The poem begins as the painter and monk Lippo Lippi, also the poem's narrator, is caught by some authority figures while roving his town's red light district. As he begins, he is being physically accosted by one of the police. He accuses them of being overzealous and that he need not be punished. It is not until he name-drops "Cosimo of the Medici" (from the ruling family of Florence) as a nearby friend that he is released.
He then addresses himself specifically to the band's leader, identifying himself as the famous painter and then suggesting that they are all, himself included, too quick to bow down to what authority figures suggest. Now free, he suggests that the listener allow his subordinates to wander off to their own devices. Then he tells how he had been busy the past three weeks shut up in his room, until he heard a band of merry revelers passing by and used a ladder to climb down to the streets to pursue his own fun. It was while engaged in that fun that he was caught, and he defends himself to the judgmental listener, asking "what am I a beast for?" if not to pursue his beastly appetites.
It is then that Lippo begins to tell his life story. He was orphaned while still a baby and starved until his aunt gave him over to a convent. When the monks there asked if he was willing to renounce the world in service of monk-hood, Lippo was quick to agree since renouncing the world meant a steady supply of food in the convent. He quickly took to the "idleness" of a monk's life, even at eight years old, but was undistinguished in any of the studies they had him attempt.
His one talent was the ability to recreate the faces of individuals through drawings, partially because as a starving child he was given great insight into the details that distinguished one face from another and the way those faces illustrated different characteristics. Instead of studying in the convent, he devoted himself to doodles and drawings, until the Prior noticed his talent and assigned him to be the convent's artist.
As the convent's artist, Lippo proceeded to paint a myriad of situations, all drawn from the real world. The common monks loved his work since in his artistry they could recognize images from their everyday lives. However, "the Prior and the learned" do not admire Lippo's focus on realistic subjects, instead insisting that the artist's job is not to pay "homage to the perishable clay" of flesh and body, but to transcend the body and attempt to reveal the soul. They insist that he paint more saintly images, focusing on representations of praise and saintliness instead of everyday reality.
Lippo protests to his listener that a painter can reveal the soul through representations of the body, since "simple beauty" is "about the best thing God invents." Lippo identifies this as the main conflict of his otherwise-privileged life: where he wants to paint things as they are, his masters insist he paint life from a moral perspective. As much as he hates it, he must acquiesce to their wishes in order to stay successful, and hence he must go after prostitutes and other unsavory activity, like the one he was caught involved in at poem's beginning. As a boy brought up poor and in love with life, he cannot so easily forget his artistic impulse to represent life as he sees it to be.
He then speaks to the listener about what generations of artists owe one another and how an artist who breaks new ground must always flaunt the conventions. He mentions a painter named Hulking Tom who studies under him, who Lippo believes will further reinvent artistic practice in the way he himself has done through pursuing realism.
He poses to his listener the basic question whether it is better to "paint [things] just as they are," or to try to improve upon God's creations. He suggests that even in reproducing nature, the artist has the power to help people to see objects that they have taken for granted in a new light. He grows angry thinking of how his masters ruin the purpose of art, but quickly apologies before he might anger the policeman.
He then tells his listener about his plan to please both his masters and himself. He is planning to paint a great piece of religious art that will show God, the Madonna, and "of course a saint or two." However, in the corner of the painting, he will include a picture of himself watching the scene. He then fantasizes aloud how a "sweet angelic slip of a thing" will address him in the painting, praising his talent and authorship, until the "hothead husband" comes and forces Lippi to hide away in the painting. Lippo bids goodbye to his listener and heads back home.
"Fra Lippo Lippi" stands as one of Browning's most sophisticated dramatic monologues because it works on so many different levels. It is a discourse on the purpose of art, on the responsibility of the artist, the limits of subjectivity, the inadequacy of moral shapes and strictures, and lastly a triumph of dramatic voice.
