Illusions of Fra Lippo Lippi

Topics: Florence, House of Medici, Filippo Lippi Pages: 13 (5392 words) Published: December 5, 2011
Although he does not sound at all like the Lady of Shallott, Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi does appear to be like her in at least one regard: he, too, seems sick of shadows. Whether they be traces of sportive but inaccessible ladies, the demands of wealthy patrons, the ghostly, repressive voice of institutional authority, or the nightwatch that keeps Florence under surveillance, such shadows remind him that a life spent among images, whatever satisfaction its discipline may bring, remains deeply restrictive, a source of unease. The hazards posed by ladders made from knotted sheets not withstanding, Fra Lippo has found a healthier way of treating his sickness than Tennyson's weaver manages to discover. Still, it may be that his peculiar curse is his inability finally to break free of the shadow world not only in which he is cloistered, but also in which he is fixed by the guardians of public decency who have taken him up at the time the poem containing his monologue is set. (1) As hearty and robust as he sounds, an air of unreality permeates his world, as it does the tower where his Tennysonian counterpart immures herself. The problem of illusion enters "Fra Lippo Lippi" with its narrator's slyly worded challenge to the guards just after his arrest: "you think you see a monk!" (2) Virtually all of these terms work equivocally. The dominant burden of the poem is to undermine the force of the last of these: the masculine, anarchic, and artistic Lippi does not want to be taken for anyone willing to lose himself in a monastic discipline. He is so much more than the "Fra" that will define him for eternity that a four hundred line diatribe on why he only looks like a monk may become for him an unavoidable exercise. The axis linking thought to sight is also crucial to Lippi's interests as he begins his apologia for a hedonist's life. If it succeeds, the men who have stopped his rakish progress will know something about how what they see every time they walk into a decorated church seeks to structure their way of thinking, and to mediate their relationships with their very bodies. The point is not just of aesthetic or cultural interest, for the arrest is itself implicated in a social effort to renounce what is bodily to cultivate what is soulful. Those who engage in Whitmanesque declarations that they are poets of the body need, visibly, to be whisked out of public view. Browning's reader, too, may also be marked by the pronoun that introduces the gibe. It is not clear that we have a way of innocently separating ourselves from the problems his speaker addresses and creates. While "you think you see a monk" is sufficiently explained as a barb directed exclusively to the members of the watch, Lippi's allied attempts to set the scene--to establish that he has been caught "past midnight" (4) at the end of an alley--suggest an audience larger, and later, than that which has found him in such an untoward circumstance. As readers, we are as if split between observers looking into the scene Lippi gives us and the watchmen who, in Browning's delightfully mixed metaphor, work as virtual street sweepers who have netted the painter along with other small fry. Lippi's drunkenness is matched by our own potential sense of dislocation; if we are in two places at once, that fits in with his larger aesthetic designs, which effectively insist, against official teaching, that it is possible to be, through the operations of art, also in two places at a time--on earth as in heaven. If, identified with the nightwatch, readers have to be attentive to Lippi's way of manipulating his interlocutors, then it is also possible to imagine a reciprocal shift: the sentries, invited to take on a readerly detachment, become privileged listeners to a difficult tract on the nature of painting and patronage. The ambiguity of Lippi's barb does not reside exclusively in equivocally used terms, but in the force of the phrase as a whole. We think we see a monk, but of course...
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