What I found interesting in “Fra Lippo Lippi” is the poem’s connection to “Andrea Del Sarto”: specifically, Browning’s discussion of the soul in art. He presents two similar ideas in both poems which, reveals Browning’s condescension towards the Church and how it ironically controls and contains the soul, preventing the development of artist’s true identity.
Both poems are narrated by 15th century Florentine artists who struggle with the expression of identity in their art. In “Andrea Del Sarto”, the painter attempts to justify his painting style, a style which lacks soul and emotion but attains physical perfection. He is frustrated by the recognition of Raphael and other artists who paint dramatized versions of life; their paintings are faulty in form and contours but are rich in emotion and beauty.
Similarly, in “Fra Lippo Lippi”, the narrator tries to paint perfect human figures, but the Church tells him to focus more on the soul. The Prior at the convent tell him that “[his] business is not to catch men with show,/ With homage to the perishable clay, / But lift them over it, ignore it all, / make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh, / [His] business is to paint the souls of men” (“Fra Lippo Lippi” 179-183). Both artists struggle with the idea that perfection in form and representation is not good enough for the Church and thus, consumers in general. The church values dramatized and romanticized art rather than natural human form. Fra Lippo Lippi feels unnaturally caged just as his true artistic abilities are caged. His nightly escapes are his way of finding some freedom. He stifles his passion for his style of art: “I swallow my rage, / Clench my teeth, suck my lips in tight, and paint / To please them” (242-244). This quote expresses how hard Fra Lippo Lippi has to work to hold in his desires. There are a lot of tension filled words in these lines: “rage”, “clench”, “suck” and “tight”. These words communicate the amount of tension between the individual and religion. Browning demonstrates how religion suppresses that personal expression with its conventions. Fra Lippo Lippi exclaims “I’m my own master. Paint now as I please” (226). The artist can only become sovereign and can identify himself when he is able to express his true abilities and desires. The Church hypocritically tells people how to express the soul in art, but in doing so, the artists’ souls are smothered. It seems as though identity is therefore expressed when a person fulfills their passions and desires apart from religion and conventions.