Fra Filippo Lippi (Italian, Florence ca. 1406–1469 Spoleto)
Tempera on wood, gold ground
Central panel (a), overall, with arched top and added strips, 47 3/4 x 45 1/2 in. (121.3 x 115.6 cm); right panel (b) 28 1/2 x 15 3/8 in. (72.4 x 39.1 cm); left panel (c) 28 1/2 x 15 1/2 in. (72.4 x 39.4 cm) [panels substantially altered in size and shape
Saint Lawrence, a deacon of the Church under Pope Sixtus II (257–58), is shown enthroned, his feet resting on the grill on which he was martyred. He is flanked by Saints Cosmas and Damian, whose cult was closely associated with the ruling Medici family. The Florentine patrician Alessandro Alessandri (1391–1460) kneels in devotion, facing his sons Jacopo (1422–1494) and Antonio (1423–after 1480). The picture once decorated their family church at Vincigliata in the hills above Florence. Alessandri was at the height of his political career when he commissioned it in the 1440s. It is damaged, cut down, and the background regilded. Two further fragments are in the Metropolitan (for which, see metmuseum.org/collections).
Saint Lawrence, a deacon under Pope Sixtus II in the third century, is shown enthroned, his feet resting on the grill on which he met his martyrdom. He is flanked by the patron saints of physicians, Cosmas and Damian. All three hold martyr’s palms. Three diminutive figures kneel in devotion. They were identified by Vasari as the Florentine wool merchant Alessandro Alessandri (1391–1460) and two of his sons, probably Jacopo (1422–1494) and Antonio (1423–after 1480). Two other pieces from the altarpiece are also in the Metropolitan, though they are fragmentary and much damaged. One depicts Saint Benedict(?), the other Saint Anthony Abbot. The work is described in both the 1550 and 1568 editions of Vasari’s Lives, though with slight variations. The 1568 edition reads: "Messer Allessandro degli Alessandri, allora cavaliere ed amico suo, gli fece fare, per la sua chiesa di villa a Vincigliata nel poggio di Fiesole in una tavola, un Santo Lorenzo, ed altri Santi; ritraendovi lui e dua suoi figliuoli." (Messer Alessandro Alessandri, who was then a knight and friend [of Filippo Lippi] had him make for his villa church at Vincigliata near Fiesole an altarpiece with Saint Lawrence and other saints, portraying him [i.e., Alessandri] and two of his sons)".
Located in the hills above Florence, Vincigliata is dominated by a castle that was owned by the Alessandri family, who in the fifteenth century were also the principal patrons of the local church of Santa Maria di Vincigliata. Although the 1568 notice of Vasari suggests that the altarpiece was painted for a private chapel attached to their villa, it was, instead, destined for the local church, where it is first recorded in pastoral visit of 1493 as on the high altar (Brucker 2007, p. 73); a later inventory (of 1678) records the altarpiece as rectangular in shape ("Una tavola quadra grande"). This description must refer to the picture in its frame, as it was clearly arched in some way. However, given the fragmentary character of the lateral elements as well as their damaged state, no fully convincing reconstruction has been or can be proposed.
In about 1790, the altarpiece was moved to the Palazzo Alessandri in Florence (Brucker 2007) and by 1864 (Crowe and Cavacaselle) the central figure group is recorded as separated from the two outer panels and framed as a tondo. The three pieces of the altarpiece were sold by the Alessandri in 1911. Since that time there have been a number of framing solutions for the three fragments (see Additional Images, figs. 1, 2) and also a number of restoration campaigns. The most recent one concerned only the main panel (see Technical Notes). The portraits are among the best preserved portions of the picture and testify to Lippi’s gifts at characterization.
