Pippo Lippi, the young Florentine who becomes the Carmelite friar Fra Filippo Lippi, has the innate gift of seeing into people’s purest selves and representing them in art. Philip Kazan’s first US-published novel is first in a projected series that imagines the life journey of the renowned painter, and there’s considerable joy in reading about an artist with an eye for the world’s beauty.
The Painter of Souls is a novel of contrasts: the grim poverty of the inner city versus the quiet sanctity of religious houses; Filippo’s dual roles as friar and painter, which he never expected would be possible; the choice between chastity and carnal pleasures; and the unsavory realities of life, set against people’s dreams of heaven. More than that, though, it evokes the inner and outer struggles of a man who comes to bridge these disparate worlds through his magnificent art.
His isn’t a story without controversy. It’s one thing to show the humanity of biblical figures, but another to model their faces on ordinary, sinful people.
Filippo has guidance along his unusual path. He has several mentors (maestros) who nurture his talent, including the painters Masolino and Masaccio – the similarities in names occasionally gets confusing, but they’re based in history – and two understanding religious leaders, Fra Antonio in Pisa and Prior Pietro in Florence. The words used to describe one could fit the other as well: “He sees the world as clearly as he sees Heaven.”
Over five centuries have passed since Filippo Lippi lived, but in keeping with its characters’ depictions, their dialogue is down-to-earth and accessible. There’s humor in the telling, too, which suits Filippo's personality:
“He is soaked and frozen, but although by rights he should be miserable, he is feeling strangely virtuous. This, perhaps, is the penance the prior should have given him. As he trudges into the town he is even hoping that tomorrow’s weather will be even more vile. That way, he can positively bathe in virtuous suffering.”
This is a rewarding story that draws readers fully into its place and time. For those wanting a close-up view of artists at work, too, the novel will have strong appeal.
The Painter of Souls was published in the US by Pegasus in May ($24.95, hardcover, 272pp). The UK publisher is Orion. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.