Renaissance art resulted from a cultural movement spanning roughly from the 14th to 17th centuries that began in Florence, Italy in the late middle ages and spread to the rest of Europe. Underlying the movement were changes in artistic method that reflected a renewed desire to depict the beauty of nature and the human body, and to unravel some of the axioms of aesthetics resulting in highly realistic and often technically perfect paintings. The Italian Renaissance held a particular fascination for Robert Browning and his contemporaries because it represented the growth of the aesthetic and the human alongside, and in some cases instead of, the religious and the moral. Through two of his dramatic monologues, Fra Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto, Browning offers an insight into ‘all the complex possibilities of the coming quickening of the human mind and spirit’ which was such a remarkable feature of the ‘intellectual and artistic life of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries’ (Clarke, 1907, p. 6) and which initially surfaced in Italy’s Renaissance painters. The prominent facts concerning the subjects of Browning’s artistic poetry examine the extensive treatment of art, and the predominance of the human soul. During the nineteenth century, the history of art began to assume a more important place as a distinct branch of general history, and Browning used it to explore prominent issues of the time. The Renaissance played a crucial role in the Victorian imagination, serving as a cultural and historical mirror through which Victorian society gained a perspective on its own cultural identity.
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The Renaissance saw a major shift in theories of art, as one of Browning’s poems Fra Lippo Lippi discusses, a new realism was emerging, based on observation and detail, while traditional abstract and didactic forms of art were losing favour. This shifting in priorities is analogous to the shifting views on art and morality in Browning’s time, and so makes the Renaissance and the Victorian eras similar. By talking about the Renaissance, Browning can make his cultural criticism somewhat less bitter and bring up comments about his own society that were just as valid in the time of the Renaissance artists. In Florence, in the late 15th century, most works of art were generally commissioned and paid for by private patrons, even those that were done as decoration for churches. Lippo was a monk and a painter of some renown, whom Browning most probably gained familiarity with during the time he spent in Italy. Fra Lippo Lippi introduces us to the monk as he is being interrogated by some of his patron Medici’s watchmen, who have caught him out at night. He has little to fear from the guards, but he has been out partying and is clearly in a mood to talk. He shares with the men the hardships of monastic life including how he is forced to carry on his relationships with women in secret, and how his superiors are always defeating his good spirits. However, it is not Lippo’s rambling speech about the misfortunes of his early life that dominate the poem, instead Lippo’s most important statements concern the basis of art in the Renaissance period. Should art be realistic and a true depiction of life, or should it be idealistic and moralistic? Should Lippo’s paintings of saints look like his prior’s mistress and the men of the neighbourhood that he used as his subjects, or should they evoke an otherworldly surreality to be aspired to?
Browning uses Lippo’s dramatic monologue to raise questions about the Church’s influence on art. Although Lippo paints real life pictures it is the Church that instructs him to redo much of it, desiring him only to paint the soul and not the flesh.
‘Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1029)
Is the purpose of Lippo’s art to instruct religious teachings or to delight those who gaze upon it? The idealist view of art is that the supreme beauty is to be found in something beyond that which is visible, but Lippo ‘asserts something like the opposite’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 379). Browning’s Lippo is ‘content to depict simple beauty and nothing else’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 379), believing it to be ‘about the best thing God invents’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1030), and to paint the shapes of things just as they are in everyday life, careless of what may become of it. Lippo’s argument is that it is better to give ordinary scenes that can be related to than celestial visions to try to aspire to. It is said that Lippo ‘was much addicted to the pleasures of sense’ and that he would give all he possessed ‘to secure the gratification of whatever inclination might at the moment be predominant’ (Clarke, 1907, p. 246). If he was unable to satisfy such desires he would then depict the object which had attracted his attention in a painting and that whilst occupied in the pursuit of his pleasures ‘the works undertaken by him received little or none of his attention’ (Clarke, 1907, p. 246).
Lippo’s late night drunken encounter with his patron’s guards expresses all of his frustration with the instructions he receives from the Church that has commissioned his paintings.
‘Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!
Rub all out, try at it a second time’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1029).
The work in question features many members of the community as easily recognisable, but the overseeing prior is unhappy as depicting reality conflicts with the religious goals of the Church. He argues that the parishioners will be distracted from the religious message by recognising people they know in the painting, and expresses concern for the Church’s own reputation. Lippo’s painting is too close to the truth, portraying the prior’s niece (actually his mistress) as
‘that white smallish female with the breasts,
She’s just my niece… Herodias, I would say –
Who went and danced and got men’s heads cut off!’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1030).
