A Hypermedia Edition of Robert Browning's
"FRA LIPPO LIPPI"
We have sought below to give some sense of the extent to which Browning
must have been steeped in the art of the Florentine Renaissance when he wrote
this poem. In many cases, a highlighted link will simply take you to an
example of the work of one of the artists mentioned; where a
particular work is specified,
we have attempted to find the painting so named; where one is
suggested, we have provided an explanatory note.
The character of the
painter Fra Lippo Lippi in this poem follows that in Giorgio Vasari's
Lives of the Painters pretty closely. It is clear that Vasari was
Browning's source: he includes some of Vasari's errors.
The text of
the poem has been taken from the University of Toronto's on-line
Publication Date: 1855.
Ed. (text): F. E. L. Priestley; (e-text): I. Lancashire.
Rep. Poetry: 3RP.3.131.
1 I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
2 You need not clap your torches to my face.
3 Zooks, what's to blame? you think you see a monk!
4 What, 'tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
5 And here you catch me at an alley's end
6 Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?
7 The Carmine's my cloister: hunt it up,
8 Do,--harry out, if you must show your zeal,
9 Whatever rat, there, haps on his wrong hole,
10 And nip each softling of a wee white mouse,
11 Weke, weke, that's crept to keep him company!
12 Aha, you know your betters! Then, you'll take
13 Your hand away that's fiddling on my throat,
14 And please to know me likewise. Who am I?
15 Why, one, sir, who is lodging with a friend
16 Three streets off--he's a certain . . . how d'ye call?
17 Master--a ...Cosimo of the Medici,
18 I' the house that caps the corner. Boh! you were best!
19 Remember and tell me, the day you're hanged,
20 How you affected such a gullet's-gripe!
21 But you, sir, it concerns you that your knaves
22 Pick up a manner nor discredit you:
23 Zooks, are we pilchards, that they sweep the streets
24 And count fair price what comes into their net?
25 He's Judas to a tittle, that man is!
26 Just such a face! Why, sir, you make amends.
27 Lord, I'm not angry! Bid your hang-dogs go
28 Drink out this quarter-florin to the health
29 Of the munificent House that harbours me
30 (And many more beside, lads! more beside!)
31 And all's come square again. I'd like his face--
32 His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
33 With the pike and lantern,--for the slave that holds
34 John Baptist's head a-dangle by the hair
35 With one hand ("Look you, now," as who should say)
36 And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!
37 It's not your chance to have a bit of chalk,
38 A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!
I'm the painter, since you style me so.
40 What, brother Lippo's doings, up and down,
41 You know them and they take you? like enough!
42 I saw the proper twinkle in your eye--
43 'Tell you, I liked your looks at very first.
44 Let's sit and set things straight now, hip to haunch.
45 Here's spring come, and the nights one makes up bands
46 To roam the town and sing out carnival,
47 And I've been three weeks shut within my mew,
48 A-painting for the great man, saints and saints
49 And saints again. I could not paint all night--
50 Ouf! I leaned out of window for fresh air.
51 There came a hurry of feet and little feet,
52 A sweep of lute strings, laughs, and whifts of song, --
53 Flower o' the broom,
54 Take away love, and our earth is a tomb!
55 Flower o' the quince,
56 I let Lisa go, and what good is life since?
57 Flower o' the thyme--and so on. Round they went.
58 Scarce had they turned the corner when a titter
59 Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight,--three slim shapes,
