Fra Filippo Lippi: Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement - c1440
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Often a portrait reveals more than just the sitter’s physiognomy. This double portrait, thought to have been painted for the betrothal or wedding (in 1436) of Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari (1407–1478) and his bride, Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti, reveals as much about the society that made it as the individual subjects.
Lorenzo appears to be looking through a window into the room where Angiola stands in rigid profile. Dressed in sumptuous fabrics and jewels, with pale hair and skin as luminous as the pearls she wears, the woman is by far the dominant figure. Yet the picture is not really about her.
A young patrician girl in 15th-century Florence usually had two possible courses in life: become a nun or a wife. She was expected to be modest, chaste and obedient to her father and when married, to her husband. Her life was lived within a domestic sphere and her wedding was one of the few times she appeared in public. The composition of this picture reflects this closely regulated life.
And indeed, Angiola is depicted a bit like a pearl herself, a jewel encased in an elegant room; she is the embodiment of the womanly ideals of beauty and virtue. Although betrothed, the couple’s gazes do not meet; lowered or averted eyes were a sign of a woman’s modesty and obeisance; to meet a man’s eyes would be seen as wanton. Upon marriage, a woman became part of her husband’s household, as indicated here by the inclusion of only the Scolari coat of arms, upon which Lorenzo rests in his hands. Angiola sports only one motto: lealt (loyalty) embroidered at the edge of her sleeve.
Typical of Fra Filippo’s style, both figures are elegantly solid with simplified facial features but elaborately detailed jewels and attire. A 1480 commentary noted that, ‘Fra Filippo Lippi was gracious and ornate and exceedingly skilful; he was very good at compositions and at variety, at colouring, relief, and in ornaments of every kind.’ This attention to material surfaces appealed to many important patrons, from the Scolari to the Medici, as art in 15th-century Tuscany was about conspicuous consumption, intended to show off wealth and possessions. Lippi also incorporates topographical detail in the buildings and gardens seen through the window (a technique he probably learned from Flemish art). It is almost as if the artist were documenting the Scolari family possessions: jewels, property and virtuous wife.
The innovative Fra Filippo Lippi was one of the first artists to excel at the profile portrait – this image is thought to be the first double portrait in Italian art, one of the first set in an interior and one of the first to depict a woman. Derived from imperial images on classical coins, the format would remain the standard for female portraits for decades (there are about 40 female Renaissance profile portraits that survive today), perhaps as it was perfectly suited for an emblematic display of female virtue, family honour and wealth.
The restrictive societal mores represented in this work were not something the artist followed himself. Though a Carmelite friar (Fra) from the age of 14, Lippi was not suited for religious life. He was involved in numerous scandals, the most notorious in 1456 when he abducted a nun, Lucrezia Buti, from the convent in Prato where he was chaplain. However, with the help of one of his patrons, Cosimo de Medici, both were relieved of their vows. They married and had a son, Filippino, who became as successful a painter as his father, training in Filippo’s workshop along with another star of the next generation, Botticelli.
1436 Jan van Eyck: Madonna with Canon van der Paele, Bruges, Groeningemuseum
1436–40 Fra Angelico: Descent from the Cross, Florence, San Marco
c1440 Rogier van der Weyden: The Crucifixion, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum