Fra Lippo Lippi

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Robert Browning’s 19th-century poem entitled “Fra Lippo Lippi” centers thematically around the discussion of art. Fra Lippo Lippi is a 15th-century monk and artist whom engages in a dramatic monologue with the law. As an unreliable narrator, he reveals things about himself and those around him that perhaps he is unaware of revealing. Fra Lippo Lippi expects that his behavior is seen as wrong but dismisses it with his poetic narrative of how life has tried to shape his art, imprisoning his God-given eye. As the verse unfolds the silent audience is acquainted with the aesthetic theories of the Prior and of Fra Lippo Lippi. Fra Lippo Lippi states the artist can capture what the normal eye would not as he frames reality; the gaze of art can serve the soul in reaching a more righteous being. The role of the artist and of his art are in battle with the body and soul as seen through the struggles of the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippi’s opposing aesthetic theories.
The poem begins as Fra Lippo Lippi is being arrested for breaking curfew with prostitutes in his pious company. He declares in his capture that he is guilty of the crime but through no fault of his own.
“Zooks, what’s to blame? You think you see a monk!
What, ‘t is past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at the alley’s end
Where supportive ladies leave their doors ajar?” (Browning, lines 3-6)
As a man of the cloth, Fra Lippo Lippi took vows of abstinence and to follow God’s absolute order. As a man he has physical urges and is not expected to reach perfection. Fra Lippo Lippi recognizes each position as he spends the rest of his monologue explaining his choices.
Fra Lippo Lippi grew up on the streets minus his deceased parents, with no home or food. His occupation became “Watching folk’s faces to know who will fling The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires, And who will curse or kick him for his pains--” (lines114-116). At the ripe age of eight he finds himself in the good company of the church as monks take him in as a brother. Fra Lippo Lippi fails at learning the language of the church but shows off his young talent of art. Instead of dismissing this as the graffiti of a child, the Prior sees fame.
“What if at last we got our man of parts,
We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese

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...esented which is what Fra Lippo Lippi is trying to do.
In the end of his dramatic monologue Fra Lippo Lippi hints to the next painting he will create in six months which he urges his audience to go and view. He will paint the painting the Prior wants to see, one of the soul and spirit in company of God, Madonna, Saints and an unexpected guest. Fra Lippo Lippi will also be in the holy crowd, “moonstruck” (line 364) and ready to shrink back. The artist competes with God as he creates his art and now he is in the company of God who created him. In an instant Fra Lippo Lippi redeems his aesthetic theory and has confidence that he should be there with the celestial crowd because he is the only one who can paint.
“Could Saint John there draw—
“His camel-hair make up a up a painting-brush?
“We come to brother Lippo for all that,
“Iste perfecit opus!” So, all smile--” (lines 374-377)
This is the painting that will settle the battle between the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippi’s difference of opinion on the role of the artist and of art. The Prior will be happy to see the soul and Fra Lippo will be happy to be present in the painting; the body and soul together.
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