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Filippo Fra Lippi

His life reads more like a novel than that of a Carmelite Frate. His story includes the kidnapping of a nun, a papal dispensation to marry her, having children out of wedlock and lawsuits for cheating his own assistants. Yet, all the while, living the life of a near-do-well, Fra Filippo Lippo retained a position of importance within the Church and painted some of the most beautiful and treasured works from the 13th century.

Filippo was born around 1406 (a date coming from deductive reasoning rather than actual records). His father, Tommaso di Lippo was a butcher in Florence. His mother was Mona Antonia di Bindo Sernigi.

Like so many histories of famous artists, this one starts out with a bit of competing information. Most Lippo biographies have the artist living with his aunt Mona Alpaccia until the age of eight. His mother was said to have died shortly after his birth and his father died when he was only two years old. His aunt is said to have given the boy over to the care of Carmelite nuns when his upkeep simply became too difficult and costly for her.

One biographer took the orphan story a step further and had a young Lippo literally begging for discarded grapes on the streets of Florence. He was also portrayed as huddling with the dogs under building overhangs to stay out of the rain. He was said to be in the care of his aunt but she had little, if anything, to share with her nephew.

However, another biographer found tax records which show his mother was actually alive as late as 1427 and living well. That biographer felt that it was perhaps a bit of creative writing by Vasari that launched the story of young Lippo growing up virtually destitute. The biographer further postulated that Lippo was destined for a life in the church and he was simply placed with the Carmelites to begin training for his vocation.

Finding the truth of Filippo’s early years was perhaps forever muddled by his life actually being turned into several books – more of the novel kind than the biographical kind.

Young Filippo, based upon his own early writings was near illiterate. It was said that he much preferred filling his and the other boy’s books with caricatures than reading them.

It would appear that he stayed at the monastery until at least 1431, when he was 25. He held the posts of abbot of S. Quirico a Legnaja and chaplain to the nuns of Sta. Margherita at Prata.

By that time, he had already gained the attention of the powerful Medici family, including Cosimo de’ Medici. They were among Lippi’s patrons. Cosimo’s wife commissioned “The Nativity” (No. 79) which Lippi painted in the early 1430s. He also painted “The Annunciation” and “St. John the Baptist with six other Saints” for Cosimo, who placed them in the Riccardi Palace. Lippi’s work was also given as gifts between members of the Medici family and from the Medici’s to the King of Naples and other Italian princes. There is documentary evidence that the somewhat reckless lifestyle of Lippi caused him to petition the Medici’s for financial or other assistance on numerous occasions.

Once again, we come to a divergent point among biographers…

Was Lippi captured by Barbary pirates on the coast of the Marches of Ancona and held in captivity for a number of years until his patron was able to liberate him? Or did Lippo simply accompany Cosimo Medici to Padua when Medici was banished from Florence in 1433?

The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, as well as a number of biographers call the pirate story a fable. Yet, Wikipedia and several more modern biographers include it as if it were fact. The only thing truly known is that there are no surviving works by Lippo from 1431 to 1437. Though, Vasari, Filarete and the Anonimo Morelliano make reference to works executed by Lippo in Padua.

We know from his work and surviving correspondence that Lippo was back in Florence around 1437 when he was commissioned to paint the altarpiece for the Barbadori Chapel in Santo Spirito. It was entitled “Madonna and Child, with Angels and two Abbots.”

In 1439, he begged Piero de’ Medici for assistance. Citing himself as “one of the poorest friars in Florence” and reminding Medici of his financial obligations relating to having six, unmarried nieces. Lippi lived high. He was fond of women and wine and generally spent his money as quickly as he earned it.

In 1442, Pope Eugene IV, most likely on the request of Cosimo, made Lippi rector of the parish church of S. Quirico da Rovezzano. Again, we stray into the fact vs fiction part of the story where we have some historians including an incident with S. Giovanni da Rovezzano. Giovanni sued Lippi for 40 florins after not being paid. The tale goes so far as to say Lippi even produced a forged receipt to show the debt was paid. But, the story gets a bit fantastical when Lippi is said to have confessed on the rack “when he saw his intestines protruding from his wounds.” While the biographer admits that the wild ways of Lippi make this story believable, he questions the authenticity of the circumstances of the confession.

Historical records do seem to find Lippi guilty of the crime. He also appears to have been removed from his spiritual office for committing the offense, but continued to collect the financial benefits of holding the post.

