Robert Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi provides one example of the historical mode which explores the general theme of the self versus the other. In this case, the poet explores the application of this theme to the realm of art. The story in the poem revolves around the famous Italian Renaissance painter who produced many works depicting religious scenes. He has been caught by the town guard in the streets of Florence in the middle of the night. On his way back from debauching, he must then explain who he is; that he works for the most important family in Florence, if not Italy; and the reason why he has been caught thusly.
After finding that he has control of the situation, because of the power he wields as a member of the Medici family staff, he proceeds to explain why he has been out doing something that monks definitively stay away from. However, instead of providing bluster or simply stating that man is weak and gives in to his urges, he links this behavior to his own particular lack of freedom. He explains that he became a monk out of convenience when he still knew little of what he renounced as part of his vows. As a result, he never fit the standard of the monastery. Only when he showed an interest and aptitude in art did the clergy begin to appreciate their ward. He became a monk and painted. Now he has grown to become a painter of considerable fame and some controversy among the clergy. The problem lies in the conflict between the artist and his religious superiors as to the function of art. He feels that art serves to show man the world in a focused way, to enlighten him as to the power and beauty of God the Creator. As a result, he paints the world as it truly is. His superiors in the Church insist that the function of art, most understandably in the arena of religious art, lies in its ability to show an idealized world, thus inspiring the common man to strive for that ideal. As a result, they support a depiction of the world that corrects mistakes and shows what man should be.
He argues that God made the world in a specific way and that it should be met on those terms. This provides the means by which he connects his difficulties with art with his debauchery that night. In describing the conflict between himself as the artist and the authorities as the other, he shows the difficulty in maintaining a balance:
[They say] You're not of the true painters, great and old;
Fag on at flesh, you'll never make the third'...
I'm not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
Don't you thing they're likeliest to know,
They with their Latin? So I swallow my rage,
Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
To please them-sometimes do and sometimes don't. (lines 237-244)
He then explains that this feeling of constraint so overwhelms him, so keeps him from his true art, that he cannot help but rebel occasionally. On that night in particular, he had painted for weeks and needed release. As a result, when he found adequate incentive among a group of women, he escaped. He goes further with his argument against his superiors by saying that the vows that he took to become a monk appear contradictory with God's intention to make men and women so that they would forever need and want one another. This seeming confusion permits him to choose to follow the urges common to all men.
In his depiction of Fra Lippo Lippi as an artist and a person, Browning links art to life and shows that within the two there lies a common contradiction between the needs of the self and the demands of society. He appears to answer the moral question of the morality of providing for the needs of the self, sometimes to the dissatisfaction of society. However, this justification seems limited or at least dependent on the philosophical line of reasoning proposed by the protagonist. He attempts to justify and explain the importance of enjoying the world and living in it as it is rather than trying to conform to artificial societal codes of morality. As a means of understanding and living in society, the poet stresses that one must observe reality, rather than constantly trying to build a false and superimposed existence. Such a wholly prescriptive approach remains doomed to failure because man cannot and should not attempt to create a world better than what God has made. As a result, the poet uses the historical mode of writing to make a claim about the importance of remaining true to the self.
Last modified 12 March 2003