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“Give Us No More of Body that Shows Soul”: The Metaphysical Interior via the Physical Exterior in “My Last Duchess” and “Fra Lippo Lippi”

Cameron Dodworth

Quite clearly, in two of Robert Browning’s poems, “My Last Duchess” (1842) and “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855), there is a layering of nineteenth-century Realism and Renaissance artistic expression. Browning’s two poems provide the basis for the study of some interesting parallels between the movement in art contemporary to Browning, and also contemporary to the Renaissance, towards an emerging realism. Yet, even beyond these parallels, there is also a sense, within the two poems, of an emerging emphasis on physicality, even to the extent that non-material, metaphysical entities—such as morality, betrayal, and even the human soul—are depicted physically. It is the role of visual art in each poem that enables this positivist perspective on the metaphysical. The artists in each poem—Frà Pandolf in “My Last Duchess” and Lippi in “Fra Lippo Lippi”—focus on the material exterior of their subjects not only in a manner that is consistent with an emerging sense of realism, but also in order to depict a physical representation of the metaphysical interior. In one sense, this complicates realism, as such a drive to represent the metaphysical via the physical implies the physical representation of what is not actually physically observable, and is therefore more symbolic or unreal than it is realism. However, with the exploration of various works of nineteenth-century Realism, it becomes clear that there is indeed a tendency within the movement and genre of Realism to represent the psychological interior via the physical exterior.
Gustave Caillebotte (fig. 1 and 2), as a Realist—as well as a Naturalist and Impressionist—is often concerned with the relationship between the physical exterior and the psychological interior through his studies of how the exterior is actually viewed from the interior, on a physical and psychological basis. Caillebotte also performed physical studies of form that were set in the interior, as well as the exterior, as the shirtless men in The Floor Scrapers (1875) (fig. 3) work through the monotonous strain of the physical labor involved in scraping the floor of the interior, while their anatomical representation is echoed by that of the exterior rowers in Oarsmen (1877) (fig. 4), yet tilted forward about another forty-five degrees. Other Realist/Naturalist/Impressionist artists like Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot (fig. 5, 6, and 7) were rather restricted to interior studies due to their gender, but were still very active in engaging the physical and psychological in their studies of the interior and the exterior, like many of their male counterparts. Writing from a Realist perspective that was a few decades earlier than these Naturalist works of visual art, Robert Browning utilizes this nineteenth-century Realist approach to psychological interiority via physical exteriority and connects it to an emerging Humanism in form that is represented by the Renaissance artists in the two poems that likewise seek to depict the metaphysical interior through the physical exterior.
Figure 1: Gustave Caillebotte, Intérieur (Interior), 1880, Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons :érieur.jpg
All Wikimedia Commons images used under the GNU Free Documentation License:
Figure 2: Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune Homme à la Fenêtre (Young Man at the Window), 1876, Private Collection.
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Figure 3: Gustave Caillebotte, Les Raboteurs de Parquet (The Floor Scrapers), 1875, Muséed'Orsay.
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Figure 4: Gustave Caillebotte, Rameurs (Oarsmen), 1877, Private Collection. Museum Syndicate Museum Syndicate image used under the Creative Commons License:
Figure 5: Mary Cassatt, Cup of Tea, 1880, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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Figure 6: Berthe Morisot, Intérieur (Interior), 1872, Private Collection.
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Figure 7: Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight, 1875, Private Collection.