Browning was inspired to write this poem after reading about Filippo Lippi in Vasari's Lives of the Artists, a compendium of Renaissance painters. Vasari identifies Lippi as the first realist painter, and Browning was attracted to the idea of Lippi being a ground breaker in terms of artistic style. At the time Lippi was painting, art was expected to conform to certain religious principles and to pursue shadowy, moral forms rather than delve into the intricacies of life as it is. Browning would have been attracted to this idea as a writer of complicated psychology in the midst of the Victorian era, which again pushed the idea that art should have a moral purpose.
Probably the most resonant theme in the poem is Lippo's dialectic on the purpose of art. Basically, his dilemma comes down to two competing philosophies: where he wants to paint life as it is, thereby revealing its wondrous complexity, his superiors want him to paint life through a moral lens, to use his painting as an inspirational tool. Lippo proposes in several places the importance of "realism" as a painting style. The best argument for it can be found in the speaker himself, who frequently reveals his love of life. Notice the many times he breaks into song in the poem, which suggests his whimsical nature. His ability to use details in characterizing people (like when he talks of begging from a variety of different individuals) shows that he has an eye for the myriad distinctions in the world. As a realist, Lippo believes art should aspire to capture the beauty God has made in hopes of evoking responses from its audience. Further, he suggests that humans have a tendency to overlook the details of their lives, to ignore "things we have passed perhaps a hundred times." When a painter presents the same objects through art, a person is able to suddenly appreciate them in a new light, therefore appreciating God's beauty as it was meant to be appreciated. As evidence of the effectiveness of his philosophy, Lippo cites the common monks who loved his paintings and enjoyed recognizing their world in his depictions.
As a counter to this philosophy, Lippo's superiors believe art should "instigate to prayer." They eschew anything that reminds the viewer of the body, instead insisting that art should represent the soul and thereby inspire man to be better than he is. The Prior needs art to remind man of his religious instincts, suggesting that anything that focuses on the body must be impure. Lippo wants to reveal the irony of this philosophy – he suggests that trying to improve on God's beauty (which he captures through realism) is antithetical to the purpose of trying to bring an audience closer to God. He suggests time and time again that because life is full of complexity, contradiction, and wonder, representing it as it is will only stress those qualities, whereas the attempt to "transcend" through art will ironically simplify art into a pure, moral purpose that encourages people to "fast next Friday." Lippo asks, "What need of art at all?" if its purpose is merely to encourage piety. When Lippo paints a saint, he paints a saint, not what the saint represents, since in attempting to do the latter, he would no longer capture the contradictions and intricacies of the saint.
The poem also considers an artist's responsibility, especially when he is doing something new (as Browning certainly thought he was doing with his own work). When Lippo lists as some of his sample subjects "the breathless fellow at the altar-foot/Fresh from his murder," the irony of a murderer in church calls to mind some of Browning's dramatic monologues like "Porphyria's Lover." The poem ultimately suggests that an artist must be responsible to only one thing: himself. Lippo paints as his masters demand because he must survive, and he learned early on in life that by pretending to be something, he could stay fed instead of remaining hungry. In the same way that he pretended to renounce the world to get bread, so does he continue to paint in a way he does not admire, all the while growing bitter that he is not adequately expressing his view that good painting should evoke questions and wonder. When he sketches his plan for a final painting at the end of the poem, he is expressing an idea of how to feed both desires: he will paint what the Church wants but also include himself, thereby making a subversive comment and negating the moral purpose for which the painting ostensibly is meant.
