Author On the Bookcase: Laura Morowitz, co-author of The Miracles of Prato

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Author On the Bookcase
Laura Morowitz

I'm thrilled to speak to Laura Morowitz, co-author with Laurie Lico Albanese, of The Miracles of Prato. Art in a book -- love these historical novels centered around real-live artists and their lifes! It helps me learn about past artists and the history and politics that surrounded them.

The Miracle of PratoThe Miracles of Prato brings to life glorious Italy in the era of the Medici —as it tells the story of an illicit love affair between the renowned painter Fra Filippo Lippi and his muse, a beautiful convent novitiate named Lucrezia Buti. Lippi, the chaplain for Convent Santa Margherita sees in Lucrezia's flawless face inspiration for countless Madonnas and he brings the her to his studio to serve as his model. But as painter and muse are united in an exhilarating whirl of artistic discovery, a passionate love develops, one that threatens to destroy them both even as it fuels some of Lippi's greatest work.

Fans of Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon at the Boating Party will be delighted. Fact, historical color, passion, identity, art -- great for book club conversations!

Laura chats about impetus of The Miracle of Prato -- the questions, the curiosity, the images, and the characters. By their research and fictional thoughts, Laura and Laurie came to understand this illicit love affair. Laura hopes when readers picked up The Miracle of Prato "they, too, will find Fra Lippi’s paintings, and study them until they understand."

Please tell us what questions you would have asked Lippi and Lucrezia, Laura. 

If you walk deep into the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, you will find a Madonna so breathtaking that you can almost understand why a man would risk everything he had to paint her.

This is the Madonna with Two Angels, by Fra Filippo Lippi (1465), and the model is Lucrezia Buti. One look at the canvas will assure you that he thought she was the most beautiful creature on earth, and that he was willing to give up everything – everything but his art -- for her. And he almost did.

Lucrezia Buti and Fra Filippo Lippi were real people, who lived and loved and died in fifteenth century Tuscany. And while thousands of visitors see her image each year, hanging in the Uffizi and the Louvre and on posters and street banners in the city of Prato, only a few know the seemingly impossible—unfathomable, really—tale of a nineteen year old Augustinian novice and a middle-aged, celebrated painter and Carmelite monk who had a carnal relationship and whose connection to each other is evident in the images he created of her.

This was the story we decided to tell in our historical novel, The Miracles of Prato. I am an art historian, and my co-author, Laurie Lico Albanese, is a novelist. Together we gazed at the paintings Lippi made during the years of their affair, and asked ourselves the questions that led to this book.

  • What kind of woman was Lucrezia and what drew her to the painter
  • What options, if any, did she have
  • Why did he love her, and how did he love her?
  • What did they risk and sacrifice for one another?
  • How did their relationship make its way into the images Lippi created during and after the height of their love affair?

We started with what art historians and novelists always begin with: questions, curiosity, images, and characters. We scoured the art books for reproductions of Lippi’s magnificent altarpieces and frescos, learning all that we could about the arist’s idiosyncrasies, innovations and motivations.

We looked at the paintings of Lucrezia, and tried to feel the sorrow and the joy she must have experienced. And the shame, too. The confusion. The longing.

We went to the churches and the convents themselves, on our own inspired pilgrimage throughout Tuscany.

We imagined creating these works, from inception to completion, in the context in which Lippi worked: the small town of Prato, a carriage ride from Florence where the Renaissance was in full bloom and the Medici at the height of their power.

While we could learn much about Lippi, whose fame was celebrated in his own lifetime, and whose notoriety as both artistic genius and rough-under-the-edges lawbreaker was captured by the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari in his work, Lives of the Most Emminent Painters (1550),  finding a source for Lucrezia was impossible. Like most of the women of her place and time, she left behind no record, no trace of her existence beyond her reflection in the thoughts and images of men. Even the convent of Santa Margherita, where the recorded events played themselves out, is long gone, its doors closed forever in the eighteenth century. We had no answers, only an endless river of questions. Why did the young, beautiful and well-raised Lucrezia Buti do what she did? Was she mad with love for the artist, with his ferocious temper and his sensual, life-affirming paintings? Was she desperate—like so many women of her time and place—to escape a life without color, without physical intimacy, without the tiniest of luxuries? Did the scandal they caused give her a satisfying thrill or did it terrify her? Her actions in 1459, when she renewed her vows to the convent, would seem to indicate her desire to do penance and set things aright, while her behaviour in the 1460s—fleeing the convent to once again take up residence with the painter-monk—leaves us baffled.

Two paintings are all we had to bring Lucrezia nearer to us, and to our readers. Her portrayal in an altarpiece for the convent Santa Margherita (a work that remains, proudly, within the city of Prato) and the gorgeous Uffizi Madonna, for which she posed, her translucent blue eyes, her perfect nose, her sweet, sad smile fixed forever. No diaries, no poems, no letters. No works by her hand. Just these paintings.

We gazed at them until we understood.

When readers pick up The Miracles of Prato, I hope they, too, will find Fra Lippi’s paintings, and study them until they understand. And I hope the portraits of Lippi and Lucrezia that we created through our words will live vividly in their memory, alongside the beautiful paintings he left behind.

Thanks so much, Laura, for sharing some of your journey in exploring Lippi's art and the motivations of both Lippi and Lucrezia in their love for each other.

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