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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 MAY 2009 — After all the recent noise and media coverage lavished on Koons, Warhol, and others of similar ilk (Arcimboldo, Raetz and Dali), it was something of a soulagement to slip back some six hundred years into the timeless beauty of La Renaissance à Prato, an important exhibition currently showing at the Musée du Luxembourg, the oldest museum in Paris.

Over fifty paintings and sculptures from the Prato City museum, currently closed for renovation, recount the artistic legacy of the city from the 14th to the 16th century. It was in 1452 that Filippo Lippi (1406 - 1469), who had studied painting under Fra Angelico (1400 - 1455), arrived in Prato, a flourishing commercial centre situated some twelve miles from Florence. The face of religious paintings was about to break away from the rigid medieval style with its lavish use of gold. His work, bringing in perspectives and landscapes, was more colourful and full of life and vitality, and for the first time, babies really looked like infants rather than little old men.

The pair of them, monk and nun, had not only committed a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church, but had also disobeyed the laws of the land, a crime punishable by death...

Famous throughout Italy, the 46-year-old artist who had been commissioned to paint the frescoes in the cathedral of Sainte-Etienne, found himself the object of countless commissions, and accepted to complete Madonna della Cintola (Vierge de la Ceinture) for the convent of Sainte-Marguerite. The story goes that since the 12th century, Prato was the proud possessor of the Virgin Mary's Belt (ceinture), which had been brought there from Jerusalem. And to facilitate his task, Lippi was allowed to choose from among the young nuns in residence at the convent for the models who would pose for him at his home. He singled out 17-year-old Lucrezia Buti and her elder sister Spinetta, daughters of a silk merchant who had placed them in the convent to avoid the greater expense of a dowry upon marriage, despite the fact that the former seemed to have had little vocation for a religious life.

Fra Filippo Lippi (Florence, c. 1406 - Spoleto, 1469)
Fra Diamante (c. 1420 - après 1498)
Annonciation avec Saint Julien, c. 1460
Détrempe sur panneau, 76,5 x 46 cm
Museo Civico, Prato, © Archivio Museo Civico di Prato

But unbeknown to the mother superior, Sister Bartolommea de Bovacchiesi, Lippi too shared a disinclination to adhere to religious proscription. Orphaned at eight, Lippi had been taken in by the Carmelite friars of the Carmine in Florence where, at fifteen, he took his religious vows. His pledge of chastity held little sway on the young man, however, and he became known for his "dissipated" life over the years. On his arrival in Prato, regardless of the fact that he had been appointed chaplain of the convent, and notwithstanding the great disparity in their ages, he courted and carried off the pretty Lucrezia, thus causing one of the greatest scandals of the times. The pair of them, monk and nun, had not only committed a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church, but had also disobeyed the laws of the land, a crime punishable by death, avoided only when Lippi's patron, Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence, interceded on their behalf.

The story behind the painting thus explains the ravishingly beautiful Saint Marguerite. Lucrezia, with her golden eyes and ethereal features, has the face of an angel, but she is not looking at the Virgin Mary (her sister, Spinetta), but rather at the boy holding a fish opposite her (her son, Fillipino, fruit of her unlawful union with Lippi). The masterpiece is directly linked to Filippo Lippi's private life. Moreover, from then onward, Lucrezia appears in the paintings of Fillipino, Botticelli and many of their contemporaries, where her delicate, poetic features are considered the epitome of beauty. Michelangelo, too, was mesmerised by her grace.

Fra Filippo Lippi - Fra Diamante
Vierge de la Ceinture entre Saint Thomas et la commanditaire Bartolommea de 'Bovacchiesi et les Saints Grégoire, Augustin, Tobie, Marguerite et l'archange Raphaël,
Détrempe grasse sur panneau
Museo Civico, Prato, © Archivio Museo Civico di Prato

But after the birth of a second child, Alessandra, the remorseful Lucrezia returned to the convent with her daughter, leaving Filippo to bring up his small son alone. And so from a very early age, the boy learned to grind lapis-lazuli and crush cochineal to obtain the vivid blues and crimsons characterizing his later works. Meanwhile, his father's paintings took on more human terms, as in The Nativity with Saint George and Saint Vincent Ferrer, where the kneeling Virgin, so beautiful and a real mother, gazes tenderly at her son in adoration. The baby is gentle and sweet, gurgling with life.

At Filippo's sudden death, Filippino at 13 years old completed the frescoes at the cathedral of Spoleto begun by his father. He became one of the most respected artists in Italy, sensitive and poetic, but more robust than his parent, while touched by a certain melancholy due to his illegitimate (and what was considered sinful) birth. In several of his works, a lively baby Jesus is given a very modern treatment. In The Virgin and Child with Saint Etienne and Saint John the Baptist, a retable created for the palace of Prato, the baby is holding out his arms, waiting to be cuddled.

Filippino Lippi (Prato, c. 1457 - Florence, 1504) - Fra Diamante
La Présentation au Temple (prédelle) c. 1470
Détrempe sur panneau, 26,2 x 165,5 cm
Museo Civico, Prato
© Archivio Museo Civico di Prato

In all, there are eight works of Filippo and Filippino Lippi presented, the rest being those of their contemporaries, including the calm and serene portrayal of the Virgin and Child, with the infant Saint John, by Raffaellino del Garbo. Here, the Lippis' influence can be seen in the detailed landscape behind the central figures where there is a river with ships and a port, details not shown to the same extent in earlier paintings. The mother is looking down at her child with great tenderness.

Artiste toscan du XVIIe siècle
"Autoportrait" de Filippino Lippi, XVIIe siècle
Fresque sur tuile plate, 53 x 31 cm
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
© Gabinetto fotografico della soprintendenza per il
patrimonio storico, artistico ed etnoantropologico e
per il polo museale della città di Firenze

A similar emotion permeates Donatello's Tabernacle figurant la Vierge à l'enfant adorée par deux anges, a sculpture in terracotta. Mary is sitting on a chair decorated with pine cones, while two angels stand at her side, their arms crossed in humility. Jesus has His hand posed on His mother's breast. Such dramatic expression was new.

With the paintings of Filippo Lippi, as the exhibition clearly shows, the saints and apostles became figures of flesh and blood, and were given the faces of the men and women around them. In his completion of the frescoes at Spoleto, Filippino Lippi gave God the face of his father, which is certainly one good reason to make a journey to Spoleto!

Filippo et Filippino Lippi: La Renaissance à Prato
Through 2 August 2009

Musée du Luxembourg
19, rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 45 44 12 90

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at She last wrote on the exhibition Van Dongen: Painting The Town Fauve at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec, Canada.

Title image: (detail) Fra Filippo Lippi - Fra Diamante (Terranuova Bracciolini)
Nativité (ou Adoration de l'Enfant) avec Saint Georges et Saint Vincent Ferrer,c. 1456
Détrempe sur panneau, 158 x 168 cm
Museo Civico, Prato, © Archivio Museo Civico di Prato
Image courtesy of Musée du Luxembourg

BOOK TIP: All titles are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Renaissance & Mannerism
By Diane Bodart

Softcover: 192 pages
Sterling; English edition (November 2008)
ISBN-10: 1402759223
ISBN-13: 978-1402759222

CD TIP: All CD releases are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Ambrose Field: Being Dufay
John Potter, tenor
Ambrose Field: composer, live and studio electronics

Music based on vocal fragments by Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474)
Release date: May 2009
ECM New Series CD: B0012830-02

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