by Roderick Conway Morris

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Foto Scala, Florence
The Duomo in Prato.

Masterpieces From an Italian Workshop

By Roderick Conway Morris
PRATO, Italy 9 October 2013


This Tuscan city was once the scene of one of the most romantic scandals of the Italian Renaissance. Here, the artist and Carmelite monk Fra Filippo Lippi was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the convent of Santa Margherita, and happened to meet there an attractive young novice, Lucrezia Buti. The couple had an affair, and in around 1457 produced a child, Filippino Lippi, who was to become a celebrated painter in his own right.

It says a great deal about the status of artists in Italy by the mid-15th century that Pius II, instead of visiting some terrible punishment on Filippo Lippi and his lover, absolved them of their vows. Perhaps the pope, a connoisseur and patron of art and architecture, was swayed by the fact that Lippi was then in the middle of painting a groundbreaking cycle of frescoes in Prato's principal church, St. Stephen.

The golden age of Prato is now the subject of a revelatory exhibition 'From Donatello to Lippi: the Workshop of Prato,' curated by Andrea De Marchi and Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli. The show brings together works, including elements of some beautiful altarpieces, that are now widely dispersed in collections on both sides of the Atlantic. The venue is the newly restored Palazzo Pretorio, which will later house the city's historic art collection and provide space for temporary shows.

Although modest in size compared with nearby Florence, 14th-century Prato already possessed outstanding artworks by Giovanni Pisano, Agnolo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and Giovanni da Milano. In the first half of the 15th century the town became one of the most important artistic crucibles in Europe, as its leading citizens attracted first-rate artists to adorn the ancient church of St. Stephen (now the Duomo, or cathedral) and other religious foundations.

Both Donatello and Paolo Uccello had worked as assistants to Lorenzo Ghiberti, one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance in Florence, in the creation of his first set of bronze doors for the city's baptistery. The two clearly found Prato - whose civic patrons seem to have afforded those they commissioned a large measure of freedom - a congenial environment in which to experiment and find their styles as independent masters.

The first of the great sculptural additions to St. Stephen was entrusted to Donatello and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo in 1428. The commission was for a pulpit on the exterior of the church, from which a famous relic, the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, could be displayed to the crowds of pilgrims who flocked to Prato every year. The sculptors came up with a revolutionary solution: an almost circular, canopied balcony projecting vertiginously out of the right-hand corner of St. Stephen's façade. Its parapet was embellished with a marble relief of classically inspired dancing putti - a decorative scheme that Donatello went on to use again in the choir loft in Florence's Duomo.

In 1435, Uccello began a major new cycle of frescoes for St. Stephen's Chapel of the Assumption. That he was indeed the author of a large part of these works has only recently been established, greatly enhancing understanding of the earlier part of his career.

The current show brings together almost all of Uccello's panels from the 1420s to the 1440s. Along with the frescoes, it offers an unprecedented survey of the development of this artist, who came to combine gorgeous Gothic decorative richness with the latest advances in scientific perspective. The final scenes of the frescoes were completed by Andrea di Giusto, after Uccello departed in 1436 to Florence, where he executed in the Duomo his virtuoso equestrian monument in fresco to the English mercenary general, Sir John Hawkwood.

The exhibition also includes a fine altarpiece by Andrea di Giusto, panels by Apollonio di Giovanni and an altarpiece by Zanobi Strozzi for the Assumption chapel in St. Stephen, reunited with the three panels of the predella, on loan from Dublin.

An entire section is devoted to the so-called Maestro della Natività di Castello, a name assigned by the art historian Bernard Berenson. More recently it has been suggested by the scholar Chiara Lachi that the author of these charming works was Piero di Lorenzo di Pratese, a pupil of Filippo Lippi's, who was active in Prato in the years shortly before his teacher's arrival here in 1452. The assembling of half a dozen of the Maestro's works - among them his only known altarpiece, reunited with predella panels from London and Philadelphia - offers a unique opportunity to appreciate better this artist, who was described by the late art historian Federico Zeri as 'one of the most pleasing petits maîtres of the Florentine quattrocento.'

The final sections of the exhibition offer an impressive display of works by Filippo Lippi, his accomplished collaborator in Prato (and later Spoleto) Fra Diamante, and Filippino Lippi. Fra Filippo's 'Madonna of the Girdle, with Saints,' painted for the Convent of Santa Margherita in 1456-57, not long before the birth of Filippino, has particular biographical resonance: According to legend, the artist seduced Lucrezia after the convent gave her permission to pose for him for the figure of its titular saint.

Lippi left Prato in 1466 to fresco the Duomo in Spoleto, where his son came to join him. When Lippi died there in 1469, Fra Diamante became Filippino's guardian. In around 1472 the boy entered the studio of Botticelli (a former student of his father's) in Florence.

After winning fame in Florence and Rome, Filippino returned to Prato in the 1490s, where he created a number of works - several of which are on show here - before his death in 1504, by which time, as Vasari recorded, the stigma of his birth had been wiped clean not only 'by the excellence of his own art but above all by his courteous and lovable personality.'

From Donatello to Lippi: The Workshop of Prato. Palazzo Pretorio and Duomo, Prato. Through Jan. 13.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024