‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ by Robert Browning is a dramatic monologue running the length of 376 lines. The poem is written in blank verse with each line following the meter of iambic pentameter. There are five beats per line, each beginning with an unstressed syllable, and ending with a stressed one. It is important that this poem not be confined by a rhyme scheme as Browning needs the lines to sound like a conversation is taking place. This helps the reader imagine that they too are participating in the rapid storytelling.
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The poem begins with the painter being accosted by a number of policemen. He claims to be on his way home and not, as they think, stopping to visit a brothel. He mocks them for their mistake and reveals that he is a monk in the employee of the powerful Cosimo Medici. The officers are taken aback by this and release the monk but Lippi still feels the need to justify himself. He launches into the story of how he ended up there that night.
He tells the men that he was painting in his studio, “saints, and saints / And again saints,” and was very bored. He heard music out his window, climbed down to the street, and joined up with the procession of musicians. After celebrating for a time he was on his way home when he was stopped. Still not satisfied that they understand him, Lippo decides to tell them about his childhood and how he grew up on the street.
Both of his parents died when he was young and he was forced to beg for scraps from men and dogs. He did this for a number of years before being taken into a monastery. There, he was finally able to eat his fill and indulge in his affinity for idleness. The monks attempted to make him study and learn Latin, but he says it was a waste of time.
They then noticed his abilities at painting and decide that is what he should focus on. He does so, painting everything he sees, but the Prior of the monastery is not happy with what he has made. The Prior wants more soul in the art and the painter wants soul and beauty. Some of the monks are very critical of his work but he claims not to care as he has Cosimo Medici to fall back on. Even so, he does seem hurt by their rebuffs.
Due to his harsh treatment at the monastery, he rebels by sneaking out in the night, as he did on the night the story is being told. He informs the guards he is speaking to that there is another young man at the monastery who is going to grow up and act just as he does. He is not an aberration. Lippo continues to speak against the monks but after a time starts to feel bad, and nervous, about what he has said. He does not want to get in trouble with the church.
Lippo tells his listeners that he has a plan to get back in the good graces of the church. He is going to paint a large painting that includes God and the Madonna and child. This painting will also include a self-portrait. Lippo’s guilt recedes at this point and he jumps into an entertaining narrative regarding the painted version of himself and how he will spend time with the angels.
At the conclusion of this story, he tells the guards his reputation with the church will be restored in six months and runs off into the night as the sun is rising.
Analysis of Fra Lippo Lippi
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what’s to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, ’tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley’s end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
The Carmine’s my cloister: hunt it up,
Do,—harry out, if you must show your zeal,
Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
Weke, weke, that’s crept to keep him company!
Aha, you know your betters! Then, you’ll take
Your hand away that’s fiddling on my throat,
And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
This narrative, told solely from the perspective of the artist Fra Lippo Lippi, begins with the man being accosted by police. He is telling his name to the policemen in the hopes that they will recognize him and let him go. The speaker learns that Lippi is also a monk. He lives at the “Carmine cloister” and that he is deceitful enough to pretend that the policemen were targeting him unfairly. He was indeed hoping to get into a “house of ill-repute” to see the “sportive ladies,” or prostitutes, but feigns outrage. He says that these policemen, or guardsmen, must have seen a monk and thought it would be a good time to “show [their] zeal,” or demonstrate how strong and professional they are.
Lippi hopes that the men will take offense at his remarks and leave him alone. He compares their attempted arrest of him to a rat who “haps on his wrong hole.” The policemen have stumbled into the wrong “company.” It appears that this technique is not working and that the men are not backing off. Lippi has a new idea and says, “Aha, you know your betters.” He commands one of the men to take his hand “away that’s fiddling on my throat” by threatening retaliation due to who he is.
Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
Three streets off—he’s a certain . . . how d’ye call?
Master—a …Cosimo of the Medici,
I’ the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
Remember and tell me, the day you’re hanged,
How you affected such a gullet’s-gripe!
But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
And count fair price what comes into their net?
He’s Judas to a tittle, that man is!
It is not until Lippi declares his friendship with the powerful “Cosimo of the Medici” that the officers back off. He tells them that he is employed “the house that caps the corner.” This connection is such an important one that, in an attempt to scare them further, he asks the men to remember to tell him “the day you’re hanged” for accosting Lippi.
