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Herod's Feast, Salome's Dance, painted by Lippi between 1460 and 1464, Prato, Italy (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Herod’s Feast, Salome’s Dance, painted by Lippi between 1460 and 1464, Prato, Italy (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Review: The Painter of Souls, by Philip Kazan
Pegasus, 2015. 261 pp. $25

One pitfall of biographical fiction is the elbow-in-the-ribs aha! moment, when our protagonist meets the great and renowned on his or her way up the ladder of fame. Such scenes afflict The Painter of Souls, a novel about the fifteenth-century Florentine Carmelite painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Not only does the young–and I mean young–friar run across such luminaries as Donatello and Brunelleschi as easily as rolling out of bed, they instantly recognize his talent and praise him generously, to which he rubs his sandal in the dust and utters the Italian equivalent of “Aw, shucks.” Meanwhile, the prior gives Fra Filippo every bit of leeway, impressed with his gift, which surely comes from God, and sees no reason not to let him paint church frescoes and altar pieces under the tutelage of lay artists.

Despite these happenings, which sometimes seem too good to be true, I like The Painter of Souls. What saves the novel for me is its good-natured, winning protagonist. Pippo, to his secular friends, likes a drink, a game of dice, and has sexual fantasies about the paintings of Eve that adorn church walls. His father died when Pippo was six, and his mother has been virtually catatonic from grief ever since, leaving the boy to fend for himself. He’s learned how to beg, scrounge for food in garbage heaps, rob market stalls, fashion crude pens and ink to make drawings of passersby for pennies, and share his gains with the gang to which he belongs. Pippo comes dangerously close to letting that dead-end life swallow him altogether. Entering the church has saved him.

However, he doesn’t take well to the discipline. He wants to, but he misses too much of the outside world to accept his new surroundings, especially the restraint, which he finds excessive. The silence of the convent feels “heavy, deliberate, enforced,” its purpose to stifle noise except at prescribed times, as with bell ringing or the ponderous closing of cell doors. Pippo loves the sky, the sights, sounds, and smells of Florence, the taste of roast meat and the good grape, the glimpse of a pretty face. Or more than a glimpse, which of course leads him to sinful daydreams. How he reconciles all that with his religious faith, his desire to believe, makes the story worth while. Constant contact with painters unbound by monastic rules only increases the temptations, which he tries to channel toward its acceptable object. Beauty is divine, therefore re-creating it in religious art serves God. If, however, the act of creation involves a little transgression here and there, well, He’ll understand.

Consequently, it’s not Fra Filippo’s strengths as an artist, nor his seemingly effortless rise to fame, that make The Painter of vSouls worth reading. Rather, it’s Pippo’s weaknesses as a friar and a man that propel this novel–the whoppers he tells on the spur of the moment; the deals and excuses he makes with himself so that he can still feel honorable; his delight in the forbidden; and the pull his former life still exerts on him (and its vivid portrayal in Kazan’s deft hands). Pippo understands that he’s a sinner, and though he loves nothing more than to paint, part of him fears accepting the offer of a dispensation to remain a friar while still becoming a member of the painter’s guild, a privilege offered to very few. Who is he, a sensualist with a brush, or a man of God?

While he’s weighing this question, an artist he’s working for brings him to a barber, after whose ministrations Pippo looks in a mirror for the first time in his life:

He is looking at an almost round head, an elongated sphere, domed like a cannonball above, and gleaming from the passage of the razor. His chin is round as well, dimpled. He had no idea his mouth was so wide. There is a hunger implied in the fleshy, almost feminine curve of his lips which he finds disturbing. He looks into his own eyes. They are heavy-lidded, dark ink-brown, close-set but large, watching him, watching themselves. The irises dart, gathering, betraying an appetite, a need for satiation. This face is thinking, how will I draw you? How will you draw me?

Pippo has one other endearing trait that helps counteract the smoothness of his career arc. He believes that there’s good in everyone, and whenever he can, he uses social outcasts as his models, finding grace in them that no one else does. It’s hard to quarrel with that, and with The Painter of Souls, even if the story seems incredible, at times.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.