Analysis of Robert Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi

[Florentine painter, 1412-69]

I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
The Carmine’s my cloister: hunt it up,
Do,—harry out, if you must show your zeal,
Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
Wekeweke, that’s crept to keep him company!
Aha, you know your betters! Then, you’ll take
Your hand away that’s fiddling on my throat,
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off—he’s a certain . . . how d’ye call?
Master—a …Cosimo of the Medici,
I’ the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
Remember and tell me, the day you’re hanged,
How you affected such a gullet’s-gripe!
But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
And count fair price what comes into their net?
He’s Judas to a tittle, that man is!
Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
Lord, I’m not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
Of the munificent House that harbours me
(And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
And all’s come square again. I’d like his face—
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern,—for the slave that holds
John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand (“Look you, now,” as who should say)
And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
It’s not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so.
What, brother Lippo’s doings, up and down,
You know them and they take you? like enough!
I saw the proper twinkle in your eye—
‘Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
Let’s sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
Here’s spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
To roam the town and sing out carnival,
And I’ve been three weeks shut within my mew,
A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
And saints again. I could not paint all night—
Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, —
Flower o’ the broom,
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
Flower o’ the quince,
I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
Flower o’ the thyme—and so on. Round they went.
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,—three slim shapes,
And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
That’s all I’m made of! Into shreds it went,
Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
All the bed-furniture—a dozen knots,
There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
And after them. I came up with the fun
Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met,—
Flower o’ the rose,
If I’ve been merry, what matter who knows?
And so as I was stealing back again
To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head—
Mine’s shaved—a monk, you say—the sting ‘s in that!
If Master Cosimo announced himself,
Mum’s the word naturally; but a monk!
Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
I was a baby when my mother died
And father died and left me in the street.
I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,
Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
My stomach being empty as your hat,
The wind doubled me up and down I went.
Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
(Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
And so along the wall, over the bridge,
By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
While I stood munching my first bread that month:
“So, boy, you’re minded,” quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, ’twas refection-time,—
“To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce” . . . “the mouthful of bread?” thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
Have given their hearts to—all at eight years old.
Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
‘Twas not for nothing—the good bellyful,
The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
And day-long blessed idleness beside!
“Let’s see what the urchin’s fit for”—that came next.
Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
Lord, they’d have taught me Latin in pure waste!
Flower o’ the clove.
All the Latin I construe is, “amo” I love!
But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
Eight years together, as my fortune was,
Watching folk’s faces to know who will fling
The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
And who will curse or kick him for his pains,—
Which gentleman processional and fine,
Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
The droppings of the wax to sell again,
Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,—
How say I?—nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
His bone from the heap of offal in the street,—
Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
I had a store of such remarks, be sure,
Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.
I drew men’s faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the antiphonary’s marge,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found eyes and nose and chin for A’s and B’s,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
“Nay,” quoth the Prior, “turn him out, d’ye say?
In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
What if at last we get our man of parts,
We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
And put the front on it that ought to be!”
And hereupon he bade me daub away.
Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
Never was such prompt disemburdening.
First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
From good old gossips waiting to confess
Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,—
To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration, half for his beard and half
For that white anger of his victim’s son
Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
Signing himself with the other because of Christ
(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years)
Till some poor girl, her apron o’er her head,
(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
I painted all, then cried “‘Tis ask and have;
Choose, for more’s ready!”—laid the ladder flat,
And showed my covered bit of cloister-wall.
The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
Being simple bodies,—”That’s the very man!
Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
That woman’s like the Prior’s niece who comes
To care about his asthma: it’s the life!”
But there my triumph’s straw-fire flared and funked;
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. “How? what’s here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke . . . no, it’s not . . .
It’s vapour done up like a new-born babe—
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It’s . . . well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
Here’s Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
That sets us praising—why not stop with him?
Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
Rub all out, try at it a second time.
Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
