It is said that Fra Filippo was so lustful that he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted if he thought he could have his way; and if he couldn't buy what he wanted, then he would cool his passion by painting her portrait and reasoning with himself. his lust was so violent that when it took hold of him he could never concentrate on his work. and because of this, one time or other when he was doing something for Cosimo de' Medici in Cosimo's house, Cosimo had he locked in . . . . [Vasari, Lives of the Artists, p. 216]
The opening situation is a dramatic one: the Florentine Watch have just apprehended the painter-monk (escaped from the Casa de Medici, where he has been shut up to work for Cosimo) out after curfew having a good time. The poem concludes with the first light of dawn. Lippi is not an insipid, detached aesthete like Andrea del Sarto; the power of art for him comes from direct experience--we note that he wants to use one of the watchmen as a model for the slave who holds up John the Baptist's head.
He is a supreme realist (and sensualist) who refuses to be locked away from life because life and not the Duke's collection of classical works of art is his inspiration. He is a grown-up street urchin who has never really conformed to monastic discipline (we note his refusal to learn more Latin than "amo"). He refuses to deprecate the world outside the cloister and its pleasures in order to render what his clerical critics call "the soul." Browning seems to have dramatised an incident drawn directly from the "Life of Fra Filippo Lippi, Florentine painter, c. 1406-69" in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1568), although according to that biography the artist "boldly threw off his friar's habit" (215) once he had established himself as a professional painter.
Stylistically we have greater trouble reading this monologue than we do the Ciceronian, syntactically-ornate speeches of the Duke of Ferrara and the Bishop of St. Praxed's because we must assume certain interruptions by the watchmen, and because Lippi argues in a circular, non-linear manner (although he develops a consistent artistic aesthetic). Lippi lives at the margins of three worlds: political (the ruling Medici), religious (the cloister), and peasant (the alley-ways). Browning's revelation of his character is neither oblique nor ironic (as in "My Last Duchess" or "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's"), but, like Lippi himself, direct, robust, and honest. Historically, Lippi's naiveté about his religious subject-matter is unlikely since he would certainly have acquired some theological background. For Browning Lippi is the naturalist: he paints the Prior's niece (surely a euphemism) "to the life." As is consistent both with classical traditions about the god-inspired artist and with the Romantic conception of the artist as an unschooled child of nature, Lippi has not studied under Massacio, who in this poem becomes Lippi's pupil instead. But, significantly, Lippi expresses the notion that it is not enough for the artist to try to reproduce nature (which he can't anyway)--he must try to outdo her.
Pettigrew, John, ed. Robert Browning The Poems. Vol. 1. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 1981.
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists (1568). Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1965.
Last modified 21 February 2004