In "Fra Lippo Lippi", Robert Browning satirizes the essentially corrupt relationship between the Italian Renaissance tradition of art patronage, the Medici family, and the Roman Catholic church. The poem takes a dialectic structure enabling Lippi to describe and debunk the tradition of art patronage and then pose his own theory about the role of art and artist in society. He describes the censorious limitations which occur when representatives of the Church tell the artist
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But life them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men. [ ll.183-87]
Browning suggests here that church doctrine transform art into propaganda rather than creative expression. These devotional works do not promote a critical awareness of life because the friars compel Lippo Lippi to create idealized representations of life, claiming that art should depict Godıs desires rather than human folly.
God's works-paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don't object, "His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce here-(which you can't)
There's no advantage! You must beat her, then." [ll. 295-99]
Lippi tells the reader that the friars object to realistic art because it does not inspire obedience to church doctrine; but the Fra clearly believes that devotional art does not foster the spiritual and intellectual development of the individual. By placing more faith in the masses, Lippi acts far more discriminatingly than his patrons and superiors. He further attacks idealized devotional art by relentlessly emphasizing the moral hypocrisy of the men of the church. It is important to note that Browning does not debunk belief in God; he castigates those religious authorities who dictate moral imperatives to the common people which they themselves do not follow. Browning uses this hypocrisy to persuade his readers that idealized, artistic representations of life do not inspire people to uncritical devotion. He argues for a less exclusionary vision of art which permits the exploration of life's "plain meaning". For the Fra, the night watchman represents a kind of new ideal because he engages all of life, not the censored version sanctioned by the church. Lippi asks,
What's it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course! — you say.
But why not do as well as say, — paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God's works-paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. [ll.290-6]
Browning satirizes the hypocrisy of the monks and condemns a theory of art which denies the potential of ordinary people to cultivate a conscious awareness of life and art. As with the other friars, Fra Lippo Lippi believes art should capture moments of experience and transform them into focal points of beauty. Yet, Browning suggests that the traditional, idyllic definition of beauty espoused by the church turns art into propaganda. Instead, he proposes that honest, realistic portrayals of life should be channeled into these aesthetic moments.
Browning increases the drama of "Fra Lippo Lippi" by portraying the monk as an artist still caught in this traditional system of art patronage. Lippo Lippi emphasizes the hypocrisy of his position because the inspiration for his exalted, religious paintings comes from abased sources. For example, he finds the inspiration for patron saints in the face of the Prior's so-called niece and informs the night watchman in the final stanza that the evening's incident - being caught leaving a brothel - will inspire his next painting. The monk makes clear the depths of his frustration regarding the powerful force of censorship in which he is caught.
So I swallow my rage,
Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
To please them-sometimes do and sometimes don't. [ll. 242-4]
Appropriately, in this interlude the Fra invokes the Medici name, relying upon the entrenched social hierarchy to protect himself. Above all others, the Medici family propagated the system of art patronage which Fra Lippo Lippi condemns. They represent the Roman Catholic church at its most abased level. Thus, in "Fra Lippo Lippi" Browning relentlessly indicts religious hypocrisy and elitist conceptions of art with his realistic, satirical portrait of one monk. In this, the poet reflects the increasingly democratic mores of nineteenth-century British society.
Last modified 12 March 2003
Last modified 8 June 2007