The picture is universally dated to the mid- to late 1440s or the very early 1450s, when Alessandro Alessandri was at the height of his political career. In 1441 and 1448 he served as Gonfaloniere di Giustizia and held other important political offices as well, being Captain of Livorno, Pistoia, and Pisa in 1442, 1445, and 1447, respectively. He was part of the Florentine delegation for the accession of Pope Nicholas V in 1447; he was knighted by Frederick III in 1451. A supporter of the Medici, in 1453 he married his daughter Ginevra to Cosimo de’ Medici’s son Giovanni and this, it has been suggested, may have occasioned the commission of the MMA altarpiece. Similarly, his alliance with the Medici may explain the prominence given to Saints Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of Cosimo de’ Medici. In style the picture is most closely related to the Annunciation Lippi painted for the convent of the Murate in Florence (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), for which a payment was made in April 1445. Holmes (1999, p. 272 n. 172) has noted that in the early 1440s Lippi made payments to Alessandri—for what purpose we do not know—and this may support a date earlier rather than later in the decade. By 1453, Lippi was engaged in a major fresco cycle in Prato, painted in a decisively different style; it therefore seems unlikely that the altarpiece can date much after 1450.
The 1440s was a period of profound transformation in Lippi’s art: a turn from the more saturated colors and naturalistic description found in his works of the 1430s to a paler, more refined palette, an emphasis on elegance, and an innovative use of gold—not only for the backgrounds, but in the garments, where small dots of gold indicate highlights and clusters of tooled dots in the haloes would have caught the light. The degree to which these traits mark a conscious emulation of the work of Fra Angelico—the favored artist of the Medici—and a turn away from the naturalistic impulse of Lippi’s earlier art has been much discussed, but the resultant courtly and Gothic character cannot be denied, making these paintings particularly important for an understanding of the social and cultural ambitions of the men who commissioned them.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
The painting came to the Museum from the Morgan Library in 1935. Two side figures (Saint Benedict and Saint Anthony Abbott) must have originally been joined to the central panel, in light of the fact that the ends of their staffs can be seen in the lower left and lower right corners of the painting.
The panel has been extended approximately three inches on all sides. It has been heavily cradled and waxed on the reverse, but it appears to be structurally stable. The painting was cleaned and restored in 1935, and again in 1955. Unfortunately, the extensive nature of the existing damages and the relatively unsuccessful nature of the restorations confined the picture to storage. Yet because of the overwhelming quality of what remains of the original (notably the portrait heads) removal of the previous retouching proved to be worthwhile.
The picture has suffered from extensive overall abrasion of the paint film. The flesh tones in particular have been thinned to an extreme degree. Much of the gilding is modern, although the haloes do appear to be original. Numerous small damages are scattered throughout the painting, but these are overshadowed by an enormous loss in the central section of the panel. Most of the green drapery (in the robe of St. Lawrence) is completely missing, although traces of it do remain around the edges of the loss. The profile of the head of Alessandri has also been damaged, but fortunately the portrait heads of his two sons remain virtually intact. The beauty of these portraits, as well as the fact that the central damage is confined to an area of drapery, more than justifies the time and effort required to properly retouch the picture.
The 1955 restorations were removed. Both the retouching and the varnishing had been done with poly(vinyl acetate), and these layers were quite literally peeled off the surface. Residues were removed with toluene.
Losses were filled where necessary, and old putties were corrected. The painting was brush varnished wtih Ketone N (with Irganox 565 added as an antioxidant). Losses were toned, and underpainted with egg tempera. This allowed for the most convincing imitation of the opacity, purity, and clarity of the original technique. Retouching of the small damages was completed with both egg tempera and watercolors, and the retouches were locally varnished. The smaller losses were completed before attempting reconstruction of the drapery in order to allow the strength of the original to dominate. Retouching of the central damage was completed with oil colors (extracted on a blotter) mixed with dammar. This was used as a means of re-creating the discolored copper resinate glazes which can be seen in the remnants of the original drapery. A final spray coating of Ketone N was applied.
The painting was re-framed with the blank, false edges concealed. This was essential in order to allow the sense of space and scale within the composition to have the proper effect.
[1983; on file in departmental archives]
church of Santa Maria a Vincigliata, near Florence (until about 1790); Alessandri family, Palazzo Alessandri, Florence (from about 1790); conte Cosimo degli Alessandri, Palazzo Alessandri (until at least 1911); ?[Luigi Grassi, Florence, until 1912]; [Sulley and Co., London, until 1912; sold for £20,000 to Duveen]; [Duveen, New York, 1912; sold for $215,000 to Morgan]; J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1912–d. 1913; his estate, 1913–17); his son, J. P. Morgan, New York (1917–35; sold through Knoedler to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Collection of Paintings lent by J. Pierpont Morgan," 1913, unnumbered cat.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Loan Exhibition of the J. Pierpont Morgan Collection," February 17, 1914–May 28, 1916, unnumbered cat. (p. 50).