60 And a face that looked up . . . zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
61 That's all I'm made of! Into shreds it went,
62 Curtain and counterpane and coverlet,
63 All the bed-furniture--a dozen knots,
64 There was a ladder! Down I let myself,
65 Hands and feet, scrambling somehow, and so dropped,
66 And after them. I came up with the fun
67 Hard by Saint Laurence, hail fellow, well met,--
68 Flower o' the rose,
69 If I've been merry, what matter who knows?
70 And so as I was stealing back again
71 To get to bed and have a bit of sleep
72 Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work
73 On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast
74 With his great round stone to subdue the flesh,
75 You snap me of the sudden. Ah, I see!
76 Though your eye twinkles still, you shake your head--
77 Mine's shaved--a monk, you say--the sting 's in that!
78 If Master Cosimo announced himself,
79 Mum's the word naturally; but a monk!
80 Come, what am I a beast for? tell us, now!
81 I was a baby when my mother died
82 And father died and left me in the street.
83 I starved there, God knows how, a year or two
84 On fig-skins, melon-parings, rinds and shucks,
85 Refuse and rubbish. One fine frosty day,
86 My stomach being empty as your hat,
87 The wind doubled me up and down I went.
88 Old Aunt Lapaccia trussed me with one hand,
89 (Its fellow was a stinger as I knew)
90 And so along the wall, over the bridge,
91 By the straight cut to the convent. Six words there,
92 While I stood munching my first bread that month:
93 "So, boy, you're minded," quoth the good fat father
94 Wiping his own mouth, 'twas refection-time,--
95 "To quit this very miserable world?
96 Will you renounce" . . . "the mouthful of bread?" thought I;
97 By no means! Brief, they made a monk of me;
98 I did renounce the world, its pride and greed,
99 Palace, farm, villa, shop, and banking-house,
100 Trash, such as these poor devils of Medici
101 Have given their hearts to--all at eight years old.
102 Well, sir, I found in time, you may be sure,
103 'Twas not for nothing--the good bellyful,
104 The warm serge and the rope that goes all round,
105 And day-long blessed idleness beside!
106 "Let's see what the urchin's fit for"--that came next.
107 Not overmuch their way, I must confess.
108 Such a to-do! They tried me with their books:
109 Lord, they'd have taught me Latin in pure waste!
110 Flower o' the clove.
111 All the Latin I construe is, "amo" I love!
112 But, mind you, when a boy starves in the streets
113 Eight years together, as my fortune was,
114 Watching folk's faces to know who will fling
115 The bit of half-stripped grape-bunch he desires,
116 And who will curse or kick him for his pains,--
117 Which gentleman processional and fine,
118 Holding a candle to the Sacrament,
119 Will wink and let him lift a plate and catch
120 The droppings of the wax to sell again,
121 Or holla for the Eight and have him whipped,--
122 How say I?--nay, which dog bites, which lets drop
123 His bone from the heap of offal in the street,--
124 Why, soul and sense of him grow sharp alike,
125 He learns the look of things, and none the less
126 For admonition from the hunger-pinch.
127 I had a store of such remarks, be sure,
128 Which, after I found leisure, turned to use.
129 I drew men's faces on my copy-books,
130 Scrawled them within the antiphonary's marge,
131 Joined legs and arms to the long music-notes,
132 Found eyes and nose and chin for A's and B's,
133 And made a string of pictures of the world
134 Betwixt the ins and outs of verb and noun,
135 On the wall, the bench, the door. The monks looked black.
136 "Nay," quoth the Prior, "turn him out, d'ye say?
137 In no wise. Lose a crow and catch a lark.
138 What if at last we get our man of parts,
139 We Carmelites, like those Camaldolese
140 And Preaching Friars, to do our church up fine
141 And put the front on it that ought to be!"
142 And hereupon he bade me daub away.
143 Thank you! my head being crammed, the walls a blank,
144 Never was such prompt disemburdening.
145 First, every sort of monk, the black and white,
146 I drew them, fat and lean: then, folk at church,
147 From good old gossips waiting to confess
148 Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends,--
149 To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
150 Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there
151 With the little children round him in a row
152 Of admiration, half for his beard and half
153 For that white anger of his victim's son
154 Shaking a fist at him with one fierce arm,
155 Signing himself with the other because of Christ
156 (Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
157 After the passion of a thousand years)
158 Till some poor girl, her apron o'er her head,
159 (Which the intense eyes looked through) came at eve
160 On tiptoe, said a word, dropped in a loaf,
161 Her pair of earrings and a bunch of flowers
162 (The brute took growling), prayed, and so was gone.
