Ian Jack and Robert Inglesfield (eds), The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, Vol. 5: Men and Women

Find Location in text

Main Text

Whether or not his father owned an edition of Vasari's famous book, Le Vite de' più eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, et Architettori,1 Browning is likely to have heard of Fra Filippo Lippi (c. 1406–69) in his boyhood, from the account (for example) in vol. xxiv of the Biographie universelle.2 As we have noticed earlier,3 on 24 March 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was struck by his easy familiarity with Vasari, and reminded him that the Vite 'is not the handbook of the whole world'.4 When they married and went to Italy circumstances immediately reminded them of the great historian of painting, since for the first six months they lived in Pisa, occupying rooms 'close to the Duomo & Leaning Tower, in the great Collegio built by Vasari!'5 The injunction 'see Vasari', in 'Old Pictures in Florence', was one which Browning himself was to follow throughout his years in Italy.

The Vite was first published in 1550, to be succeeded by a much revised edition in 1568. While 1368 has been the basis of most later editions, as it was of the translation by Mrs Jonathan Foster in 1830–;2, Browning knew 1550 too;6 he also knew the most recent edition of the Italian text, that published in Florence from 1846, which he owned and which he refers to when defending his mistaken belief that Masaccio was a pupil of Lippi's.7 In the same letter he insists that he had 'looked into the matter of the priority between these two painters 'long ago, and long before I thought of my own poem, from my interest in the Brancacci frescos, indeed in all early Florentine art'. He probably began to study the Capella Brancacci soon after their arrival in Florence in 1847. The present poem was no doubt one of those 'with more music and painting than before' which he pg 32told Milsand that he was writing, early in 1853.1 On 13 April EBB described him as 'fond of digging at Vasari … making him a betwixt and between to other writers'.2

Invaluable as Vasari is, his Lives are not wholly reliable in biographical detail. As T. S. R. Boase pointed out, each of them is 'a short tale, illustrating some facet of human nature', following 'the method of the Italian novella, of which Boccaccio was the great exemplar'.3 Vasari's 'account of the friar escaping from a window by making a rope of his bedclothes corresponds verbally with a passage from Bandello's novella lviii'. Whether or not this points to a common source for Vasari and Bandello, we notice that Browning carries forward the process of fashioning a tale by omitting and changing Vasari's narrative in accordance with his own purposes. He omits, for example, one episode given prominence in Landor's Imaginary Conversation between 'Fra Filippo Lippi and Pope Eugenius the Fourth', a dialogue which may even have prompted the writing of his poem:4 that in which Lippi is said to have been captured by pirates and to have remained their prisoner in 'Barbary' for eighteen months, until he was released as a tribute to his skill in painting. He follows Mrs Foster, who omits the words 'furore amoroso, anzi bestiale',5 in softening his description of Lippi's amorous nature. He cuts the episode in which Lippi tricked the nuns to whose care Lucrezia Buti had been entrusted and 'bore her from their keeping', as a result of which they 'were deeply disgraced, and the father of Lucrezia was so grievously afflicted … that he never more recovered his cheerfulness'.6

Browning assigns Lippi a different position in the history of Italian painting from that given him by Vasari. Believing as he did that Masaccio pg 33was Lippi's pupil, not his master, Browning gives Lippi the role which Vasari assigns to Masaccio.1 Vasari tells us that Masaccio 'first attained the clear perception that painting is no other than the clear imitation … of all the forms presented by nature'.2 In his portrayal of the consecration of the church of the Carmine he 'painted the portraits of a great number of the citizens who make part of the procession, clothed in hoods and mantles',3 in such a manner that they were readily identifiable. The contrast between such a painter and artists 'to whom the cultivation of art was a sacred vocation'—what she terms 'the great schism in modern art'—is emphatically stated by the Brownings' friend Anna Jameson at the beginning of her section on Fra Lippo Lippi in her Memoirs of Early Italian Painters. On the one side, she writes:

We now find … a race of painters … profoundly versed in the knowledge of the human form, and intent on studying and imitating the various effects of nature in colour and in light and shade, without any other aspiration than the representation of beauty for its own sake. . . . On the other hand, we find a race of painters to whom … the representation of beauty [was] a means, not an end; by whom Nature in her various aspects was studied and deeply studied, but only for the purpose of embodying whatever we can conceive or reverence as highest, holiest, purest in heaven and earth.4

Here we have the contrast between Lippi's own view, at ll. 283 ff., and that of 'The Prior and the learned' at ll. 175–98 and 233–7.

Browning did not sympathize with the censorious attitude to Lippi which was gaining ground in his time. In 1836 a conservative Roman Catholic critic, A. F. Rio, published De la poésie chrétienne, in which he wrote that Lippi's soul was 'devoid of refinement and dignity', as might be seen by 'the round and curly heads of his angels, and their fanciful costume' in 'The Coronation of the Virgin'; he added that 'no ray of beatitude illumines their countenances … they always suggest the idea that they are placed there to perform some espiègleries'.5 The following pg 34year Franz Kugler similarly deplored the fact that in this painting 'the sacred event is entirely transposed to this world'.1 In the same tone the Brownings' friend Anna Jameson observed that 'he was the first who desecrated [religious] subjects by introducing the portraits of women who happened to be the objects of his preference at the moment'.2 Browning is so far from sharing such severe views that he brings his poem to its triumphant conclusion by making Lippi play with the notion that one of the same young girls, 'a sweet angelic slip of a thing', will address the Almighty on his behalf, so that he may escape censure. We note that, to give his poem this climax, he changes the time at which the painting is executed: whereas Vasari tells us that this was the first of Lippi's works to bring him to the attention of Cosimo de' Medici, Browning's painter boasts of his connection with Cosimo when he is caught by the guards at the beginning of the poem, promising to paint the picture at the end of it, as a work of atonement.3