WebMuseum, Paris:; WebMuseum image used under the WebMuseum License Agreement:
In Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” the Duke tells us that “Frà Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands” (lines 3-4), revealing the name of the artist that painted his now-deceased wife, and also telling us that the painting is a full-figured physical study of her. The Duke also makes it clear that the painting is always covered behind a curtain, and that “none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I” (lines 9-10). This fact brings up some obvious questions, as we are not sure whether the Duke covets what he evidently perceives as a physical representation of the Duchess’s betrayal in “that spot / Of joy” (lines 14-15) called into her cheek by the artist as a result of complimenting the physicality of the Duchess, or whether he is embarrassed by it; or both. Stefan Hawlin argues that the Duke’s act of pulling back the curtain, whether for himself or for an audience, is “an almost sexual gesture of revelation. Now, as it were, he has her in his power. He controls access to her and she is only seen when he wants it” (Hawlin 68). Hawlin’s reading depicts the Duke as enjoying a personal strip tease with the painting, alluding to the obvious power and control issues that go along with such a scenario. An even deeper, psychoanalytical reading might view the curtain and its sexually-charged hidden secrets as a representation of the female sexual organ, itself. Continuing along this mode of reading, Hawlin also remarks that, “in pornography—the ultimate reduction of woman-to-object—the flattened image can only ever irritate the restless spirit, which secretly desires the real life (intimacy, warmth, relationship) that it has sought to exclude” (Hawlin 70). If we buy into Hawlin’s argument that pornography is evidently rather frustrating, then we can see the physical and psychological paradox that Hawlin is getting at. As Hawlin observes, “The Duke has reduced his first wife to an object, from a live woman, to a painting in his art collection” (Hawlin 69). As a result, the painting is a physical representation of an object of sexual and psychological desire for the Duke, and likely it is only the Duke that can pinpoint “that spot / Of joy” called into her cheek: a physical symbol of her perceived betrayal that—if we are to believe the Duke—is likewise a representation of her heart having been “too soon made glad” (line 22) by physical gifts. The Duke represents her as very much a ‘material girl’ that was more interested in sunsets, “The bough of cherries some officious fool / Broke in the orchard for her” (lines 27-28), and “the white mule / She rode with round the terrace” (lines 28-29) than his less physical “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (line 33). As Hawlin observes, “The Duke may have reduced her to a portrait, a death-in-life, but even in the portrait—in its intense verisimilitude—she comes back to life and annoys him all over again” (Hawlin 69), furthering the physical and non-physical paradox that the painting of her represents. Interpreting the Duke as less of a perverted control freak and more of a sociopathic aesthete, L. Robert Stevens argues of the Duke that the “‘spot of joy’ which has evoked his ruthless jealousy in life, evokes his proud admiration in its artistic reproduction. But his attachment to the painting is wholly aesthetic. It calls up neither remorse, nostalgia, nor sentiment” (Stevens 20).
Stevens argues that “The Duke of Ferrara is preoccupied by verisimilitude in art, Lippo by its meaning” (Stevens 22). However, Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi is very much a man and an artist that is drawn to—and even tempted by—physicality; a depiction that, by all accounts, is a relatively accurate reflection of the artist and monk named Fra Filippo Lippi (fig. 8) that, according to Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages, “indulged in misdemeanors ranging from forgery and embezzlement to the abduction of a pretty nun, Lucretia, who became his mistress and the mother of his son” (Gardner 607). In Browning’s poem, Fra Lippo Lippi is caught in his pursuit of physical delights, “at an alley’s end / Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar” (lines 5-6). Furthermore, his de facto alarm clock at the monastery is the physical flagellation of flesh, as “Ere I rise up to-morrow and go work / On Jerome knocking at his poor old breast / With his great round stone to subdue the flesh” (lines 72-740). Like the poem, “My Last Duchess,” “Fra Lippo Lippi” is a poem that emphasizes physicality. While the Duke is obsessed with his painting of the Duchess on the basis of power and control, as well as sexual and psychological desire, Lippi focused on the physicality of things in order to survive on the streets, as “soul and sense of him grow sharp alike, / He learns the look of things, and none the less / For admonition from the hunger-pinch” (lines 124-126). For Browning, the eventual result of these experiences is an artistic philosophy, endorsed by Lippi, that essentially claims that the role of art is to document the physical beauty of God’s work that we might not otherwise notice, as “we’re made so that we love / First when we see them painted, things we have passed / Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see; / And so they are better, painted—better to us, / Which is the same thing. Art was given for that; / God uses us to help each other so, / Lending our minds out” (lines 300-306). However, Lippi’s artistic philosophy in the poem goes beyond the sentimental, as he no less than lusts after physicality in life, and also in art, explaining that “I do these wild things in sheer despite, / And play the fooleries you catch me at, / In pure rage!” (lines 252-254). So, when the Prior commissions him to “‘do our church up fine / And put the front on it that ought be!’” (lines 140-141), Lippi feels a sense of release in the outpouring of his pent-up physicality. His “head being crammed, the walls a blank, / Never was such prompt disemburdening” (lines 143-144) as he let flow his worldly, material observations into artistic, physical form. Of course, the realism of Lippi’s composition does not sit well with the Prior who scolds and exhorts Lippi:
“Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true
As much as pea and pea! it’s the devil’s-game!
Your 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.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke…no, it’s not…
It’s vapor done up like a new-born babe—
(In that shape when you die it leaves your mouth)
It’s…well, what matters talking, it’s the soul!
Give us no more of body than shows soul!” (lines 177-188).
