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Novel set in Florence (Filippo Lippi: “the master of presence”)

15th July 2015

The Painter of Souls by Philip Kazan, novel set in Florence.

IMG_1262A novel for lovers of art. The author takes the reader right back to the early years of 15th Century Florence, when the city and Europe were on the cusp of the Renaissance, and builds a story around the artist Fra Filippo Lippi, formerly known as Pippo.

Pippo started out as a street urchin, his father had died, his mother suffered from melancholia and he had no choice but to join a disparate group of street children who had to make their way in the city. His income largely derived from the drawings he created and then sold. But the hand of luck – perhaps divine intervention even – plucked him from the streets and brought him to the life of a friar in the Carmine. But he was never the staunchest convert and continued to draw, and one day he found himself so taken with the scene of a woman feeding her baby that he had to capture her essence on the inside of his cloak (remembering of course that vellum and wood and walls were the carriers for paintings of that era and paper was still in the early stages of production). Talent spotted, he is apprenticed eventually to the painter Masaccio, who according to Vasari  (essentially, the first art historian) was the best painter of his generation because of his ability to form life-like figures that had a real feel of three dimensionality.

He mixed with the great and the good of the art world, Donatello (the genius of the age) and Ghiberti (who created the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery) and eventually caught the eye of Patron Cosimo de Medici.

It is clear the author has a real passion for art and has carried out extensive research to bring the feel of the art and the age to the modern reader. It was a harsh and cruel world for the poor, and a struggle to eke out the most frugal living. The church was a focal point in the lives of most people, and justice for the populace was summary. There is little known of the life of the actual painter, so the author has had to find his inspiration through the art of the period, as well as his imagination.

I came away from this book feeling that I had been immersed in a period where things were changing on the art front, and by the end I certainly felt more informed. The overall feel of the book is strangely muted and monochrome –  the inevitable pungent smells and the visceral sights of the time only occasionally come to the fore; I had anticipated an assault on the senses given the period and so it did at some level feel like a bit of a sanitised retrospective.

The book is mentioned in the same breath as The Miniaturist (set in Amsterdam) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (set in Delft), but for me the vibrancy and colour to be found in those two books wasn’t quite there. The book cover actually reflects the content really well, earthy yet pastel colours and a delicate detail from the painter’s Madonna and Child. Solid and interesting, a good and ultimately gentle read.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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