There are lots of infamous lovers recorded in history, but one of the most intriguing is that of Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti—he a monk and she a nun!
There are lots of scandalous love stories but the infamous relationship of Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti is even more steamy than those of Brad and Angela or Madonna and Guy Ritchie as our historical protagonists were bond to the church—he a Carmelite monk and she a novice at the convent of Santa Margherita di Prato.
In addition to being a monk, Fra Filippo was a prominent fifteenth-century painter who enjoyed the protection and support of the Medici of Florence. He was so gifted with a brush, he received commissions not only from the masters in Florence but also from the King of Naples. Sandro Botticelli was one of his most notable students. In the elegant lines of Filippo’s figure of Salome that he painted in the Cathedral in Prato, you can see the similar, elongated, and delicate style that influenced Botticelli.
According to Vasari, the first historian to record the lives of the Italian painters, Filippo didn’t take his vows very seriously and had an eye for lovely young women.
Vasari records in his Lives of the Artists that in 1456 Fra Filippo while working in Prato, tended to frequent young women and indulge in countless romantic adventures. But it was one particularly comely young woman for whom he fell hard for.
It was in Prato while working on frescos to decorate the church of S. Margherita where he met and fell in love with the beautiful Lucrezia Buti, the daughter of Francesco Buti, a Florentine silk merchant. Lucrezia was born and raised in Florence, but after the death of her parents, Lucrezia was sent to Prato and placed under the protection of the Sisters of Santa Margherita.
The first time Fra Filippo saw Lucrezia at the convent, he thought her face exquisite, and he knew she would be the perfect model for the Madonna for his altarpiece. Right away, he asked the sisters for permission for Lucrezia to sit for him in his studio where he could paint her portrait.
Now, it is at this point, shortly after their meeting, where the things became interesting. It is not really known for sure if Fra Filippo kidnapped Lucrezia during the festival of the Sacra Cintola, a Prato (the celebration of the Madonna’s holy belt) or if she remained with him of her own will. But according to legend, the two had a sexual relationship, and the sisters of Santa Margherita were unable to recover Lucrezia from the hands of Filippo Lippi for several weeks.
The result of their romantic tryst was a son named Filippino Lippi, who became as almost as famous a painter like his father.
The couple remained together, and it was only several years later that Pope Pius II, thanks to the intercession of Cosimo de’ Medici, Fra Filippo, was granted an exemption to marry Lucrezia and to regularize their relationship.
There is a story purported that before the two could marry, however, Filippo was poisoned. This rumor is a little hard to swallow as there is evidence to suggest the couple had another child—a daughter— and that Filippo continued to have love affairs with other women. They may have lived together for a while, but after a while, they parted company and lived in separate cities—perhaps it didn’t sit well with Lucrezia that her husband continued his philandering ways. After his death, Filippo was buried in Spoleto, and Lorenzo, the Magnifico, had a monument constructed to honor him.
Who knows if the story that Vasari recounts is merely gossip—especially since, Vasari’s account was published years later after the event… and by the fact Vasari liked to embellish things a bit.
In the first draft of my novel “Dreaming Sophia” I had a dialogue between my protagonist Sophia Fra Filippo’s Madonna. This little anecdote
with the main story eventually was cut…
but here is the excerpt for you to enjoy.
Sophia turned the page in her sketchbook and continued walking around the Uffizi gallery, listening to more stories from the paintings that called out to her. Around her glided the visages of the many Madonnas painted by Cimabue, Simone Martini, Giotto, and Michelangelo. When she drew near to one particular beauty painted by Fra Filippo Lippi, Sophia paused to admire the delicate line of the Virgin’s profile, who cooed soft words to her child. After a moment, the Madonna’s let out a small squeal of pain when a chubby little angel standing to her right stepped on her right toe. When the baby began to cry the Madonna scolded the cherub, then to calm her child, she began to sing a Ninna nanna.
When the Virgin saw Sophia watching them, she smiled at her and beckoned her closer. In a conspiratorial whisper, she said, “I’m glad you stopped by Sophi. How I long for an adult to talk with! Sitting with these three all day long is enough to drive any mother to distraction. Hey, do you want to hear a saucy little story?”
Sophia looked around to see if the museum guard was watching. Then, she took a step closer, her curiosity aroused. How could she resist dishing the dirt with Madonna?
With a little shake of her head as if even she couldn’t believe it, the Virgin said, “Did you know the man who painted me was a Carmelite monk? Apparently, he was not as devoted to his religious duties as he was to a certain toothsome, fair-haired nun named Lucrezia Buti! What do you think of that?”
“Scandalous,” Sophia replied, glancing up from the picture she was drawing, trying to capture the elegant curves of the Virgin’s neck.
Pleased with her response, the Madonna continued. “Unlike Botticelli’s dear Simonetta in the other gallery who showed a bit of respect and modesty, Lucrezia, that brazen hussy, from the very first moment she met Filippo, was ready to jump into his bed.” She rolled her eyes heavenwards as if blessing Lucrezia’s soul, then said, “For years those two crept about carrying on a passionate affair under the noses of all the other nuns and monks. Can you imagine that?”
When Sophia shook her head, the Madonna smiled superiorly, “Well, I can tell you something for sure, it wasn’t so private—or secretive. Everyone knew about it. I mean absolutely everybody!” The Madonna placed her baby on her shoulder and patted him gently until he burped. She smiled at the child, then said, “When the church elders caught on… Oh, Santo Cielo! What a brouhaha! That incident turned everything upside down for everyone involved. Eventually, they renounced their religious vows and instead of a saintly life, they got married instead.”
“And did they have a happy marriage?” asked Sophia.
“Well… despite the rumors to the contrary, I believe the marriage was a success.” When the baby reached up with his pudgy fist and began pulling on her gossamer headdress, she said “Uffa!” Then gently she handed him back to her two little angel helpers. Patting her head, retucking a girl that had come undone, she said to Sophia, “Filippo and Lucrezia had two darling children, a boy, and a girl. The little boy was named after his father and little Filippino ended up following in his dad’s footsteps. He became a brilliant painter himself.”
The Madonna sighed. “Well, I guess I can’t blame the two so very much. It seems, in the end, they really did love each other. And when all is said and done… I owe my beauty to the notorious Lucrezia Buti.” She raised a hand so the angels wouldn’t hear and said, “They say, I’m the spitting image of her. Imagine that! This innocent, virginal visage is really that of a naughty nun!”
For more adventures with Sophia read Dreaming Sophia in print and epub… and coming soon as an AudioBook
Discussion of the painting of the Madonna
and Child painted by Fra Filippo Lippi
Veronica Bartoletti reads the story of Fra Filippo Lippi from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in the church of Santa Magherita in Prato.