163 I painted all, then cried "'Tis ask and have;
164 Choose, for more's ready!"--laid the ladder flat,
165 And showed my covered bit of cloister-wall.
166 The monks closed in a circle and praised loud
167 Till checked, taught what to see and not to see,
168 Being simple bodies,--"That's the very man!
169 Look at the boy who stoops to pat the dog!
170 That woman's like the Prior's niece who comes
171 To care about his asthma: it's the life!"
172 But there my triumph's straw-fire flared and funked;
173 Their betters took their turn to see and say:
174 The Prior and the learned pulled a face
175 And stopped all that in no time. "How? what's here?
176 Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!
177 Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true
178 As much as pea and pea! it's devil's-game!
179 Your business is not to catch men with show,
180 With homage to the perishable clay,
181 But lift them over it, ignore it all,
182 Make them forget there's such a thing as flesh.
183 Your business is to paint the souls of men--
184 Man's soul, and it's a fire, smoke . . . no, it's not . . .
185 It's vapour done up like a new-born babe--
186 (In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
187 It's . . . well, what matters talking, it's the soul!
188 Give us no more of body than shows soul!
189 Here's Giotto, with his Saint a-praising God,
190 That sets us praising--why not stop with him?
191 Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
192 With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
193 Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
194 Rub all out, try at it a second time.
195 Oh, that white smallish female with the breasts,
196 She's just my niece . . . Herodias, I would say,--
197 Who went and danced and got men's heads cut off!
198 Have it all out!" Now, is this sense, I ask?
199 A fine way to paint soul, by painting body
200 So ill, the eye can't stop there, must go further
201 And can't fare worse! Thus, yellow does for white
202 When what you put for yellow's simply black,
203 And any sort of meaning looks intense
204 When all beside itself means and looks nought.
205 Why can't a painter lift each foot in turn,
206 Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
207 Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
208 Both in their order? Take the prettiest face,
209 The Prior's niece . . . patron-saint--is it so pretty
210 You can't discover if it means hope, fear,
211 Sorrow or joy? won't beauty go with these?
212 Suppose I've made her eyes all right and blue,
213 Can't I take breath and try to add life's flash,
214 And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?
215 Or say there's beauty with no soul at all--
216 (I never saw it--put the case the same--)
217 If you get simple beauty and nought else,
218 You get about the best thing God invents:
219 That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed,
220 Within yourself, when you return him thanks.
221 "Rub all out!" Well, well, there's my life, in short,
222 And so the thing has gone on ever since.
223 I'm grown a man no doubt, I've broken bounds:
224 You should not take a fellow eight years old
225 And make him swear to never kiss the girls.
226 I'm my own master, paint now as I please--
227 Having a friend, you see, in the Corner-house!
228 Lord, it's fast holding by the rings in front--
229 Those great rings serve more purposes than just
230 To plant a flag in, or tie up a horse!
231 And yet the old schooling sticks, the old grave eyes
232 Are peeping o'er my shoulder as I work,
233 The heads shake still--"It's art's decline, my son!
234 You're not of the true painters, great and old;
Angelico's the man, you'll find;
