Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A Filippo Lippi Masterpiece in Milan

Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), Nativity or Adoration of the Christ Child with Saints
Museo Civico, Prato
An important work of the Tuscan Renaissance is currently on show in Milan. On the occasion of the eighth annual Masterpiece for Milan programme, the great painting of the Nativity by Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) will be on display at the Diocesan Museum in Milan until January 30, 2011, on loan from the Prato Civic Museum which is currently closed for restoration.

The Nativity scene takes place in the naturalism of a beautiful landscape among angels, shepherds, rocks and bushes. The Christ Child in swaddling clothes lies on the mantle of the Virgin kneeling before him. Beside them kneels the figure of St. Joseph absorbed in prayer, and to each side St. George and St. Vincent Ferrer, who beholds a vision of Christ in an illuminated mandorla. The profile of the Virgin has the features of Lucrezia Buti, the nun whom Fra Filippo Lippi fell in love with. The work, painted probably around 1456, was initially conceived as only the core group, to which Lippi added the figures of the two saints, perhaps at the request of his patrons.

Presentation of the painting by Luca Frigerio for Itleditore:


"He made so many admirable works that it really was a miracle." Perhaps this enthusiastic praise by Vasari should suffice to understand the artistic stature of Filippo Lippi, the Florentine friar whose life was to say the least adventurous, a superb painter of the Tuscan Renaissance already struck by the revolution of Masaccio. If, however, and with good reason, one wishes to see with one's own eyes the justification of such praise, one can visit the Diocesan Museum in Milan, where one of Lippi's most beautiful works will be on display until 30th January, a truly idyllic Nativity where all is silence and prayer, contemplation and truth.

This work, the choice for the eighth edition of the hit show A Masterpiece for Milan, is from Prato, a city where Fra' Filippo spent a long time making a series of works that art historians now assess as "the most important and significant body of work" in fifteenth century Italian art. The Nativity is a panel around a metre and half square, which was originally kept at the local Dominican monastery, portraying Mary and Joseph adoring the Christ Child in the context of the 'Holy Night', with the stable in the background with the ox and the ass, young shepherds who play bagpipes and horns, and in the heavens an angelic choir. On either side, two saints: to the left of the martyr St George, his hands joined like the Virgin's, his face pale and delicate, almost feminine, in contrast with the burnished armour of the seasoned warrior. On the right St Vincent Ferrer, wearing the habit of the Dominican order to which he belonged, in contemplation of Jesus but, surprisingly, not of the Divine Infant lying in front of him but of the apparition of Christ the Judge which is painted in miniature above his head, the first 'protagonist' of his impassioned preaching.

The presence of St Vincent can help in the dating of this painting, because the saint of Valencia, a supporter of the reunification of the Church during the schism of Avignon, was in fact canonized in 1455; it is plausible to think that the panel was commissioned from Filippo Lippi by the Dominicans in the months immediately following this event. A hypothesis confirmed by the fact that the painting seems to have been painted in two distinct stages, the two side figures having been added in later.

An orphan, having lost his mother at birth and his father when only a few years old, Filippo was reared by an aunt until out of infancy, and then as a young boy entrusted to the care of the Carmelites of Florence. He was not an exemplary student, but the brothers who were his teachers soon realised his extraordinary gift for drawing, and encouraged him on this path. A talent which, as related by Vasari, even saved his life: on leaving the monastery, while travelling through the March of Ancona, he was kidnapped and enslaved by saracen brigands, but was freed in exchange for a magnificent portrait he made of his master.

However Lippi, it seemed, wanted to bear witness to the union of genius and recklessness... Implicated in various trials, the friar while in Prato fell in love with a girl destined for the veil, "who had a wonderful air and grace," to quote again from Vasari. From this relationship Filippino was born, whom Filippo intended to follow his father's excellence in the arts. And tradition has it that in the face of the Christ Child, the painter has portrayed his newborn son, while that of Mary recalls the sweet features of his young mother. A "miracle" of grace and beauty, such as never seen before, as subsequently only Lippi Junior could equal, and, not surprisingly, Botticelli, the pupil of the same Fra' Filippo.

- Luca Frigerio (translated by A Curran)

Also in Milan, the Palazzo Marino has had Titian's masterpiece Woman with a Mirror on loan from the Louvre in Paris since the beginning of December. This display is due to end on 6th January 2011.
Tiziano Vecellio (Titian, 1490-1576), Woman with a Mirror
Musée du Louvre, Paris
This painting, created in the early 1500s, is being displayed along with copious historical background material and analysis, both aesthetic and scientific. It is presented in a glass display case designed to enhance the canvas and highlight all its details. Its colouring celebrates the beauty of a dreamy-looking young woman with bowed head, blue eyes, wavy blond hair, her bare shoulders revealing her unblemished skin, while the refinement of the chiaroscuro announces the great talent of the master which was about to become manifest. The charming lady is portrayed at a dressing table where, if one looks closely, a male figure holds out a hand mirror in his right hand, and behind her a larger convex mirror, enabling us to behold her from both front and back, Titian portrays all the aspects which characterised beauty and the feminine ideal in sixteenth century Venice.

This work is part of the collections of the Louvre, where it is normally displayed a short distance from the famous Mona Lisa, and its arrival in Milan is a collaborative effort of the city of Milan and the Paris museum, in order to promote the Italian cultural heritage.

Presentation of the exhibition by ArsLife Italy, including an interview with curator Valeria Merlini, and yet more wholly inappropriate background music, which seems to be de rigeur for all these video presentations:


For Italian speakers, here is a fifteen-minute feature on the background to the painting, presented in the inimitable 'sexy' style of Italian TV:


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