The closest Lippo himself ever comes to any pious emotions is feeling thankful ‘ to God for the beauty of nature and human beings’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 380). The prior wants Lippo to distort and reshape the material world into a conformance to the religious ideals. The soul that Browning’s Lippo worries about is not the same indescribable grace that the prior concerns himself with, but rather a ‘state of consciousness’ found
‘Within yourself, when you return him thanks’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1030)
and ‘an openness of the human faculties to the inherent beauty, wonder and power of the world’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 380). Lippo himself admits that his art does not
‘instigate to prayer’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1032)
and that he has no sympathy for the fools who feel pity and religion when viewing religious devotional paintings. This contempt reflects Browning’s response to many Victorians who wished to be assured that they could ‘gain the spiritual benefits of the older culture’ simply by participating in ‘the heady activity of the new acquisitive and sensate culture’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 380). Browning’s monologue is an important document in the ‘mid-century attempt to reconcile soul and flesh, old idealism and new naturalism’ without giving up traditional theological frameworks (Delaura, 1980, p. 380).
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At the forefront of Lippo’s paintings is the primacy of the physical world in which the artist can discover his own transcendent truth. According to Browning, Raphael fails because ‘the concrete line cannot incorporate spiritual truth, which is not inherent in this world’ and the prior fails because’ an abstraction cannot convey spiritual truth, which is embodied in concrete phenomena’ (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 650). Lippo objects to the prior’s insistence upon an art that neglects the flesh in order to stimulate the people to prayer stressing, as Browning fears, that didacticism would reduce the artist to a mere sign-maker, instead of insisting ‘that art be symbolic and command respect for its particular and for its ultimate meaning’ (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 650).
Fra Lippo Lippi demonstrates Browning’s belief in the possibility of ‘fusing objective and subjective art into a total or Incarnational art’ (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 643) that would reveal the soul through the body where spirit and flesh would intertwine. Both Fra Lippo Lippi and Andrea del Sarto are consummate realists whose art ‘faithfully reproduces the world of flesh and finite matter’ (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 646). In both monologues, the defined purpose of art is to depict the soul but both realistic painters can only do so by depicting the soul that they find in the beauty of the body. Lippo describes the highest art as ‘art which reveals soul or interprets God’ and as pictorial art of almost photographic accuracy (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 647). But the thesis of Fra Lippo Lippi that ‘representational accuracy reveals soul’ becomes the anti-thesis of Andrea del Sarto and that ‘representational accuracy obstructs the appearance of soul’ (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 648). Like Lippo, Andrea lived and worked in Florence. Under the nagging influence of his wife Lucrezia, to whom Browning directs this monologue, he left the French court where he was appointed court painter by the King of France for Italy. This poem finds Andrea in a house he has bought with stolen money, as he thinks back on his career and laments that his worldly concerns have kept him from fulfilling his promise as an artist. His art represents Lippo’s in ‘a manneristic stage, perhaps, and is derivative and tepid rather than original and exuberant’, but it conforms no less to the realistic principles (Benvenuto, 1973, p. 649).
The occasions of the monologues are spoken of as ‘moments of crisis’, the implication being that there is something urgent in the situation, ‘something compelling the character to speak out’ (Dooley, 1983, p. 38). Browning absorbed the view that Andrea del Sarto was a painter with ‘faultless’ technique, a limited artistic vision, and a desire to please his troublesome wife (Dooley, 1983, p. 41). Andrea’s recognition that the ease and perfection with which he accomplishes his paintings is the exact cause of his limitations in artistic power and vision, and Browning selects a moment late enough in Andrea’s career to show him in despair over this (Dooley, 1983, p. 45). Andrea del Sarto is a self comparison of the artist’s own work to that of the Great Masters, blaming his disappointing career on being unable to find appropriate subjects and relying upon his unfaithful wife as a constant reference for depictions of the Virgin. There is little intention or spirit in his work, yet he obsesses over technical perfection, even mentally correcting part of a painting by Rafael –
‘That arm is wrongly put – and there again –
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1036).
Browning asks, through Andrea, his own personal questions as to whether domestic life and his wife’s presence have weakened his art and his possibility of success. Is the creation of art incompatible with a normal life, one of mundane duties and obligations? Andrea del Sarto is resigned with a melancholy mood and attitude and it is this fatalism and passivity that reflects ‘his weakness of vision’ which ‘afflicts him at every turn’ (Bieman, 1970, p. 659). He consoles himself only with the illusion that ‘he possesses perfect beauty in his wife’ (Bieman, 1970, p. 661),
‘Let my hands frame your face in your hair’s gold,
You beautiful Lucrezia that are mine!’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1038),
but even this illusion is patently false as ‘perfect’ beauty is not purely aesthetic – ‘perfect beauty is ideal, spiritual, golden as sunlight is golden’ (Bieman, 1970, p. 661). Andrea, on some level, seems to understand this though as feels he has been held back from achieving his best by Lucrezia, asking
‘Why do I need you?
