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Filippo Lippi

The Art of Filippo Lippi

In 1452, at the height of success, Fra Filippo Lippo was commissioned  by the City of Prato to paint the Chapel of the Parish of St. Stephen, now the Cathedral. The famous cycle of Stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist, which according to Vasari is “the most excellent of all of his works”, was carried out by Lippi and his collaborators between the 1452 and the 1465, with long pauses due to the complex artist’s love affaires, but also because of the numerous commissions by pious bodies, churches and monasteries of Prato. This was the most fruitful and original period of art for Prato’s art history.
Filippo was born in Florence in 1406 and, after both his parents died, at the age of 8 years he was registered in the Convent of Carmine. He showed immediately reluctance to study but with a considerable artistic talent which made him in a few time one of the most original painters of the Renaissance. The contact with Masaccio and Masolino, both engaged in the Church of Carmine for the Chapel Brancacci (about 1427, and completed only sixty years later by the son of Fra Filippo)  was very incisive for his training course, but he took inspiration also from the sculpture of Donatello and Luca della Robbia, of Beato Angelico and of the Flemish painting, reaching, in spite of the many ideal teachers, a personal artistic vision.
Fra Filippo was independent-minded and unconventional, with impulsive and sometimes uncontrolled passion; he met in Prato in S. Margherita the beautiful Lucrezia Buti – nun for the decision of her brother, a rich Florentine silk merchant – and with her he escaped from the convent. The result was their son Filippino ( who will become an excellent painter) and a daughter. Maybe it was his adventurous life, not free from desires, vices, regrets and passions, to enable him to a deep understanding of human nature and the strong emotional charge transferred in his paintings.
A characteristic of Fra Filippo is the use of his clever narrative vein which makes comprehensive the complex sacred stories, orchestrated like a great performance of theatre; the imaginative creativity with attention to the aspects of daily existence; a frequent, early use of the portrait, and especially the ability to represent the feelings of humanity alive and kicking, vulgar or refined, saint or sinner, as in the frescoes in the cathedral of Prato. These scenes are complex and impressive, but attentive to the continuity of narrative, with expansive spaces open to perspectives. The design of monumental figures (according to Vasari, Lippi is the precursor for the art of the sixteenth century and of Michelangelo), does not prevent the lightness, thanks to the liquid an bright brushwork and vaporous draperies.

The frescos in the Cathedral

On the left wall of the Cappella Maggiore of the Cathedral is shown the story of St. Stephen, patron saint of Prato, based on ancient traditions. Beautiful the scene in which Stephen takes his leave by Bishop Giuliano to start to preach – in the middle band – and – in the lower register – the funeral after finding the body of Stephen, where you can recognize at the right side the imposing figure of Pope Pio II (behind him is the proposed Carle de’ Medici, son of Cosimo il Vecchio and an Circassian slave) flanked by two brothers: the oldest one on the right is probably a self-portrait of Lippi.
On the opposite wall, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, in the median scene on the rocky bottom, there is the great, involving group with St. John who leaves the parents, while the lower scene shows an unique scenographic environment with the Feast of Herod, where performing the dance of Salome – bright and light figure, which had strong effects on Botticelli, Lippi's pupil – the beheading of Baptist and an absent, brighten Salome presenting to the mother Erodiade (beautiful, but cold and impassive) the head of John.
In January 1466 Filippo got the money for the frescoes, he received the well-paid sum of 1962 florins (including materials and scaffolding); in the following years the artist and his workshop moved to Spoleto, engaged to paint the apse of the cathedral, where Lippi died in October 1469.

The other works in Prato

Considering also the frescoes of the Cathedral of St. Stephen, Prato is the city that preserves the a great part of the works by Fra Filippo. In the Opera del Duomo Museum adjacent to the Cathedral you find one of the masterpiece of the artist: the Funeral of St. Jerome, commissioned by the proposed Inghirami ( portrayed in rich pink clothes next to a healed crippled man), that shows soft forms, woven of light and a compelling emotional pain in the monks that surround the body of the saint. A close collaborator of Lippi, the Maestro della Natività di Castello, painted in 1449 the adjoining Madonna and Child with Saints Giusto and Clemente, precious in the dense and enamelled colour and also in the complex throne of the Virgin.

