Analysis of Poem Fra Lippo Lippi by Robert Browning

Updated on May 9, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Browning
Robert Browning | Source

Robert Browning and A Summary of Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi is one of Browning's best known poems, a long dramatic monologue in blank verse that brings painter and monk, brother Lippo, centre stage.

Based on a real life Florentine painter who lived from 1406 -1469, this speaker exemplifies Browning's ability to create authentic characters for his longer poems. Lippo is capable of developing complex arguments whilst bringing a personal slant to all the goings on in his life.

He is an artist who passionately wants to paint simple beauty of human form but is put off by the constant criticism and demands of the Prior and the learned who cry: Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!

  • So the main theme of this poem is that of artistic honesty - should Lippo paint real people, flesh and all, or paint the souls of men in an attempt to lift them above things of the flesh?
  • Basically the question being posed is: Should religious art portray humans as refined creatures with soul or should religious art reflect reality, warts and all?
  • Browning's gift is to bring Lippo colourfully alive through dynamic use of language and ally this with genuine interaction on the street as the monk meets and tells of various people, working his way through the subject of art and personal history.
  • Lippo's character is subtle, crafty, gossipy, astute, knowledgeable. It's difficult to tell just exactly what he's been up to in the city but he is keen to impress his opinion on the watchmen/policemen who stop him.

In one sense this is a slice of drama disguised as a poem - it could have been taken straight out of a play, such is the quality of the monologue, the storyline and the involvement of Lippo in real life and in the arguments with his religious elders.

The reader is taken in immediately because the first person speaker gets straight into action when he's apprehended by two city policemen at midnight. They grab hold of him thinking he's a monk (in the vicinity of the red light district) but he soon reveals all - in line 39 - when he declares Yes, I'm the painter.

Lippo goes on to tell them his life story, how he was abandoned as a child and taken in by those at the monastery. Most thought him an 'urchin', a good for nothing who should be thrown out, but Lippo got used to monastic life and eventually started to draw and paint.

A great many lines in this poem deal with the subject of religious art and what it should represent and why, according to Lippo or his elders. The fascination comes in the characterful expression of Lippo which, when delved into, provides added universal interest for the reader as the monologue progresses.

In some respects Lippo is the mouthpiece of Browning himself, who preferred the earthy and realistic in art rather than the ideal.

It was first published in 1855 in the book Men and Women.

Fra Lippo Lippi - Brief Summary

Lines 1 - 38 Brother Lippo caught at midnight by city policemen. Gives his excuses, tries a bribe.

Lines 39 - 80 Declares himself the painter. He's been working on a saints and saints and saints painting for 6 weeks and has gone a bit loopy, hence his escape. Start of debate: realism or idealism in art?

Lines 81 - 128 Details personal history and time spent on streets and in monastery.

Lines 129 - 392 More detailed argument on merits of art. Religious elders want soul, he loves to paint flesh.

Analysis of Fra Lippo Lippi - Lines 1 - 269

Fra Lippo Lippi focuses on the life of one poor brother monk Lippo a painter who is a monk living in Florence during the 15th century.

He is the speaker, the voice, created by Browning to put forward the argument for realistic religious art, legs and arms and flesh, as opposed to the saintly portrayal of the soul, which his monastic elders demand.

  • The first thirty eight lines focus on the excitable character of Lippo, caught by one of the city's night watchmen (guards or policemen) who apprehend him around midnight.
  • The fact that he's close to the red light district must have raised their suspicions.
  • This is a first person narrative throughout.

Lippo is somewhat shocked by their actions - in lines 13 and 20 he refers to the fact that a hand is around his throat, which doesn't anger him but inspires him to say that he, Lippo, is the equivalent of a pilchard, caught up in a net.

Browning's keen sense of humour and farce begins to show its face. His diction is full of colour and texture and of course, drama.

Lippo then tries to bribe the watchmen with a quarter-florin (a coin first struck in Florence in the 13th century) which will make amends for their physical approach to him but nothing seems to come of this.

Eventually Lippo focuses in on the face of one of the watchmen, comparing it to that of Judas, and asks if any of them have a piece of chalk or charcoal (wood-coal) handy? Because he presumably would like to sketch him.

  • So it is that in line 39 Lippo admits to being the painter and sits down to tell the watchmen how he came to be out on the street at such a late hour.
  • This explanation stretches out up to line 81.

It appears that Lippo has spent three weeks in his mew (cage) cooped up painting saints and saints and saints again....for the great man, which must be the Prior or God.

No doubt fatigued by this burdensome toil he happened to be distracted by a passing band of musicians. They sounded full of fun and mirth and on impulse Lippo there and then decided that he must join them.

So without hesitation he tore up his bed furniture and made an escape ladder down from the window to the street.

Basically Lippo his claiming his innocence - all he wanted was a bit of fun, some light relief from the painting, so he joined the band for some late night laughs and was just on his way back home when they caught him.

  • Lippo now outlines his personal history, his life story, beginning in line 81. This develops into the story of his artistic endeavours growing up in the monastery and soon the reader becomes aware of the tensions arising from the needs and demands of the Prior and the learned regarding religious art, (174-198) and the personal preferences of Lippo.
  • By line 222 Lippo has given his life story and basic foundation for his artistic argument.
  • By line 269 more detail emerges about his take on why art should be realistic and the personal strain he's under to fulfil his role.

Analysis of Fra Lippo Lippi Lines 270 - 335

Lippo continues his argument for realism, addressed to the watchmen. He gives as example the surrounds of the city, the landscape, and asks if it is to be passed over, despised or wondered at?

The idea is that as humans we do not see for real until an artist depicts what is naturally all around us - we take it for granted - God's own handiwork - but when painted we fall in love with it.

In line 315 Lippo sums up his approach to painting - as a means to understand the world he lives in:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Lippo then mocks the church elders by saying that if the purpose of a painting is to get the followers to come to morning prayers (matins) or to fast on a Friday...then:

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.

In the end, in line 335, Lippo becomes exasperated, exclaiming Hang the fools!

More Analysis of Fra Lippo Lippi Lines 336 - 392

Lippo now goes on to confess to the watchmen that the church knows all about his reservations when it comes to painting and that he now wants to make amends for all the trouble he has caused them.

He plans to paint something special in Sant' Ambrogio's (Coronation of the Virgin) which will please both himself and the church. He urges the watchmen to go visit in six months time.

He'll paint God, the Madonna and baby and saints and even Job out of the old testament. This will hopefully keep the Prior and the betters quiet. In addition, to satisfy himself and his quest for realism, he will paint....himself!

Lippo manages to have a pop at the traditionalists and make a joke at the expense of Saint John, whilst also incorporating the Prior's niece (perhaps he has a crush on her, or suspects her? After all, she's mentioned three times) who will be a sweet angelic slip of a thing and speak up for him.

So, with a handshake and a goodbye, Lippo slips off into the dawn, having got much off his chest regarding religious art done soulfully, which he detests, but puts up with, because that's how he makes a living and keeps on the right side of God, and his immediate elders.

Off he goes home for a good night's sleep through the hushed streets of Florence.

Browning's mouthpiece Lippo finds beauty, truth and authenticity in realism, in the flesh, legs and arms, profiles and landscapes wherein resides the soul, the natural soul you could say, as opposed to the false, pious, saintly approach to art upheld by the Prior and the establishment, which is a surface only used to dupe the followers into more prayer and fasting.

Blank Verse of Fra Lippo Lippi

Fra Lippo Lippi is written in blank verse which traditionally has lines of iambic pentameter, that is, with a steady rhythm based on the iambic foot - daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM - so five feet with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed.

  • But, as will become immediately clear to the reader, Browning doesn't stick to the iambic pentameter rhythm throughout as this would make the poem sound ridiculous and not be a true reflection of real and active speech.

Everyday speech is a mix of all kinds of rhythms and stresses and Browning's lines echo this faithfully.

Let's take a closer look at some of the lines:

I am / poor broth / er Lip / po, by / your leave!

You need / not clap / your tor / ches to / my face.

The first line has a trochee and a spondee in the first two feet which alter the iambic beat. Iambs complete the rest of the line.

The second line is pure iambic pentameter, with a steady rhythm.

Scarce had / they turned / the cor / ner when / a titter

Like the skip / ping of rab / bits by moon / light - three / slim shapes,

The first line (58) starts off with a spondee, two stresses, and ends with an extra beat, often called a hyperbeat, the eleventh beat.

The following line (59) starts off with three anapaests (dadaDUM) which create a tripping rising rhythm to boost the rabbit movement. There are 13 syllables in total, the final three all stressed.

This metrical mix continues throughout, with the template iambic, but broken here and there as the syntax challenges.

Browning took inspiration from previous masters of blank verse such as Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, bringing his own inimitable touch to a form that is still commonly used.

Fra Lippo Lippi - Browning's Syntax

In Fra Lippo Lippi, Browning's use of syntax to reinforce meaning and develop character shines through. Syntax is the way words are sequenced within the poem as a whole; it's to do with clauses and grammar, how they work together to produce a poetic effect.

Certain passages within the poem illustrate how Browning skilfully orders words and sentences (along with punctuation and poetic device) to create rich, absorbing and characterful lines.

Look at this section, lines 58 - 69, which develops Lippo's telling of how, cooped up in his room for three weeks solid, painting saintly pictures for the Prior, he hears some musicians down on the street:

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,

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?

That first line is enjambed (enjambment), without punctuation, and runs into the next line which happens to be the longest in the whole poem, 13 syllables, contains a simile and then a dash - pausing the reader with a comma.

The next several lines are awash with dots, dashes, commas, caesurae (pauses mid-line) and alliteration...Curtains, counterpane, coverlet...the excitement of Lippo enhanced as the lines reflect a stuttery speech pattern. Lippo tears up his bedding to make a ladder so that he can descend and join in with the fun and frolics of the musicians.

Reading through these lines is to be right alongside the monk Lippo, sorry, the painter Lippo, as he first hears the fun-loving musicians, then sees them and is so sparked by their titters decides to escape.

The poem settles down, relatively speaking, after line 69 but you're never left completely at ease as the narrative shifts so and the syntax once again threatens to burst its seams.

Footnotes - Fra Lippo Lippi - Explanations

Lippo - Florentine painter 1406 - 1469. Browning had read a biography during his years in Florence.

by your leave! - with your permission.

Zooks - short for Gadzooks, an exclamation of mild shock. (archaic)

Carmine - cloister of monastery Santa Maria del Carmine. Lippo ended up here as a boy and became a monk.

harry out - chase out

Weke, weke - the sound of a softling mouse.

Cosimo of the Medici - wealthy patron and politician of Florence 1389 - 1464

gullet's-gripe -the grip on the throat.

Judas - one of the watchmen (policemen) looks like Judas (the traitor of Christ) in the picture.

quarter-florin - coin minted first in Florence

pike - long spear

John Baptist's - from the bible, John the Baptist prophesied the coming of Christ.

my mew - mew is an old word meaning cage or enclosure.

whifts of song - whifts means hints of

counterpane - old word for bedspread, a top cover or spread.

Saint Laurence - the church of San Lorenzo, close to the Medici palace.

Jerome - a painting of Saint Jerome in the desert.

Mum's the word - say nothing

shucks - outer coverings of pod, especially ear of maize.

Old Aunt Lapaccia - Mona Lapaccia, his father's sister.

stinger - refers to the other hand of Aunt Lapaccia which must have slapped him a few times, hence the sting.

refection-time - meal time.

Flower o' the clove...etc - small verse of song related to the others.

holla for the Eight - call for the magistrates (known as I Santi, the Saints) made up of citizens.

antiphonary's marge - margin of the book containing antiphons, responses chanted during the liturgy.

We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese - Carmelites belong to the order of the brothers of the blessed virgin Mary of Mount Carmel...Camaldolese are members of a Benedictine order at Camaldoli in the Appennines.

Preaching Friars - of the Dominican order.

Giotto - Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (1267 - 1337)

funked - expired in smoke.

Herodias - Salome's mother, wife of Herod Antipas. The mother demanded John the Baptist be imprisoned and it was after Salome had danced for Herod that he promised her anything. She asked for John's head on a platter (Matthew 14, 1 - 12)

Corner-house - Medici palace.

Brother Angelico - Fra Angelico, painter 1395 - 1455

Brother Lorenzo - Fra Lorenzo Monaco, painter and illustrator, 1370 - 1425

Fag on - keep toiling

Guidi/Hulking Tom - born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone aka Masaccio, painter 1401 - 1428

let's no atom drop - doesn't miss a thing, is one for small detail

Your cullions...- cullion is an archaic word meaning rascal.

matins - Christian morning prayer service

Saint Laurence - one of the seven deacons of Rome, martyred.

Prato - small town close to Florence where Lippo painted.

phiz - short for phizzog, slang term for face.

Deacon - reference to St Laurence and his death by roasting on a gridiron. He is said to have urged his executioners to turn him over because he was toasted on one side.

God wot - God knows

Chianti wine - wine from the region of Chianti in Tuscany

Sant' Ambrogio's…- a church in Florence where Lippo painted the Coronation of the Virgin in 1439 - 1447

orris-root - root of the flower which is made into smooth powder for the face.

Saint John - San Giovanni, patron saint of Florence

Saint Ambrose - saint, bishop of Milan 4th century AD

Job - character from the bible, a righteous man tested by God.

The man of Uz - Job lived in the land of Uz according to the Book of Job from the bible's old terstament.

Iste perfecit opus - latin for This man made the work!

kirtles - in middle ages a garment or tunic

play hot cockles - a game where a 'penitent' buries their head into the lap of another and holds a hand out flat on the back. Others come and slap the hand and the penitent has to guess and accuse someone.

Saint Lucy - or Lucia, Christian martyr of Syracuse


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey


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