A Lippi Treasure Returns to San Lorenzo

4_Detail of the Virgin after restoration copy
Lippi’s Virgin after restoration

An “old and beloved friend” of art lovers has returned to the church of San Lorenzo. Under the sponsorship of the non-profit Friends of Florence, Filippo Lippi’s panel of the Annunciation has recently been restored and reinstalled in the church of San Lorenzo. A masterful example of Early Renaissance art, since the early 1440s the painting has hung on the back wall of the Martelli family chapel, located in the left transept of the church, near the entrance to the Old Sacristy.

In its somewhat secluded spot, visitors unaware of its existence often missed the dimly lit painting. Now, thanks to new lighting and a restoration which has revealed Lippi’s glowing colors, the painting once again takes its place as the most fitting two-dimensional example of the art of perspective which architect Filippo Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello first created in this very church.

But although dirt and discolored varnish have been cleaned away, revealing vivid colors and newly visible details, mystery still cloaks the 15th century panel.

The first mystery is who exactly commissioned the work. The Chapel itself was founded by Niccolò Martelli, who died in 1425, most probably leaving instructions for completing the chapel’s decoration to his many offspring. Through the centuries, the Martelli family had long standing ties with San Lorenzo. In fact their family Palazzo in Via Zanetti 8, now the Casa Martelli Museum, is connected to the church by a secret passageway. Plans are underway to provide exclusive tours to small groups of visitors through the “Martelli corridor,” which leads from the building to the cloister of the Church.

Of his 12 sons, perhaps it was Niccolò’s fifth son, Roberto Martelli, who commissioned the painting. Roberto was the man responsible for bringing the Ecumenical Council between the Papacy and Byzantine Church to Florence in 1439. The Byzantine Emperor Giovanni Paleologo appointed him as Palatine Count. Roberto was also close friends with the Medici family. Benozzo Gozzoli painted him in a position of honor in his famous fresco in the Medici Chapel, standing next to the Medici patriarch Cosimo.

In San Lorenzo, Brunelleschi himself designed the Annunciation’s tabernacle frame. Its classical fluted columns, topped by gilded Corinthian capitals, lead us seamlessly into Lippi’s composition. The painting’s architectural scheme echoes the three dimensional architecture of both the frame and the church itself. The figures of the Virgin Mary and the angels stand behind a colonnade of arches and pilasters, painted in imitation of the Florentine pietra serena stone used by Brunelleschi.

Two angels stand on the left side of the work. One of them looks out at the viewer and “invites” us into the scene, while the other angel stares down at the kneeling Angel Gabriel and throws out his hands in a gesture of wonderment. Gabriel, whose wings are partially hidden by the painted pilaster which divides the scene, kneels before Mary at her prayer stand. The Virgin seems to step backwards, raising her hands in startled surprise. Set into a small niche in the floor In front of the two main figures is an intricately painted water flask, which symbolizes both Mary’s virginity and the Eucharistic transformation of water into wine.

The painted architecture stretches far into the background on either side of the painting, framing an enclosed garden with flower beds and a pergola of grape vines above a marble well. A little grove of trees at the end of the garden partially hides a tall white bell tower and a surprising day glow orange building on the right-hand side.

The restoration has brought out the freshness of Filippo Lippi’s egg tempera colors. The visitor can now clearly see all the delightful details of the scene, the light and modeling in the buildings, the figures and the landscape, as well as subtleties such as Mary’s robe, which shimmers from grey-blue to purple. The small panels of the predella at the bottom of the frame, showing scenes from the life of St. Nicholas, are now actually visible again and add a unifying dimension to the painting.

The conservation of the pictorial layers was carried out by Lucia Biondi, while Roberto Buda restored the wood support; both acted under the direction of art historian Monica Bietti of the Soprintendenza. The sponsorship of Friends of Florence gave the restorers the opportunity to thoroughly research the physical history of the panel, as well as having extensive diagnostic testing carried out by the some of the best specialists in Italy.

Another mystery is the highly unusual construction of the panel. It is made up of two separate panels, each made of two planks held together at the center by butterfly joints; the seam runs through the pilaster painted in the center of the composition. Restorer Roberto Buda believes that the large panels all came from the same poplar wood trunk, but why they were prepared as separate panels and then inserted into the unifying frame is still under question.

Mystery number three is the unique composition of the piece, with the actual Annunciation scene taking place entirely on the highly illuminated right side of the painting. The left side, very much in shadow, features two angels, whose identity is still a hot subject of art historical debate. Is it possible that Filippo is making a reference to one of the miracle plays common in early Renaissance Florence, and which he, when friar at the Church of the Carmine often took part in? Perhaps it is fitting that such an intriguing painting hasn’t yet revealed all of its secrets.

The research and diagnostics have shed light on the painting’s technique and how it compares with other works by Lippi, as well as discovering and documenting the panel’s past restorations.

The Church of San Lorenzo is holding a series of special evening tours to raise visibility for the Church and its fundraising efforts towards the badly needed restoration of its monumental bell tower. As well as the treasures normally on view in the church itself, visitors will be taken through a secret passageway onto the balcony designed by Michelangelo high on the inside wall of the façade, from where you can look out over the entire church.

The tour also includes Donatello’s famous bronze pulpit, recently restored, visible up close from an a easily accessible platform, as well as Verrocchio’s bizarre marble wash basin, featuring dolphins, dragons and lions heads, in a small room off the cloister generally closed to the public. For more info visit the church website: www.operamedicealaurenziana.org. (elizabeth wicks)