The Florentine artist filippino Lippi was the product of a scandalous 15th century love affair: his father, Filippo, an artist and Carmelite friar, was chaplain of Santa Margarita convent in Prato when he ran off with a beautiful nun named Lucrezia Buti. Their illegitimate son, coached by a Florentine painter, became one of the most famous artists of his age, known for the imagination and versatility of his work and patronized by the rich and powerful. The twist in the tale came four centuries later: Filippino's fame had long since faded when England's Pre-Raphaelites "discovered" the genius of his forgotten teacher, lavished praise on his lyrical style and rhythmic lines, and elevated him to the status of a Renaissance icon Botticelli.
Now master and student share the spotlight at Florence's Palazzo Strozzi, allowing art lovers to make their own assessment of who was the greater. "Botticelli and Filippino: Passion and Grace in Fifteenth Century Florentine Painting" (through July 11) is the evolution of a smaller show held at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris earlier this year, enriched with 13 more works by Botticelli and a whole new section on Filippino Lippi. Although it's Botticelli's name that draws the crowds, the show marks the return to center stage of his best student. "This show is about the emergence of Filippino," says Antonio Paolucci, special commissioner for Florentine museums. The timing is right: it's exactly 500 years since Filippino's death. And it's only fitting that the show should take place in a palace built by Filippo Strozzi, Filippino's greatest patron.
Many of those associated with the exhibition contend the friar's illegitimate son was his teacher's superior. Co-curator Jonathan Nelson says the show "introduces a new artist similar in style and equal in quality" he pauses, correcting himself "superior in quality to Botticelli." Filippino, he says, "combined a poetic vision with an extraordinary ability to render naturalistic details." Franco Camarlinghi, president of Firenze Mostre, the organization that produced the exhibit, agrees: "I adore Botticelli as an inventor of ideas, but Filippino comes off as the greater painter. We have to change Florence's point of view." Vittorio Sgarbi, an art historian and critic, says that Filippino emerges from the show as "more interesting than Botticelli richer in doubts, in uncertainties. He's a more modern figure."
To simplify the task of comparison, the exhibition displays the paintings thematically. A gallery of exquisite Madonnas includes Botticelli's Madonna Adoring Her Child, from Edinburgh's National Gallery of Scotland, rediscovered only in 1998 and on show for the first time in Italy. Filippino's Madonna with Child and Angels, owned by a Florentine bank, is widely reproduced but rarely seen. A Canadian musicologist recently transcribed and recorded the a cappella music the angels are singing from a scroll in their hands, so visitors to the exhibition can hear the masterpiece as well as see it. As it happens, Filippino's perfectly rendered score was one of the most popular songs of the 15th century.
Although the quintessential Botticelli works, Birth of Venus and Allegory of Spring, are down the street in the Uffizi gallery, the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition features his outstanding allegories Calumny and Pallas and the Centaur, alongside Filippino masterpieces like the Allegory of Love. This soul mate of Allegory of Spring is from a private collection in London, and hasn't been shown publicly since 1949. The portraits section features Botticelli's famous Portrait of Man with Medal of Cosimo the Elder and his Profile of a Young Woman, a virtually unknown work from a private collection in New York. It also boasts Filippino's naturalistic Portrait of a Musician, an intense and pensive study of an instrumentalist surrounded by the paraphernalia of his art.
One of the most interesting sections of the exhibition examines the influence on the artists of Savonarola, the apocalyptic preacher of the 1490s who organized the Bonfires of the Vanities, in which many famous Renaissance works of art were destroyed. It features Botticelli's only signed and dated painting, Mystic Nativity, from the National Gallery in London, and commissions Filippino painted for Savonarola's most powerful follower, Francesco Valori. "Botticelli was personally influenced by Savonarola. There is a change in his style that would reflect his religious convictions," Nelson notes. "His work becomes more austere. The figures lose their pearls and gems and gold-trimmed hems." There is no evidence that Filippino was ever a follower of the hellfire reformer, even though he was a member of one of the strictest flagellant confraternities in Florence for years before he married. "Filippino worked for both followers and enemies of Savonarola," says the curator. Filippino's works for Savonarola's followers were severe, whereas those for the preacher's enemies such as his glorious frescoes in Florence's Strozzi Chapel are filled with charming detail.
In the final section, titled Pathos, Botticelli's superb Pietà from Milan is joined by Filippino's Repentant Mary Magdalene, which usually resides in a Park Avenue apartment in New York City. Although respectful of the Botticelli, Nelson feels that Filippino's painting combines exquisite grace and extreme passion in the same work. For the curator, the painting brings to mind the assessment of the poet Ugolino Verino, a contemporary of Filippino, who thought him "worthy of being compared to the ancient Greeks," surpassing even his onetime master. "Maybe," Nelson ventures, "viewers of the show will come to the same conclusion."