Browning examines the state of contemporary poetry and art in a number of poems. In “Fra Lippo Lippi,” for example, he uses this historical figure to compare writers of his own age with the fifteenth-century artist. Lippi makes for a confusing, ambiguous character, both a heretic who blasphemes and visits brothels and a devout and serious artist who believes that all good art has a religious purpose. A painter should paint “God’s works,” he claims, and to overlook even the most minute truth is a “crime” (295). Unlike many of his contemporaries and teachers, Lippi refuses to follow the monastic ideal of painting.
He does not, in other words, try to ignore the “perishable clay” and raise his subjects above it in order to get to their souls (180). Instead, Lippi believes that a painter best captures the soul by representing the body in utmost detail: “the value and significance of flesh I can’t unlearn” (111). Lippi’s recitation of his life reveals to the reader the true value of art. Art operates as an instrument of God and as prophecy. When Lippi reaches the climax of his speech — the epiphanical moment for the reader — he says that the artist should paint those things that we all pass by from day-to-day but never care to notice.
The artist has a duty to open the eyes of his audience. Through art “God uses us to help each other so,/ Lending our minds out” (305-306). Clearly, then, the artist is called by God to sacrifice himself, to devote his energies and all his life to helping other people see. This means, of course, that artists “interpret God” for their audience, and by doing so, they essentially act as prophets, or at least as a kind of mediator between the divine and man (311). Basically, the artist must seek out the meaning of the world and relate it to his audience through the real details of God’s creations.
With this historical poem, Browning does just that. Lippi obviously professes Browning’s own doctrines of art, but Browning uses the narrative of his poem to confirm what Lippi says. When the two guards stop the monk on his way out of the brothel, they do not expect to hear a treatise on artistic theory. We suppose that they have confronted hundreds of late-night loiterers during their careers and would not presume Lippi to act any differently than the rest. But then again, they do not expect Lippi to be a monk and a guest of Cosimo de Medici.
Lippi surpasses the guards with the unforeseen, discussing in his speech many points which they have most likely never stopped to consider before — acting, in other words, just as an artist should. Likewise, the reader of this poem thinks to himself the entire time that he is eavesdropping on a conversation. But he also wonders about how many other conversations he must accidentally overhear each day and if these too contain equal amounts of knowledge and equal amounts of truth. For if they do, the average reader passes by many opportunities to learn something valuable, to find something new.
Browning’s poem, then, seems very much like one of the creations of art that Lippi describes and admires, for it lends an extraordinary resonance to the everyday. Just so, we might also view Browning as a prophet. He relates the historical figure of Lippi to more modern times just as Carlyle so often plucks characters from the pages of history to describe the present. Even the artist of the far-advanced and prosperous Victorian England — maybe particularly the artist of Victorian England — should follow the guidelines that Lippi lays out.
He should strive to emulate Lippi as an artist (although perhaps not as a man). He should represent the world with a punctilious eye for detail and know that if he portrays people accurately in their flesh, their souls will reveal themselves. Browning here seems to call for a mode of realism in art and literature, for possibly that form can best evince the moral, social, and political problems of his day. In contrast to “Childe Roland,” this poem makes a very definite, straightforward statement about the role of art.