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Robert Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi

Research Papers on Robbert Browing's poem Fra Lippo Lippi can be custom written to focus on any part of the poem you need explained.

Although the world around him is hardly idyllic, the narrator of "Fra Lippo Lippi" writes of the necessity of "paint[ing] all."   In "painting all", Browning demonstrates his propensity towards an individuals freedom, as expressed in art.  Even the most sacred subjects are not to be omitted from the canvas: in his metaphorical discussion of the artist in society, Robert Browning professes the need to describe "every sort of monk, the black and white/I drew them, fat and lean." Art, as Browning envisions it, extends beyond mere visual representation. He sees the artist as creator--producing poetry, novels and drawings--but also as a mirror of the community which produced him.

Robert Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi

In Fra Lippo Lippi, a Renaissance painter whose vivid work stirred the natives of Prato to violence, he finds a model of that activist artist. His theme of activism illustrates his distaste for authority.  Browning's activism is done through art.  He believes that art is not merely a gift, but a responsibility; as Browning goes on to write, "God uses us to help each other so/lending our minds out". This distinctively Ruskinian view of art as a moral property leads Browning to conclude that every aspect of human life is not only valid material, but necessary to a faithful depiction, as in the following lines:

  • "The breathless fellow...fresh from his murder"
  • The affectionate mention of "good old gossips"
  • The "poor girl" and the "brute" are equally essential members of the societal portrait

Once again, voicing the opinion that authority is not the ultimate voice in society.

In the beginning of the poem, Fra Lippi explains his being out and about on the late night streets of Florence, “at an alley’s end/Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar,” (in other words in the red light district) because he has been “three weeks shut within my mew/A-painting for the great man.”  Lippo’s midnight escape is to seek relief from the demands of constant work, “saints and saints/And saints again.”

One of the most famous works of Fra Lippi, commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici, is the Adoration of the Child, the altarpiece in the Palazzo Medici Chapel in Florence.  The center shows the Virgin and child, above which float the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) and God the Father.  Off to the left is Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and St. John the Baptist.  Bernard was the patron saint of Florentine government, John the Baptist the patron saint of Florence. 

This is the exact sort of work that Fra Lippi complains against.  It is his every artistic urge to paint from real life, to take the faces of those he sees around himself every day and incorporate them into his painting.  Those who held control over his work squashed his early talent for painting lifelike figures:

The betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time
[…]
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.

Fra Lippi’s inclination is to paint as he pleases, but being dependent on the patronage system for his way of life (at least his way of life outside the walls of a monastery, a life where he can occasionally sneak out, get drunk and enjoy the illicit pleasures of women) forces him to conform:

So, I swallow my rage.
Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
To please them—sometimes do and sometimes don’t.

Lippi is caught in the trap many artists face: artistic integrity versus starvation.  On the one hand stands every fiber of his being, being true to his art and expressing himself through it.  On the other hand, Lippi is of an age when art was commissioned: either by the Church or a wealthy nobleman paid for frescos, oils, portraits, sculptures, architecture, or elaborate tombs.  These were the men who paid the bills, and failing to conform to the dictates of the boss quickly led an artist to starvation.  In the film, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Michelangelo is forever battling with Pope Julius II over the painting of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  What has become an example of one of the true masterpieces of Renaissance art is traditionally portrayed as a battle of wills between artist and patron.  The Pope demanded that Michelangelo work, taking him away from projects that he truly wanted to work on.

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