Themes and Meanings

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“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 say with such certainty, Fra Lippo Lippi is convinced that his kind of art is divinely inspired. His own certainty is summed up in the lengthy description of a forthcoming painting, in which imagined beings will appear, such as God, the Madonna and Child, and various saints, but in which there will also be a lovely young saint modeled on the prior’s niece, a saint who will defend the presence of Fra Lippo Lippi in the work because, she says, he is responsible for creating all the rest.

The central theme of “Fra Lippo Lippi,” then, is that the function of painting should be to capture the actual beauty of God’s creation and, by doing so, to reveal the invisible spiritual beauty of his creatures. In his poetry, Browning chose to do the same thing. As Fra Lippo Lippi speaks to his sympathetic listener, he becomes more than a runaway monk in a frayed robe, trapped by the watch in an unsavory area of his city; he is revealed as a dedicated artist and as a man of spiritual grandeur.

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