Fra Lippo Lippi by Robert Browning: Summary

'Fra Lippo Lippi' is the one of the most popular of Browning's monologues. The subject, Brother Lippi, was a monk and painter of Renaissance Italy. He was one of the first painters in the naturalist school. He is here made to voice many of Browning's conviction about art and its relationship to reality and the Ideal; in fact, the poem expresses many of Browning's ideas about life and art, ideal and reality, religion and morality, and especially the function of art or the responsibility of the artist.

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Fra Lippo Lippi has been caught wandering at night by the watch and suspected to be a vagrant. Undaunted the Fra gives the explanation of his presence there at that time. He asks the watchman to release his hold on the throat as he is a man of some social position. He further says that he is a monk of the Carmine's cloister and he is staying at present at the nearby palace of the Cosimo of the Medici. He is irritated about the rude manners of the watchmen and asks their leader to teach some manners to the men under him. If he had a piece of chalk or even coal, he could show them what he could do. The leader of the watch, asks him if he is a painter. The Fra says that he is indeed a painter.

Fra Lippo Lippi continues that he has been staying for the last three weeks at the palace of the Cosimo, painting portraits of saints, one after the other. On the present night, as he was engaged in painting, he happened to lean out of the window to breathe the fresh air when he heard a group of gay young men and women laughing and singing merry songs. And as they rounded the corner, he saw three slim shapes (of flower girls or young prostitutes) passing by. He was so attracted by the beautiful face or one of them that he climbed down the balcony to the street with the help of an improvised ladder made from the curtains, the counterpane and the coverlet He followed the three (flower) girls and after enjoying the fun he was going back to the palace when the watch came up and caught hold of him.

Fra Lippo Lippi then proceeds to tell his life story to the watch. When he was just a little child, he lost both of his parents and was thus left to starve in the streets. For some time he managed to live on by scrapping the refuse and the rubbish in the streets. Afterwards his aunt took him to a convent to be made a monk. He was at the time only eight years of age. At the convent he had little manual work to do. The Monks tried, to teach him Latin, but in this he failed miserably, however, he showed an aptitude towards drawing from an early age. While wandering about in the streets for eight years in search of food, he had closely studied hundreds of faces and built up a storehouse in his mind about their different characters and temperaments. He began to paint men's faces on his copy books, on the wall, on the bench and the door. The monks became irritated and requested the Prior to turn the young boy out of the convent. But the Prior said that they could use his talents well at a later stage and he encouraged the young boy to continue painting. He, therefore, went on drawing pictures of monks, both fat and lean, as well as of the crowds of people who came to the church for prayers. The monks began to appreciate his drawings for their realism and praised him.

But the Prior and some other learned priests reacted differently. They said that his pictures were too realistic. So much homage should not to be paid to the human body, which was after all mortal. A monk-painter's function should be to paint the soul and not the body. The human soul should be the theme of his painting and the body should be drawn only to the extent of illustrating the soul. They asked him 'to paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms'. They asked him to rub out all his paintings so far executed and start afresh.

Fra Lippo Lippi, however, disagreed with this approach to art. He believed (and he told so to his hearers) that the true artist's function was to give equal attention to the body as well as the soul. Thus, while paining the pretty niece of the Prior, he had to ensure that he would depict the exact expression in her eyes-hope, fear, sorrow, or joy-and make the picture pulsate with life as also to add the soul to it. It was possible to draw a beautiful figure without the soul in it. In painting his portraits, Fra Lippo Lippi had certainly gone beyond the limits set by the monks, but he was of the opinion that it was wrong for the monks to expect a young lad to spiritualize his art.

“You should not take a fellow eight years old, and make him swear to never kiss the girls."

Fra Lippo Lippi now tells his hearers how he had left the convent and become his own master. He now painted at his sweet will. His patron was Master Cosimo of the Medici at whose house he was now staying. However, he continued thinking of the advice of the Prior and his brother monks that he would never become a great painter like Brother Angelico and Brother Lorenzo, if he did not spiritualize his art. Sometimes he had to paint in accordance with their directions, but he never believed that they (the monks) were good judges of art only because they were good in Latin. He did not also believe that the physical world and life were valueless like a dream and that reality lay beyond the world. That was why he sometimes took part in wild pranks and fooleries as he had done this night by going after the flower girls. The human body had been created by God and its beauties and pleasures could not just be ignored. No true artist could also ignore the beauty of nature "the look of the town, the flow of the river the mountains round it and the sky above and more than that, the figures of men, women and children". An artist should be truthful and realistic. He should not ignore any aspect, physical or spiritual, in his paintings. It was also wrong to say that as God had made nature, it was futile to reproduce it on the canvas. Many of the things painted by painters, are not noticed by most people and the artists make them conscious of these beauties of nature.

This was the true function of art, according to him. The world should not be blindly despised or scorned. It bad a deep meaning and it was the function of the artist to discover that meaning and express it in his paintings. The Prior and such other people might say that such pictures glorifying the human body or depicting the beauties of nature, were not going to urge the people towards acts of piety like fasting or prayer but real art was not meant to serve such a purpose. People might be urged towards fasting and prayers by pictures of the skull and bones, the sign of the cross or the ringing of the church bells. Six months ago, he had painted the picture of Saint Laurence at Prato, near Florence and one of the monks had appreciated it and said that it served its purpose.

Fra Lippo Lippi, having by now finished his life-story, requests the watch not to misreport him. He promises to make amends for slipping out of the palace to enjoy with the flower-girls, by spending six months in painting a huge picture for St. Ambrose's Church at Florence. He will depict God, Virgin Mary and the child Jesus surrounded by a large number of sweet, innocent looking angels in this painting. He might also paint a saint or two (St. John and St. Ambrose) as also Job, the man of patience, in this piece of painting. And in one corner of this painting, he will depict himself, looking somewhat foolish and out of place in such heavenly company. He is sure that it would be a beautiful picture.

Bidding goodbye to the watch, Fra Lippo Lippi now slips away to the Medici palace, where he is staying. He tells the watch that he does not require the help of light from their torches, as he can find his way to his residence in the darkness.

Cite this Page!

Shrestha, Roma. "Fra Lippo Lippi by Robert Browning: Summary." BachelorandMaster, 15 Feb. 2018,

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