In 1949 the Metropolitan Museum was bequeathed a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance painting. Painted around 1485 by the Florentine master Filippino Lippi, it shows the Madonna and Child seated in a domestic interior, with a view through a window onto a landscape with a river. It was commissioned by one of the wealthiest men in Florence, Filippo Strozzi, who had returned from his political exile with the intention of reasserting his family's prestige through the commissioning of great works of art. He built the largest and most magnificent palace in the city, had a chapel decorated with frescoes by Filippino Lippi, and commissioned a marble bust of himself by the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano. No expense was spared. In the case of the Madonna and Child, a work probably intended to decorate his villa, he must have instructed the artist to use the most expensive ultramarine blue available. The artist certainly produced a work of stunning richness and wonderful invention: the detailed still life and landscape view reflect his awareness of painting from north of the Alps. And he included a number of details that personalized it. The Strozzi crescents decorate the architecture and on the bridge in the background are two Africans fishing. Like other wealthy Florentines, Strozzi owned at least one African slave, whom he freed in his will.
Odd as it may seem to us today, many collectors in the nineteenth and early twentieth century did not like bright colors in their old master paintings, and visitors to the Metropolitan over the decades might be forgiven for having found Filippino's now ravishing painting rather tame and even a bit dull. You see, an intentionally tinted varnish had been applied to tone down its color and give it a somber gravitas. No one guessed what was hiding beneath that gloomy veneer until a test cleaning was performed this last fall. The result is a transformed work of art: a picture that miraculously combines richness of color with emotional tenderness; refined beauty with naturalistic observation.
The picture is on view together with other objects in the Museum's collection that can be associated with the Strozzi family.
Keith Christiansen is chairman of the Department of European Paintings.
Exhibition: A Renaissance Masterpiece Revealed: Filippino Lippi's Madonna and Child
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Filippino Lippi (1456/47–1504); Biblical Figures: Madonna and Child
Department of European Paintings