Stories of his exploits only grow through the years, including an escape from a window in pursuit of an ‘amorous adventure.’ Yet, amid a growing body of anecdotes of his less than devout pursuits, in 1450 he was made chaplain to the nuns of S. Niccolo de’ Fieri. He was also made chaplain of Santa Margherita in Prato in 1456. He continued painting all during this time, taking more commissions than he was able to satisfy and therefore getting into even more legal troubles when he failed to return payments from unfulfilled commissions. From surviving correspondence there is some thought that Lippi hid some gold-leaf with Neri di Lorenzo di Bicci to protect it from creditors.

Throughout all his adventures, Lippi continued to paint. His works becoming ever more realistic and more highly desired.

This brings us to the most scandalous event in Lippi’s life. And, yet again, we have slightly different accounts of events.

In 1452, Lippi painted the Madonna of the Pitti tondo. Lippi was among the first artists using real models to give faces to Biblical figures. The face on this particular Madonna is quite similar to a woman he was said to have not met until four years later in 1456 – Lucrezia Buti.

In 1450, Antonio Buti suddenly found himself responsible for a marginally successful silk business and his 12 younger siblings. He married three of his sisters off and placed two in the care of the nuns of Sta. Margherita at Prato. For the sum of 50 florins each, it would appear Antonio was able to shed his responsibility for the two girls, without regard to their own desires.

Fra Filippo was living in a house opposite the convent after being commissioned by the Abbess to paint an altarpiece in 1456. He begged the Abbess to let him use Lucrezia as his model. His position in the church and advanced age perhaps kept the Abbess from being suspicious of the pair.

The nuns were permitted to leave the convent only one day a year – the celebration of the feast of the Madonna della Cintola (Our Lady of the Girdle). Eight nuns left the convent on May 1, 1456. Only seven returned. Lippi was accused of abducting the love of his life from the convent. (Oddly enough, most refer to the event as an abduction rather than the act of a pair of lovers.)

Lucrezia and Lippi lived openly in his house near the convent. Oddly enough, he continued to administer to the spiritual welfare of the nuns. The lack of repercussions led to a number of other young nuns, perhaps also sent to the convent without their consent, to escape. Several of them, including Lucrezia’s sister Spinetta, came to live with Lippi and Lucrezia.

A year later, Lucrezia and Lippi would have a son, Filippino.

And, a year after that, all of the young women were said to have returned, willingly to the confines of the convent and took the veil in December of 1459. While all of the women professed their repentance and made a renewed vow of chastity, Lucrezia gave birth to a daughter, Alessandra, in 1465. Some suspect, Lucrezia’s return to the convent was one of financial convenience rather than through any sense of repentance.

It would seem that the romance, or at least the memories of it lived with Lippi until his death in 1469. Lucrezia’s face appeared in his last work – the frescoes in the chapel in the Church of Our Lady at Spoleto. (Two of those works, “Coronation” and the “Annunciation” are believed to be fully the work of the master. The other two “The Death of the Virgin” and the “Nativity” are believed to have been designed by Lippi but completed by his assistant Fra Diamante.)

Once again, we stray into the realm of fantasy or fiction. Vasari stated that Pope Eugene granted Lippi special dispensation to marry Lucrezia. Pope Eugene IV died in 1447. Simple math would indicate if any papal dispensation were truly given, it would have been by Pope Pius II or Paul II. Such recognition would seemingly not be set aside lightly, particularly by a member of the Church, yet there is no apparent record of the pair marrying. Some scholars question if such a dispensation was ever actually given as it would appear Lippi never acted upon it.

Even in death, Lippi created a bit of a stir and still more rumors surround the famous artist. Some proclaim that the artist was poisoned by members of the Buti family in an act of retribution for disgracing Lucrezia.

He died in Spoleto and was buried at the Church of Our Lady at Spoleto. Around 1488, Lorenzo the Magnificent (Ambassador of the Florentine Commonwealth), demanded that Fra Filippo’s body be re-interned in the Duomo of Florence. The Spoletan’s begged to retain the remains of the master as they had so few distinguished men in their history and that Florence had enough to spare. Not only did Lorenzo allow Filippo’s remains to stay at Spoleto, he commissioned Filippino Lippo to create a marble tomb with the jovial features of his father.

Oh, but our story didn’t end there. Two centuries later, Lippo’s corpse disappeared during a restoration. Some believe it was stolen by descendants of the Buti family as fulfillment of a family vendetta against the man who had so harmed Lucrezia.


Selected Paintings by Lippi


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