According to Leon Battista Albert in his book On Painting, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man.' Fra Filippo Lippi is notorious for his contempt of his vows; he was never obedient and never chaste. The nun who modelled for his pictures of the Virgin Mary became the mother of his children. Yet this apparently 'bad' man painted divine pictures; moreover, he was the favourite painter of that very astute patron, Cosimo de' Medici.
Was Alberti wrong, or was Lippi a better man than generally believed? What is the nature of goodness?
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Padua, 1434, and Cosimo de' Medici is on his way home to Florence after one year of his imposed ten year exile. In getting a drunken, gambling friar out of the city gaol, he meets Fra Filippo Lippi for the first time. Together they view the frescoes of Giotto and find affinity with each other. Cosimo tells Lippi to see him once he is back in Florence, but life is never straightforward for the friar: on the way home, he gets captured by Barbary pirates.
Florence, 1436. Cosimo is holding a symposium for the leading artists and engineers of the day, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia and Fra Angelico. They are celebrating the publication of On Painting by Leon Battista Alberti. Having met Lippi in the street, Cosimo is expecting him to join them, but he doesn't. He is downstairs in the kitchen nursing a livid black eye.
Florence, 1439. The city is full of Greeks come for the Council that will unite the churches. Lippi is working with Fra Angelico but rarely turns up on time, being too distracted by the exotic sights in the city, one of which is the enigmatic Platonist, Gemistos Plethon. At San Marco, Cosimo and Plethon are in deep discussion that will lead, eventually, to the foundation of the Platonic Academy of Florence. Lippi is in the corridor, having his soul examined by a friar called Antonino.
Prato, 1456. Having disgraced himself by falsifying a contract and failing to do his duty at his benefice, Lippi has been sent to be chaplain at the convent of Santa Margherita. He had been tried in Florence by the court of the archbishop, who is Antonino, and as part of the trial was tortured and came close to death. In the convent he meets Lucrezia Buti, a young nun he chooses to model first for a portrait of Santa Margherita, later for the Virgin.
Lippi is a painter with a foot in both worlds, medieval and renaissance. He is a fully paid-up member of the perspective club but feels unable to break with tradition when it comes to portraying holy figures: they should be archetypes, not human likenesses. His soul, however, is prompting him to break with tradition and use the woman he considers his wife as the model. A visionary experience at the Camaldolesi hermitage propels him into a new level of art, and sets his life on a better course.
Watching all the rule-bending and law-breaking going on in the Lippi workshop, even the 'stealing' of lapis lazuli from the paintings of Agnolo Gaddi, is a fourteen-year-old apprentice called Alessandro, destined to carry the graceful Lippi style into the next generation.