He continues to insult the police officers, referring to them as “knaves” and telling them that they are no better than the fishermen who sweep the ocean and drag in whatever their net catches. He asks if he is a “pilchard,” a small commonly caught fish. He finishes his lines of insults by calling the men “Judas.”
Lines 26- 38
Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
Lord, I’m not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
Of the munificent House that harbours me
(And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
And all’s come square again. I’d like his face—
His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern,—for the slave that holds
John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand (“Look you, now,” as who should say)
And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
It’s not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
At this point, it appears that the guards are apologizing for their “mistake.” Lippi tells them that he is not angry at them for what they’ve done and that their “hang-dogs,” or tired companions, should take this “quarter-florin” and toast a drink to the house of the Medici. They are all square in the end.
The painter motions to one of the police officers, and tells his compatriots that he would like to use that man’s face as the inspiration for “John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair / With one hand.” This comment is both threatening and reconciliatory.
Unfortunately, this painting or drawing is not going to happen as there is no “chalk” close by.
Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so.
What, brother Lippo’s doings, up and down,
You know them and they take you? like enough!
I saw the proper twinkle in your eye—
‘Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
Let’s sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
Here’s spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
To roam the town and sing out carnival,
And I’ve been three weeks shut within my mew,
A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
And saints again. I could not paint all night—
Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
After saying these lines Lippi takes the opportunity to announce to the men, after being recognized, that he is “the painter” in question. This comment encourages Lippi to launch into the larger story of his life. He wants to make sure that he can set this whole situation straight. He believes, or at least says, that they need to know more details of his life.
At the beginning of the story, it is springtime and the painter is working on a number of paintings, all of which seem to concern saints. This is a tedious subject for him and the poet emphasizes that by repeating, “saints and saints / And saints again.” The artist is exhausted, stating that he could not “paint all night.” He “leaned out of window for fresh air” and something catches his attention below.
Lines 51- 61
There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, —
Flower o’ the broom,
Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
Flower o’ the quince,
I let Lisa go, and what good in life since?
Flower o’ the thyme—and so on. Round they went.
Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,—three slim shapes,
And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
That’s all I’m made of! Into shreds it went,
Down below his window are a number of performers with “lutes” playing music, as well as people laughing. This environment is much more desirable to the painter, so after singing along to the songs for a few lines, he makes the decision to descend to the festival.
Lines 62- 75
Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
All the bed-furniture—a dozen knots,
There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
And after them. I came up with the fun
Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met,—
Flower o’ the rose,
If I’ve been merry, what matter who knows?
And so as I was stealing back again
To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
Instead of taking the stairs to the ground level, Lippi decides the best course of action is to “shred” different items of cloth and use them as a ladder to get to the street. He does so, and “scrambling somehow,” manages to make it. The group of people that Lippi had seen celebrating are moving down the street and he catches up with them “by Saint Lawrence” church. This church is known today as the burial place for many of the Medici family. This church is located in Florence, Italy, solidifying the setting of the poem.
It was after this celebration that Lippi was grabbed on his way “to bed and have a bit of sleep.” He claims that he must “rise up to-morrow and go work” on a painting of St. Jerome in the wilderness. This is when the policemen grabbed Lippi and demanded to know what he was doing. He claims, they just mistook his intentions.
Lines 76- 87
Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head—
Mine’s shaved—a monk, you say—the sting ‘s in that!
If Master Cosimo announced himself,
Mum’s the word naturally; but a monk!
Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
I was a baby when my mother died
And father died and left me in the street.
I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,
Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
My stomach being empty as your hat,
The wind doubled me up and down I went.
As Lippo is telling this section of the story he is watching one guard and sees that his “eye twinkles still,” and that he is shaking his “head” as if he does not believe him. It does seem that he is entertained by this story though and is prepared to let Lippo continue for a while longer.
The guard is surprised and judgmental. In the shake of his head, he seems to say “a monk.” As if he does not believe a monk would get up to such trouble. Lippi attempts to brush this off and claiming camaraderie is the guard, asks that if Cosimo were to approach them that he would say nothing to the story Lippi just told.
At this point in Lippi’s monologue, he travels back in time to when he was “a baby” and experienced his mother and father dying. Their deaths left him “in the street” and it was there that he starved for “year or two.” He ate whatever he could find and the “wind doubled me up,” it was cold and punishing to Lippi’s body.
