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?
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 prize what comes into their net?
He’s Judas to a tittle, that man is!
Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
Lord, I’m not angry! Bid your hangdogs 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!
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 up 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.
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,
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 tomorrow 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!
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.
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!
“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.
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 hose 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.
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,
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!
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?
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 naught.
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 threefold?
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 naught 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!
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!)
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 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.
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
Come 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.
But why not do as well as say, — paint these
Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
God’s works — paint anyone, 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!
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!
— 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 their 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
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?
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!
“Fra Lippo Lippi,” another of Browning’s dramatic monologues, appeared in the 1855 collection Men and Women. Fra (Brother) Lippo Lippi was an actual Florentine monk who lived in the fifteenth century. He was a painter of some renown, and Browning most probably gained familiarity with his works during the time he spent in Italy. “Fra Lippo Lippi” introduces us to the monk as he is being interrogated by some Medici watchmen, who have caught him out at night. Because Lippo’s patron is Cosimo de Medici, he has little to fear from the guards, but he has been out partying and is clearly in a mood to talk. He shares with the men the hardships of monastic life: he is forced to carry on his relationships with women in secret, and his superiors are always defeating his good spirits. But Lippo’s most important statements concern the basis of art: should art be realistic and true-to-life, or should it be idealistic and didactic? Should Lippo’s paintings of saints look like the Prior’s mistress and the men of the neighborhood, or should they evoke an otherworldly surreality? Which kind of art best serves religious purposes? Should art even serve religion at all? Lippo’s rambling speech touches on all of these issues.
“Fra Lippo Lippi” takes the form of blank verse—unrhymed lines, most of which fall roughly into iambic pentameter. As in much of his other poetry, Browning seeks to capture colloquial speech, and in many parts of the poem he succeeds admirably: Lippo includes outbursts, bits of songs, and other odds and ends in his rant. In his way Browning brilliantly captures the feel of a late-night, drunken encounter.
The poem centers thematically around the discussion of art that takes place around line 180. Lippo has painted a group of figures that are the spitting image of people in the community: the Prior’s mistress, neighborhood men, etc. Everyone is amazed at his talent, and his great show of talent gains him his place at the monastery. However, his talent for depicting reality comes into conflict with the stated religious goals of the Church. The Church leadership believes that their parishioners will be distracted by the sight of people they know within the painting: as the Prior and his cohorts say, “ ‘Your business is not to catch men with show, / With homage to the perishable clay.../ Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh. / Your business is to paint the souls of men.’ ” In part the Church authorities’ objections stem not from any real religious concern, but from a concern for their own reputation: Lippo has gotten a little too close to the truth with his depictions of actual persons as historical figures—the Prior’s “niece” (actually his mistress) has been portrayed as the seductive Salome. However, the conflict between Lippo and the Church elders also cuts to the very heart of questions about art: is the primary purpose of Lippo’s art—and any art—to instruct, or to delight? If it is to instruct, is it better to give men ordinary scenes to which they can relate, or to offer them celestial visions to which they can aspire? In his own art, Browning himself doesn’t seem to privilege either conclusion; his work demonstrates only a loose didacticism, and it relies more on carefully chosen realistic examples rather than either concrete portraits or abstractions. Both Fra Lippo’s earthly tableaux and the Prior’s preferred fantasias of “ ‘vapor done up like a new-born babe’ ” miss the mark. Lippo has no aspirations beyond simple mimesis, while the Prior has no respect for the importance of the quotidian. Thus the debate is essentially empty, since it does not take into account the power of art to move man in a way that is not intellectual but is rather aesthetic and emotional.
Lippo’s statements about art are joined by his complaints about the monastic lifestyle. Lippo has not adopted this lifestyle by choice; rather, his parents’ early death left him an orphan with no choice but to join the monastery. Lippo is trapped between the ascetic ways of the monastery and the corrupt, fleshly life of his patrons the Medicis. Neither provides a wholly fulfilling existence. Like the kind of art he espouses, the Prior’s lifestyle does not take basic human needs into account. (Indeed, as we know, even the Prior finds his own precepts impossible to follow.) The anything-goes morality of the Medicis rings equally hollow, as it involves only a series of meaningless, hedonistic revels and shallow encounters. This Renaissance debate echoes the schism in Victorian society, where moralists and libertines opposed each other in fierce disagreement. Browning seems to assert that neither side holds the key to a good life. Yet he concludes, as he does in other poems, that both positions, while flawed, can lead to high art: art has no absolute connection to morality.