BROWNING’S “FRA LIPPO LIPPI”
In the form of the dramatic monologue Browning was searching for a structure that would enable him to make an impact through the voice of one person. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but the reader knows of the auditor’s presence and what they say and do only from clues in the speaker’s monologue. As Shaw (1969) argues, “The speaker must in some sense persuade his auditor, but he must also communicate his meaning to the reader”. (p. 60)
Many of Browning’s monologues portray personae at dramatic moments in their lives. By entering into the lives of so many people, Browning satisfied, in part, the desire he stated in “Pauline” - to “be all, see, know, taste, feel, all”. Some of Browning’s characters are perceived as being “good”, and some are perceived as being “evil”. With both types, Browning indirectly expressed his belief in the value of action, and his dislike of passive behaviour. Browning’s dramatic monologues affirm his belief that life’s imperfections and strivings are a prelude to the perfection of the afterlife.
In the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi”, Browning uses the voice of a monk who is also a painter, a man of aestheticism and sensuality, who wanders from his cloister in search of sex. Despite his quest for excitement, Lippi remains true to his artistic profession. He is, as Shaw (1968) says, “A philosopher who mimics the self-delusion of spiritual experts like the Prior in order to expose their contradictions”. (p. 156). By this, Shaw means that we must take Lippi for the man he is; a man who can see him own faults reflected in the lives of others.
Lippi’s sexual transgressions are noted in the first lines of Browning’s poem. Lippi has been caught by the night watchman in a back street where the “Sportive ladies” flaunt themselves, and it is possible he is entering a brothel. Lippi’s invitation to the officer to share vicariously in his experience depends on several of the syntactic features that relate in progression of the monologue in its interiorising effect. For example, in the lines.
‘Tell you, I liked your looks at very first. Lets sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.’
Lippi instills at once in his listener the specific beginnings of comradely feeling. It is night time in spring, and any man should be able to empathise with the monk’s dilemma. What the officer is invited to feel is the tedium of being shut up in a cell with the repeated paintings of “saints and saints and saints again” for occupation. In a few lines Lippi gives us the gist of his perplexing situation and invites us to become a participant in his escapade.
Lippi has no difficulty interpreting the watchman’s responses, and thus, when Lippi says late in the poem “You understand me”, the reader can easily credit his confidence that the exchange has been successful. As Martin (1985) argues, “The success of communication and exchange in Browning’s monologues may be gauged in part by the degree to which acknowledged responses are interpreted by the speaker.” (p.138). In addition, the frequency of turns in the conversation suggest that when Lippi says of the Prior’s condemnation “Now is this sense, I ask?” the channel is open for the constable to speak, despite the absence of an acknowledgment by Lippi that he has done so. The degree of interpretability does not depend on whether or not the response is verbal.
As Martin (1985) states, “This retention of an always disappearing line of past disclosure is just one method Browning uses to begin monologues in the midst of an unbroken temporal stream...” (p. 90). Reference to an immediate linguistic past is not the only way Browning’s oratorical devices create their characteristic effects. When Fra Lippo Lippi exclaims “You need not clap your torches in my face”, he refers to an action that has presumably taken place. Gestures and actions can convey the same degree of acknowledgment. For example, when Lippi says,
Your hand away that’s fiddling on my throat,
the reader is immediately in the heart of charged action.
Lippi does not want to be confined to his cell painting saints - his current commission from his patron, Cosimo de Medici. He complains that he did not choose the monastic life but rather had it thrust upon him through force of circumstance. When it was discovered that he had a penchant for drawing, he was given food and shelter in return for his talents.
Lippi’s argument to the men who would turn him over to the authorities is the backbone of the monologue. He argues well - about his reasons for being in the street so late, about his dysfunctional childhood and about his views on art. As Shaw (1968) argues, “But though his discourse begins at the erotic level, and even returns to the erotic level, the new terms discovered on the way, make it improper for the ascetic Prior to reduce Fra Lippo’s dialectic to its simplest and most guilty biological terms.” (p. 157). By this, Shaw implies that even Lippi’s adversary, the Prior; may be turned into his ally through the force of his argument.
