Knights of Art: Stories of the Italian Painters - Amy Steedman

Filippino Lippi

The little curly-haired Filippino, left in the charge of good Fra Diamante, soon showed that he meant to be a painter like his father. When, as a little boy, he drew his pictures and showed them proudly to his mother, he told her that he, too, would learn some day to be a great artist. And she, half smiling, would pat his curly head and tell him that he could at least try his best.

Then, after that sad day when Lucrezia heard of Filippo's death, and the happy little home was broken up, Fra Diamante began in earnest to train the boy who had been left under his care. He had plenty of money, for Filippo had been well paid for the work at Spoleto, and so it was decided that the boy should be placed in some studio where he could be taught all that was necessary.

There was no fear of Filippino ever wandering about the Florentine streets cold and hungry as his father had done. And his training was very different too. Instead of the convent and the kind monks, he was placed under the care of a great painter, and worked in the master's studio with other boys as well off as himself.

The name of Filippino's master was Sandro Botticelli, a Florentine artist, who had been one of Filippo's pupils and had worked with him in Prato. Fra Diamante knew that he was the greatest artist now in Florence, and that he would be able to teach the child better than any one else.

Filippino was a good, industrious boy, and had none of the faults which had so often led his father into so much mischief and so many strange adventures. His boyhood passed quietly by and he learned all that his master could teach him, and then began to paint his own pictures.

Strangely enough, his first work was to paint the walls of the Carmille Chapel—that same chapel where Filippo and Diamante had learned their lessons, and had gazed with such awe and reverence on Masaccio's work.

The great painter, Ugly Tom, was dead, and there were still parts of the chapel unfinished, so Filippino was invited to fill the empty spaces with his work. No need for the new prior to warn this young painter against the sin of painting earthly pictures. The frescoes which daily grew beneath Filippino's hands were saintly and beautiful. The tall angel in flowing white robes who so gently leads St. Peter out of the prison door, shines with a pure fair light that speaks of Heaven. The sleeping soldier looks in contrast all the more dull and heavy, while St. Peter turns his eyes towards his gentle guide and folds his hands in reverence, wrapped in the soft reflected light of that fair face. And on the opposite wall, the sad face of St. Peter looks out through the prison bars, while a brother saint stands outside, and with uplifted hand speaks comforting words to the poor prisoner.

St. Peter in Prison


By slow degrees the chapel walls were finished, and after that there was much work ready for the young painter's hand. It is said that he was very fond of studying old Roman ornaments and painted them into his pictures whenever it was possible, and became very famous for this kind of work. But it is the beauty of his Madonnas and angels that makes us love his pictures, and we like to think that the memory of his gentle mother taught him how to paint those lovely faces.

Perhaps of all his pictures the most beautiful is one in the church of the Badia in Florence. It tells the story of the blessed St. Bernard, and shows the saint in his desert home, as he sat among the rocks writing the history of the Madonna. He had not been able to write that day; perhaps he felt dull, and none of his books, scattered around, were of any help. Then, as he sat lost in thought, with his pen in his hand, the Virgin herself stood before him, an angel on either side, and little angel faces pressed close behind her. Laying a gentle hand upon his book, she seems to tell St. Bernard all those golden words which his poor earthly pen had not been able yet to write.

It used to be the custom long ago in Italy to place in the streets sacred pictures or figures, that passers- by might be reminded of holy things and say a prayer in passing. And still in many towns you will find in some old dusty corner a beautiful picture, painted by a master hand. A gleam of colour will catch your eye, and looking up you see a picture or little shrine of exquisite blue-and-white glazed pottery, where the Madonna kneels and worships the Infant Christ lying amongst the lilies at her feet. The old battered lamp which hangs in front of these shrines is still kept lighted by some faithful hand, and in spring- time the children will often come and lay little bunches of wild-flowers on the ledge below.

'It is for the Jesu Bambino,' they will say, and their little faces grow solemn and reverent as they kneel and say a prayer. Then off again they go to their play.

In a little side-street of Prato, not far from the convent where Filippino's father first saw Lucrezia's lovely face in the sunny garden, there is one of these wayside shrines. It is painted by Filippino, and is one of his most beautiful pictures. The sweet face of the Madonna looks down upon the busy street below, and the Holy Child lifts His little hand in blessing, amid the saints which stand on either side.

The glass that covers the picture is thick with dust, and few who pass ever stop to look up. The world is all too busy nowadays. The hurrying feet pass by, the unseeing eyes grow more and more careless. But Filippino's beautiful Madonna looks on with calm, sad eyes, and the Christ Child, surrounded by the cloud of little angel faces, still holds in His uplifted hand a blessing for those who seek it.

Like all the great Florentine artists, Filippino, as soon as he grew famous, was invited to Rome, and he painted many pictures there. On his way he stopped for a while at Spoleto, and there he designed a beautiful marble monument for his father's tomb.

Unlike that father, Filippino was never fond of travel or adventure, and was always glad to return to Florence and live his quiet life there. Not even an invitation from the King of Hungary could tempt him to leave home.

It was in the great church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence that Filippino painted his last frescoes. They are very real and lifelike, as one of the great painter's pupils once learned to his cost. Filippino had, of course, many pupils who worked under him. They ground his colours and watched him work, and would sometimes be allowed to prepare the less important parts of the picture.

Now it happened that one day when the master had finished his work and had left the chapel, that one of the pupils lingered behind. His sharp eye had caught sight of a netted purse which lay in a dark corner, dropped there by some careless visitor, or perhaps by the master himself. The boy darted back and caught up the treasure; but at that moment the master turned back to fetch something he had forgotten. The boy looked quickly round. Where could he hide his prize? In a moment his eye fell on a hole in the wall, underneath a step which Filippino had been painting in the fresco. That was the very place, and he ran forward to thrust the purse inside. But, alas! the hole was only a painted one, and the boy was fairly caught, and was obliged with shame and confusion to give up his prize.

Scarcely were these frescoes finished when Filippino was seized with a terrible fever, and he died almost as suddenly as his father had done.

In those days when there was a funeral of a prince in Florence, the Florentines used to shut their shops, and this was considered a great mark of respect, and was paid only to those of royal blood. But on the day that Filippino's funeral passed along the Via dei Servi, every shop there was closed and all Florence mourned for him.

'Some men,' they said, 'are born princes, and some raise themselves by their talents to be kings among men. Our Filippino was a prince in Art, and so do we do honour to his title.'