It is in terms of this idea that the poem has a bigger purpose than just being about art. Instead, it contemplates the limits of subjectivity. Basically, what Lippo's masters want is for him to attempt a holy subjectivity, to capture the essence of his subjects rather than their objective facts (which are defined by their specific physical characteristics, for instance). This would conform to the Romantic tradition of poetry in which Browning writes; by focusing on the subjective experience of nature, a Romantic poet aims to transcend its physical limitations and reveal something greater. Browning, who was often criticized for his objective focus on trying to represent characters outside his own mind rather than "putting himself" into a poem, is making a challenge to this criticism. Lippo wants us to see that his impulse to paint 'objectively' – to paint the world as it appears – does not necessarily mean he eschews this subjective transcendence. One can capture the subjective wonder of life by painting the objective, because it is only through the body that we can even attempt to glimpse the soul. He suggests that attempting to paint the 'subjective' is to guess at God's meaning, when God has only given us the objective. In essence, what Lippo (and Browning) are saying is that to reproduce the world as he sees it is always to be both objective and subjective. By extension, Browning suggests that, for example, the duke in "My Last Duchess" indeed represents Browning himself, as well as humankind in general. However, Browning can go no further than representing psychological realism as he observes it, because to pretend to have a facility for that is to be dishonest – all we have are our eyes and senses, and an artist should revel in the freedom and wonder of that. The mention of Hulking Tom only suggests that artists should be ground breakers – in the same way Lippo has moved art to a new place, so will Hulking Tom, for the world changes and artists need to continually mark those changes without having to conform to illogical demands.
However, what really pushes an artist away from this recognition are moral expectations and strictures, which this poem criticizes in Browning's usual ironic fashion. The scene in which Lippo is first brought to the convent is hilarious. As he stuffs his mouth full of bread, the "good fat father" asks the 8-year-old boy if he will "quit this very miserable world?" Having known the pains of near-starvation, the boy knows better than the "fat father" the pains of the world, but is taking great joy in the simplicity of bread. He ironically promises to renounce the world so that he can easily taste the world's riches through a life of monastic "idleness," and this irony is reflected in the demands the Prior will later make of Lippo's paintings. The Prior wants Lippo to continually renounce the world in his art, to ignore the body in favor the soul, but all the while we are to remember that this is a silly irony. When the Prior suggests that art should inspire people to pray, to fast, and to fulfill their religious duties, there is an implication of a hierarchy that must be maintained by stressing those duties, all of which has to do with the material and physical world. These moral expectations are encouraged because they maintain the material world's chain of command, and for an artist like Lippo, such a philosophy is necessarily a limitation on art.
It is for these reasons that Lippo encourages the police prelate to let him go. He stresses that they, as subordinates to superiors, should not simply enforce laws because those laws exist, but instead should recognize that man is a "beast" with beastly (sexual) desires. It is easy to see in Lippo's defense an amusing attempt to rationalize his release, but it also ties into the poem's main themes.
Ultimately, the poem is most effective in its masterful use of voice. Written in blank verse, it attempts to capture the rhythms of human speech rather than conforming to any strict poetic meter. Lippo's objective in the early part of the poem is simply to be released, and he accomplishes this through his humorous name-dropping and defenses of his behavior. However, he quickly falls into his life story, which suggests the extent of his psychological repression. There is obviously nothing this simple policeman can do to help Lippo's situation, but his insistence on speaking at such length to the man only stresses how terribly he has been caught in a system unable to reveal his unique gifts. In a sense, Browning's use of voice makes Lippo's point: by objectively capturing a character outside of himself, Browning is able to engage in his own subjective hang-ups and fascinations about art, life, and humanity. To paint a man as he might be (as Browning has done with Lippo), with his imperfections intact, is to suggest wonderful possibilities.
Finally, the poem's final image offers a great allegory worthy of dissection. As mentioned above, Lippo's inclusion of his own image in an otherwise pious painting merely stresses the unavoidable collision between subjectivity and objectivity. He will give them what they want but surreptitiously put himself in it anyway. The woman who praises him is often linked to the muse, she who revels in his ability to push boundaries and capture inspiration. From this perspective, the "hothead of a husband" must be the world and its moral strictures, coming in to force the muse to stay within the lines. Interestingly enough, when this conflict happens, Lippo hides himself behind a bench to watch it play out, suggesting that it is this very conflict – between unfettered artistry and the demands of the world – that fuel an artist's creativity. Once the fight between husband and angel is complete, Lippo will have seen enough turmoil to have inspired his next painting.