tortured. It was only thanks to the intervention of Cosimo de’ Medici that Lippi was released and allowed finally to renounce his vows. (Pope Pius II later permitted the former priest-painter and the former nun to marry). From their union was born a son in 1457, Filippo, called Filippino, who became one of the most noted Florentine painters of the second half of the 15th century, and a daughter, Alessandra, born in 1465. (Lippi continued his amorous philandering even after they were married, which ultimately led to their living in separate towns in Italy at the time of Lippi’s death).

Final Work and Death

Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin (1467) Fresco
Fra Filippo Lippi, Coronation of the Virgin, 1467, Fresco

In 1467 Lippi, accompanied by his son Filippino and Fra Diamante, left for Spoleto, where Lippi had received a commission for another vast undertaking: the decorations and frescoes of the apse of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta; Duomo di Spoleto (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption; Spoleto Duomo). He started work on the commission in September 1467. It consisted of scenes from the life of the Virgin that included The Annunciation, The Nativity of Jesus, and The Death of Mary. (Pictured in the latter fresco are a self-portrait of Lippi, his helpers, Fra Diamante and Pier Matteo d’Amelia, and his son Filippino). In the center of the semi-dome of the vault of the apse is the most spectacular painting in the series: The Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven, with angels, sibyls, and prophets. This series, which critics argue is not wholly equal to the one at Prato, is still impressive; it was completed in December 1469, 2 months after Lippi’s death by Filippino and Fra Diamante.

Fra Filippo Lippi died in Spoleto on October 8, 1469, at the age of 62 or 63. His death mirrored his life: full of tall tales and conspiracy theories, and lacking any clear answers as to its cause. The mode of his death is unknown and has been a matter of dispute for centuries. It has been said that he had been poisoned by indignant relatives of Lucrezia who were looking to vindicate her honor, or by relatives of some other woman who had replaced Lucrezia in Lippi’s affections. (See Vasari, II p.7). Whatever the true cause of his death, historians today accept neither of these two versions as valid.

Lippi was buried in Spoleto Duomo on the right side of the transept, despite Lorenzo the Magnificent’s (Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici) request for the remains to be returned to Florence. Spoleto replied to his request that, unlike Florence, the Spoleto Duomo had no illustrious men buried in it. (In 1490, Lorenzo had a splendid sepulcher, designed by Filippino, erected for him in the Spoleto Duomo).

Assessment and Legacy

Judgments made about Lippi for several centuries after his death were often colored by the traditions of his adventurous and amorous life. Also, his works have been criticized from time to time for their borrowings from other painters, especially Masaccio and Fra Angelico. However, it has also been recognized that his art was not diminished but rather enriched and rendered more balanced by what he took from these two artists. He constantly sought the techniques that would help him realize his artistic vision, and these new ideas made him one of the most appreciated artists of his time.

Lippi was one of the first Renaissance Men; a Humanist who took over the reins from the anonymously devout late Medieval artisans whose only concern was to paint the glories of heaven. Indeed, he was an exponent of the new-found confidence in the investigation of the physical, earthly world and emerged as a pivotal figure in the evolution of Renaissance art. He complemented his humanist leanings with richly decorative and lyrical effects. His pictures show the naiveté of a strong, rich nature, redundant in lively and somewhat whimsical observation. Most importantly, he approached religious art from its human side, and he was not pietistic in his renderings of Catholic devotion.

In numerous works, he could picture the human emotions of his characters and to show the realistic actions of those characters based on their emotions. He was the greatest colorist and technically adept Florentine painter of his day with his episodic tableaus bringing an unrivaled level of dynamism and earthly animation to devotional narratives. His draftsmanship was far superior to any of his contemporaries because of the way he achieved a delicate balance between expressive content and the staging of reality. One of the defining expressive features of his work was his willingness (and skill) to conflate one or more biblical stories into a single narrative. In works such as Saint Jerome in Penance (1439), he skillfully blended two stories featuring an older and a youthful Jerome in the same painting.

 


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
“Fra Filippo Lippi .” Encyclopedia of World Biography on Encyclopedia.com website, January 9, 2024
“Fra Filippo Lippi: The Complete Works.” The Frafilippolippi.org website;
Lewis, Shane. (Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd). “Fra Filippo Lippi: Artist Overview and Analysis.” TheArtStory website, September 6, 2021
Mariani, Valerio. “Fra Filippo Lippi.” Encyclopedia Britannica website, December 20, 2020
Vance, Heidi. “15 Facts about Filippo Lippi: The Quattrocento Painter from Italy.”
TheCollector.com website, September 19, 2020
Vasari, Giorgio, translated by A.P. Hinds. The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (4 vols). London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (Everyman Library), 1963, (originally published in 1550);
“Fra Filippo Lippi” in Vol.II, pp. 1-8
Wikipedia website.

*All images are in the public domain and sourced from the Wikipedia website.

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