THE BODY AND SOUL OF FRA LIPPO LIPPI
Robert Brownings 19th-century poem entitled Fra Lippo Lippi centers thematically around the discussion of art. Fra Lippo Lippi is a 15th-century monk and artist whom engages in a dramatic monologue with the law. As an unreliable narrator, he reveals things about himself and those around him that perhaps he is unaware of revealing. Fra Lippo Lippi expects that his behavior is seen as wrong but dismisses it with his poetic narrative of how life has tried to shape his art, imprisoning his God-given eye. As the verse unfolds the silent audience is acquainted with the aesthetic theories of the Prior and of Fra Lippo Lippi.Fra Lippo Lippi states the artist can capture what the normal eye would not as he frames reality; the gaze of art can serve the soul in reaching a more righteous being. The role of the artist and of his art are in battle with the body and soul as seen through the struggles of the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippis opposing aesthetic theories.
The poem begins as Fra Lippo Lippi is being arrested for breaking curfew with prostitutes in his pious company. He declares in his capture that he is guilty of the crime but through no fault of his own.
Zooks, whats to blame? You think you see a monk!
What, t is past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at the alleys end
Where supportive ladies leave their doors ajar? (Browning, lines 3-6)
As a man of the cloth, Fra Lippo Lippi took vows of abstinence and to follow Gods absolute order. As a man he has physical urges and is not expected to reach perfection. Fra Lippo Lippi recognizes each position as he spends the rest of his monologue explaining his choices.
Fra Lippo Lippi grew up on the streets minus his deceased parents, with no home or food. His occupation became Watching folks 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– (lines114-116). At the ripe age of eight he finds himself in the good company of the church as monks take him in as a brother. Fra Lippo Lippi fails at learning the language of the church but shows off his young talent of art. Instead of dismissing this as the graffiti of a child, the Prior sees fame.
What if at last we got 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! (lines 138-141)
The relationship of Fra Lippo Lippi and the Prior becomes an exchange of the body for the soul. Fra Lippo Lippi will give his soul to God in order to paint the body but the Prior will only allow his body to work as an instrument to paint the soul. Fra Lippo Lippi begins to draw monks and church folk in their true and real form of being black, fat, gossips and criminals. At the Priors first sight of such realism on canvas, the conflict of the artist and art begins as Fra Lippo Lippis aesthetic theories do not match his own.
The Priors complaint about Fra Lippo Lippis art is that he does not draw the mans soul; only drawing the body parts is not useful as it promotes entertainment and not prayer.
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 theres such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men– (lines 179-183)
His aesthetic theory is that of religion and lifting the soul up over the body. The Prior views Fra Lippo Lippis painting as the devils-game (line 178) because of the reality it exposes of the church. Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts, Shes just my niece… (lines 195-196). The niece is really the Priors mistress and along with other true to life figures he captures from the church, Fra Lippo Lippi paints a sinful portrait of real life. How to draw the soul without the body is what the Prior wants, and he tries to explain to Fra Lippo Lippi what exactly the soul is. Mans soul, and its a fire, smoke…no, its not…Its vapour done up like a new-born babe- (lines 184-185). This shows a contradiction in the Priors theory because fire, vapor, and body are worldly and of the flesh–things he says the soul are not. Representation is a problem because an artist draws what hes seen or has experienced. The Prior has not seen the soul represented, so he can not explain it to Fra Lippo Lippi, who, in turn, has not represented the soul in a way that fits the Priors expectations.
Fra Lippo Lippi believes that he has painted the soul because the soul shines through each person, and it is his the artists job to see it and capture it. Gods spirit infuses every object no matter what the artist paints; there is nothing that isnt beautiful because all of Gods creations are beautiful.
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, paintedbetter 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 cullions 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 Priors pulpit-place,
Interpret God to all of you! (lines 301-311)
Fra Lippo Lippi feels that God gives to the artist a special insight which the artist must make use of. He explains that the average person does not see the beauty of everyday things until he/she sees it as a painting. God himself has given this talent to only a few, the artists, whose duty it is to fulfill Gods wishes to paint. Fra Lippo Lippis aesthetic theory is that because God is found in everything he must paint everythingincluding ordinary objects and everyday life that the Prior views as ungodly. As an artist, Fra Lippo Lippi admits that he also is given the rights to put more qualities into what he paints, some how playing the role of God.
It was no accident that he ran into the law as he has broken curfew before but this time wanted to stop and share his story. Fra Lippo Lippi wanted someone, anyone, to hear why he is who he is and why he does the things he does. He needs his audience to know that being a monk was not solely by his own choice–he was a starving child and the monks offered him food in return to swearing off the girls. His paintings were not welcomed with open arms by the church because of the suggested evil that Fra Lippo Lippi did not feel he was representing. The Priors niece and the fat monks are what the artist sees for himself, by Gods given talent, and so me must paint them. Fra Lippo Lippi has connected society with religion and as an artist he has a duty to make shown for the average person will not see it until they see it as art. Art is based on life and life is based on art but not until you see something represented which is what Fra Lippo Lippi is trying to do.
In the end of his dramatic monologue Fra Lippo Lippi hints to the next painting he will create in six months which he urges his audience to go and view. He will paint the painting the Prior wants to see, one of the soul and spirit in company of God, Madonna, Saints and an unexpected guest. Fra Lippo Lippi will also be in the holy crowd, moonstruck (line 364) and ready to shrink back. The artist competes with God as he creates his art and now he is in the company of God who created him. In an instant Fra Lippo Lippi redeems his aesthetic theory and has confidence that he should be there with the celestial crowd because he is the only one who can paint.
Could Saint John there draw
His camel-hair make up a up a painting-brush?
We come to brother Lippo for all that,
Iste perfecit opus! So, all smile– (lines 374-377)
This is the painting that will settle the battle between the Prior and Fra Lippo Lippis difference of opinion on the role of the artist and of art. The Prior will be happy to see the soul and Fra Lippo will be happy to be present in the painting; the body and soul together.