On a famous occasion already mentioned, on 27 September 1855, Tennyson dined with the Brownings and read Maud to them, emotionally, and with numerous comments to draw attention to its merits. 'Yes, and it was wonderful', EBB wrote, ' … and he read exquisitely in a voice like an organ, rather music than speech'.4 W. M. Rossetti contrasts the manner of reading of the two poets. He tells us that Tennyson's

grand deep voice sways onward with a long-drawn chaunt, which some hearers might deem monotonous, but which gives noble value and emphasis to the metrical structure and pauses. Browning's voice, which was at once rich and peculiar, took much less account of the poem as a rhythmical whole; his delivery had more affinity to that of an actor, laying stress on all the light and shade of the composition—its touches of character, its conversational points, its dramatic give-and-take. In those qualities of elocution in which Tennyson was strong, and aimed to be strong, Browning was contentedly weak; and vice versa.5

Browning's choice was of course 'Fra Lippo Lippi', described by George Eliot as 'a poem at once original and perfect in its kind'.6 We cannot be pg 35certain when it was written, but if it was during the Brownings' stay in Rome between the last week of November 1853 and the end of the following May, as Sharp states,1 then it is later than 'Andrea del Sarto' and must surely have presented itself to the poet as a companion poem of the sort that he liked to write. The two were printed one after the other in 1863 and subsequently, 'Fra Lippo Lippi' first and 'Andrea' after, perhaps because Lippi was born in the first decade of the century and del Sarto some eight years later.

  • Date: 1853/4
  • 1863: Men and Women


1 The familiar title, that of the second edition.

2 xxiv (1819), 545–9.

4 Kintner, i. 553.

5 Raymond and Sullivan, iii. 194.

6 1550 has Architetti (so spelt) first in the title. Landor's copy, presumably a gift to Browning, was inscribed by him to his son in 1863 (Kelley and Coley, A 2378). The 2nd ed., with 'Pittori' mentioned first in the title, was published in Florence in 1568 (3 parts in 2 vols.) Browning also owned (Kelley and Coley, A 2379) the 13-vol. ed., Florence 1846–57 ed. V. Marchese, G. Pini, and C. and G. Milanesi. We quote from the translation of the 2nd ed., by Mrs Jonathan Foster (5 vols., 1850—2), which contains in footnotes important passages from the 1st ed. For an excellent account of the Lives one may turn to T. S. R. Boase, Giorgio Vasari: The Man and the Book (Princeton, N. J., 1979).

7 Letters, 104. See Kelley and Coley, A 2379.

1 See above, p. xiv. Cf. note to l. 156, below.

2 Robert Browning: A Portrait, by Betty Miller (1952), 175.

3 Boase, 51. Bandello's novelle were not published until 1554, but they may well have circulated in manuscript. Apart from a common source, the correspondences between him and Vasari may, as Boase acknowledges, be due to his taking the story from the Vite. Borghini recommended the novelle of Franco Sacchetti to Vasari for his second edition, 'because of the stories about artists that they contained' (ibid.)

4 See Landor, Works (2 vols., 1846), ii. 282. Landor makes Lippi tell the Pope how he and a friend (a canonico) went on the river one evening, to sing to a guitar certain 'gay Florentine songs, some of which were of such a turn and tendency' that they might 'sound better on water, and rather far from shore'. They took with them two boys and 'the good canonico's pretty niece', dressed as a boy.

5 For the Italian we have used the two-text edition of Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi (Florence, 1966—). The quotation (from the later text) is from vol. III (Testo), p. 616.

6 Lives, ii. 79–80.

1 See below, l. 273 n. Modern historians of art agree about the importance of Masaccio, who died young, yet 'brought about a complete revolution in painting': E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (1956), 165.

2 Lives, i. 401.

3 Ibid. 408.

4 Memoirs, i. 114; 110–11.

5 English translation, The Poetry of Christian Art (1854), 90. Browning knew Rio's work: cf. l. 228 n., below. In Vol. IV, p. 355 we failed to recognize the satirical reference to Rio in Christmas-Eve, ll. 671–2: 'To frame those portents which impart / Such unction to true Christian Art'.—On Rio's influence, see DeLaura, 'Browning's Painter Poems'.

1 Handbook of Paintingin Italy, Translated by a Lady, ed. Sir Charles Eastlake, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (1851), i. 198.

2 Memoirs, i. 114.

3 This seems generally to have escaped notice. An obvious alternative explanation, that Browning confused the chronology, is implausible. It is conceivable, but also unlikely, that he simply makes Lippi pluck a name from the air, to impress the guards, although he does not yet know Cosimo.

4 Letters of EBB, ii. 213.

5 Quoted in R. B. Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1980), 394.

6 Westminster Review, 65 (January 1856), 291.

1 p. 166. Cf. below, l. 156 n.

logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out