Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement” is a landmark of Italian Renaissance painting and European art as a whole. It represents a series of firsts in Italian portraiture: It is the first Italian double portrait, is the first to portray a sitter in a domestic interior, and is the first in the genre to show a landscape in the background.
The Innovative FlorentineLippi (1406–1469) was one of the greatest Florentine artists of the Renaissance. However, his art, which includes elaborate fresco cycles, secular portraiture, and religious scenes, is not as well-known as that of his contemporaries.
A favorite of scholars in his own time and today, Lippi is lauded for his inventiveness. “Fra Filippo Lippi was gracious and ornate and exceedingly skilful; he was very good at compositions and at variety, at colouring, relief, and in ornaments of every kind,” wrote the 15th-century poet and humanist Cristoforo Landino.
Lippi procured the patronage of the powerful Italian Medici family, and his notable workshop students include his son, Filippino Lippi, and the universally celebrated Sandro Botticelli.
After being orphaned, Lippi was raised in a friary and later took monastic vows. Artistic training likely occurred during his time in the friary, which he eventually left. His early work reveals his exposure to Masaccio, a genius of the Early Italian Renaissance known for gravitas, austerity, and clearly delineated space and perspective.
“Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement” is a complex work from 1440, dating to the decade when Lippi was considered the preeminent painter in Florence. The picture is an innovative composition that greatly influenced artists later in the century. It is painted on wood with tempera, a medium in which colored pigments are bound in a water-soluble emulsion, typically egg yolk.
Scholars have provisionally identified the couple as Angiola di Bernardo Sapiti and Lorenzo di Ranieri Scolari, who married around the year 1436. It is thought that the work celebrates a marriage, as the woman’s luxurious garb of velvet brocade with ermine-lined sleeve and numerous rings are appropriate dress and adornment for a bride. The inscription “lealtà,” or “loyalty,” embroidered in gold threads and seed pearls over her wrist, fuel art historians’ belief that this is a portrait of a faithful wife, though it is possible the work’s intention was also to commemorate the birth of a child.
The woman in Lippi’s portrait, Angiola, wears French-inspired fashion. Her garment is a houppelande, a long often-belted tunic with wide, trailing sleeves. A wealthy woman’s houppelande was frequently sumptuously trimmed; this example is vertically pleated. A famous double portrait from the Early Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait,” was painted slightly earlier than Lippi’s and it, too, shows a houppelande.
The women in both portraits wear multiple rings on their fingers. Angiola has at least four, which are placed on the lower and upper joints. The rings positioned in this unusual way would have hindered dexterity and may be a means of signaling the women’s wealthy status.
In her GemGenève talk “Jewels in Italian Renaissance Paintings,” jewelry historian Amanda Triossi emphasizes that studying portraiture is vital to our understanding of historic jewels—how they were worn and designed—because there are very few existing period examples. Triossi explains that while it is difficult to definitively identify gemstones in portraiture, black jewels usually indicate diamonds, as the way the gem was cut and set during the period resulted in their appearing black. An example of this can be found in a surviving Renaissance diamond ring, now part of The Walters Art Museum.
Of Hearts and HandsThe groom in “Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement,” called Lorenzo, is attired in scarlet cloth. His identically colored hat denotes his high social standing and is called a “berretta alla capitanesca.” A famous example of this headgear can be found in Piero della Francesca’s tempera diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, painted around 25 years after Lippi’s portrait.
Lorenzo’s hands rest on his family coat of arms. Recent scholarship proposes that the heraldry belongs to the female sitter, which changes the figures’ proposed identities. Art historian Katalin Prajda suggests that they may be Francesca di Matteo Scolari and Bonaccorso di Luca Pitti, a couple who married in 1444.
Profile was the preferred way for depicting people in Florentine portraiture for most of the 15th century. While Lippi continued this tradition, he included the hands of both figures. Technical analysis by The Met in the form of infrared reflectography reveals the number of changes Lippi made during his work on the painting, especially regarding the formatting of their hands.
Originally, the woman’s thumb rested on top of her left hand and her right index finger was longer. Lippi’s final decision to position her hands as one over the other projects that the sitter is poised.
Initially, the man raised one hand nearly to his chin, giving the impression of active movement. Lippi’s ultimate arrangement emphasizes his role as an observer. Indeed, the artist’s placement of the figures, with the female dominating the picture plane as the man takes a subordinate position outside the room and gazes through a window opening, is unusual for portraiture from the 1400s. A second window shows a landscape that may be a view of actual property that belonged to the couple.
The room depicted in “Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement” is striking in its implausibility and an example of Lippi’s interest in artifice. Keith Christiansen, retired Chairman of The Met’s Department of European Paintings, writes in the painting’s catalog entry that the artist “situates the female in a domestic interior, the boxlike shape and steeply foreshortened ceiling of which recall depictions of the Madonna and Child (Donatello’s so-called Pazzi Madonna in the Bodemuseum, Berlin).”
A Poetic ConceitViewers of “Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement” are drawn to the gazes of each figure, an important element in Renaissance love poetry. Indeed, a popular theme in the period’s literature is a man catching sight for the first time of his beloved at a window. The scene also has a potential Biblical allusion. Christiansen shares a verse from the Song of Solomon (2:9) about a bridegroom, interpreted to be Christ, that “stands outside our wall, peeping in at the windows, glancing through the lattice.”
Christiansen also makes a marked point about Lippi’s fascinating use of shadow, for the male sitter casts a well-defined shadow onto the back wall. Scholars believe this is an allusion to an account in Roman writer Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History.” In the book, Pliny connects the origin of painting to that of a lover tracing the contours of the shadow cast by his beloved onto a wall. Christiansen writes, “The shadow can thus be understood not only as a record of the lover’s features, but as an invitation to read the picture as a poetic conceit.”