Literature Annotations

Browning, Robert
Fra Lippo Lippi

On-Line Text
Genre Poem
KeywordsHistory of Science, Nature, Ordinary Life, Religion, Science

The poem is narrated by Fra Lippo Lippi, a Florentine painter and friar of the fifteenth century. Lippi is stopped by watchmen just as he drunkenly leaves a bordello. They tell him that he ought not be on the streets at night and are surprised to find a friar in such a state. Drunkenly, Lippi tells them his story. He was orphaned and taken to a monastery where the monks set him to work painting on the walls of the church.

The friars are amazed by his skill, but insist that he remove his work for it is a representation of bodies, not of souls. It does not teach a moral lesson, either. So Lippi sarcastically paints a gruesome picture of the martyred Saint Lawrence. When a group of nuns enlist his help, he paints a cloudy collection of saints surrounding Mary but in the corner is an image of himself. He enters their presence in all his fleshy glory.


This is an articulation of naturalist sentiment. Browning, like Lippi, believed that art should simply imitate life, not try to convey moral messages or abstract themes. This is not so much anti-religious as a different version of religion. God made the world, therefore it is good and should be celebrated.

A naturalist sentiment also pervaded the scientific efforts of the period. Science turned away from following doctrines or assuming expected results and instead performed experiments and based results purely on natural observation. Nature is better than handed-down principles.

SourceThe Complete Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 5
PublisherOhio Univ. Press
EditorsRoma A. King, Jr.
Place PublishedAthens, Ohio
Alternate SourceVictorian Prose and Poetry
Alternate PublisherOxford Univ. Press
Alternate Edition1973
Alternate EditorsLionel Trilling & Harold Bloom
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1855
Annotated by Moore, Pamela
Date of Entry 08/08/94
Last Revised 08/21/06