Biography: Fra Filippo Lippi
He was one of the most admired artists of his time because he was always looking for new ways to execute his artistic vision.
Fra Filippo Lippi was possibly the most significant Florentine painter of the second half of the fifteenth century. He was an extraordinarily talented and deft artist who could balance the traditions of religious art with modern humanist influences. Despite having a reputation for scandalous sexual behavior and eccentric behavior, Lippi created complex religious parables that added a psychological element to compositions with asymmetrical perspective, delicate coloring, and intricate ornamentation. Before relocating to Spoleto and Prato, where he created the monumental works, Stories of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen and Scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary, Lippi painted Florentine masterpieces like The Annunciation and the Seven Saints. (The Art Story, n.d.)
Art Legends in History is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In Florence, Filippo Lippi was born into a large, impoverished family. After his parents passed away, the young Filippo was raised by an aunt for a while before being given to his brother and placed in the Carmelite monks' convent at Santa Maria del Carmine. At the time, Masaccio's frescoes were painted in the monastery's Brancacci chapel. Lippi's first significant encounter with art was through these frescoes, which would rank among the Renaissance's most magnificent and influential works of art. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.)
Vasari described a strange incident in Lippi's life. However, the account has since been refuted, and it still illustrates an "origin story" for a brilliant artist that emphasized the supposedly almost preternatural talent he was said to possess. Vasari's fantastic story claims that Lippi was kidnapped from the city of Ancona by a group of Moors and taken to North Africa, where he was imprisoned for 18 months. While there, he is rumored to have used a small piece of coal to sketch a complete portrait of his master. The master was so shocked by the uncanny realism of the painting that he gave the order for Lippi's release, which was carried out at the port of Naples.
By the 1430s, Lippi had returned to Florence and had won the support of the ruthless Cosimo de'Medici, who hired him to create altarpieces and frescoes for several Florentine churches and convents. The Virgin and Child Between SS. Frediano and Augustin and the Madonna and Child, created in 1437, shortly after Mariani's return from Padua, "clearly affirm the qualities he acquired during his years of travel," according to Mariani.
These paintings, according to Mariani, "have warm colors that have been softened with shadings, approaching the limpid chromatics of his great contemporary Fra Angelico." In 1439, Lippi created Saint Jerome in Penance, in which he divided his picture plane into two spatially and chronologically separate sections, with two stories of a younger and older Jerome.
An early indication of Lippi's brilliance was the Annunciation. It was innovative in its use of asymmetrical perspective and beautiful contrasts between color and form. In 1442, he was appointed rector of the San Quirico Church in Florence's Legnaia neighborhood.
It was a period of great inspiration for Lippi, who created the Coronation of the Virgin for the Church of Sant'Ambrogio. The predella (stepped) altarpiece, which Mariani called a historic point in the Florentine painting, required Lippi to hire a team of six outside painters due to the size of the project. The altarpiece features a self-portrait of Lippi in the right corner, which could be seen as a subversive act but also adds an extra dash of realism. (The Art Story, n.d.)
But as his life continued to become more eventful, he earned the reputation of being a man preoccupied with romantic relationships and impatient with methodical or peaceful behavior, which is supported mainly by the records. His exploits culminated in 1456 when he took a young nun from the convent named Lucrezia Buti on a passionate flight from Prato, where he was painting in the nuns' convent of Santa Margherita.
From 1456 to 1458, Lippi resided with Lucrezia, her sister, and a few other nuns. Lippi was in trouble due to his actions and his apparent inability to complete contracts on time. He was detained, tortured, and put on trial. Lippi was only freed and permitted to break his vows because of Cosimo de' Medici's intervention.
The pope later permitted the former priest-painter and the nun to get married. From this union, Filippo, also known as Filippino, was born, becoming one of the most renowned Florentine painters of the later half of the 15th century. Filippo Lippi's second home was in Prato, a vibrant and energetic city close to Florence. He frequently visited Prato and stayed there for extended periods to paint frescoes and altarpieces.
In 1452, Lippi started to redecorate the walls of the choir of cathedral there, aided by Fra Diamante, who had been his friend and collaborator since he was a young man. He returned in 1463 and once more in 1464, staying in the city until 1467. He worked on the four Evangelists, and scenes from the lives of St. John the Baptist and St. Stephen are depicted in the cathedral chancel frescoes, which are the focal point of his work in Prato.
The Burial of St. Stephen is arguably the most solemn moment in his life and death. In a show of mourning, Cardinal Carlo de' Medici, Fra Diamante, and the artist himself are all present at the sides of the saint's coffin. When Lippi, his son Filippino, and Fra Diamante traveled to Spoleto in 1467, it was to complete the decorations and frescoes for the cathedral choir, which featured the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Death of Mary, and—in the center of the vault of the apse—the Coronation. This was Lippi's second major project. These frescoes were Lippi's final creation; they were stopped by his passing, for which there are two dates noted in the Spoleto archives and the monks' necrology of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Later, the Medici had a magnificent tomb built for Lippi in the cathedral of Spoleto (1490), designed by the artist's son. (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.)
The Legacy of Fra Filippo Lippi
According to Mariani, "Posthumous judgments of Filippo Lippi were often colored by the traditions of his adventurous life [and that] his works have occasionally been criticized for their appropriation of other painters." Contrary to popular belief, Mariani claims that Lippi's artistic merit was not diminished but rather "enriched and made more well-balanced by what he borrowed from Fra Angelico and Masaccio."
He was one of the most admired artists of his time because he was always looking for new ways to execute his artistic vision. " He continues by saying that critics have grown to appreciate Lippi for having "a 'narrative' spirit that reflected the life of his time and translated the ideals of the early Renaissance into everyday terms." Through his fluid but intricate narrative compositions, Lippi gave religious imagery a humanist and psychological component that gave devotional art an unheard-of level of realism.
The art historian Michael Baxandall referred to Lippi's creations as "uncanny but completely composed worlds." His influence can be seen in many of the greatest Renaissance masters, including Botticelli (his pupil), Michelangelo, and Piero della Francesca. Lippi is also a pioneer in striking a balance between mathematical and irregular perspectives in the pictorial sphere. (The Art Story, n.d.)
The Art Story. (n.d.). www.theartstory.org. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/lippi-fra-filippo/
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). www.britannica.com. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fra-Filippo-Lippi