236 Brother Lorenzo stands his single peer:
237 Fag on at flesh, you'll never make the third!"
238 Flower o' the pine,
239 You keep your mistr ... manners, and I'll stick to mine!
240 I'm not the third, then: bless us, they must know!
241 Don't you think they're the likeliest to know,
242 They with their Latin? So, I swallow my rage,
243 Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint
244 To please them--sometimes do and sometimes don't;
245 For, doing most, there's pretty sure to come
246 A turn, some warm eve finds me at my saints--
247 A laugh, a cry, the business of the world--
248 (Flower o' the peach
249 Death for us all, and his own life for each!)
250 And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
251 The world and life's too big to pass for a dream,
252 And I do these wild things in sheer despite,
253 And play the fooleries you catch me at,
254 In pure rage! The old mill-horse, out at grass
255 After hard years, throws up his stiff heels so,
256 Although the miller does not preach to him
257 The only good of grass is to make chaff.
258 What would men have? Do they like grass or no--
259 May they or mayn't they? all I want's the thing
260 Settled for ever one way. As it is,
261 You tell too many lies and hurt yourself:
262 You don't like what you only like too much,
263 You do like what, if given you at your word,
264 You find abundantly detestable.
265 For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
266 I always see the garden and God there
267 A-making man's wife: and, my lesson learned,
268 The value and significance of flesh,
269 I can't unlearn ten minutes afterwards.
270 You understand me: I'm a beast, I know.
271 But see, now--why, I see as certainly
272 As that the morning-star's about to shine,
273 What will hap some day. We've a youngster here
274 Comes to our convent, studies what I do,
275 Slouches and stares and lets no atom drop:
276 His name is Guidi--he'll not mind the monks--
277 They call him Hulking Tom, he lets them talk--
278 He picks my practice up--he'll paint apace.
279 I hope so--though I never live so long,
280 I know what's sure to follow. You be judge!
281 You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
282 However, you're my man, you've seen the world
283 --The beauty and the wonder and the power,
284 The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
285 Changes, surprises,--and God made it all!
286 --For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
287 For this fair town's face, yonder river's line,
288 The mountain round it and the sky above,
289 Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
290 These are the frame to? What's it all about?
291 To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
292 Wondered at? oh, this last of course!--you say.
293 But why not do as well as say,--paint these
294 Just as they are, careless what comes of it?
295 God's works--paint any one, and count it crime
296 To let a truth slip. Don't object, "His works
297 Are here already; nature is complete:
298 Suppose you reproduce her--(which you can't)
299 There's no advantage! you must beat her, then."
300 For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love
301 First when we see them painted, things we have passed
302 Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
303 And so they are better, painted--better to us,
304 Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
305 God uses us to help each other so,
306 Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,
307 Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,
308 And trust me but you should, though! How much more,
309 If I drew higher things with the same truth!
310 That were to take the Prior's pulpit-place,
311 Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,
312 It makes me mad to see what men shall do
313 And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,
314 Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
315 To find its meaning is my meat and drink.
316 "Ay, but you don't so instigate to prayer!"
317 Strikes in the Prior: "when your meaning's plain
318 It does not say to folk--remember matins,
319 Or, mind you fast next Friday!" Why, for this
320 What need of art at all? A skull and bones,
321 Two bits of stick nailed crosswise, or, what's best,
322 A bell to chime the hour with, does as well.
323 I painted a Saint Laurence six months since
324 At Prato, splashed the fresco in fine style:
325 "How looks my painting, now the scaffold's down?"
