A GIFT FOR THE MAGUS

Editors' Choice - Historical Novels Review 2012

The story of Fra Filippo and Lucrezia Buti is a famous one of an errant friar seducing the nun who models for him. Why let the truth spoil a good story? Well, we should, because the truth is often a better story, deeper, more resonant.

The novel begins in the 1430s, the age of Brunelleschi, Donatello, Ghiberti - all those great names of the Florentine View of Brunelleschi's domeRenaissance. Filippo Lippi is their contemporary but, dumped in the Carmine as a child, he has taken his vows as a friar and his dream of being a painter remains a dream. He learns what he can from Masaccio, who is painting the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine, but he has no formal apprenticeship. He does not accept his fate lightly but is negligent of his duties and scornful of his superiors.

When Cosimo de' Medici is exiled from Florence, most of the sculptors and architects follow in his wake, Filippo with them. He has walked out of the Carmine and is trying to make his way as a jobbing painter, doing portraits of the Madonna and Child for domestic use. He winds up in Padua, and that's where the story begins, with him thrown in gaol for cheating at dice.

Cosimo de' Medici, exiled for ten years, is on his way home after one. He's a banker, after all, and knows how to smooth his own path. And that of others. He gets Lippi released and takes him on a tour of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, where they discover a mutual love for the father of Renaissance painting, Giotto. Cosimo tells Filippo to return to Florence and visit him.

Filippo Lippi cannot walk a straight path. He returns to Florence via the coast where he is captured by pirates and taken to Barbary (the coast of North Africa). He spends two years as a slave to an estate owner who is a Sufi and Medici chapel-the young princelearns things from him that he would not have learned at home without an apprenticeship. Released suddenly, he returns to Florence and arrives during one of the stupendous processions celebrating the Coming of the Magi. In the entourage of one of the Wise Kings is Cosimo, who tells Filippo to come to his house the following night. There is to be a banquet.

The main guest is Leon Battista Alberti, and everyone present has been mentioned in his recently published book On Painting. Filippo fails to arrive and so misses the opportunity of befriending Alberti, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, etc. But he does befriend another guest, not mentioned in Alberti's book: Fra Giovanni (known today as Fra Angelico). The two friar-painters begin to collaborate, but Filippo feels unclean in the saintly presence of Fra Giovanni.

In the monastery of San Marco he meets another friar, Antonino, set to become the archbishop of Florence.

Twenty years later...

Lippi has been in prison for falsifying a contract. He was tortured and barely escaped with his life. The man who ordered his torture was the archbishop of Florence (known today as Sant' Antonino). Released, Lippi is given a benefice in Prato, arranged by Cosimo. At the small convent of Santa Margerita, he is to be the chaplain. The convent has only five nuns. Two of them are the Buti sisters, Lucrezia and her sister Spinetta. Lucrezia's ethereal beauty, as portrayed by Filippo Lippi, has captivated people ever since, and many have told the story, sung the tale, written the poem or put on the musical of the errant friar who seduced a nun.

In my story, it all comes out a bit differently. For, according to the documents, all the nuns left the convent. So how did Filippo Lippi, in gossipy Prato where whores were birched naked for public entertainment, keep five nuns in secret? What happened? You see? As soon as you start to delve, and avoid the temptation to ignore inconvenient facts, the story gets really interesting.

A major character in the book is Lippi's fourteen-year-old apprentice, Sandro Botticelli. Although the son of a tanner he is not quite prepared for the uncouthness and immorality of the bizarre Lippi household, but he soon learns to see with the eyes of the heart, and it is through Sandro's eyes, Lucrezia's and Cosimo's, that we begin to see Lippi's true nature.

'To be a good painter,' Alberti wrote in his book On Painting, 'you must be a good man.' Given that Filippo Lippi painted divine pictures which were to be hugely influential not only on Botticelli but also Leonardo and Michelangelo, either Alberti was wrong or our ideas of goodness require some examination. I hope this book gets us thinking about what constitutes a good man.

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Historical Novels Review - Editor's Choice