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Filippo Lippi

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Italian painter, b. at Florence about 1406; d. at Spoleto, 9 October, 1469. Left an orphan at the age of two he was cared for by an aunt who being too poor to rear him placed him at the age of eight in the neighbouring Carmelite convent, where he was educated. At the age of fifteen he received the habit, and at sixteen pronounced his vows (1421). At this time Masolino and Masaccio undertook in the Carmelite church those frescoes of the Brancacci chapel (1423-28), which brought about a revolution in the Florentine school. This event decided Lippi's vocation. Perhaps he even worked in the Brancacci chapel under the direction of the two masters but nothing remains of the cameo frescoes which he executed in the cloister.

A life of adventure was about to begin for the young Carmelite. Vasari's account of a journey to Ancona, during which, in the course of a sea-trip, he was seized by Barbary pirates and held captive for two years, is assuredly nothing but a romance. It is not likely that he was at Padua in 1434; on the contrary everything proves that at that date he was not absent from Florence, where he had already acquired a great reputation. Cosmo de' Medici commanded him to paint for his private oratory the charming "Madonna" of the Uffizi, and for his wife's the "Nativity" of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1438 he painted the retable of San Spirito, now at the Louvre, and the "Coronation of the Blessed Virgin", ordered by Charles Marsuppini, and preserved at Rome in the Lateran museum. In 1441 he painted a variation of the same subject at the Academy of Florence for the religious of S. Ambrogio, receiving 1200 livres for it. Lastly, in 1447 he painted for the Chapel of the Signiory the wonderful "Vision of St. Bernard" now in the National Gallery. In the midst of all these labours the painter could not have taken long journeys. The great artist lived in the continual embarrassments caused by his deplorable morals. Never was anyone less fitted for religious life. His portraits show us a flat-nosed individual with a jesting, but vicious looking, thick-lipped, sensual face. To compel him to work Cosmo de' Medici was forced to lock him up, and even then the painter escaped by a rope made of his sheets. His escapades threw him into financial difficulties from which he did not hesitate to extricate himself by forgery. Callistus III was obliged to deprive this unworthy monk, "who perpetrated many nefarious crimes", of a benefice. In 1452 the Carmelite was requested by the commons of Prato to paint the choir of the cathedral.

At length, despite his evil reputation, Lippi succeeded in having himself appointed chaplain of a congregation of Augustinians. Here his misbehaviour was no less flagrant than elsewhere. It is significant and shows plainly what were the ideas of the Renaissance that Lippi was not punished for his bad conduct. Glory or genius then constituted a soil of privilege and a warrant of impunity. Talent placed its possessor beyond and above the moral law. Not only did Cosmo di' Medici make merry over what he called the "folly of the frater" (Letter of J. de Medici, 27 May, 1458), but Pope Pius II thought he could do no better than to release him from his vows and permit him to marry. A son, Filippino Lippi, had already been born to him. He afterwards had a daughter (1465). In the midst of these intrigues and disorders Filippo continued to paint his greatest works. From this period, indeed, (1452-64) date, besides several pictures of the Prato Museum, his works at the cathedral, which are perhaps the chief work of the second generation of the Renaissance, before the decorations of the Sistine chapel and the frescoes of Ghirlandajo at Sta Maria Novella. The theme of these paintings is borrowed from the lives of St. John Baptist and St. Stephen. The two most celebrated scenes represent the "Feast of Herod with the dance of Salome", and the "Death of St. Stephen ". Both have remained classics. In his "Salome" the painter has in fact created the leading type which owes nothing to the chastely observed formulæ of the preceding age, and which in its voluptuous grace, the delicate and rare arabesques of its draperies, and the affected arrangement of the coils of the head-dress, became the favourite type of Botticelli's "Judith" and "Daughters of Jethro". His "Death of St. Stephen " on the other hand shows us a magnificent architectural study, which reproduces the outlines of the nave of S. Lorenzo, one of the earliest examples of great monumental composition and majestic symmetry in a portrait scene, such as those which were later to form the glory of Ghirlandajo.

This was the period at which Filippo's talent grew and broadened and seemed to reach its even perfection. His last works, the "Death and the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin", at the cathedral of Spoleto, are also his noblest and most strongly conceived. He did not have time to complete them. His pupils, especially his friend Fra Diamante, finished the remainder of the work (an Annunciation and a Nativity) after his death. He was buried in the cathedral of Spoleto, the inhabitants of the city having refused to allow Florence to remove the ashes of so great a man. Lorenzo de' Medici erected his tomb at his own expense, and Angelo Poliziano composed his epitaph.

In the evolution of the Renaissance Fra Filippo played a part of the utmost importance. This man of fiery passions is one of the great workmen of art. He is the incarnation of the invincible naturalness of this period. His power springs exactly from the attitude of instinct and spontaneity, and is not at all the result of a system or a theory. It is a great plebeian force, tumultuous and unconscious, let loose through art and life. Nothing equals the ingenuity and the sort of innocence of his love of nature. This monk without rule or cloister possesses literally the senses of a primitif. He adores everything, the commonest herb and the least flower. Certain of his pictures, such as the "Nativity", in the Louvre, contain an amount of documents and a collection of studies, birds, lizards, sheep, plants, stones, still-life, which equal the contents of ten albums of a Japanese artist. He was an indefatigable student of the universe. He embraced life in all its forms with the candour of a child, as well as the eyes of a naturalist and a miniaturist. Hence the extreme poetry of his early pictures. The "Nativity", in Berlin, is a sylva rerum unequalled in art. No one has ever done more to bring art closer to life and to make it the complete mirror of reality, which accounts for the good humour and novel familiarity of his touch. One cannot be astonished at the enthusiasm aroused by his fervent works. His art is like a window looking out upon a flower garden and exhibiting all its beauties.

Filippo afterwards lost something of this charming freshness. A more scholarly generation, the school of Castagno and Uccello, began to appear. He borrowed from it his passion for rigorous form and for extreme linear definition. By dint of pursuing the true he arrived at crudity, sometimes at grimace and caricature. There is nothing more vulgar than certain of Filippo's angels, the models of which were taken from among the rabble of Florence. His colour began to decompose and took on a hard and metallic reflection. But this was only a crisis. At Prato and Spoleto, though under the influence of pedantic theories he receovered himself, but ripened and transformed. He regained even in the labour and exigencies of fresco, the decorative sense and the great laws of composition imparted by his first masters, Masaccio and Masolino. His naturalism tempered by artistic feeling inspired him with the most beautiful masterpieces; and as his early and descriptive paintings were to be the inspiration of Benozzo Gozzoli, so the author of the frescoes of Prato and Spoleto was to inspire Ghirlandajo and Botticelli. It will be readily understood that his contemporaries did not rigorously condemn the errors of the poor Carmelite, since he was always so great a painter and was in the end so perfect an artist.

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