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Face of the Renaissance

Fresco by Filippino Lippi. Photo by Diana Dinverno

Fresco by Filippino Lippi. Photo by Diana Dinverno

It’s a good idea to schedule extra time when you visit Florence. Things are bound to surprise you—in my case, it was a locked door and a jaw-dropping discovery.

Within the city, tucked in churches, are the masterpieces of Masaccio (1401-1428), the first Renaissance painter. Enticed by his distinguished role in art history, my husband, Christopher, and I walked to the south side of the Arno River to see Santa Maria del Carmine.

Here, Masaccio, worked side by side with another painter from the period, Masolino, and created stunning frescoes for the Brancacci (bran-KAH-chee) Chapel, located within the church. Although my guidebook claimed otherwise, St. Carmine was closed when we arrived.

Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy. Photo by Diana Dinverno

Front doors of Santa Maria del Carmine. The Brancacci Chapel entrance is to the right.

Photo by Diana Dinverno

Disappointed, we did what anyone would do in our situation—found a place for lunch and a glass of wine.

Fortunately, we'd budgeted additional time in the city. A few days later, we returned, entered through open doors, purchased tickets, and went directly to the chapel, brightly lit and popping with color.

Brancacci Chapel in Florence, Italy. Photo by Diana Dinverno

Brancacci Chapel. Photo by Diana Dinverno

Thrilled by Masaccio’s frescoes, I examined details, took photos, and jotted notes, but I lingered before an image painted by another artist, Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), the man who finished painting the chapel over 50 years after Masaccio had put away his brushes. Masaccio’s story is fascinating, but Filippino Lippi stirred my imagination.

In 1427, when Masaccio and Masolino left the chapel, they'd hoped it would be a brief hiatus. Florence waged war with Lucca, and the Florentine government needed funds. The Brancacci family, the chapel’s patrons, obliged and diverted money earmarked for the chapel to the war effort. The two artists went their separate ways, anticipating recall at the war's end. Masaccio traveled to Rome and never returned.

These freshly painted frescoes inspired a 20-year-old Carmelite monk by the name of Fra Filippo Lippi, to study art. He went on to become an accomplished painter. The monk, while painting in a Carmelite convent in Prato, became enamored with Lucrezia Buti, either a novice or ward of the convent. In Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes her as “beautiful and graceful.” Vasari says Fra Filippo’s “lust was so violent that when it took hold of him,” he was unable to “concentrate on his work.” Apparently, the monk’s distraction got the better of him. Nine months later, in April of 1457, he and Lucrezia became the parents of Filippino (little Filippo) Lippi.

Fra Filippo began to teach his son to paint, but the apprenticeship was shortlived. By age ten, Filippino had lost both parents. Thereafter, the boy’s guardian took him to Florence and delivered him to Sandro Botticelli (the celebrated Florentine who painted The Birth of Venus and Primavera) to continue his training. For those intrigued by historic connections, Botticelli had studied under his new student’s father, Fra Filippo.

Under Botticelli's tutelage, Filippino Lippi honed his skills. In the early 1480s, he was selected to resume work in the Brancacci Chapel. He restored his predecessors’ damaged paintings and created new frescoes (facing the altar, on the right side), continuing Masaccio and Masolino's life cycle of St. Peter. Lippi’s detailed and colorful work contrasts with the more somber, earlier panels, but the overall effect dazzles.

Brancacci Chapel, Florence, Italy. Photo by Diana Dinverno

Brancacci Chapel (right side). Photo by Diana Dinverno

In the fresco entitled Dispute with Simon Magnus, Lippi inserted a self-portrait that stopped me in my tracks. This is the face of a Renaissance man, intelligent and confident. Lippi looks directly at the viewer, linking himself to the future and connecting with those willing to return his gaze.

Filippino Lippi self-portrait.

Filippino Lippi self-portrait.

Lippi’s additions to Masaccio’s Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned offers something delightful. He added figures to the far left of the painting, but there appears to be a game afoot, possibly a Renaissance joke. Look closely.

Lippi's addition to Masaccio's work. Photo by Diana Dinverno

There are five men, but only four pairs of feet. I like to imagine this was his version of “Find the Mistake.” Perhaps these men represent actual Florentines—often the case in Renaissance painting—and Lippi was making a comment on how firmly one of the fellow’s feet attached to the ground. I’ll need to do a little digging, but an art historian may have an answer for us.

This chapel is a small space in a large church, but it holds much to admire and study. Of course, this is only one treasure box in a city brimming with Renaissance gems. Reserve a few extra days in Florence. You’ll be glad you did.

Brancacci Chapel Piazza del Carmine - Firenze - Tel. 055 2768224 Admittance time. Weekdays: 10 am - 5 pm; reservation required; the ticket office closes 30 minutes before the museum closing time. Holidays: 1 pm - 5 pm; reservation required; the ticket office closes 30 minutes before the museum closing time. Closed on: Tuesday. December 25, January 1and 7, Easter, May 1, July 16, August 15. Entrance: € 6.00. Discounted tickets for students. Children under age 18, Free.

Please check for updates at the City of Florence's website.

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