Lines 88- 105
Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
(Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
And so along the wall, over the bridge,
By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
While I stood munching my first bread that month:
“So, boy, you’re minded,” quoth the good fat father
Wiping his own mouth, ’twas refection-time,—
“To quit this very miserable world?
Will you renounce” . . . “the mouthful of bread?” thought I;
By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
Have given their hearts to—all at eight years old.
Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
‘Twas not for nothing—the good bellyful,
The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
And day-long blessed idleness beside!
Partially during this time period his aunt, “Lappacia” looked after him “with one hand.” It is clear that she did not do very much to support him and perhaps hit him.
One day Lippi was walking along “the wall, over the bridge, / By the straight cut to the convent.” It was from the monks there that he had his “first bread that month.” While he was eating, the “good fat father” who gave him the bread asks if he is prepared to give up “this very miserable world” and become a monk.
Lippi knows that he does not really want this, but he does “renounce the world, its pride and greed” as well as all the grand places. He was eight years old at the time and enjoyed the idleness of a monk’s life. He was “warm” and always had a “good bellyful.”
This time of relaxation did not last though.
“Let’s see what the urchin’s fit for”—that came next.
Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
Lord, they’d have taught me Latin in pure waste!
Flower o’ the clove.
All the Latin I construe is, “amo” I love!
But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
Eight years together, as my fortune was,
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,—
Which gentleman processional and fine,
Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
The droppings of the wax to sell again,
Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,—
How say I?—nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
His bone from the heap of offal in the street,—
Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
He learns the look of things, and none the less
For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
Soon the other monks were trying to find a use for him. They attempted to make him study and learn Latin. But he found this to be a waste of time. The only word that he remembers is “amo” or “I love.”
He wants his listeners to remember that this was a very pleasant alternative to living on the streets. His “fortune” was much improved. It is better than begging for bits of food and trying to judge who will hit him or help him.
Lippi also wants the listeners to know that some of the time he had to fight with dogs for their scraps. While this was a miserable time, he was able to learn a lot about how to judge other people.
Lines 127- 142
I had a store of such remarks, be sure,
Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.
I drew men’s faces on my copy-books,
Scrawled them within the antiphonary’s marge,
Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
Found eyes and nose and chin for A’s and B’s,
And made a string of pictures of the world
Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
“Nay,” quoth the Prior, “turn him out, d’ye say?
In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
What if at last we get our man of parts,
We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
And put the front on it that ought to be!”
And hereupon he bade me daub away.
The expressions of men that he became so intimate with served as the inspiration for the first portraits he drew. His sketches were done on “my copy-books,” or workbooks, and often on sheet music. Additionally, he was not afraid of drawing on the walls, something that made the monks very unhappy.
Some, such as the Prior of the monastery, believe that he should be kicked out, and if he wasn’t, that they should train him to do something else. This “something else” ends up being the start of his training as an artist. He will help them “put the front on” the church that the monks have wanted.
Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
Never was such prompt disemburdening.
First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
From good old gossips waiting to confess
Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,—
To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration, half for his beard and half
For that white anger of his victim’s son
Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
Signing himself with the other because of Christ
(Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years)
Till some poor girl, her apron o’er her head,
(Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
(The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
I painted all, then cried “‘Tis ask and have;
Choose, for more’s ready!”—laid the ladder flat,
In this section of the poem Lippo is describing the beginning of his career and how, as he was training and learning, he started by drawing “every sort of monk.” He drew the “black and white” as well as the “fat and lean.” He also studied “folk at church.”
He wanted to paint every type of person and scene. He painted young girls and even a murderer surrounded by children. The poet describes these images vividly. It is easy to see why Lippo was entranced by them and chose to spend time painting them.
Lines 165- 178
And showed my covered bit of cloister-wall.
The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
Being simple bodies,—”That’s the very man!
Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
That woman’s like the Prior’s niece who comes
To care about his asthma: it’s the life!”
But there my triumph’s straw-fire flared and funked;
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!
Lippo has spent a lot of time painting at this point and wants to show off what he has done. He hangs up what he has done on the walls of his room and all of the monks “closed in a circle and praised loud.” They were greatly impressed by his realism and were even able to recognize specific faces and scenes, such as the “boy who stoops to pat the dog.”
