"It's Art's Decline, My Son!"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The artist-monk, Fra Lippo Lippi (1406-1469) has been caught by the watch, as he wanders, slightly drunk, through the midnight streets of Florence. He has been borrowed from his Carmelite monastery by Cosimo de Medici to paint for that nobleman; bored with painting, he has escaped into the streets in search of pleasure. To the amused soldiers of the watch, he tells the story of his life: how he was picked up, a starving orphan, by the Carmelite friars, who discovered his gift for painting and set him to decorate their church. But he is at odds with the Prior, for Lippi is a realist who wants to paint the bodies of men as they really are, while the older monks want religious pictures in the style of Fra Angelico. Lippi thus represents the new art of the Renaissance with its emphasis upon the flesh as opposed to Medieval art with its emphasis upon the soul. By extension, Browning uses him as a symbol of all original artists whose work is decried by those of conventional taste. Cosimo lets Lippi paint as he wishes, but

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!"