However, Lippi’s art may be too realistic for the Prior’s taste, since it reveals his latent sexuality, “You should not take a fellow eight years old and make him swear to never kiss the girls” (11.224-5). His fellow monks observe that one of the women depicted in his painting is “like the Prior’s niece who comes/To care about his asthma’ ” (11 170-1). The Prior also suspects the presence of his “niece” (a probable euphemism for mistress or daughter), in one of Lippi’s paintings. This time she is depicted as Herodius, who plotted with Salome to behead St. John the Baptist. It is implied in the poem that Lippi was having affairs with the young women who were his models.
Lippi steadily prepares the reader for his three climaxes: “You are about the best thing God invents” (I. 218); “I always see the garden and God there/A-making man’s wife” (11. 266-267), and “Interpret God to all of you” (1. 311). After disclosing these precepts, with their symbolic powers, Lippi reduces them to the physical level. This tends to expose Lippi’s character and expands it from that of a sensualist to a religious philosopher. The conflict between the flesh and the spirit is a play of opposites and results in the union of Lippi’s personality with his ideas. But the resolution of his character is never quite made by Browning, for if it were the poem would cease to be a dramatic monologue and become instead a vehicle for Browning’s own ideas.
Lippi defends himself against the charges of mere sensuality. He takes the human figure to “Make his flesh liker and his soul more like” (1.207). Lippi’s art follows the model of God’s design in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve sported unashamed of their nakedness, “my lesson learned, The value and significance of Flesh, / I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards” (11. 267-269).
Next, Lippi refers to one of his promising pupils, “Hulking Tom”: Tommaso Guidi, stating that his young student’s approach to art bodes well for the future. (However, we are told in a footnote to the poem that Browning “erred in regarding Masaccio as Lippo’s pupil, whereas the converse is true” (Loucks, 1979, p.111). After Browning discovered his mistake, he was undeterred and one can only assume that he meant Lippi to be the originator of the new “pagan” sensuality in painting.
As a sensualist, Lippi is fully responsive to the senses: taste, smell and touch prompt remarkable similes: “the air this spring night...turns/the unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!” (1.339). He intersperses his speech with snippets of song, “Flower o’ the pine,/You keep your mistr . . . manners, and I’ll stick to mine!” (1.239). The natural world for Lippi, abounds in sensuous pleasures. He revels in its “beauty and the wonder and the power,/The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades” (11. 293-4). He sees everything with a painterly eye.
As Bristow (1991) argues, “There is much to forgive this provocative and life loving rogue, particularly when he is so honest about his ambitious commitment to producing better and stronger works of art.” (p. 100). Lippi’s ambiguous position in his own painting sums up his role in life: he waits outside, officially forbidden to participate in the sexual world around him, but nevertheless makes an unofficial entry into it. The monk in the painting engages his audience in a round of sexual activity that is totally opposed to “his sacramental doctrines of nature as is the non artistic world the audience inhabits to the aesthetic realm of his painting.” (Shaw, 1968. p. l62).
Browning’s differing approaches to the Italian Renaissance and his stance on behalf of Victorian artists reveal his perception of what it took to be an artist in Victorian England. The use of the dramatic persona enabled Browning to stand aside from his poems and allow the persona to do his talking for him.
Although Browning’s ideas are important in themselves, the verse patterns and rapid movement of his poems are just as important. These qualities show Browning’s respect for physical energy and action. At his best, in a poem such as “Fra Lippo Lippi”, Browning shows us a monk who cannot separate flesh from spirit, just as we, as readers, cannot isolate the characters from their ideas.
Bristow, J. Robert Browning: New Readings. England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
Loucks, J.F. (Ed.). Robert Browning’s Poetry. London: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1979.
Matin, L. D. Browning’s Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject. Maryland, USA: The John Hopkins Press, 1985.
Shaw, W.D. The Dialectical Temper: The Rhetorical Art of Robert Browning. New York Cornell University Press, 1968.