A Gift for the Magus

According to Alberti in his book, 'On Painting', a masterpiece of the Florentine humanism of the fifteenth century, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man'.

Fra Filippo Lippi (believed to be self portrayed above) was, by the standards of the age, notorious. Orphaned at an early age and placed in a Carmelite Friary, he proceeded to a life of disobedience, fornication and strong liquor and yet became one of the greatest painters of his age, whose paintings are graced with a harmony between heaven and earth. A new realism shot through with adoration.

He kidnapped (or rescued) a nun (or woman in the care of nuns), who had modelled for him, and she became his wife and the mother of a son, destined himself to be a distinguished painter. His most long lasting pupil was Sandro Botticelli.

Linda Proud has woven about this story both a fine historical novel and an extended meditation on the nature of goodness, the interface in art between inspiration and patronage and on a turning point in history - the Renaissance - a looking back (and through) time and Church to a period when, it was believed, that human exploration was freer, when thought could follow personal illumination and conjecture.

Her portrait of Lippi, whatever its historical 'accuracy', shows a man gifted both with the talents of an artisan and the inspiration of an artist, who was immensely fallible (and also free of the apparent hypocrisies of the Church) and who wrestled with his multiple distractions (internally offered, externally imposed) and brought forth grace - in art and family.

Like any good historical novel, you learn a great deal, painlessly, like the challenges that painters faced getting paid. Patrons would often express dissatisfaction with the finished product in order to elude having to pay the artist for it: an act usually followed by lengthy and costly legal proceedings of uncertain outcome.

You are, also, introduced to other historical figures that are richly engaged and described. Most notably here Cosimo de' Medici - the banker, patron and re-founder of a Platonic Academy; Fra Angelico - the painter whose fusion of ability and humility Fra Lippi most deeply admires (and fails to emulate) and Marsilio Ficino, the translator and interpreter of Platonic thought, the philosopher of the Renaissance.

The portrait of Cosimo is fascinating: how being rich (the Gates of his age) enabled him to do many things and yet it cannot grant him anything for which he has no talent (for example painting) and distances him from the simplicity he craves. It is a reality that both connects and isolates.

The Gift of the Magus is a prequel to Proud's 'The Bottocelli Trilogy' that I will embark upon. They are all, remarkably, self-published from here: http://www.godstowpress.co.uk/index.htm and are not available on Amazon!


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