She’s just my niece . . . Herodias, I would say,—
Who went and danced and got men’s heads cut off!
Have it all out!” Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can’t stop there, must go further
And can’t fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
When what you put for yellow’s simply black,
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks nought.
Why can’t a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order? Take the prettiest face,
The Prior’s niece . . . patron-saint—is it so pretty
You can’t discover if it means hope, fear,
Sorrow or joy? won’t beauty go with these?
Suppose I’ve made her eyes all right and blue,
Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,
And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?
Or say there’s beauty with no soul at all—
(I never saw it—put the case the same—)
If you get simple beauty and nought else,
You get about the best thing God invents:
That’s somewhat: and you’ll find the soul you have missed,
Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
“Rub all out!” Well, well, there’s my life, in short,
And so the thing has gone on ever since.
I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds:
You should not take a fellow eight years old
And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
I’m my own master, paint now as I please—
Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
Lord, it’s fast holding by the rings in front—
Those great rings serve more purposes than just
To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
Are peeping o’er my shoulder as I work,
The heads shake still—”It’s art’s decline, my son!
You’re not of the true painters, great and old;
Brother Angelico’s the man, you’ll find;
Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
Fag on at flesh, you’ll never make the third!”
Flower o’ the pine,
You keep your mistr … manners, and I’ll stick to mine!
I’m not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
Don’t you think they’re the likeliest to know,
They with their Latin? So, I swallow my rage,
Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
To please them—sometimes do and sometimes don’t;
For, doing most, there’s pretty sure to come
A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints—
A laugh, a cry, the business of the world—
(Flower o’ the peach
Death for us all, and his own life for each!)
And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,
And I do these wild things in sheer despite,
And play the fooleries you catch me at,
In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass
After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
Although the miller does not preach to him
The only good of grass is to make chaff.
What would men have? Do they like grass or no—
May they or mayn’t they? all I want’s the thing
Settled for ever one way. As it is,
You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
You don’t like what you only like too much,
You do like what, if given you at your word,
You find abundantly detestable.
For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.
You understand me: I’m a beast, I know.
But see, now—why, I see as certainly
As that the morning-star’s about to shine,
What will hap some day. We’ve a youngster here
Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
His name is Guidi—he’ll not mind the monks—
They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk—
He picks my practice up—he’ll paint apace.
I hope so—though I never live so long,
I know what’s sure to follow. You be judge!
You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
—The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course!—you say.
But why not do as well as say,—paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God’s works—paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can’t)
There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”
For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
“Ay, but you don’t so instigate to prayer!”
Strikes in the Prior: “when your meaning’s plain
It does not say to folk—remember matins,
Or, mind you fast next Friday!” Why, for this
What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what’s best,
A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
“How looks my painting, now the scaffold’s down?”
I ask a brother: “Hugely,” he returns—
“Already not one phiz of your three slaves
Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
But’s scratched and prodded to our heart’s content,
The pious people have so eased their own
With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
Expect another job this time next year,
For pity and religion grow i’ the crowd—
Your painting serves its purpose!” Hang the fools!
—That is—you’ll not mistake an idle word
Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
Oh, the church knows! don’t misreport me, now!
It’s natural a poor monk out of bounds
Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
And hearken how I plot to make amends.
I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
… There’s for you! Give me six months, then go, see
Something in Sant’ Ambrogio’s! Bless the nuns!
They want a cast o’ my office. I shall paint
God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
As puff on puff of grated orris-root
When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
And then i’ the front, of course a saint or two—
Saint John’ because he saves the Florentines,
Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
The convent’s friends and gives them a long day,
And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
Secured at their devotion, up shall come
Out of a corner when you least expect,
As one by a dark stair into a great light,
Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!—
Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck—I’m the man!
Back I shrink—what is this I see and hear?
I, caught up with my monk’s-things by mistake,
My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
I, in this presence, this pure company!
Where’s a hole, where’s a corner for escape?
Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
Forward, puts out a soft palm—”Not so fast!”
—Addresses the celestial presence, “nay—
He made you and devised you, after all,
Though he’s none of you! Could Saint John there draw—
His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
We come to brother Lippo for all that,
Iste perfecit opus! So, all smile—
I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
Under the cover of a hundred wings
Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you’re gay
And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
To some safe bench behind, not letting go
The palm of her, the little lily thing
That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
Like the Prior’s niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
And so all’s saved for me, and for the church
A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
The street’s hushed, and I know my own way back,
Don’t fear me! There’s the grey beginning. Zooks!

