Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 28, 2000
Megan Holmes Fra Filippo Lippi: the Carmelite Painter Yale University Press, 1999. 160 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth (0300081049)

Megan Holmes’s beautifully-illustrated book on Fra Filippo Lippi sets a standard for the study of Florentine Renaissance art by demonstrating how much more remains to be done, even for an artist who has been the object of study for centuries. Florentine Renaissance art is, after all, one of the oldest fields of art history, and the bibliography is extensive. Writers since the late quattrocento have reveled in the beauty of the works, and already in the sixteenth century Vasari had established a trajectory for the field as well as the emphasis on the individual artist that still commands our interest. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the study of Florentine art was enriched by the realization that documents could substantiate earlier writings and provide a more complete context for many much-beloved works. But it was the discoveries of historians working in the Florentine archives in the twentieth century that convinced art historians of the possibilities inherent in the surviving documentation about life in Florence. Is there any other period of art history that combines such documentary depth, especially in terms of the facts about everyday living, with so many innovative works of art?

Holmes’s book reveals how our understanding of a well-known artist can be enriched when re-examined in the light of probing new questions. Holmes sets out to investigate the role of religion in understanding Lippi’s life and artistic production, and the results are a revelation not just for the artist and his works, but also for our understanding of Florentine religious art in general. The context she develops is more than a model for future scholarship; its insights into the use of art transforms our understanding of Italian Renaissance culture.

The book begins with a concise statement of intent: “The principal focus of this study is the religious context in which Fra Filippo Lippi lived his life and executed paintings,” the conflict between the Conventual and Observant Franciscans, the training of the Franciscan novices, and the innovative aspects of the painting as a work of art, is replete with historical evidence that enriches our understanding of the forces at work in Florence at this time. At virtually every point, her discussion clarifies the content and style of the altarpiece and lives up to her promise in the introduction that she will “consider how Lippi’s various publics would have received the symbolic language of his religious paintings” (4). In discussing the altarpiece for the novices, for example, she demonstrates how Lippi’s representation of Sts. Francis and Anthony provided models of Franciscan behavior and ideology for the novices. In terms of style, Holmes concludes that the “uneasy spatial relationship between the Franciscan saints and the Medici patron saints … underscores the thorny problem of conspicuous lay patronage of a Franciscan convent” (213). Also in Part III, Holmes discusses altarpieces that Lippi executed for the divergent Benedictine Nunnery churches of Sant’Ambrogio and Le Murate, convincingly demonstrating how the works are tied to their different historical contexts. Based on documentary evidence, Holmes is able to conclude, for example, that Giovanni Benchi, the patron of Lippi’s Annunciation for Le Murate, made a “timely pious investment” through his support of the Benedictine Nunnery. The chapters of Part III, then, fulfill Holmes’s claims in the book’s introduction that she will “consider the difficult matter of the reception of specific religious works of art in a pre-modern era in which public opinion was rarely recorded” (5) and that she will “look into what motivated a patron to commission a religious work of art and how different individuals incorporated images in their religious devotion” (4).

Throughout the book, Holmes includes tantalizing suggestions that cannot be proved, but which deserve thoughtful consideration. In some cases she provides alternative explanations for a particular observation or suggests how a certain aspect of the painting could have a dual meaning. In her discussion of the inclusion of Medici references in the altarpiece Lippi painted for the Novitiate Chapel at Santa Croce, for example, she points out that “The frieze lined with the Medici palle in Fra Filippo’s altarpiece could thus have been perceived as a clever artistic flourish—or negatively, as the exaggeration of a patron’s negotiated right to display his or her arms in an ecclesiastical space” (195).

I do not have the space here to discuss in detail the earlier chapters, in which Holmes considers a number of topics, including Lippi’s biography and the documentary evidence for his life, the sources for the early development of his style and the identity of his earliest works, the role of Santa Maria del Carmine and the Carmelite order in Florentine life, Carmelite imagery and ritual, the production of art by monks and nuns in quattrocento Tuscany, and the evidence for Fra Filippo’s relationship to the Carmelite Order and its significance for his paintings, patrons, and workshop organization. For each of these subjects, Holmes provides extensive information, new observations, and stimulating ideas. In Chapter 2 on Carmelite imagery, for example, Holmes’s discussion leads her to postulate a Carmine style of imaging, in the third and fourth decades of the quattrocento in Florence, that was forged out of the combined interests of the Carmelite friars and the convent’s lay patrons. Across a range of representational modes, genres, technologies, and executions, the imaging in the Carmine participated in a style that had a strong mimetic and performative component" (57). Other scholars will surely be able to use her research to help elucidate the works of artists working within a Carmelite context and also religious works made for a Florentine audience.

In general, the book is written in an engaging manner that invites us to follow the author as she develops her arguments. “I want to begin by looking very carefully at the fresco,” is typical of Holmes’s persuasive style (69). Quotes from relevant documents and many references to contemporary scholarship consistently illuminate the arguments. Only occasionally does the writing lapse into what seems to me to be unnecessary jargon.

In a book that so successfully reconstructs the historical context, I was personally disappointed that some visual reconstructions were not included. This comment should not be seen as a criticism of this book but rather as a plea to future scholars to try to incorporate computerized reconstructions into the visual material that they present. An easy opportunity in this particular case would have been to insert a scan of Lippi’s Berlin Adoration of the Christ Child (fig. 178) into the view of the Medici Chapel (fig. 174), thus reconstructing the visual effect of the original altarpiece within the chapel. As I thought more about this, I leafed through Holmes’s book again, thinking about why I felt so strongly about the possibilities of this new technique. Over and over again, I became aware of how many of the illustrated works have been transformed by loss of setting, loss of original frame, or even omission of frame in the reproduction. Perhaps it was the views of frescoes still in situ that made me feel so acutely that the panel paintings were not fairly represented here. When I compared fig. 164, a view of the Lippi’s apse frescoes in Spoleto, for example, with fig. 168, his “Bartolini Tondo,” the panel painting, lacking a frame, seemed much less illusionistic, even though it was clearly designed, in part, as a demonstration of spatial complexity. This disparity would have been resolved if—barring problems of copyright and publisher’s constraints—the frame on the painting had been included, and perhaps even a glimpse of an appropriate background wall.

Yale University Press and the Getty Grant Program are owed our thanks for the splendid production, which played an important role in supporting my understanding of the author’s arguments. At the same time that I was being convinced by Holmes’s new ideas, I was newly seduced by the subtlety and beauty of Fra Filippo’s paintings in excellent color illustration and abundant details. To appreciate Fra Filippo Lippi’s works in today’s horde-ridden Uffizi or Louvre is virtually impossible, but to see anew his works in exquisite reproduction within a study that so convincingly explicates their context is one of the triumphs of Holmes’s book. As this book so capably demonstrates, there is still much to be learned in undertaking a monographic study of a single artist, and she is to be commended for confirming the validity of this traditional approach to Renaissance art. The price is reasonable given the scale and quality of the book, but the value of this book for our understanding of Fra Filippo Lippi and of Florence art and culture is incalculable.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome