his childhood at carmine

His childhood at Carmine Filippo Lippi was born in 1406 in Florence in a house behind the Carmelite convent and, after being left an orphan, he was taken in by the convent at the age of eight, and given a home there, since his family was extremely poor.

He entered the Carmelite order when he was fifteen, but he was a very poor student: his real talent was in the art of painting, where he showed early genius, and he quickly became one of the most celebrated and original painters in Renaissance Florence.

There is no evidence that young Fra’ Filippo ever studied his art in the workshop of any other master.

Il conferimento della regola del Carmelo (o un episodio di vita eremitica), Firenze, Convento del Carmine, sala adiacente al chiostro Affresco staccato e lacunoso, cm. 386×480, più un’appendice di cm 95×137

fra filippo and masaccio

Fra’ Filippo and Masaccio Certainly, starting from the elegant, late Gothic style of Lorenzo Monaco, he had opportunities to practice his art thanks to his vicinity to the site of the most important, innovative artistic project of the period, the Brancacci Chapel, frescoed around 1427 right there in the Carmelite church by Masaccio and Masolino (the frescoes, left unfinished, were completed about sixty years later by none other than the son of Fra’ Filippo, Filippino).

But aside from the influence of the painting of Masaccio – in the sense of perspective and in the plastic relief of his volumes – Fra’ Filippo absorbed and harmonized concepts from a number of different artistic styles, using them as needed with surprising skill and thus creating his own, highly original style. We can find references in his work, for example, to the sculpture of Donatello – and even to the more classical sculpture of Luca della Robbia – in his rendering of figures (with intense but short shadows that bring to mind the bas-relief), in certain bold outlines of faces or in the exuberance and vitality that we find in the celebrated Pulpit of the Cathedral of Prato. In his maturity, we can appreciate the clarity of color, the subtle grace and rhythms that seem to echo the work of Beato Angelico, perhaps to please Filippo’s great patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, but also to give his figures a more convincingly pious aspect.
Finally, we often find in the works of Fra’ Filippo a precious Flemish component – in the details of fabrics and jewels, in the colors and in certain views – perhaps copied from paintings and miniatures brought to Florence by the Flemish merchants (who had a company there in the Carmelite church), or gleaned during the artist’s own travels to Padua and perhaps also to Naples. To this city – imagines Vasari in his Life of the Artist – Filippo was carried off after being kidnapped by the Moors in Ancona, and held as a slave for eighteen months in Algeria. What saved his life – continues Vasari’s story – was his skillful portrayal of owner on a wall, drawn using a stick of charcoal. His owner first had him paint a number of portraits, secretly, and then allowed him to repatriate “safely to Naples, with a reward”.

Madonna col Bambino in trono (Madonna di Tarquinia), Roma, Galleria di Palazzo Barberini (in deposito dal Museo Nazionale di Corneto Tarquinia) Tempera su tavola, cm 114×65, cornice originale

genius and passion

Fra’ Filippo was an independent, unconventional spirit all his life. His character was impulsive and passionate, and he sometimes lost control; but it was just this adventurous personality of his, his sanguine nature not immune to desire, vice, remorse and raging passion – especially for women (which is the aspect biographers and critics always dwell on, never forgiving the painter for having betrayed Art with his dissolute life) – that enabled him to achieve such a profound understanding of human nature and shaped his knowledge into an expressivity that he was able to transfer to his paintings.

Thus, in spite of his many ideal masters, the artistic vision of Lippi, in the end, is highly individual, far from the rigors of the Brancacci Chapel, the drama of Donatello, the candor of Fra’ Angelico. The characteristics of Fra’ Filippo are his extraordinary narrative skill, with an almost popular, rustic quality that makes the most complex sacred stories comprehensible, orchestrated as if for a theatrical representation; his creative imagination that observes everyday behavior carefully and uses these details to enhance the realism of the scene; his frequent, precocious use of the portrait and above all his portrayal of the emotions of living, real people with all their pulsating, vulgar or refined humanity, saints and sinners alike.

the masterpiece of prato

The greatness of his art received immediate acclaim, even from two of the greatest geniuses of the late Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo, though for different reasonsFilippino, divenuto poi anch’esso pittore.
The former applauded his perception of the environment, his psychological sensitivity in rendering the characters and his refined pictorial technique, while the latter appreciated the vigor and vitality of his figures, the imposing, heroic proportions as in the frescoes for the Cathedral of Prato. It was, indeed, the call to decorate the main chapel of the Cathedral that first brought Lippi to Prato, where he lived and worked from 1452 to 1465.
This became the busiest, most fertile period of original artistic growth in our city, thanks to the stable presence of Fra’ Filippo and his collaborators who, in addition to decorating the Cathedral, produced many other paintings for charitable organizations, churches and monasteries in the city.

Adorazione dei Magi (Tondo Cook), Washington, National Gallery of Art (dal 1952) Tempera su tavola, diametro cm 137,2

the last works

In January 1466 Fra Filippo received the balance of the payment for his frescoes, which cost all of 1,962 florins (including the materials and scaffoldings), but with the complete satisfaction of the clients. The following year, Filippo and his entourage moved to Spoleto, to fresco the apse of the Cathedral there.
At the same time, the artist received an order from the convent in Prato of the Servi di Maria for an altarpiece entitled The Presentation at the Temple (still on view in the church of the Holy Spirit), painted almost entirely by his collaborators, in 1467-68, on models painted by the master, with an interesting setting in perspective that opens outward.

The Spoleto frescoes were completed shortly after the death of Fra Filippo, in October 1469; for a few years his workshop, directed by Fra Diamante, continued to operate in Prato. For the monastery of St. Margaret, of which Fra Diamante was the chaplain, in 1470-72 an altarpiece was painted depicting the Nativity, now at the Louvre (it was carried off by the French government in 1812). The City Museum still has the predella (now part of the exhibition The Treasures of the City), with three scenes: The Presentation in the Temple; The Adoration of the Magi; The Slaughter of the Innocents, painted by Fra Diamante and collaborators. Many critics see in the Adoration – with its dynamic, dramatic sketching of a small, airy landscape – an early work of the young Filippino Lippi.

filippo lippi a prato