In his poem, "Fra Lippo Lippi," Browning attempts to interpret and explain what the role of art is within society. Like many of the characters in Trollope's The Warden, we are not quite sure what to make of Fra Lippo Lippi. Lippi, who actually existed, was a starving orphan who was introduced to the Church and ultimately became a monk. Yet he does not seem to represent the religious ideals of Victorian society. In fact, the setting of the poem is in an alleyway just outside of a brothel where Lippi had indulged in the forbidden fruit. At the same time, despite his shortcomings, we come to respect Brother Lippi. He has a truly deep belief in art and its power to show people things that they might have otherwise missed:
. . . we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so, Lending our minds out. (p.134, ll.300-306).
Just as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem, Aurora Leigh, cries out for realism in poetry, so "Fra Lippo Lippi" makes a case for realism in art. Lippi states that people pass by the wonders of nature everyday without stopping to notice them or recognize their beauty. Yet by accurately portraying his subjects, the artist can reveal the true nature, even the very souls, of the people and things that he paints. By painting his subjects with realistic detail, the artist acts as an agent of enlightenment.
Browning makes his appeal to realism in art through the techniques of the dramatic monologue. As Glenn Everett points out in "Three Defining Characteristics of Browning's Dramatic Monologues," this technique is distinguished by three important characteristics. The first is that the reader takes the part of the silent listener. In this case, the listener is both the reader and the people in the poem to whom Lippi is unraveling his tale. The second characteristic is that the speaker uses a case-making, argumentative tone. Clearly, Lippi is trying to defend his honor against those who have caught him at the brothel. Finally, the third important characteristic is that the reader plays a part in completing the dramatic scene by means of inference and imagination. Through Lippi's monologue, the reader learns the true value of art. We see that since art is able to open the eyes of its audience, it is, in a sense, the very mechanism of God. Moreover, we can therefore infer that the artist himself is in some sense a kind of divine messenger sent to enlighten the general public.
The subject of artists imparting insight and wisdom on other men also comes up in The Warden. In this instance, however, the artists are the Jupiter's journalists, and the newspaper is the medium through which enlightenment is acquired:
Oh heavens! And this is Mount Olympus!
Away with majorities in the House of Commons, with verdicts from judicial bench given after much delay, with doubtful laws, and the fallible attempts of humanity! Does not the Jupiter, coming forth daily with eighty thousand impressions full of unerring decision on every mortal subject, set all matters sufficiently at rest? Is not Tom Towers here, able to guide us and willing?
Such is Mount Olympus, the mouthpiece of all the wisdom of this great country. It may probably be said that no place in this nineteenth century is more worthy of notice. No treasury mandate armed with the signatures of all the government has half the power of one of those broad sheets, which fly forth from hence so abundantly, armed with no signature at all. [pp.180-183]
In this passage, Trollope uses a metaphor to compare the Jupiter's headquarters to Mount Olympus. In relating the Jupiter to Mount Olympus, Trollope conjures up images of power, authority, and godly wisdom. However, it is clear that this is all done in jest. To be sure, the Jupiter, as with most well known newspapers, actually has a great deal of power and authority. However, it is precisely for this reason that Trollope is satirizing the entire institution. He is saying that the Jupiter has control over all of England's minds, but that instead of helping to bring about justice and show people the truth, journalists tend to seek only fame and power. Contrary to Browning's notion that art can act as a catalyst for deeper understanding by showing people things that they normally might not see, journalism (if it can even be considered art in this instance) simply forces views and ideas on its readers.
With so much power in the palms of their hands, journalists have the ability to, in a sense, create fantasy. They can mold the truth to their liking, and indeed, Tom Towers made Mr. Harding appear to the public as a greedy, villainous monster. Nevertheless, one could argue that because all art involves interpretation, absolute realism in art can never be attained. Even a painting that Browning would approve of (i.e. a painting with the utmost realistic details) will always maintain a hint of the artist's slant.
Browning, Robert. Poems of Robert Browning. Boston: The Riverside Press, 1956.
Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Modified 12 May 2003