Fra Lippo Lippi by Robert Browning

One of the most popular poets of the Romantic Era, Fra Lippo Lippi is among the most widely studied dramatic monologues by Robert Browning. The poem was included in his 1855 collection of poetry Men and Women. The poem raises questions about the nature of art and presents the dilemma of the artist.

The speaker of this dramatic monologue is a painter and monk Filippo Lippi who lived in Italy during the 15th century. He served as the official painter to the Church and was a prominent figure of the Italian Renaissance. Though he is considered as a realist by many critics of art, Browning has presented him in an artistic light facing the complex decisions that he has to make as one.

Barbadori Altarpiece by Fra Lippo Lippi
Barbadori Altarpiece by Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi Summary

At the beginning of this dramatic monologue, the painter Lippi has been arrested by a group of policemen. He is drunk and is roaming around in the red light area. The policemen are adamant on punishing him when he tells him that he is a friend of the Cosimo of Medici, an influential person in the area.

He is immediately released upon this but in his drunk state, he starts talking with the leader of the policemen. He starts by saying that all the people immediately submit to power and authority and he is one of them. Further, he asks the leader to allow his subordinates to go around doing what pleases them just like he has been doing at the moment, after being in his room for almost three weeks.

Feast of Herod by Fra Lippo Lippi
Feast of Herod by Fra Lippo Lippi

He asks if he is justified on being judged for his actions and tells that he was an orphan baby when his aunt gave him to the Church. He had to accept the life of a monk even without knowing what that means only because it offered him a square meal.

In his life as a monk, he continues, he had nothing much to do. However, he was really talented when it came to studying people and he used his talent to recreate these people in his art. Soon, he was appointed as the artist of the convent and started painting real people as his subjects in paintings, representing them as saints.

He tells that his choice was not approved of as the elder monks felt that paintings of saints should show them as saints and not common people. However, he wants to paint life as he sees it and believes that there should be no moral compass for judging art. As a human being, he has desires and that is the reason he has been caught in this situation. However, he feels that as a painter, he should be allowed to show the desires of humans in his work.

He points out that other artists are learning under him and he wants them to pursue realism as he does. However, he is soon drifted to his original conflict and questions the role of an artist. He asks if it is the responsibility to show things as God has made them or should he make efforts to improve the creation of God by painting them in a better manner and hiding their flaws.

Finally, he gets angry about the fact that he is supposed to obey the orders of his masters and patrons, but contains it because he risks making the policeman annoyed. He concludes by saying that he will now paint something that will satisfy him and his masters. He will make a painting in which there will be some real people that he knows and add some saints to it as well. He will also paint himself there standing in the corner looking at everything. He expects that this will please everyone and bids farewell to his listener.

Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Lippo Lippi
Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi Analysis

Fra Lippo Lippi is a very complex poem that presents the conflicts that an artist face. It also questions the authority of the Church and other powerful men in society and asks about the role that they should be allowed to play in the process of creation of art.

While the painter in the poem thinks that his art will be best if he pursues realism, he is unable to do that. He wants to paint the prostitutes that he visits as subjects of his painting. However, as the characters in the paintings are saints and gods, he is forbidden to do that. He wants to capture his own opinion of the world as a painter but his masters think that saints should be presented without the flaws of human beings.

The interesting aspect of this poem is that while talking about art, it questions the role of power and powerful people in the social context. Even though the speaker is pleased that his connections have helped him to avoid jail, he also believes that he should not be submitting to them as an artist.

Fra Lippo Lippi Poem in PDF format

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