Another smaller Madonna and child, an early work by Lippi with the influence of Masaccio, is exhibited in the Galleria degli Alberti, but the core of most works painted by Fra Filippo in Prato is exhibited in the Palazzo Pretorio Museum, with other masterpieces by Giovanni da Milano, Bernardo Daddi, Filippino Lippi. Among the works of Fra Filippo, the first one realized in Prato is the is the Madonna with Child between St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist (1453), called "Pala del Ceppo", with monumental figures but of harmonious spirituality. At the foot of the throne is the portrait of the well-known merchant Francesco Datini (1325-1410), who presents to the Virgin the administrators of the “Ceppo Nuovo”, the pious organization founded with his rich heritage.
A little later he realized the altarpiece of the Assumption giving the Girdle to St. Thomas and Saints, related to the emotional vicissitudes of Lippi, who was commissioned by the monastery of St. Margherita. In the painting mostly executed by Fra Diamante, St. Margarita portrays Lucrezia Buti, perhaps, or at least the female ideal of Filippo, revived also in the enchanting Virgin in the most pure profile in the contiguous blade of the Nativity with St. George an St. Vincent Ferrer, immersed in a picturesque landscape, where the Child is probably a portrait of his son Filippino.
​Among the works of Lippi we find also a tablet with the Annunciation an St. Julian and a running board that completed a Nativity (stolen by the French government in 1812, now on display at the Louvre) painted around 1472 by Lippi's workshop (the scene with Adoration was probably painted by the young Filippino). Finally, the church of Spirito Santo has an altarpiece with the Presentation in the Temple commissioned to Lippi in 1467, when he was already at Spoleto, but performed by collaborators following the master's models. The church is close to the Cicognini College, where Gabriele D’Annunzio studied, and he loved the frescoes of Lippi and also his Lucrezia, whom he called himself "her second lover".

The genius of Filippino

The fate of Lucrezia Buti, the companion of Filippo Lippi, is not known (probably she turned back to the Convent of St. Margherita), but the Lippi loved his son Filippino, taking care and staying together until his death. Entrusted then to Fra Diamante, Filippino collaborated with him in Spoleto and Prato, in 1472 before entering the workshop of Botticelli, his great master. The young man, whom Vasari describes as “courteous, affable and kind”, even to clear the “stain (whatever it is) on him by his father”, quickly became famous for the style, nervous, lively and complex, full of details, “archaeological” and classical architecture quotes, characterized by the elegant linear style, the skill in portraiture, the natural cure. Filippino maintained a close relationship with his hometown; even if the splendid altarpiece depicting the Virgin interceding with Christ for the salvation of Prato, painted in 1495 for the Chiesa del Palco,  immigrated to the Alte Pinakotek di Monaco. Our city conserves other masterpieces by Filippino, exhibited in the Palazzo Pretorio Museum. The precious tabernacle of Mercatale, painted in 1498 was recovered by Leonetto Tintori in 1944, after a serious damage of a bombing. On the bottom, standing in front of a sarcophagus of an archaeological aspect is the beautiful Madonna and Child, and in the backgroundgrotesques pairs of saints: Antony – of robust, gruff efficiency – and Margherita, and opposite Catherine of Alessandria and Stephen – youthful figures of haunting beauty.

The artist’s late work is the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child between St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist, painted in 1502-3 for the Hearing of the Municipality. Characterized by a dramatic atmosphere, suspended, and a pale light that accentuates the shadows in the sweet, pale figures, seems to participate in the dramatic climate of religiosity rooted in Prato at the time of Savonarola. To the same environment belongs the small, precious Crucifix (recently acquired by the City of Denver Art Museum), where the artist replicates the central part of the Pala Values (1497-1500) painted for S. Procolo in Florence, very appreciated by the families close to the Savonarola.

Filippo Lippi "Madonna del Ceppo"
Filippo Lippi e Fra Diamante "Madonna della Cintola"
Filippo Lippi "Esequie di San Girolamo"
Affreschi di Filippo Lippi nella cappella Maggiore del Duomo di Prato (parete sinistra)
Affreschi di Filippo Lippi nella cappella Maggiore del Duomo di Prato (parete destra)

Data ultima revisione dei contenuti della pagina: luned 16 marzo 2020

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