Filippino Lippi e Sandro Botticelli nella Firenze del ‘400, Scuderie del Quirinale (Rome) until January 15th, 2012.
Filippino Lippi was able to paint his way out of a disreputable birth (his father was a Carmelite monk and his mother an Augustinian nun), but he wasn’t able to paint his way into history books as well as his mentor and studio-mate Sandro Botticelli. This is all the more striking since Sandro’s popularity was in decline after his spiritual crisis at the turn of the century, whereas Filippino, endowed with tanto ingenio and a vaghissima e copiosa invenzione, as Vasari tells us, was hardly able to keep up with commissions.
This show intends to restore Lippi’s well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative and accomplished Renaissance painters. His works are interspersed among those of Botticelli, Raffaellino del Garbo, and Piero di Cosimo allowing the visitor to make sober comparisons. What immediately stands out is the soft, dense fullness of Filippino’s pictures made with the lightest and most transparent of brushstrokes. This remarkable effect was in large part due to Lippi’s generous use of oil-fortified tempera on wood panel.
Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino’s father, was Lucrezia Puti’s confessor at the time they started a clandestine relationship that led to her pregnancy. Filippo had already made a name for himself with his ingenious perspective and refined figuration. The exhibit opens with Filippo’s Madonna with Child and the Story of the Life of Saint Ann (1452-1453 circa), the retro of which displays a sketch for a coat-of-arms with a winged griffin. Filippo began to teach his son the secrets of the trade at a young age, allowing him to observe every stage of any given project. When Filippo died in 1469, Filippino was entrusted to his father’s most promising pupil, Sandro Botticelli, who quickly recognized the young lad’s talent and treated him more as a collaborator than an apprentice. We see Filippino settling into a distinctive style with Saint Sebastian (1474), even though Botticelli and he still collaborated on large pieces such as the Adoration of the Magi at the National Gallery in London (1470-1474). Whereas Botticelli had already established his reputation in Florence, Filippino had to earn his elsewhere, especially in Lucca and San Gimignano where he landed substantial commissions. He returned to Florence with a padded CV and quickly gained the patronage of the Strozzi and del Pugliese families before proceeding to Rome to execute his masterpiece, the Carafa chapel. The success of this commission spread his fame even further and took him to Pavia, Bologna, and Genova before his premature death in 1504.
Even in Filippino’s earliest work we detect traces of the lively, wiry (guizzanti) figures that distinguished him from Botticelli. Whereas the latter’s works exude a cool, dignified tranquility, Lippi’s brim with capricious spontaneity. This emerges from a comparison of their respective renderings of the Adoration of the Magi. Lippi’s (1480 circa), stretching along a horizontal axis, was apparently destined for a convent or private palace rather than a church. His composition is sparser than Botticelli’s, giving less emphasis to the regality of the wise men. They are identifiable only by their location and posture rather than by sumptuous robes. Lippi employs the charming compositional device of two figures, one seated at the far left and the other standing at far right. Neither is directly involved in the action. Furthermore, a group of three men in the foreground is thought by some to be the Magi meeting in Jerusalem before proceeding to Bethlehem. Though appealing, the interpretation is somewhat tenuous in that characters appearing in multiple scenes of a single picture were usually painted wearing the same clothes. Less questionable is the clear evidence of classical influence in the bearded man on the right based on the Bacchus of the neo-Attic cratera in Pisa.
This Adoration of the Magi is also notable for the yellow and ochre that blend smoothly into the background to bring out the several figures dotting the landscape: Saint Francis, Tobias with the Archangel, Saint Jerome, and Saint Ambrose baptizing Saint Augustine, Mary of Egypt, and Saint Benedict. From the extreme right enter entourages from the East with Saint Gregory and his scribe standing in front of the Church of Celio Romano. For such a small picture, these details create an impressive panorama of eremitic life and may reveal the spirituality of the unknown patron. The rocky background also pays homage to Fra’ Filippo Lippi’s Saint John the Baptist in the Desert at the Prato cathedral.
Lippi’s personal style comes to full flowering in The Three Archangels and Tobias (1477-1478 circa), The Story of Lucretia (1478 circa), The Story of Virginia (1478 circa), and the Madonna Adoring Her Child (1478 circa). The Three Archangels and Tobias seems to be one of Lippi’s first ventures into large scale dimensions, the success of which won him an important commission for an altarpiece in Pistoia. Botticelli’s influence is particularly visible in the central angel, Raphael, whose gait resembles that of Judith in the Uffizi, and in Gabriel on the right, the only figure turned towards the viewer in an elegant pose and grasping a lily as a symbol for the Annunciation.
In Madonna Adoring Her Child, Lippi contrasts the enclosed garden in the foreground, representing Mary’s virginity, with the rich landscape in the background representing daily life. Here we can appreciate Lippi’s greater sensitivity to landscape than Botticelli’s, whose landscapes Leonardo described as “very sad.”