As a result of the Prior’s exhortation, Lippi is left with the dilemma of being tasked with representing the metaphysical soul via the physical; a task that, judging by the Prior’s own stammering vagueness, is even more difficult to execute than it is to ask. Yet that, of course, was Lippi’s intent in the first place, in his depiction of “folk at church, / From good old gossips waiting to confess / Their cribs of barrel-droppings, candle-ends, — / To the breathless fellow at the altar-foot, / Fresh from his murder” (lines 146-150). Lippi attempts to “Make his flesh liker and his soul more like, / Both in their order” (lines 207-208).
Figure 8: Filippo Lippi, Self Portrait of Fra' Filippo Lippi (detail from Coronation of Mary), c. 1441-1447, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
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Consistent with the emerging sense of Humanism and realism in Renaissance art contemporary to Fra Filippo Lippi, Browning’s Lippi seeks to represent images in his paintings as they actually are in the observable world. Likewise, consistent with the movement and genre of nineteenth-century Realism that was contemporary to Browning’s poem, both Browning’s Lippi and Browning himself go beyond formal, physical realism, augmenting that physicality with a metaphysical, psychological Realism, similar to Lippi’s attempt in the poem to “take breath and try to add life’s flash, / And then add soul and heighten them three-fold” (lines 213-214) in order to augment his physical representation of the eyes of the Prior’s niece in his painting with the metaphysical. Such a methodology in Lippi, and also in Browning, is reflected in an unsigned review from a June 1856 edition of The Dublin University Magazine, claiming that the lines of Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi” “seem to us so true an analysis between the spiritual and material in painting, and how each should never stand alone, but be always the complement of the other” (Browning 190). Likewise, Hawlin argues that in “Browning’s view religious paintings do not help us to contemplate specific religious teachings, neither do they improve our lives by helping us contemplate the exemplary lives of saints, nor are they immediate aids or pathways to prayer. Rather, they work in more diffuse and general aesthetic terms, awakening us to the beauty of the human form and face, and awakening us to the loveliness of the physical world” (Hawlin 181).
As represented by the visual art of the “Proto-Renaissance” as well as the Renaissance itself, a greater sense of realism and naturalism in form, as well as a greater emphasis on the physical world, is very much at stake. Helen Gardner’s text discusses these developments:
Medieval artists had for centuries depended chiefly on prototypes (pictures and carvings) for representations of the human figure, with an occasional searching glance at objects and persons in the optical world. In the proto-Renaissance, it is the optical world that offers prototype and authority to the artist, though not all at once, of course. Not until the fifteenth century will the “imitation of nature” as an objective give artists direction, and not until the sixteenth will it become theory and doctrine (Gardner 561).
Not surprisingly, religious influence played a large part in this development, as Gardner argues that, “In view of St. Francis’s humanizing of medieval religion—making it a matter of intense personal experience and drawing attention to the handiwork of God in the beauty of natural things—it is natural that his successors should inspect nature more closely, with a curiosity that would lead to scientific inquiry” (Gardner 562). According to Gardner, this emphasis on the personal “stresses the primacy of personal experience, the individual’s right to know by experiment, the futility of formal philosophy, and the beauty and value of things in the external world” (Gardner 562). As a result, according to Gardner, “artists began to project in painting and sculpture the infinitely complex and shifting optical reticulum that we experience as the world” (Gardner 562).
Giovanni Cimabue illustrates this utilization of the optical world with the use of perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional form on Madonna’s throne in Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets (c. 1285-1286) (figure 9). Likewise, the drapery on the figures in the painting signals a more realistic study of physical material. However, the bodily form still leaves much to be desired, as seen in the rather skinny, “little man” quality of Jesus, as well as the unrealistic facial features of the figures, and also the flipper-like qualities of the hands and feet. Giotto’s articulation of the same subject matter in Madonna Enthroned (c. 1306-1310) (fig. 10) shows how he, even as a student of Cimabue, already displays a drastically more realistic style. Aside from the facial features and the remaining “little man” quality of Jesus, Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned contains figures that have the appearance of what Gardner terms “substance, dimensionality, and bulk” (Gardner 569), as Gardner even observes that the Madonna is “corporeally of this world, even to the swelling of the bosom” (Gardner 569). Gardner also observes of Giotto that he “inaugurated a firm method of pictorial experiment through observation” (Gardner 568), and also “reveals nature in the process of observing it and divining its invisible order. In fact, he showed his generation a new way of seeing. With Giotto, Western artists turned resolutely toward the visible world as the source of knowledge and nature. This new outward vision replaced the medieval inward vision that searched not for the secrets of nature but for union with God” (Gardner 568-569). However, Walter Pater, in his “Conclusion” to The Renaissance, still emphasizes “the inward world of thought and feeling” (Pater 234). Pater also observes that, “At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action” (Pater 234). Pater ultimately privileges “the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world” (Pater 235). Browning, though, takes things a step further with his “Fra Lippo Lippi,” as Lippi in the poem seems to search for inward union with God simultaneously with outward physical observation and representation. Browning’s Lippi claims that, “If you get simple beauty and naught else, / You get about the best thing God invents: / That’s somewhat: and you’ll find the soul you have missed, / Within yourself” (lines 217-220).