New York. Duveen. "Early Italian Paintings," April 17–May 3, 1924, nos. 5–6 (lent by J. Pierpont Morgan, New York).
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Treasures in America," January 13–March 5, 1961, unnumbered cat. (p. 53; central panel only).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Saints and Their Legends," March 1–June 6, 1974, exh. brochure.
Pastoral visit of Bishop Roberto Folchi. May 1, 1493, unpaginated [Archivio di Stato, Florence, Notarile ante-cosimiano 3264; published in Brucker 2007], records it above the high altar of the church of Santa Maria di Vincigliata.
Giorgio Vasari. Le vite de piu eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani. Florence, 1550, vol. 1, part 2, p. 400, states that Lippi painted for Alessandro Alessandri "per la sua chiesa a Vincigliata nel poggio di Fiesole una tavola con un Santo Lorenzo, & altri santi, nella quale ritrasse lui & due suoi figliuoli".
Giorgio Vasari. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. Ed. Gaetano Milanesi. 1906 ed. Florence, 1568, vol. 2, pp. 626–27, states that Lippi painted it for Alessandri's "chiesa di villa a Vincigliata".
Inventory. 1678 [published in (Giovanni Baroni), Il castello di Vincigliata e i suoi contorni, Florence, 1871, p. 51], records it as a single rectangular panel in the church of Santa Maria di Vincigliata.
Inventory. 1682 [published in (Giovanni Baroni), Il castello di Vincigliata e i suoi contorni, Florence, 1871, pp. 51–52], records it as a single panel in the church of Santa Maria di Vincigliata, attached to the back wall, high up; identifies the saints as Lawrence (center), flanked by Cosmas and Damian, with Augustine and Anthony Abbot on the outer edges.
J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 2, London, 1864, p. 348, as in the Casa Alessandri, Florence; note that the central panel was originally square but cut into a round form and detached from the wings.
Gaetano Milanesi, ed. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. By Giorgio Vasari. Vol. 2, 1906 ed. Florence, 1878, p. 627 n. 1, observes that the altarpiece has been cut apart, with the center made into a tondo and the lateral saints—tentatively identified as Anthony and Benedict—joined as a single work.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York, 1896, p. 118, lists the central panel as by Filippo Lippi, in the Palazzo Alessandri, Florence.
Edward C. Strutt. Fra Filippo Lippi. London, 1901, pp. 83, 197, assigns the central panel to Lippi's "second Florentine Period," 1441–52, and calls it a tondo that may have originally been rectangular; identifies the two lateral saints as Anthony and Benedict and states that they are in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
I. B. Supino. Fra Filippo Lippi. Florence, 1902, p. 71, ill. (central panel), dates it soon after 1440 and identifies the Alessandri sons on the left as Jacopo and Antonio; states that the lateral saints are still in the Alessandri palazzo; illustrates the central panel framed as a tondo.
Jacob Burckhardt. Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens. part 2, Vol. 3, Leipzig, 1904, p. 651, dates it soon after 1440.
Henriette Mendelsohn. Fra Filippo Lippi. Berlin, 1909, pp. 74–76, 258, ill. (central panel), dates it 1435–40; calls the two lateral saints possibly Anthony and Benedict.
Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Langton Douglas. Vol. 4, Florentine Masters of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1911, p. 173.
Adolfo Venturi. Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 7, part 1, La pittura del quattrocento. Milan, 1911, pp. 368, 370, calls the central panel an early work and compares it to the "Madonna del Ceppo" by Lippi in the Galleria Comunale di Palazzo Pretorio, Prato.
Bernard Berenson. Letter to J. Pierpont Morgan. 1912, attributes it to Lippi, dates it about 1440, and identifies the Alessandri sons on the left as Jacopo and Antonio.
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "Additions to the Loan Exhibition of Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (February 1913), p. 34, ill. p. 33, dates it about 1440–45; tentatively identifes the left lateral saint as Benedict.