What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?’ (Browning, 2005, p. 1037).
Even when he seems to accept the blame himself, as one who ‘chooses his fate in his beloved’, his words smack of empty bravado (Bieman, 1970, p. 664). He is a failed hero, an artist who has developed a successful technique and has reached his limit, but, in the process, has lost his inspiration. Browning points out that art is not merely a display of technical skill and he stresses that his interest has always been, as has Victorian society’s, ‘on the incidents in the development of a soul’ – it is the ‘dynamic of spiritual development’ that interests Browning rather than the ‘static portrayal of personality’ (Bergman, 1980, p. 774). Andrea’s work has superficial perfection which disappoints Browning as he does not choose to delve more deeply into the nature of things. Despite his dissatisfaction, Andrea suffers complete submission to his condition,
Browning’s dramatic monologues are ‘veritable dramas’ where ‘the mind of him who speaks is everywhere in contact with another mind, which it seeks to bring over to its own point of view (Herbert, 1918, p. 131). By offering ‘a minute of a life as truly contains the character as fifty years’ (Herbert, 1918, p. 132), Browning sought to explore the autonomy brought about by ‘an aggressive neo-Catholic aesthetic that every fibre of his being rejected’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 383). Browning’s interest in Italian art, in his poetry at any rate, centred itself principally upon the painters of the earlier Renaissance and upon ‘those who inaugurated the later and greater Renaissance in art’ (Clarke, 1907, p. 209). Lippo and Andrea reflect ‘the limitations of objectivity’, and while Andrea aspires to a spirituality Lippo cannot imagine, Andrea’s failure stings more deeply as a result’ (Bergman, 1980, p. 781). Browning plays upon these Renaissance painters as representatives of the ‘great schism in modern art’ between the naturalists, who aspired only to ‘the representation of beauty for its own sake,’ and the idealists, for whom art was a sacred vocation and ‘the representation of beauty a means, not an end’ (Delaura, 1980, p. 378). Fra Lippo Lippi ‘stands for the break into realism and secularism’, marking one phase of the developing Renaissance whilst Andrea del Sarto stands for’ the calm after the flood-tide of development had been reached ‘(Clarke, 1907, p. 244). Must art have a moral responsibility, or can its creators instead offer a partnership of reality and spirituality?
Browning’s familiarity with the Renaissance world enabled him to participate so fully in its ‘characteristic philosophy’ that his own conceptual world was usually quite congruent with the world of Lippo and Andrea (Bieman, 1970, p. 625). The connection between art and morals preoccupied the poet as much as it preoccupied Victorian society. Often, Browning was not writing for others, but merely ‘to create children of his brain’, writing for himself, however ‘he was not always able to carry it out dispassionately’ (Herbert, 1918, p. 135). He too was an individual, possessed of beliefs, moral approvals, and a temperament of his own. Through these he views the characters he constructs, and by these they are liable to be distorted. A great poet is distinguished from a poetic writer by the very fact that he has acquired a fixed point of view from which to survey all that comes before him. ‘Nobody can be impressive without a creed, gospel, or set of habitual ideas with which he confronts the world’ (Herbert, 1918, p. 135). To comprehend a human soul, Browning tells us, is the one thing in the world deserving study. The great service of the poets ‘lies in their teaching us to look at the world from other points of view than our own’ (Herbert, 1918, p. 143). The Renaissance debate highlighted in these poems echoes the schism in Victorian society with moralists and libertines opposed. Lippo and Andreas both focus on the aesthetics of the flesh and approach religious art from the human side,
But the mechanical arts of perfect anatomy and mathematical perspectives did little to depict any spiritual or soulful feeling as often found in religious depictions by the Great Masters. Browning asserts that neither side holds the key to a good life, but both positions can lead to high art despite their flaws. Art has no absolute connection to morality but through his monologues it is clear Browning believes both Lippo and Andreas as undoubtedly men of extraordinary genius, but also that their talent is degraded by their immorality and inability to paint soulfully. There is no clean line between the beauty of the body and the beauty of the mind, but Browning believed a progressive movement from the body to the soul would allow for intellectual improvement.
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