The poem “Fra Lippo Lippi” owes its beginnings to the account given in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1568) of a painter-monk of the same name who lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. As the poem reflects, Lippi the historical figure enjoyed the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464), a banker who possessed great political power in the city. The speaker’s zeal and manifest unorthodoxy also overlap with those of the apparently spirited Lippi of Renaissance Italy, who was dismissed for misconduct from a rectorship and later eloped with a nun.

The monologue begins as Lippi pleads his case to a group of officers who have caught him in the city’s red-light district. Lippi begins his defense by playfully accusing his captors of overzealousness, but then substantiates his defense by referring to his influential patron, “Cosimo of the Medici,” which effectively removes him from the grip of the law. Having successfully negotiated the encounter, Lippi takes the opportunity to decry the principle of mindless obedience that led the officers to suspect him: “Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets/And count fair prize what comes into their net?” What Lippi objects to is the kind of systematic approach to working that reduces humanity’s lot to that of “pilchards” or small fish. The theme of recuperating human integrity at the expense of the prevailing orthodoxy runs throughout the poem.

Having set himself on equal footing with the chief officer, Lippi proceeds to explain himself. Weary with painting “saints and saints/And saints again,” Lippi joins ranks with a roving pleasure party, letting himself down with a makeshift “ladder” he creates out of materials in his studio. Like the drinking expedition he sends the officers on, Lippi’s outing figures as the counterpart of duty, a break from the painting of saints his job requires. Lippi’s rationale, like his ladder, develops out of what is close at hand, and he excuses his lustful pursuits by noting his own physicality: “Come, what am I a beast for?” he asks, suggesting that it is unnatural to ignore completely the body’s longings.

Not surprisingly then, it is appetite that leads Lippi into an otherwise unlikely life as a monk. He briefly relates the hardships he lived with early in life, when, parentless, he “starved . . . God knows how, a year or two/On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,/Refuse and rubbish.” On the brink of death, he is brought by an aunt “to the convent” where he eats his “first bread that month” as he speaks to the priest, who by contrast is “good” and “fat.” The renunciations the monastic life demand pale alongside the renunciation of “the mouthful of bread” that Lippi resolves not to part with: he becomes a monk by default, by following an instinct for self-preservation rather than a spiritual calling.

Lippi’s difficult past informs his art. What emerges as a realistic eye inclined to common subjects begins in a youth spent “watching folks’ faces to know who will fling” him food—the close observation of manner and character that helped Lippi survive. Under such circumstances, “soul and sense . . . grow sharp alike” and Lippi “learns the look of things.” The lessons of his past follow him in his studies at the convent, where his artistic impulse overrides his academic one, as he fills “copy-books” with images of “men’s faces” drawn from his experience. Lippi’s rebellious spirit pays off as the Prior chooses to keep him and turn his creative abilities to good use, employing him to decorate the chapel.

Lippi’s debut as a painter stands in sharp contrast to notions of religious art pervasive at the time. He paints as he sees—not the ideal of a group of solemn penitents on their way to confession, but instead a circle of “good old gossips waiting” to tell their petty wrongs. Though the other monks respond favorably, the Prior— whose name emphasizes the older, “prior” standards according to which he judges Lippi—condemns the work precisely for its accuracy. The “faces, arms, legs and bodies” represented resemble “the true/As much as pea and pea,” but such realism distresses the Prior, who sees in it a “devil’s-game.” As opposed to Lippi’s appreciation for the human form and its true dispositions, the prior argues the centrality of the ethereal and the ideal: “Give us no more of body than shows soul!” In the Prior’s view, art should inspire praise; moreover, it should do so directly, with exemplary images that the faithful can in turn imitate. Lippi’s realism represents a distinct danger for the Prior, as it works to “put all thoughts of praise out of our head/With wonder at lines, colours, and what not.”