This triumph with the monks soon comes to an end as the higher-ranking members of the monastery, including the Prior, come to see his work. The Prior is clearly upset by what he sees and says, “How? What’s here?” He does not appreciate what Lippo has done. He does not consider it proper panting but something from the devil.
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?
The Prior attempts, in this section, to adequately describe why he does not like Lippo’s work. He believes that it is a painter’s job to “lift” men above the world not show them as part of it. The Prior wants Lippo to depict the human soul, but even he cannot come to a solid answer about what that is. He tries to articulate his thoughts but is ultimately unable.
An artist that he believes Lippo should try to copy is “Giotto” who mastered the art of religious painting. The Prior is so outraged by the painting, especially the depiction of his “niece” whose breasts he suspiciously notices, that he tells Lippo to get rid of all of the work he has made.
Lines 199- 215
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 nought.
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 three-fold?
The artist is horrified by the prospect of destroying his paintings and in an attempt to rebuff the Prior he asks what the point is in “painting body, So ill.” He wants to know if he cannot do both what he wants and what the Prior wants, paint the body and the soul.
He gives the example of the “Prior’s niece” and how her beautiful face will only expand a viewer’s understanding of her soul, not impede it.
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 nought 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.
I’m grown a man no doubt, I’ve broken bounds:
You should not take a fellow eight years old
And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
I’m my own master, paint now as I please—
Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
Lord, it’s fast holding by the rings in front—
Those great rings serve more purposes than just
To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
Lippo also offers another side to the argument that the Prior should find even less tolerable, the idea that the body is painted and the soul is completely ignored, or “simple beauty.”
Since Lippo is already angry, he takes the argument further. He reveals his irritation with the fact that he was taken into the monastery at eight years old when he did not have another choice. This decision has made him miss out on a lot of life that he is interested in. He is, he says, “a man no doubt.” He states that he will not be told what to do any longer and that he is his “ own master” and that he will “paint now as” he pleases.
Lippo is not without choices now that he is grown up. He has a friend in the “Corner-house,” referring to Cosimo Medici to whom he can go.
Lines 232- 250
And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
Are peeping o’er my shoulder as I work,
The heads shake still—”It’s art’s decline, my son!
You’re not of the true painters, great and old;
Brother Angelico’s the man, you’ll find;
Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
Fag on at flesh, you’ll never make the third!”
Flower o’ the pine,
You keep your mistr … manners, and I’ll stick to mine!
I’m not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
Don’t you think they’re the 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;
For, doing most, there’s pretty sure to come
A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints—
A laugh, a cry, the business of the world—
(Flower o’ the peach
Death for us all, and his own life for each!)
Although Lippo has Cosimo Medici to depend on, the monks still will not leave him alone. They are always there telling him that if he does not work harder he will never reach the likes of other monk painters such as “Brother Angelico” or “Brother Lorenzo” both of whom the monks consider great artists. They tell Lippo he will not even finish in third place.
Lippo spends the next lines of the poem singing another song, similar to that featured at the beginning of the piece. He does not give much credence to the opinions of the monks as “their Latin” does not make them art scholars. He does try to please the monks sometimes, but sometimes he decides he does not care and paints what he likes.
And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,
And I do these wild things in sheer despite,
And play the fooleries you catch me at,
In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass
After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
Although the miller does not preach to him
The only good of grass is to make chaff.
What would men have? Do they like grass or no—
May they or mayn’t they? all I want’s the thing
Settled for ever one way. As it is,
You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
You don’t like what you only like too much,
You do like what, if given you at your word,
You find abundantly detestable.
For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.
In this section of the poem the painter informs his listeners that it is not the only painting that he wants independence in, but life itself. “The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,” he does not want everything to pass him by when he never wanted to be a monk in the first place. It is this impulse that he satisfies when he sneaks out of the house.
The poet tells a short story that is meant to illustrate his own situation. He sees himself as a “mill-horse” that enjoys eating grass for its own pleasure, not just as a way to make “chaff” or hay. The earthly pleasure that the horse receives from eating is similar to that which the speaker gets from living and he does not see a problem with it. It seems as if, even though he knows what he wants, he still holds some respect for the monks and wants to know what they really believe. Many, he states, profess not to like something but do it anyway.
He sees the world as the garden that God created for man and woman. He “learned” this lesson well and “can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.” He will not soon forget it.
Lines 271- 293
You understand me: I’m a beast, I know.
