By Costanza Beltrami

On 19 May 1455 Filippo Lippi, a leading Renaissance painter in fifteenth-century Florence, had a really bad day.

So far, Filippo’s life had been a mix of great misfortunes and well-deserved artistic success. Born to an extremely poor family, he was soon left orphan by the death of his father. On 18 June 1421 he entered the Carmelitan convent of the Carmine in Florence, where he remained for at least ten years. Filippo’s training in art probably began at this monastery, where the Brancacci Chapel with Masaccio’s striking frescoes was located. Studying such examples, Lippi soon became a skillful painter, open to a variety of influences including the northern European painting of Rogier van der Weyden. On 1 April 1438 painter Domenico Veneziano wrote to Cosimo de’ Medici that Filippo Lippi and Fra’ Angelico were the most-sought after painters in Florence. Veneziano also recorded that Lippi had started working on an altarpiece for Gherardo di Bartolommeo Barbadori, a work which sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari described as “a work of rare excellence which has ever been held in the highest esteem by men versed in our arts.” This work includes lifelike portraits of the donor and of the painter himself, demonstrating Filippo’s skill at both religious painting and portraiture.

And yet, despite all this praise and success, Filippo was about to get himself in trouble. In 1450 a fellow painter and collaborator, Giovanni di Francesco, accused Filippo of owing him money and withholding his wages. Rather than admitting his guilt, Filippo produced a fake payment receipt, signed by him with Giovanni di Francesco’s counterfeit signature. The fake was soon discovered. Tried, imprisoned, and tortured on the rack, Filippo eventually confessed that he had not paid Giovanni di Francesco; as a result, on 19 May 1455 he was removed from the advantageous position of rector of the church of San Quirico in Legnaia, which he had held since 1442.

In-between 1450 and 1455 Filippo was implicated in other lawsuits, mostly with unsatisfied patrons who accused him of having commissioned to his assistants and apprentices paintings he had contractually promised to execute himself. Legal problems perhaps played a role in Filippo’s decision to move to Prato sometime before 1452. Nevertheless, he did not lose the support of a score of faithful patrons and his career continued to flourish until his death in 1469.

References: Eliot W. Rowlands and Marilyn Bradshaw. “Lippi.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press,; Luca Bortolotti. “LIPPI, Filippo,” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Volume 65 (2005).

Madonna with Child (Tarquinia Madonna), 1437, tempera on panel, 151 x 66 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Madonna and Child with St Fredianus and St Augustine (Barbadori Altarpiece), 1437-38, panel, 208 x 244 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Madonna with the Child and Scenes from the Life of St Anne, 1452, oil on panel, diameter 135 cm. Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

Madonna in the Forest, c. 1460, oil on panel, 127 x 116 cm. Staatliche Museen, Berlin. Photo: Web Gallery of Art.

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