Fra Lippo Lippi Themes
by Robert Browning

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Fra Lippo Lippi” explains not only what Browning believed to be his subject’s view of the purpose of painting, but also the poet’s own beliefs about the function of poetry. Both painter and poet have the power of imagination. The question is what the relationship should be between the real world about them and the ideal worlds that they can imagine.

To the Greek artists, the human form was just a starting point, from which the ideal could be constructed. It is this attitude that is shared by the prior and his learned colleagues, who believe that Fra Lippo Lippi’s figures are too lifelike, that by painting so realistically the painter will cause his viewers to pay too much attention to human bodies and therefore to become distracted from their proper concern, their souls. Bodies are perishable; souls are not.

Both Browning and Fra Lippo Lippi disagree with this point of view. The simple monks respond properly to the painter’s work. They enjoy seeing people they know; unlike the prior, they take a natural joy in life. Fra Lippo Lippi argues that beauty cannot diminish piety. In lines 217 to 221, he explains that by responding to the beauty of God’s creation, human beings are led to thank God and thus to be aware of the souls within themselves. At the end of the section, Fra Lippo Lippi admits that he wonders whether he or the Church is right, but when he paints, he insists, he always remembers the God of Genesis, creating Eve in the Garden of Eden. That flesh that was made by God cannot be evil.

In the second section, Fra Lippo Lippi advances a further argument. Realistic paintings actually draw the attention of human beings to real-life beauty that they might otherwise ignore, “things we have passed/ Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see.” In this way, too, the artist causes human beings to praise their creator.

Thus, even though he has thought deeply about what his clerical superiors...

(The entire section is 519 words.)