Browning and the plight of man
"Fra Lippo Lippi" tells the story of a monk caught by the guard returning from a meeting with a woman in Renaissance Florence. It has been suggested that Fra Lippo lacks moral fortitude-- in Fra Lippo's view, this is not the case. Not only is Fra Lippo no less moral than his contemporaries; he points out the absurdity of holding one standard of behavior for one man and a different standard for another. He points out the twinkle in one guard's eye and says "Though your eye twinkles so, you shake your head-- Mine's shaved-- a monk, you say . . . If Master Cosimo announced himself, Mum's the word naturally; but a monk!" He is no less a man because of being a monk than is the sergeant of the guard or Cosimo Medici; and, he sees it as folly to renounce a part of life that God had created as a part of man's nature.
Fra Lippo tells how he spent the first eight years or so of his life as a street urchin. During this time, he learned to see people and life in a stark reality that was never veiled by pretense or false piety. Later, he is brought to a monastery by a kind woman who thought he ought not starve; and who left him no choice in the matter. He is brought to the brothers and asked to renounce "the world, its pride and greed". He is too young to understand this means giving up girls! As he says, "You should not take a fellow eight years old, And make him swear to never kiss girls." For the higher things, he is ill-suited. They had tried to teach him Latin but, "the only Latin I construe is amo, I love". He had almost immediately revealed his unsuitability for a monastic existence; but, the brothers kept him because they could use him. The use they make of him is not highly spiritual-- he paints beautifully; he can paint their church nicely and make it as pretty as the churches of the competing orders.
From the beginning, his painting demonstrates his realistic view on life. He paints the beautiful and the ugly with equal fidelity. This contrasts with the less real view desired by the Prior, who wants him to paint so that people "forget there's such a thing as flesh". The Prior requires him to draw men's souls; yet even he is hard pressed to say exactly what the soul is, saying ". . . it's a fire, smoke . . . no it's not. . . . well what matters talking. It's the soul!" For Fra Lippo, it is impossible to separate spirit from flesh, as he says, "If you get beauty and naught else, You get the best thing God invents . . . and you'll find the soul you missed, Within yourself, when you return him thanks." So, Lippo struggles not against the flesh, but to stifle his own creative desires to fulfill the requirements of his superiors in the church and to talk his way out of the trouble in which he has found himself Tonight he has been out making merry; tomorrow he will paint St. Jerome beating his breast to subdue the flesh. First, he must talk his way past the guard. He blusters, he threatens. He hints of powerful friends. He placates, bribes, soothes and flatters. He nearly talks himself into more trouble. Finally, he departs, unrepentant. He has "made merry" tonight, and sees no reason to not do so again. For to him, it would as unnatural to not seek female companionship as it would be for a horse to not eat grass. He says, "I always see the garden and God there a-making man's wife: and my lesson learned, the value and significance of flesh."
"Andrea del Sarto" tells the story of a Renaissance painter who in real life had exhibited greater artistic promise than he had ever fulfilled. The poem explores the relationship of the artist to his wife as a possible cause of this unfilled potential. Andrea is a man obsessed. He is obsessed with his wife, Lucretia, his failure to achieve greatness as a painter and with the calumny of having violated the trust of his greatest patron.
Andrea is a man who would do anything for the woman he loves- a woman who does not love him. All of his life is tainted, "tinted silver-gray", by this relationship. To please his wife by building her a fine house, he has taken money from the French king and fled France. Now, he avoids the French nobility in Florence so they won't snub or harangue him. Though he finds this unpleasant and expresses a sense of remorse for having violated a trust, he is willing to pay this price in order to maintain this "twilight" existence with his wife. He yearns for her presence even when she is in the room; for even then she is distant and cold. He paints to pay for her luxuries and her boyfriends, though she begrudges the time she spends posing for him. He goes so far as to paint to pay her lover's gambling debts, in order to see her smile.
Andrea's failure to attain fame as an artist seems intertwined with his relationship with his wife . He'd be among the great artists of the Renaissance, if only-- If only his wife had encouraged him to greatness, instead of piecework; if only he'd have stayed a member of the French court, instead of robbing it; if only his wife would sit with him every night; if only she would smile more often, he'd be truly inspired. Andrea declares, "Had you . . . given me soul, We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!"
He frequently compares himself to the great Renaissance artists. Though he says the opinions of others mean nothing to him, he goes on to quote Michelangelo praising him to Rafael-- that if Andrea had had the same patronage, he'd have been as great as Rafael or greater. Yet he knows he has had a great patron-- the king of France. More importantly, he knows he lost this patron by stealing money from the King in order to build his wife a fine house. He recognizes the great opportunity he has lost- "How I would paint, were I back in France." And though his potential is as great as that of Michelangelo or Rafael, he admits that "there burns a truer light of God in them." He knows he's missed his chance on earth; he almost hopes for another in heaven. There, "Four great walls . . . meted on each side . . . for Leonard, Rafael, Angolo and me to cover-- the first three without a wife, While I have mine! So-- still they overcome Because there's still Lucrezia- as I choose."
Even with Lucretia's lover whistling for her down stairs, Andrea clings to her. His love for her has cost him all hope of glory; and lost him the greatest of his patrons, "that great humane monarch", the king of France. The time he does not spend mulling her influence on his talent is spent remembering his time of glory at the French court. "That long festal year at Fountainebleu!" He could have painted so greatly there, and had such great rewards. "A good time, was it not, my kingly days." All was well until his wife grew restless, and he departed the French court. But worse, he "wronged Francis. . . . took his coin, complied, And built this house and sinned." All else he has given up for his wife, if not gladly, then willingly. Still, he has his Lucretia, as he chooses.
This is the plight of man- to be caught between heaven and earth; to be forced to choose between flesh and glory. Both Andrea and Fra Lippo are men whose natures compel them to cling to fleshly pleasures, at risk of severe sanctions from society, and at the expense of a greater glory lost. They both seem aware that they are not living up to a higher standard; Andrea even expresses regret for his sins. Neither seems to seriously have considered change-- it would require they give up what they love most. Fra Lippo can not give up all women. Andrea can not give up the woman who is, to him all women. Both must struggle through their lives, between what they desire, and what they may have.