LIPPI, Fra Filippo
(b. 1406, Firenze, d. 1469, Spoleto)


Presumed self-portrait from the Barbadori Altarpiece

Filippo Lippi (Filippo di Tommaso di Lippo), Florentine painter. He was brought up as an unwanted child in the Carmelite friary of the Carmine, where he took his vows in 1421. Unlike the Dominican Fra Angelico, however, Lippi was a reluctant friar and had a scandalous love affair with a nun, Lucrezia Buti, who bore his son Filippino and a daughter Alessandra. The couple was released from their vows and allowed to marry, but Lippi still signed himself "Frater Philippus". His biography (romantically embroidered to include capture by pirates) is one of the most colourful in Vasari's Lives and has given rise to the picture of a wordly Renaissance artist, rebelling against the discipline of the Church. He must certainly have had a more eventful life than most, but there is little documentary evidence of his character and personality.

Vasari writes that Lippi was inspired to become a painter by watching Masaccio at work in the Carmine church, and his early work, notably the Tarquinia Madonna (Galleria Nazionale, Rome) is certainly overwhelmingly influenced by him. In 1432 Lippi probably painted a fresco in the cloister of Santa Maria del Carmine, the so-called Rules of the Carmelite Order, and in the same year he apparently left the convent permanently.

He traveled to North Italy where he disseminated the latest Florentine discoveries and, at the same time, was open to the stylistic currents he found there. Lippi was in Padua in 1434 and perhaps earlier, where he was recorded together with Francesco Squarcione, the local painter and powerful personality. Back in Florence, he signed and dated the Tarquinia Madonna in 1437 and obtained an important commission for an altarpiece, the Madonna Enthroned with Saints (begun 1437, Louvre, Paris) for the Barbadori family chapel in Santo Spirito, which he apparently finished during the following year. Lippi's art, and probably this painting, are warmly praised by Domenico Veneziano in a letter of 1438 to Piero, son of Cosimo de' Medici, with whom Fra Filippo had close dealings. In 1442, with Medici support, Pope Eugenius IV awarded him an important benefice. A large payment was made in 1447 for St Bernard's Vision of the Virgin (The National Gallery, London), produced for the Palazzo della Signoria, as well as final payments for the Coronation of the Virgin, made for Sant'Ambrogio, which was commissioned in 1441.

From about 1440, however, his style changed direction, becoming more linear and preoccupied with decorative motifs - thin, fluttering draperies, brocades, etc. Lippi is associated particularly with paintings of the Virgin and Child, which are sometimes in the form of tondi, a format he was among the first to use - a beautiful example, showing the wistful delicacy and exquisite pale lighting that characterizes his best works, is in the Pitti, Florence. Another formal innovation with which Lippi is closely associated is the "sacra conversazione" - his Barbadori Altarpiece is sometimes claimed as the earliest example of the type.

Fra Filippo began to fresco the enormous choir of the Cathedral of Prato in 1452 (after Fra Angelico had turned down the assignment). He was aided by his chief assistant of the period, Fra Diamante; the work dragged on for years. As a fresco painter Lippi's finest achievement is this cycle on the lives of Sts Stephen and John the Baptist (1452-65). In Prato Lippi also obtained a number of other assignments and purchased a house there in 1455. He is nominated chaplain in the nunnery of Santa Margherita in Prato.

By 1458 he completed a painting for the king of Naples, a commission negotiated by the Medici, for whom Filippo produced an Adoration of the Child (now lost) in 1459. In spite of his secular activities, Filippo's late works are infused with religious feeling and are far more lyrical than the early ones. The Nativities in Florence, in Berlin, and in Florence, as well as the Madonna and Child in Florence are examples.

By 1466 he had put the finishing touches on the frescoes in Prato; in the previous year negotiations had been underway for him to fresco the choir of the Cathedral of Spoleto in Umbria. The actual painting began in 1467 with the assistance of Fra Diamante, who completed the work about the time of Lippi's death in 1469. Despite the wishes of the Florentines, who wanted him to be interred in his native city, Fra Filippo was buried in Spoleto, where there is a monument dedicated to him in the Cathedral with an inscription by the humanist poet Angelo Poliziano.

Filippo Lippi was not dedicated to the study of nature firsthand; instead, he depended largely upon painted and sculptured prototypes, and his figures are often inorganic and unanatomical, rendered without an ultimate conviction for their three-dimensional presence. Nor was Filippo deeply motivated by a desire to imitate antiquity; there are remarkably few paraphrases from ancient sculpture, and when isolated, they appear to have been achieved indirectly, filtered through Donatello or Luca della Robbia.

For the most part his painted architecture, the buildings he invented, cannot even vaguely be reconstructed. Like Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi was taken with landscape, and he was successful in this genre in the backgrounds of many pictures; but his world is predominantly fantasy, accentuated by an unnaturalistic palette. Lippi, however, had moments of the greatest power, like the frescoes in Prato, which stand among the finest and most eloquent statements of the age.

Lippi was highly regarded in his day (he was patronized by the Medici, who came to his aid when he was imprisoned and tortured for alleged fraud) and his influence is seen in the work of numerous artists, most notably Botticelli, who was probably his pupil. Four centuries later he was one of the major sources for the second wave of Pre-Raphaelitism.