But see, now—why, I see as certainly
As that the morning-star’s about to shine,
What will hap some day. We’ve a youngster here
Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
His name is Guidi—he’ll not mind the monks—
They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk—
He picks my practice up—he’ll paint apace.
I hope so—though I never live so long,
I know what’s sure to follow. You be judge!
You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
—The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at? oh, this last of course!—you say.
Lippo continues his story by putting himself down, calling himself a “beast.” Lippo is trying to explain to the officers who are listening to his story that there is another boy at the monastery who is just like him. The young man is learning how to paint and will soon be led to the experiences of life. This boy is large, so much so that Lippo refers to him as “Hulking Tom.”
He tells the guard that neither of them speaks Latin, so they should have a similar opinion. He is trying to flatter the man and says that the guard must have “seen the world.” Lippo wants to know if the man feels “thankful” to God for making the beautiful world they live in. The speaker is hoping that the guard will understand his impulse to paint and reproduce the world in which they live. Just because it is not intrinsically religious, does not mean that it should be “passed over” and “despised.”
But why not do as well as say,—paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God’s works—paint any one, and count it crime
To let a truth slip. Don’t object, “His works
Are here already; nature is complete:
Suppose you reproduce her—(which you can’t)
There’s no advantage! you must beat her, then.”
For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
Your cullion’s hanging face? A bit of chalk,
And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
If I drew higher things with the same truth!
The painter anticipates an argument from the guard and preemptively mentions it. He says that the guard might be wondering why to bother painting these at all, “His,” or God’s, “works / Are here already.” There is no need to duplicate them.
In an effort to dismiss this idea the pointer points to a woman nearby asking the guard, “Suppose you reproduce her”? He makes sure to tell the guard that there’s no way, with no painting skills, he could do it. But if he did, “There’s no advantage.” One must “beat her,” make something that is even more beautiful. Paintings make people better, more beautiful, and they will last longer so that one may see the perfect version of someone’s face long after they are gone.
God gave man art for this purpose. For example, he says, have you looked at your own “cullion” or rascal-like face? Lippo states that he would be able to fix it with only a piece of chalk.
That were to take the Prior’s pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
It makes me mad to see what men shall do
And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
“Ay, but you don’t so instigate to prayer!”
Strikes in the Prior: “when your meaning’s plain
It does not say to folk—remember matins,
Or, mind you fast next Friday!” Why, for this
What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what’s best,
A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
“How looks my painting, now the scaffold’s down?”
I ask a brother: “Hugely,” he returns—
“Already not one phiz of your three slaves
Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
But’s scratched and prodded to our heart’s content,
The pious people have so eased their own
With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
Expect another job this time next year,
For pity and religion grow i’ the crowd—
Your painting serves its purpose!” Hang the fools!
Lippo knows that if he was able to paint “higher things,” to even a grander standard than they already exist, there would be no need for the Prior to preaching as he does. He would take the “Prior’s pulpit-place” and do the preaching instead. The speaker continues on to state that it “makes [ him] mad” that he will not get to see all the changes taking place in the world after he is in his grave. His purpose in life is to find meaning in the world, that is the only reason he has been put on earth.
The Prior’s words jump back into Lippo’s head as if he is continually haunted by them. The meaning that Lippo is sussing out is not the right one, by the Prior’s standards. It does not tell the common people that they need to come to church.
If that is all art is about, the world might as well do away with it and replace it with a “bell to chime the hour with. Lippo wants another example to prove his point so he tells his listeners of a “fresco,” or painting on wet plaster that was immensely popular during the Renaissance, that he completed at the church of Saint Lawrence. The people of Florence have defaced his painting, they do not understand what he was trying to. His work does not compute with their world view and they have “scratched and prodded” at the wall. It “eased” them to do so. Lippo does mention in these lines that his painting, so hated by the “fool[ish]” public has caused them to pray with greater reverence and return to church more often.
Lines 337- 360
—That is—you’ll not mistake an idle word
Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
Oh, the church knows! don’t misreport me, now!
It’s natural a poor monk out of bounds
Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
And hearken how I plot to make amends.
I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
… There’s for you! Give me six months, then go, see
Something in Sant’ Ambrogio’s! Bless the nuns!