Despite Filippino’s personal style, he was extremely flexible. He could imitate earlier masters and blend styles whenever necessary. This made him just the man for completing the Brancacci chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. Masolino and Masaccio began the project but only managed to finish the vault, lunettes, upper order, and parts of the lower order between 1424 and 1428. Lippi’s tones, much softer than Masaccio’s, nevertheless surpass his predecessor’s in body and substance. It seems Lippi completed Masaccio’s unfinished Resurrection of Theophilus’s Son and Saint Peter Enthroned before turning to the rest of chapel, but its history remains obscure since documentation has been lost, Vasari’s account lacks precision, and Filippino is almost flawless in his imitation of Masaccio and Masolino.
Filippino’s flexibility is also apparent in an inventive use of decorative and applied arts as can be seen in the Carafa Chapel at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. His ambitious plans melded frescoes, illusory architecture, and real architecture into a seamless and unified whole. Completed in 1493 – ten years before the Strozzi Chapel – his masterpiece inspired the designs for the Stanza della Segnatura and the vaults of the Sistine Chapel. The Carafa Chapel marks a turning point in Filippino’s style reflected in several drawings on display in the fifth section of the exhibition. The walls of the Carafa chapel are covered with The Annunciation, The Assumption of the Virgin, The Triumph of Saint Thomas and The Miracle of the Crucifix. The hours Filippino dedicated to studying ancient monuments paid off enormously even though he never “quotes” them directly. Vasari exaggerates only slightly when he says that Filippino, after visiting Rome, was the first to introduce “all’antica” decorative schemes in Florence. The viewer is immediately caught up with the energy and pathos of the figures surrounding the ascending Virgin who seem to gesticulate and dart about, robes flapping in the wind. Lippi utilizes an unprecedented variety of shapes and poses underneath their ample garments, prompting Aby Warburg to label these figures bewegtes Beiwerk: “accessories in movement.”
Unlike the Brancacci chapel, there is ample historical documentation – some available for viewing – of how the Carafa Chapel came about. Filippino, recommended by no less than Lorenzo the Magnificent, began work in 1478, the same year Carafa was appointed Cardinal Protector of the Dominican Order. Not himself a Dominican, he had to rely on the expert advice of friars in his native Naples about how to honor Saint Thomas Aquinas fittingly in images. A comparison of Carafa’s correspondence and Lippi’s sketches show that the artist took his patron’s ideas quite seriously. Filippino, in a letter to Filippo Strozzi in 1489, recounted how pleased the Cardinal was with his work. He also describes the ornamentation of the marble altar and boasts of the lush, porphyry floor. From his correspondence we can deduce that the “painter” was also responsible for the gilded marble altar frame and the balustrade designed all’antica. According to Vasari, expenses totaled approximately 2,000 ducats, an enormous sum of money.
Thomas Aquinas looms large in the frescoes not only because he was a Dominican but because he was one of the patron saints of Naples and a distant cousin of the cardinal on his mother’s side. Aquinas appears principally on the west wall since this is the direction Carafa would have faced while listening to the panegyric on Thomas’s feast day. The crucifix that miraculously spoke to Thomas — an episode Lorenzo Valla referred to in his panegyric — appears in the lunette on the same wall. The Triumph of Saint Thomas comprises the upper section with personifications of philosophy and theology seated to his right. The former holds a large tome and the latter points to the heavens as the source of Thomas’s inspiration (he was later named the Doctor Angelicus). Also pictured are Dialectic with a serpent in her lap and Grammar watching a child immersed in reading. The heretics Thomas vanquished appear in the lower section and include Sabellius (who taught that God the Father and Jesus Christ were a single person) and Arius (who believed that Christ was created by God). Above Thomas is inscribed the opening passage of the Summa Contra Gentiles, a work in which he refutes the errors of these two theologians and other heretics. The entire composition was mirrored on the east wall by the triumph of virtue over vice, but unfortunately these were destroyed to make room for the tomb of another Carafa, Pope Paul IV.
If you decide to combine a visit to Santa Maria sopra Minerva with this exhibition, be forewarned that the English translation on the signboard is misleading: raggiungibile a piedi (reachable by foot) has been rendered “just a stone’s throw away” – the former is a more accurate description of the distance you’ll have to cover.
It remains a paradox that Lippi’s thirty-four years of prodigious artistic activity have not received the recognition they deserve: neither for their quantity nor their quality. He was an attentive student of antiquity but not enslaved to it. His nervous lines and frenetic figures epitomize Renaissance vitality but also presage modern art. He obsessively transferred the small-scale detail of the Adoration of the Magi to the grand scale of the Carafa Chapel. Even after dropping a two-Euro coin into the machine that illuminates the chapel, you cannot take it in. The detail contributes to the overall effect, but you will marvel only at the effect and not the detail. Filippino must have had extraordinary gifts of patience and concentration, but these are best appreciated by looking at his panels – the best of which are seldom assembled as now at the Scuderie del Quirinale.