Filippo Lippi was born in Florence in 1406, son of a butcher and his wife. When still a small child, both of his parents died, and he went to live with his aunt. However, she was very poor and unable to provide for him, so she placed him in the closest Carmelite convent, the Priory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Florence. There, Filippo took his vows and would even be ordained as a priest. It was only in 1432 that he left the monastery. Lippi’s desire to become an artist probably began by watching Masaccio working at the church. Due to Lippi’s keen interest, the prior decided to grant him the opportunity to learn painting.
Upon his return to Florence, Lippi’s artwork was becoming increasingly popular, granting him the support of the Medici family, who commissioned the Seven Saints and Annunciation. Lippi had a rather erratic personality. Cosimo de’ Medici would even have to lock him up in order to compel Lippi to finish the paintings, and even then, the artist escaped using a rope made of his sheets. Lippi’s escapades would often put him into financial difficulties, and he often resorted to forgery to relieve himself from the situation.
In 1441, Lippi executed an altarpiece for the nuns of Saint Ambrogio’s church, which is now an important attraction in the Academy of Florence. This artwork is highly celebrated in Robert Browning’s well-known poem called Fra Lippo Lippi.
By 1456, Lippi was living in Prato, near Florence, where he was painting frescoes for the cathedral. While engaged in this work, Lippi began to paint a picture for the local monastery chapel of Saint Margherita, where he met Lucrezia Buti, a beautiful novice of the Order. The artists asked if she was allowed to sit for the figure of Madonna. It was under that pretext that Lippi was able to engage in sexual relations with her, he would even abduct her in his house and keep her there, despite the nun’s vain efforts the get her back. Lucrezia is believed to be the model of several of Lippi’s paintings. Together they had a son, Filippino Lippi, who also became a famous painter, following his father’s footsteps.
Despite his success, Lippi struggled with money and escaped poverty throughout his life. By the end of his life, Lippi was living in Spoleto, where he was commissioned to execute scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Christ Crowning the Madonna, which was concluded after his death, by one of his assistants and fellow Carmelite, Fra Diamante.
His death still is a matter of speculation, since he was murdered by poisoning, by either angry relatives of Lucrezia herself or some other of his inconstant affections. Fra Filippo Lippi died around October 8, 1469.