by Cinzia Dugo
Filippo Lippi and the Civic Museum of Prato
"The convent and its builder both Were love's purveyors".
I do hope Dante will forgive my cheeky re-elaboration of this well-known passage from the Divine Comedy for, in spite of the way I have altered it, I doubt if I could have found a better verse to introduce a love story that not only took place in the historical context of the 15th century but also, oddly enough, in a convent, where the spiritual world is represented to the full. However, before I embark on this curious story. I think I ought first to provide a brief biographical description of the artist.
It is impossible not to notice the unconstrained, half religious, half profane, character, both in love and in art, of young Lippi's way of life (Florence 1406); after having been educated for the church, he discovered his talent for painting while he was in the convent of the Carmine in Florence, where he took his vows in 1421.
Vasari's amusing and rather tongue-in-cheek account of the difficult phases in the artist's youth and development describes the novice as the epitome of laziness and scholastic lack of discipline and says that instead of studying, all he did was scribble all over his books and those of his classmates. However art, rather than literature, was what really attracted the attention of the young Lippi, especially the painting of Masaccio who, at the time, was working on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, in the interior of the convent. The artist passed the period of his early apprenticeship there and then, abandoning the order of Carmelite monks, set out on his travels around Italy (Padua 1434), producing works that were inevitably influenced by Masaccio's painting. Lippi was to reach the heights of his success when he agreed to go and work for the city of Prato (1452-1465), and afterwards for Spoleto, where he died in 1469, leaving his beautiful frescoes of the Stories of the Virgin in the Cathedral unfinished, later completed by his pupil Fra' Diamante.
Lippi is an incredible example of the perfect and harmonious union between "painter" and monk; even when the artist decided to open his own workshop in Florence, where he operated, as was usual, on a commission basis, he continued with constancy and resolution to maintain the religiosity that was so typical of his double and ambiguous nature. He in fact continued to be a secular monk and this eventually led to his being offered the chaplainship of the convent of S. Margherita in Prato in 1456. It was here, far away from the passions of the outside world, that the monk was involved in one of the most shocking scandals of the time: he not only fell passionately in love with a nun, Lucrezia Buti, who posed for him but, once he realised that it was obviously impossible to continue a relationship of this type, he acted like an antelitteram Don Rodrigo (a character from Manzoni), and carried off the object of his scandalous desires. With free and decidedly anticonformist spirit, he then proceeded to set up house with his mistress, who was not legally recognized as his wife until 1461 and, even then, this only came about thanks to the intercession of Cosimo de' Medici; on this occasion, the Pope's pardon and benediction also allowed him to legitimise his two children: Filippino, who was later to become a famous painter like his father, and Alessandra, born respectively in 1457 and 1459.
Madonna enthroned with Child - Filippo Lippi
Civic Museum, Prato
Vasari rather seems to enjoy revealing the many secrets of Fra Filippo Lippi's life, which was starred with many other unusual episodes, however his rape of Lucrezia is perhaps what best demonstrates his ideas of moral liberty, which was not only to define Lippi's personality as a man but also as an artist. Art, after all, presumably permits people to express their innermost feelings, it is a language form that stimulates their need for personal communication, in spite of often being influenced by external factors. We can therefore apply the same concept to the style Lippi adopted in his paintings which is no more, no less, than an incredible reflection of a split personality, divided between the profound religious sentiments evinced in the holy subjects portrayed in all his paintings, and his totally worldly, though not libertine, love of life: this can be seen in the faces and gestures of his characters who are full of humanity, liricism and expressive spontaneity. All his work contains this type of pictorial conception, especially that carried out for the city of Prato which was inevitably to bring fame to the artist. His frescoes of the Stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist (1452-1465), can be found in the main chapel of the Cathedral, while the Funeral of St. Jerome (1456-60), is today in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, the Madonna of the Tree Stump (1453), and the Nativity with St. George and St. Vincent Ferrer (1460-68) in the Civic Museum.
Many of the paintings carried out in the years of Lippi's artistic maturity, including the latter two mentioned above, have, since 1912, formed part of the beautiful collection of the Civic Museum of Prato, situated in one of the most suggestive palaces in the city: Palazzo Pretorio, a 14th century restructuration that was apparently the sumptuous residence of the Pipini family in Lippi's time. The museum, founded by the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine's , who wished to create a school for budding artists there, was not officially opened until 1858. Today the huge salons of the Council Gallery contain a large collection of paintings and drawings by 14th-19th century Florentine, Roman and Neapolitan schools (works by B. Daddi, Giovanni da Milano, Battistello etc.). Filippo Lippi's are the most emblematic examples of Tuscan Renaissance painting and include his Madonna of the Girdle, carried out in collaboration with his pupil Fra' Diamante.
Madonna of the Girdle - School of Filippo Lippi
Civic Museum, Prato
The Civic Museum is therefore a must for visitors to Prato who admire Lippi and the painting of his times; the building itself is also a monument that, situated right in the heart of the city, gives the tourist the chance to make a journey into the past and immerge himself in the same mysterious and fascinating atmosphere that was unique to the Middle Ages.