Collection of Mediaeval and Renaissance Paintings. Cambridge, Mass., 1919, p. 57.
Richard Offner. "A Remarkable Exhibition of Italian Paintings." Arts 5 (May 1924), p. 257, considers it an early work, dating it a few years before 1437.
W. R. Valentiner. A Catalogue of Early Italian Paintings Exhibited at the Duveen Galleries New York: April to May, 1924. New York, 1926, unpaginated, nos. 5–6, ill., identifies the left lateral saint as Benedict.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 10, The Renaissance Painters of Florence in the 15th Century. The Hague, 1928, pp. 406–8, fig. 247 (central panel), identifies the lateral saints as Benedict and Anthony; notes the influence of Fra Angelico and a connection in style with two panels in the National Gallery, London (nos. 666, 667).
[Georg] Gronau inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 23, Leipzig, 1929, p. 272, dates it about 1433–35; identifies the lateral saints as Anthony and Benedict.
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pls. CLXXVI–II, dates it to Lippi's early period, before 1437; identifies the lateral saints as Benedict and Anthony and erroneously states that they must originally have been arched.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 288, lists it as in great part the work of Lippi; identifies the lateral saints as Anthony Abbot and a bishop saint.
Bernardo Berenson. "Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo, e la cronologia." Bollettino d'arte 26 (July 1932), pp. 12, 14, 16, fig. 6, groups it with pictures showing the influence of Fra Angelico and dates it not before 1442; does not identify the left lateral saint.
Bernard Berenson. Letter to Belle Greene. March 8, 1932, rejects the 1932 listing [see Ref. "Italian Pictures of the Renaissance"] as a clerical error, and attributes it to Lippi.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pls. 206–7, dates it about 1435.
Lionello Venturi. "Lo sviluppo artistico di Filippo Lippi." L'arte 36 (January 1933), pp. 43–44, ill. p. 41 (details), dates it about 1435 and identifies the Alessandri sons on the left as Giovanni and Jacopo.
Harry B. Wehle. "The Saint Lawrence Altarpiece by Fra Filippo Lippi." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 30 (December 1935), pp. 239–45, figs. 1–4 (overall and details), remarks that portions of the central panel were once concealed by a circular frame, though not cut down; accepts Venturi's [see Ref. (L'arte) 1933] dating and identification of the Alessandri sons; calls the left lateral figure "probably Saint Benedict as abbot of Monte Cassino".
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 247.
Georg Pudelko. "Per la datazione delle opere di Fra Filippo Lippi." Rivista d'arte 18 (1936), p. 46, accepts the dating suggested by Berenson [see Ref. (Bollettino d'arte) 1932].
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 26–28, ill., believes it originally included at least two more parts now missing, probably a kneeling saint on the left and a standing one on the right.
Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941, unpaginated, no. 45, ill. (central panel), dates it about 1435; calls the lateral saints Lawrence and Benedict.
Robert Oertel. Fra Filippo Lippi. Vienna, 1942, p. 69, no. 68, fig. 68 (central panel), considers it close to the "Madonna del Ceppo" in Prato and dates it not before 1445; observes that Alessandri dedicated the central panel to the patron saints of the Medici, and that it is a prototype for related compositions by Neri di Bicci, who had contact with Lippi in 1454; tentatively identifies the left lateral saint as Benedict.
Richard Offner. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Vol. 5, section 3, New York, 1947, p. 198 n. 2, p. 286, groups it with altarpieces in which the central panel shows an enthroned saint instead of the Madonna and Child.
Mary Pittaluga. Filippo Lippi. Florence, 1949, pp. 74, 210, figs. 47–48, accepts the dating suggested by Berenson [see Ref. (Bollettino d'arte) 1932].
George Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting. Florence, 1952, cols. 289, 613, fig. 333 (central panel).
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 113, calls the left lateral saint Benedict.
John Pope-Hennessy. The Portrait in the Renaissance. Princeton, 1966, p. 258, notes the greatly reduced scale of the donor portraits.
Bernard Berenson. Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance. Ed. Hanna Kiel. Bloomington, 1970, pp. 208–10, 212, 228–29, 253, pl. 375 [similar text as Ref. Berenson (Bollettino d'arte) 1932].
