In The Miracles of Prato, authors Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz tell the story of the brilliant Renaissance artist Fra Filippo Lippi and Lucrezia Buti, the woman who inspired him. Lucrezia and her sister, Spinetta, are forced to become novices in an Augustinian convent in the town of Prato, near Florence, when her father, a silk merchant, dies and her family loses the money for her dowry. Spinetta has a religious vocation, but Lucrezia, who had wished to get married, is unhappy at the convent. Soon the convent’s herbalist, Sister Pureza, an older nun with a secret in her past, takes her under her wing. Filippo Lippi, who became a Carmelite friar after his parents’ deaths forced him to beg in the streets as a boy, serves as the convent’s chaplain and collects herbs from Sister Pureza to use in making pigments for his paintings. Filippo has a reputation as a womanizer (which is somewhat softened in this novel), for financial problems, and for not completing his commissions. When he meets Lucrezia, he is immediately drawn to her and sees her as the inspiration he needs. He paints her as the Madonna in many of his works. She, in turn, recognizes his genius and is attracted to him. But when she leaves the convent to sit for him at his studio, the prior general of the Augustinian order, who desires Lucrezia, misconstrues their relationship and thinks she’s Filippo’s mistress.
Tragedy ensues, and Filippo decides to protect Lucrezia and to marry her, even though it would mean leaving the order and losing church patronage. They live openly together and go through a form of marriage which is not recognized by the church. Filippo hopes his powerful patrons, the Medici of Florence, will help him to get the dispensation from the Pope that he needs. But the Pope is gravely ill, and the prior general and another prominent church official are conspiring against Filippo. When Filippo fails to complete a commission for the bankers’ guild, the guild sends thugs to beat him up, just when Lucrezia is about to give birth to their child. She has to return to the convent to give birth. I admit that I found the last part of the novel, where Lucrezia’s baby is stolen and a holy relic goes missing, a bit too melodramatic. But, except for this, The Miracles of Prato is a compelling novel about one of the great artists of the Renaissance. I especially loved the details about how Filippo created his paintings. The authors provide a list of the paintings featured in the novel, and where they are located.