How does Robert Browning tell the story in Fra Lippo Lippi?
Fra Lippo Lippi was a real-life 15th century painter and Florentine monk.
Browning’s poem of the same name, written in blank verse with mostly unrhymed lines, is a dramatic monologue and a colloquial speech rant.
Browning throws the reader immediately into the deep end because here we have a monk who is seen in an alley where the prostitutes advertise their wares by leaving open their doors. What? A monk? Aren’t they the ones who take a vow of celibacy?
The monk is being interrogated by Medici watchmen, but because his patron lives three streets away, Lippo admonishes them to be careful. Then he reveals himself to be a painter and seeks comradeship with his interrogators to “sit and set things straight”. And what he sets them straight about is, first, that he’s been shut up painting for three weeks, that he has let his lover, Lisa, go, and that Lippo has devised a ladder to follow women. He was on his way back when the watchmen stopped him.
Then he tells his life story: his parents were dead and he was forced to beg when a monk recruited him to the monastic life. Lippo makes it clear that the monastic life was not his choice. However, once he was a monk, his relationships with women had to be carried on in secret.
During his time begging on the streets, he had ample time to observe faces, and thus began to draw those faces as well as the monks and the church folk. But the monks took umbrage at what Lippo had painted, admonishing him to ignore the clay, forget the flesh, and rather to paint the soul! Their fear is also that people will recognize who Lippo has truthfully portrayed, and be thus distracted by the images. Their position reflects the Church’s influence on art, and its attempt to control the way holiness is depicted in art. This dredges up the age-old debate as to the purpose of art: is it to instruct or delight?
Lippo believes he is now his own master, warning the watchmen that to take a boy of eight and make him swear off girls can have disastrous results. But he’s not really his own master because the monks still criticize him and look over his shoulder as he works. Their words anger him and he swallows his rage and paints on. His position of being caught between the asceticism of the monastery and the hedonism of his patrons (the Medici family) is neatly captured in what Lippo chooses to paint and what the monks want him to portray. Neither is a nurturing existence. Neither holds the key to a fulfilling life, but rather raises the question of whether art should be true to life and reflect life or paint an idealized life. Both are flawed; both can lead to high art, but in the context of the monastic life in which Lippo finds himself, Browning is asking if art should even serve religion—and more importantly, that art has no connection to morality.