Thursday 11 November 2021

A preliminary drawing and a final painting by Filippo Lippi in Florence

I want to present here an example of how a bit of enjoyable homework can help art-lovers gain some extra insight into how a masterpieces were created by Renaissance artists. Before a recent visit to the Palatine Gallery at Palazzo Pitti in Florence, I was idly looking through a book of Renaissance drawings held in the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe at the Uffizi Gallery. Among them was a very delicate, three quarters sketch of a female head, surely intended to be a Madonna, depicting an absorbed and very sweet expression, and, among other features, a refined hairstyle embellished with veils. At the same time, I had a look at a catalogue of the holdings at the Palatine Gallery, and - lo and behold! - the Madonna in the wonderful Tondo Bartolini turned out to be the final version of the Uffizi sketch.

Both the preliminary drawing and the final painting are by Filippo Lippi. The Tondo has long been thought to have been commissioned from Filippo, who was Carmelite friar, by the ambitious and wealthy Florentine merchant, Leonardo di Bartolomeo Bartolini. More recent investigation by Jeffrey Ruda interprets the coat of arms on the reverse of the Tondo as that of a member of the Martelli family and re-dates the painting to between 1465 and 1470 based on similarities to Filippo's final frescoes in the Capella Maggiore at Prato Cathedral.

By looking at a good reproduction of the drawing, one can see that Filippo used first a silver point on paper prepared with a warm, yellow ochre ground, and then refined the silver point outline with thin and light lines of white lead applied with a brush, giving the physiognomy and hairstyle a lovely softness.

The preliminary sketch matches the painted figure down to the most minute folds of the cap and in the ribbon that holds and twists the hair at the top under the veil. One can also see that Filippo was experimenting on the ochre paper with the effects of the light coming from the left, by applying a white wash. 

However, my aim here is not to argue the fine details of art history and connoisseurship, but rather to encourage visitors to Florence who plan to tour the galleries, to spend some time with some art books as a preparation to seeing the works themselves. You never can tell what serendipitous insights will strike you!

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