In his late night and likely inebriated rambling, Fra Lippo Lippi seems to discuss questiosn about art there were very important to Browning's time. The treatment of Lippi's work, as described in the poem, must have had particular resonance for the pre-Raphaelite artists reading it, as it seems to deal with the school of hard-edge realism. Lippi's work seems remarkably similar to that of Wilkie's The Blind Fiddler, but Browning seems to treat his narrator in the poem with characteristic complexity, leaving many questions unanswered:
Their betters took their turn to see and say:
The Prior and the learned pulled a face
And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift 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 --
Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke ... no, it's not ...
It's vapour done up like a new-born babe —
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It's ... well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!
Here's Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
That sets us praising, — why not stop with him?
Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
Rub all out, try at it a second time.
Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
She's just my niece ... Herodias, I would say, —
Who went and danced and got men's heads cut off!
Have it all out!" Now, is this sense, I ask?
A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
And can't fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
When what you put for yellow's simply black,
And any sort of meaning looks intense
When all beside itself means and looks naught.
Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order? Take the prettiest face,
The Prior's niece ... patron-saint — is it so pretty
You can't discover if it means hope, fear,
Sorrow or joy? won't beauty go with these?
Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue,
Can't I take breath and try to add life's flash,
And then add soul and heighten them threefold?
Or say there's beauty with no soul at all —
(I never saw it — put the case the same — )
If you get simple beauty and naught else,
You get about the best thing God invents:
That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
"Rub all out!" Well, well, there's my life, in short,
And so the thing has gone on ever since.
Questions about Fra Lippo Lippi's Style of Art
1. Does Lippi fully endorse the type of art he produces under the influence of the Medicis?
2. Does Browning himself seem to argue more for one worldview or another in the poem, or both, or neither? How does Browning's artistic style inform on this discussion?
3. How can we compare the Bishop's views on the aesthetics in "The Bishop Orders..." to those of the prior or those of Lippi's? Does either side of this debate account for a school of thought that follows the Bishop's final thoughts?
4. What would the opinions of the pre-Raphaelites have generally been on the poem? Would they have read it as an endorsement, or were some hesitant about it?
Modified 30 January 2008