326 I ask a brother: "Hugely," he returns--
327 "Already not one phiz of your three slaves
328 Who turn the Deacon off his toasted side,
329 But's scratched and prodded to our heart's content,
330 The pious people have so eased their own
331 With coming to say prayers there in a rage:
332 We get on fast to see the bricks beneath.
333 Expect another job this time next year,
334 For pity and religion grow i' the crowd--
335 Your painting serves its purpose!" Hang the fools!
336 --That is--you'll not mistake an idle word
337 Spoke in a huff by a poor monk, God wot,
338 Tasting the air this spicy night which turns
339 The unaccustomed head like Chianti wine!
340 Oh, the church knows! don't misreport me, now!
341 It's natural a poor monk out of bounds
342 Should have his apt word to excuse himself:
343 And hearken how I plot to make amends.
344 I have bethought me: I shall paint a piece
345 ... There's for you! Give me six months, then go, see
346 Something in Sant' Ambrogio's! Bless the nuns!
347 They want a cast o' my office. I shall paint
348 God in the midst, Madonna and her babe,
349 Ringed by a bowery, flowery angel-brood,
350 Lilies and vestments and white faces, sweet
351 As puff on puff of grated orris-root
352 When ladies crowd to Church at midsummer.
353 And then i' the front, of course a saint or two--
354 Saint John' because he saves the Florentines,
355 Saint Ambrose, who puts down in black and white
356 The convent's friends and gives them a long day,
357 And Job, I must have him there past mistake,
358 The man of Uz (and Us without the z,
359 Painters who need his patience). Well, all these
360 Secured at their devotion, up shall come
361 Out of a corner when you least expect,
362 As one by a dark stair into a great light,
363 Music and talking, who but Lippo! I!--
364 Mazed, motionless, and moonstruck--I'm the man!
365 Back I shrink--what is this I see and hear?
366 I, caught up with my monk's-things by mistake,
367 My old serge gown and rope that goes all round,
368 I, in this presence, this pure company!
369 Where's a hole, where's a corner for escape?
370 Then steps a sweet angelic slip of a thing
371 Forward, puts out a soft palm--"Not so fast!"
372 --Addresses the celestial presence, "nay--
373 He made you and devised you, after all,
374 Though he's none of you! Could Saint John there draw--
375 His camel-hair make up a painting brush?
376 We come to brother Lippo for all that,
377 Iste perfecit opus!" So, all smile--
378 I shuffle sideways with my blushing face
379 Under the cover of a hundred wings
380 Thrown like a spread of kirtles when you're gay
381 And play hot cockles, all the doors being shut,
382 Till, wholly unexpected, in there pops
383 The hothead husband! Thus I scuttle off
384 To some safe bench behind, not letting go
385 The palm of her, the little lily thing
386 That spoke the good word for me in the nick,
387 Like the Prior's niece . . . Saint Lucy, I would say.
388 And so all's saved for me, and for the church
389 A pretty picture gained. Go, six months hence!
390 Your hand, sir, and good-bye: no lights, no lights!
391 The street's hushed, and I know my own way back,
392 Don't fear me! There's the grey beginning. Zooks!
Line 34 "John Baptist's head a-dangle by the
hair": Lippi is
referring to one of a series of frescoes he did about the life of John the
Baptist for the Prato Cathedral between 1452-66. About this episode in
particular, Frederick Hartt says, "the actual decapitation, practically
impossible to photograph, is painted around the corner of the chancel, in the
semi-darkness next the window." History of Italian Renaissance Art (NY:
Harry N. Abrams, 1969), 175-76.
- Line 196. The Prior confuses Herodias with
her daughter Salome, who danced for Herod and then asked him for the head of
John the Baptist. See Lippi's Banquet of
235 Fra Angelico is Fra Giovanni de Fiesole,
according to Venturi, "perhaps the most popular
painter of the Italian Renaissance" (Italian Painting: The Creators of the Renaissance;
Critical studies Lionello Venturi; Historical surveys by Rosabianca
Skira-Venturi; Trans. Stuart Gilbert. Geneva & Paris: Skira, 1950: 102).
- Lines 276-7 “Hulking Tom” is actually
Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone Guidi Cassai, called Masaccio
(Florence 1401-1428), perhaps the greatest master of early Italian Renaissance
painting (see the biography
at Olga's Gallery). The nickname, a clipped form of Tomasaccio, may
also be translated as "slovenly" or "clumsy" Tom. Relying on the erroneous information in Vasari's Lives of the
Painters, Browning thought Lippi was Masaccio's master, when in fact he was his
student. (Dooley, Allan C., ed. "Men and Women, Vol I.", The
Complete Works of Robert Browning, Vol V. Ohio UP, 1981: 367.)
- Lines 376-7
"We come to brother Lippo for all that,/
Iste perfecit opus!"
A reference to Lippi's painting "The Coronation
of the Virgin," on the right side of which a figure is kneeling, with
the words "Iste prefecit opus" on a scroll nearby. Although
Browning thought this was Lippi's self-portrait, "the face seems
too old for the artist, who at the time of the painting was probably about
forty," and it is now thought to be his benefactor Francesco Maringhi, who may
have commissioned (not created) the work. Filippo Rossi,
Art Treasures of the Uffizi and Pitti (NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1966):
Credits and Copyright
Together with the editors, the Department of English (University of Toronto), and the University of Toronto Press, the following individuals
share copyright for the work that went into this edition:
- Screen Design (Electronic Edition):
- Sian Meikle (University of Toronto Library)
- Sharine Leung (Centre for Computing in the Humanities)
- Hypermedia additions:
- See the Robert Browning
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