A major subject of Robert Browning’s poetry is art. In the poem, “Fra Lippo Lippi”, Browning presents a criticism of the church in general as well as the limitations the institution places on artistic expression. Lippi, a friar tells the story of how he became affiliated with the church. “Brief, they made a monk of me;” is how he describes his experience becoming a friar as an eight year old. Lippi explains to the auditors that his parents died and left him on the streets to fend for himself. He lived on the streets for a year or two until a monk found him. Although he was only eight years old and did not understand that he was making a life choice of celibacy, Lippi, desperate for food and shelter, to the vows of monkhood. Lippi provides this background information because it explains why he is not a pious and faithful follower of all that the church mandates. “You should not take a fellow eight years old / And make him swear not to kiss the girls.” This knowledge of his childhood history also allows the audience to understand that he renounces his vow of celibacy because he was young and ignorant when he made it and he now disagrees with several aspects of the church doctrines.
In addition to disagreeing with the vow of celibacy, Lippi is angered that the church tries to control his freedom of expression by dictating what the subjects of his paintings should be. His disagreement with the religious doctrines concerning art and the way in which he depicts church members and church leaders in his paintings, demonstrate how Lippi questions the correctness of the church. The friar paints a realistic mural of the church people: gossipers, a murderer and the Prior’s niece, who is actually his mistress. It is clear in from the stanzas that the church leaders reject his artwork, not because of some moral contract they must uphold regarding the painting of souls, but because they are afraid that realism in art might reveal the truth about their own corrupt lives.
Browning’s emphasis on art in his poetry is an effective method of making a statement about his opinion of the corrupt church as well as illustrating his opinion that art should be realistic. Ultimately, the poet displays his perception of reality in his poem, “Fra Lippo Lippi”. Browning chose to have the painter be a friar who has a difficulty dealing with the vows he made during his past, because in reality it would be difficult for a man to live a pious and celibate life. Instead of writing a mild poem about nature or religion, the author uses this dysfunctional character because Lippi represents a normal human. Like Lippi, who was determined to use realism in his paintings, Browning portrays the concept of reality with his art form, poetry.