They want a cast o’ my office. I shall paint
God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
As puff on puff of grated orris-root
When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
And then i’ the front, of course a saint or two—
Saint John’ because he saves the Florentines,
Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
The convent’s friends and gives them a long day,
And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
At the beginning of this section of lines, Lippo is backtracking. He does not want the guards to get too upset about what he has said and report him. He tells them that it has just been “idle” talk that was “Spoken in a huff.” He reminds the men that he has a head full of “Chianti wine!”
The painter seems to have reached the point where he feels bad about what he has said or at least worried he’s going to get in trouble. He tells the guards that he is plotting to “make amends” with the church. The “plot” he coming up with regards the painting of a piece at “Sant’Ambrogio’s.” His plan is to “paint God in the midst, Madonna and her babe.” These characters will be “Ringed by” a “flowery…brood” of angels with sweet faces and flowers.
Other characters in this painting will include “Saint John’…because he saves the Florentines” as well as “Saint Ambrose.”
Lines 361- 376
Secured at their devotion, up shall come
Out of a corner when you least expect,
As one by a dark stair into a great light,
Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!—
Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck—I’m the man!
Back I shrink—what is this I see and hear?
I, caught up with my monk’s-things by mistake,
My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
I, in this presence, this pure company!
Where’s a hole, where’s a corner for escape?
Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
Forward, puts out a soft palm—”Not so fast!”
—Addresses the celestial presence, “nay—
He made you and devised you, after all,
Though he’s none of you! Could Saint John there draw—
His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
There is a “dark stair” in the corner of the painting as well as a “great light, / Music and talking.” From that portion of the wall, Lippo will paint himself. It was common practice during the Renaissance for painters to add themselves into large scale paintings, oftentimes as commoners, or unremarkable observers of a scene. He will show himself to be “Mazed, motionless, moonstruck” by what he is observing.
Even within the confines of the planned painting, Lippo does not feel like he belongs in the religious world. He will attempt to make an escape, “Back I shrink…” but before he can leave, he is trapped. He gets “caught up with [his] monk’s things by mistake” and all wrapped up in his “gown and rope.” He is unable to get away, especially after an angel confronts him.
The angel who has stopped Lippo then turns to the other characters in the painting and tells them that this man, who is trying to get away “made you and devised you,” though, he is not like you.
Lines 347- 363
We come to brother Lippo for all that,
Iste perfecit opus! So, all smile—
I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
Under the cover of a hundred wings
Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you’re gay
And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
To some safe bench behind, not letting go
The palm of her, the little lily thing
That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
Like the Prior’s niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
And so all’s saved for me, and for the church
A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
The street’s hushed, and I know my own way back,
Don’t fear me! There’s the grey beginning. Zooks!
The angels in the painting “come” to brother Lippo because of that and say, “Iste perfecit opus!” or “that is the person who made this.” In this complicated narrative that the painter is weaving, his painted self is covered by “a hundred wings” and “kirtles,” a type of dress worn by women, are thrown over him. The angels want to play games with the painter and close to the door to the room. This risqué daydream is interrupted by “The hothead husband!”
To escape his rage, the painter scuttles “off / To some safe bench behind.” He is still with the first angel who spoke to him and is holding “The palm of her.” She reminds him of the “Prior’s niece” or “Saint Lucy.”
He quickly jumps out of this narrative, back into the original story he had been telling the guards. After he paints this complex picture everything will be right with the church. The guards themselves will see the truth of his statement in “six months hence.”
Lippo runs from the guards at this point, stating that he is not in need of help or any kind of light. The street is very quiet as he runs and the “grey” is “beginning,” the sun is rising.
About Robert Browning
Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, London in May of 1812. His father was able to accumulate a large library containing around 6,000 books. This would form the basis of Browning’s early education and stimulate his interest in literature.
From early in his life Browning’s family supported his poetic aspirations and helped him financially as well as with the publishing of his first works. He lived with his family until he met and married the fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett. Elizabeth and Robert moved to live in Florence, Italy. They had a son in 1849 and Browning’s rate of production dropped off significantly. Elizabeth, now known by her married name, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, died in 1861. After this, Browning and his son moved back to England.
After receiving mixed reviews from critics when he was young, Browning finally gained some critical acclaim when he was in his 50s. His greatest work, The Ring and the Book, was published in 1868-69.
Before Browning’s death in 1889 in Venice, he lived to see the formation of the Browning Society and received an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Balliol College at Oxford University. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.