I first saw the paintings of Fra Filippo Lippi, the subject/hero/antihero of my new novel, The Painter of Souls, on a school trip to Florence. My parents had scraped together their last pennies and sent me off with the History of Art class – I wasn’t even studying History of Art, but my artist mother thought it would be good for me and it was.
Of course, we spent hours in the Uffizi Gallery, where my 15-year-old self was alternatively ravished by the paintings and racked with boredom, desperate to peel off and wander the noisy streets outside, to look at the fashions, to listen to the music of Italian being spoken; above all, to gaze at the beautiful women.
To a teenager from the wilds of Devon – our house had only got electricity six years earlier, and we only had one grainy channel on our black and white TV, these women were creatures from another world. I marvelled at them, not as objects of earthly desire but as angels. Which was just as well: spotty, trying to smoke my Nazionale cigarettes with the sprezzatura – nonchalance – of the Italian ragazzi and failing miserably, I knew perfectly well that I didn’t have a chance. Sprezzatura is the art of making something very difficult – the impeccable street style of Italians being an excellent example – look effortless. But, back then, I was taking something relatively easy and making it look virtually impossible. No sprezzatura for me.
So I let myself surrender to pure, unalloyed wonder. The whole place was wonderful. The smells billowing from restaurants – grilling meat, hot olive oil, roasting coffee – the heavy golden light in the palms and olive trees, an orange tree gilded with fruit in the cloister of San Lorenzo. Michelangelo’s Captives in the Academia. Silk ties in the window of Pucci on Via Tornabuoni. The clack of high heels on flagstones. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity and the Brancacci Chapel. San Marco, where the luminous glories of Fra Angelico’s paintings lead you to Savonarola’s cell and the Bonfire of the Vanities. Drinking vin santo in a cafe under the scornful eyes of the locals – if only I could go back in time and order a grappa instead.
That week changed me forever: the outside got in. I learned to live with my senses wide open. I found the ecstasy of the everyday. What a gift. When I got back to Devon I found I’d taken some of it back with me. What I remembered, most of all, were the paintings of the early 15th Century: Botticelli, of course. Masaccio. Ghirlandaio and Fra Angelico. But it was Fra Filippo Lippi who really stuck with me. His faces most of all. They seemed to glow with a pure inner light, as though the artist had captured what I had been feeling there in Florence: the beauty that comes when you open yourself up to the beauty of the world.
Yes, the world is beautiful to a teenager on a safe, curated school outing. The world of Fra Filippo, though, was anything but safe. He had spent his childhood as an orphan on the streets of Oltrarno, entered the Friary of Santa Maria del Carmine at 14, lived the life of a professional artist when the profession could literally be cut-throat. He was always short of money – his money troubles led him to the torture chambers of the Signoria. We glean these facts from a few of his letters that survive, from the ledgers of the Carmine and the official record of his legal woes, and almost nothing else. He ended up at the very pinnacle of his trade but his life was never easy and at times extremely hard. His Florence wasn’t anything like the one I discovered. And yet he painted such beauty.
Fra Filippo painted himself into his sublime Coronation of the Virgin that was commissioned by the church of Sant’Ambrogio. His eyes are heavy with lack of sleep and he hasn’t shaved for a couple of days. Chin propped on a hand – am I imagining paint under the fingernails? – he is watching us as we stare at his work. He’s watching us gaze at the Virgin, at the saints and angels but, I can’t help thinking, most of all at the dazzlingly beautiful young woman who is also looking out of the painting at us. His gaze, hers, ours. There is a triangle of complicity here, a moment where we are observed as we ourselves observe. This is an altarpiece, painted for the nuns of Sant’Ambrogio to worship (which explains the slight foreshortening of the figures in the foreground: they were intended to be seen from below, by kneeling devotees). The young woman is Mary Magdalen, an object of their worship. But the Magdalen was also a woman of the world. Her gaze is knowing in many dimensions. She meets our eyes knowing very well that we find her beautiful. She is aware of our desire as well as our devotion. Fra Filippo knows it too. Somewhere inside this trinity, perhaps, is a clue to understanding where his mastery of human beauty comes from. He has allowed the churchgoers of Florence to be pious devotees and, simultaneously, admiring ragazzi. He makes sure we’re getting the whole picture, leaning on his hand, his work done. Friar and ragazzo.
Is that Fra Filippo’s great gift? That he lets us be what we want, in front of his paintings? Connoisseurs of fleshly beauty can feast their eyes on women and men who, despite their seeming perfection, aren’t ideals or cyphers but real people who were walking the streets of Florence in the 1440s, just as they are today. And the devoted can find transcendence shining through the paint with tangible power. Atheists like me can feel it too. Filippo, I feel sure, intended both things, because he had both impulses within him, and gave them equal freedom in his art – and, plainly, his life. Perhaps that’s what I learned, spotty, 15 and unsupervised: to let both sides, heaven and earth, find their balance. If I did, I didn’t realise it straight away. I lit another Nazionale and wandered onto the Ponte Vecchio, or through the lanes between the Duomo and the Piazza Signoria, and let it all soak in.