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 224 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 88–91, ill., date it mid-1440s and identify the Alessandri sons as Jacopo and Antonio; call the left lateral saint Benedict.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 106, 372, 378, 389, 422, 538, 607, question the identification of the left lateral saint as Benedict.
Giuseppe Marchini. Filippo Lippi. Milan, 1975, pp. 26, 98, 163, 168, 206, no. 28, figs. 50–52.
Jeffrey Ruda. Filippo Lippi Studies: Naturalism, Style and Iconography in Early Renaissance Art. PhD diss., Harvard University. New York, 1982, p. 127 n. 8.
Eliot Wooldridge Rowlands. "Filippo Lippi's Stay in Padua and its Impact on his Art." PhD diss., Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., 1983, pp. x, 41, 161 n. 152, fig. 28, dates it mid-1440s and compares it to the Madonna and Child by Lippi in the MMA (49.7.9).
Jeffrey Ruda. Fra Filippo Lippi: Life and Work, with a Complete Catalogue. London, 1993, pp. 169, 316, 386, 416, 429–32, 442, 485, no. 39, colorpls. 96, 102 (central panel and detail), pls. 268–70, dates it mid-1440s to early 1450s; compares it to Lippi's "Madonna del Ceppo" in Prato and comments on the conservative aspects of the composition, including the hierarchic scaling and extensive use of gold; tentatively agrees with the identification of the lateral saints as Benedict and Anthony Abbot.
Jean Strouse. Morgan: American Financier. New York, 1999, p. 7, reports that in December 1912, Morgan was in the process of buying it for $200,000.
Megan Holmes. Fra Filippo Lippi: The Carmelite Painter. New Haven, 1999, pp. 116–17, 126, 135, 268 nn. 74–75, 77, 80, figs. 97a, 97b (color), 97c, 119 (color detail), dates it to the early 1450s.
Jean Strouse. "J. Pierpont Morgan, Financier and Collector." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Winter 2000), pp. 52–55, fig. 64 (color, cental panel), dates it about 1440 in the text and probably late 1440s in the caption; discusses Morgan's acquisition of the altarpiece.
Miklós Boskovits inItalian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. Washington, 2003, p. 29 n. 45.
Daniele Sanguineti inFilippo Lippi: un trittico ricongiunto. Ed. Carlo Giuliano and Daniele Sanguineti. Exh. cat., Pinacoteca dell'Accademia Albertina. Turin, 2004, p. 37, fig. 13 (Saint Anthony Abbot).
Keith Christiansen inFrom Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master. Ed. Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 54, 150, 156, 292–93 n. 47, fig. 15 (central panel) [Italian ed., "Fra Carnevale: un artista rinascimentale da Filippo Lippi a Piero della Francesca," Milan, 2004, pp. 54, 150, 156, 292, 294 n. 47, fig. 15], dates it about 1450 and notes its Gothicizing elements.
Linda Wolk-Simon. "Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Spring 2006), pp. 55, 62 n. 99.
Gene Brucker. "I Tatti and its Neighbors, 1427–1530." I Tatti Studies 11 (2007), pp. 62–64 n. 29, argues that the altarpiece was made for the church of Santa Maria a Vincigliata rather than for a chapel within the Alessandri villa, noting that the first edition of Vasari's "Vite" refers to Alessandri's "chiesa a Vincigliata" instead of the "chiesa di villa" mentioned in the 1568 edition, that Santa Maria a Vincigliata still has a chapel of Saint Lawrence and that this saint was added to the overall dedication of the church in the seventeenth century, and that the church's orientation was reversed in 1790, the period when the altarpiece was removed to the Alessandri family's palazzo in Florence; calls the identification of the second son (Jacopo?) and the saint on the left (Benedict?) uncertain; states that although the altarpiece is usually dated to the 1440s, the presence of the Medici saints may indicate a connection with the Alessandri-Medici marriage alliance of 1453 [see Ref. Oertel 1942].
Jennifer Tonkovich. "Discovering the Renaissance: Pierpont Morgan's Shift to Collecting Italian Old Masters." A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America. Ed. Inge Reist. University Park, Pa., 2015, pp. 45–46, fig. 23 (photograph of it hanging in Pierpont Morgan's study).