By Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz
William Morrow. 384 pp. $24.95
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Reviewed by Rhonda Dickey
The Italian Renaissance was a burst of vibrant art and a canvas for the ruthless wielding of power by the likes of the Medicis and church officials.
Art and power define the life of the very real Fra Filippo Lippi in this fictional work by Laurie Albanese, a novelist, and Laura Morowitz, an art historian. The two friends teamed up for this historical novel set in mid-15th-century Tuscany, which, if a little too long, nevertheless paints its own vibrant portrait of enduring works created within severe social constraints.
Lippi was rescued as a homeless, orphaned boy by the monks of Santa Maria del Carmine, who fed, sheltered, and educated him, and then put a brush in his hands. "These gifts were great, but they'd come at a price. In order to have an artist's life, he'd taken monk's vows of poverty and chastity, and been ordained as a priest."
Lucrezia Buti is a kindred spirit in loss. At age 20, she has entered the Convent Santa Margherita with her sister Spinetta after their father, a silk merchant, died and his business was seized.
"Everything your father promised for you is gone," Signora Buti had told Lucrezia.
Lucrezia has her own gift, a profound beauty. As chaplain at Santa Margherita, Lippi encounters the young novitiate, whose eyes "were a startling blue, a lapis lazuli as wonderful as the sky over the Bisenzio Valley."
Lippi has found the face of his Madonnas.
Lucrezia pays an even steeper price for her gift than the artist does for his. She is raped in Lippi's studio by Prior General Saviano, a cleric consumed by his anger over what he'd mistakenly assumed was a physical relationship between Lucrezia and the monk.
"Beautiful, bewitching Lucrezia," the prior general says accusingly.
But Lucrezia and Lippi are in love. And in her belief that she is ruined and cannot return to the convent, she stays with Lippi, who lovingly cares for her even as the scandal in the community grows.
Their love is finally consummated, she learns she is pregnant, and she worries over whether the father is a rapist or the man she loves.
The story easily could veer into the melodramatic - or perhaps the soap-operatic. Albanese and Morowitz by and large avoid that. They manage an even more difficult feat: They make Lucrezia a genuinely sympathetic character, rather than solely a victim or a cipher. That's tricky to manage with a central character who is passive, who propels the story more by what happens to her than by what she does.
Lippi's character isn't always so finely drawn. He sometimes comes off as the stereotypical bear of a man caring for the fragile young beauty. And the novel gets bogged down a bit in detailing their life together and their attempts to get Rome to sanction their marriage.
The secondary characters are many and well-written. Saviano doesn't elicit sympathy but is frighteningly real. The prioress of the convent does plenty of damage, but ends up a figure who can inspire a little compassion.
The authors are surest when they write about Lippi making his art: "Fra Filippo drew Lucrezia's lips, her shoulders, and her arms below her robes. He drew the ribs, the delicate clavicle, and the backbone that snaked and bent the length of torso from neck to buttocks. He saw each limb and muscle and understood how one connected to the other, how all sprang from the same center. Other painters drew faces; Fra Filippo created men and women with the breath of life."
Albanese and Morowitz provide a list of Lippi works mentioned in the novel. A Google image search will let readers see for themselves what beauty Filippo and Lucrezia's sufferings and gifts wrought.
And another image search, of Filippino Lippi's name, will show what artistry was passed down, as well as the happy resolution of his mother's worries.