All the Wrong Questions – Robert Browning’s Poetry

As noted in the reading guide, Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” and “Fra Lippo Lippi” were published together an 1855 collection entitled Men and Women, and the two are often also read together. The speaker in each poem is a historically accurate painter, through whom Browning muses about the moral and professional issues surrounding the world of art. Though it is apparent through different ways, Browning depicts both men and their ideologies in such a way to reveal that neither is asking the right question.

Firstly, it is made apparent to readers that neither man is morally perfect. Lippi is introduced as a shameless drunk, currently being apprehended by watchmen in an area frequented by prostitutes; while del Sarto has taken the patronage money form his former court for his wife and himself. Both men are also depicted as rather arrogant, favorably comparing themselves to their contemporaries. I cannot guess as to why Browning chose to have this conversation on art through the lens of a painter, and not a poet, as he is himself, but I wonder if he would assign these same qualities to an artist of his own medium, and what that would indicate about painting versus poetry writing.

The crux of Lippi’s rantings seems to be regarding the purpose of art: whether to be realistic or fantastical. Lippi proposes the initial conflict between his personal beliefs and those that the Church has imposed upon him by recalling his adoption by the Church as “a fellow of eight years old,” (thus unaware of the monastic restrictions that would eventually be placed on him). This conflict, which he characterizes mostly by the requirement of celibacy, is only furthered by the fact that what he is celebrated for by the public (his ability to paint realistically) is what the Church abhors and demands him to change. They claim that his job is to “paint the souls of men,” instead of distracting them with depictions of their friends. It is clear that the Church’s fear of reality is internally derived, as Lippi signals through his retelling of the Prior’s reaction to a portrait of his “niece.” Browning creates a world of opposites in this dramatic monologue – the strict rules of the Church versus the freedom of drunkenness and the de Medici family, reality versus fantasy. Neither extreme seems ideal. Stylistically, though Browning takes great pains to capture the reality of a drunken night, and using colloquial speech, his monologue is also didactic; he does not seem to side entirely with either. This would lead to the idea that although question of the purpose of art is valid and presented as highly important in both Lippi’s personal world and the art world in general, the character’s drunkenness, marked with bursts of song and humor, mute its importance, and thus indicates that it is the wrong question to be asking. Like del Sarto, Lippi’d ideas are motivated by intellect, not emotion.

Whereas Lippi’s highly serious question is lowered in importance by his humorous demeanor, del Sarto’s entirely egocentric ideology is heightened by his demure tone, which is marked with a kind of finality (his final musings about painting in Heaven give the poem a sense of mortality not found with Lippi). Though he does spend a great deal of time discussing the relatively superficial subjects of his marriage and of money, del Sarto differs from Lippi also in that he realizes that regarding art as a means to fame rather than an emotional dedication is what has led him astray. However, that is not to say that he lacks arrogance;  he claims of “the Urbinate[‘s]” work, “that arm is wrongly put – and there again – a fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines…and I could alter it” (105-115). Browning appears to acknowledge del Sarto’s further advanced maturity than Lippi’s in his style, and in that he allows him to acknowledge what Michelangelo and Raphael have that he does not (spirit in his work), del Sarto’s focus on himself, and the added insult that his wife is conducting an affair with her “cousin,” provide that he too is asking the wrong question, one too driven by personal gain.




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