Lippi stands at the beginning of a new movement in art, and his reflections on the Prior’s views amount to a critique of style. He contends that body and soul need not detract from one another, but instead can work in concert when rendered skillfully: the more realistic the body, the clearer the soul becomes. The Prior’s views are to Lippi paradoxical, given their supposed basis in the Bible. That God created “man’s wife,” Eve, from Adam’s body, attests to “the value and significance of the flesh” for Lippi, who suggests that if the physical mattered to God, it ought to matter to his followers. The “shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades” being divine in origin are not “to be passed over” en route to the ghostly images the Prior prefers. Lippi delivers a miniature manifesto for his new school of art, the central tenet of which will be to “count it crime/To let truth slip.”

Much of the rhetoric of Lippi’s presentation focuses on the issue of meaning itself. To assume, like the Prior, the insignificance of the physical, would be to make the world an uninterpretable “blot” or “blank.” But for Lippi the created world is rife with significance: “it means intensely, and means good.” To bypass the physical would be to risk meddling with meaning itself. By contrast, Lippi would maximize meaning’s intensity, advocating a strict adherence to the real, and would have his successors paint things “just as they are,” without bias. The physical, for Lippi, becomes the very criterion of meaningfulness.

Barbadori Altarpiece by Fra Lippo Lippi

In spite of his strong opinions, Lippi cannot practice what he preaches for fear of losing business. “They with their Latin”—the church dignitaries—demand from him quite a different kind of artistic production. It is because of having resigned himself, he explains, to delivering the standard subject matter, that he occasionally “play[s] the fooleries” the police “catch [him] at.” To “make amends” for his misconduct, Lippi plans to oblige his superiors by composing his next work in strict accordance with their preferences. A sense of irony pervades the account of the projected work, which will include a “bowery flowery angel-brood” and “of course, a saint or two.” The hyperbole of the former phrase and the dismissive tone of the latter illustrate Lippi’s attitude, which is one of perfunctory compliance.

But the Lippi that refuses to be reconciled to such orthodoxy emerges toward the end of the monologue, where he narrates a mischievous plan to indulge his own notions of what art should be, even as he resigns himself to the expectations of others. The painting, otherwise the very embodiment of the prevailing views of religious art, will also include, preposterously, the figure of Lippi himself, “mazed, motionless and moonstruck” in the “pure company” of saints and angels. The justification for painting himself into the picture Lippi puts in the mouth of a “sweet angelic” girl of his own creation: “brother Lippo” too has his value, as he is, after all, the creator of the work he inhabits.

Critics have found an allegorical element in the sub-narrative Lippi appends to his plans for the painting. The “celestial presence” of the girl could represent the muse, while the “hot-head husband” that “pops” in suddenly might figure a prior artist, someone opposed to Lippi’s new aesthetic of the real. What emerges without question from the passage is a concern related to Browning’s professed interest in the imperfect. That the poem’s speaker trails off into a highly private vision of the work and its reception emphasizes a sense of incompleteness, a sense that meaning in art is never wholly contained but implicates the audience, the artist, and his precursors in a complicated web of relations. “There’s the grey beginning” Lippi proclaims at the end of the poem, alluding to the dawn as he locates the poem within the context of the temporal, that which, like his art, never quite perfects or completes itself.

Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Browning. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Bloom, Harold, and Adrienne Munich, eds. Robert Browning: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979. Chesterton, G. K. Robert Browning. London: Macmillan, 1903. Cook, Eleanor. Browning’s Lyrics: An Exploration. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974. Crowell, Norton B. The Convex Glass: The Mind of Robert Browning. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1968. De Vane, William Clyde, and Kenneth Leslie Knickerbocker, eds. New Letters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950. De Vane, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: F. S. Crofts and Co., 1935. Drew, Philip. The Poetry of Robert Browning: A Critical Introduction. London: Methuen, 1970. Jack, Ian. Browning’s Major Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Jack, Ian, and Margaret Smith, eds. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Wagner-Lawlor, Jennifer A. “The Pragmatics of Silence, and the Figuration of the Reader in Browning’s Dramatic Monologues.” Victorian Poetry 35, no. 3 (1997): 287–302.
Source: Bloom, H., 2001. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers.

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