Figure 9: Giovanni Cimabue, Maestà (Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets), c. 1285-1286, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
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Figure 10: Giotto, Ognissanti Madonna (Madonna Enthroned), c. 1306-1310, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
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Returning to Browning’s representation of the Renaissance, Leonard S. Goldberg argues that, though Fra Lippo Lippi is clearly lobbying for a more realistic style and representation in the poem, “there are more interesting things art can do than to be realistic, a notion that, if fully in keeping with Lippi’s untrammeled personality, also cuts away at the artistic stance he feels impelled to define and defend. The poem, given how it operates, proves too insistent upon its own means to work as an exercise in naturalistic representation” (Goldberg 249). As Goldberg observes of Fra Lippo Lippi, “an air of unreality permeates his world” (Goldberg 247), in a manner actually consistent with nineteenth-century Realism. Glen Omans argues that art indeed does
select, order, and shape material existence. It produces a three-dimensional, realistic, but artfully controlled, illusion of reality. Art must be artistically focused if it is to bring men to the sharper realization of life that Lippo wants, and from there direct their imaginations toward a perception of higher truth. The artist, then, must maintain some distance from reality, at least in the act of creation, in order to impose order upon it and upon himself (Omans 137).
Fra Filippo Lippi’s depiction of similar subject matter as Cimabue and Giotto in Madonna and Child with Two Angels (c. 1455-1465) (fig. 11) is quite revealing in terms of a quickening of realism and naturalism in Renaissance painting, likewise acting as an example of Browning’s articulation of Lippi’s artistic philosophy in his poem. Gardner observes of the painting that “all figures reflect the use of models (that for the Madonna may even have been Lucretia). Fra Filippo plainly relishes the charm of youth and beauty as he finds it in this world” (Gardner 608). The Madonna carries a sense of human beauty, and Jesus even carries a realistic bit of baby fat. Beyond the more realist and naturalist physical form of the figures, there is also a much greater sense of humanism at stake. The Madonna and Jesus interact with each other in a manner much more similar to a mother and child, as Jesus even seems to be grasping at his mother’s clothing and modest adornments like a curious infant. Even the cherubic angel in the foreground looks more like a precocious babysitter than one of the mere onlookers in Cimabue and Giotto.
Figure 11: Filippo Lippi, Madonna col Bambino e due Angeli (Madonna and Child with Two Angels), c. 1455-1465, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
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Similar to the distorted figures in works of nineteenth-century Realism like Honoré Daumier’s The Third-Class Carriage (1864) (fig. 12), and also Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) (fig. 13), Browning’s Lippi is a work of Realism, and also of unreality. Daumier, and especially van Gogh, compose figures that sacrifice physical verisimilitude and also aesthetics in order to represent the nonphysical via the physical. The facial features and spatial features in the paintings are distorted almost to the level of the grotesque in order to call attention to social realities like poverty, as well as the poor working conditions and poor diet of the Borinage miners depicted in The Potato Eaters. Browning’s Duke and Lippi are likewise depicted in a very Realist and less-than-flattering manner, particularly in relation to their moral character. Though Lippi seeks to justify his moral ineptitude with his artistic philosophy, the Duke’s aestheticism is but a thin curtain over his moral depravity. With all this in mind, Hawlin argues that the poem “‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ extends this idea of the necessarily worldly nature of art. It defends a sensuous, particular, and social art against an art that is purist or idealized” (Hawlin 84). Furthermore, according to Hawlin, “Art must address the world as it is—beautiful, tragic, sensuous, ugly—not attempt, as it were, to go over its head. Browning insists that it is only through an art grounded in reality that there can be any possibility of religious vision” (Hawlin 85). Further acknowledging the role of ugliness as well as questionable morality in Browning’s Realist method of representation, Hawlin argues that Browning’s “defence of naturalism is partly Browning’s defence of his own art, an art which only makes its way towards high ideal by letting in the complexity, resistance, ugliness and evil of real experience” (Hawlin 178). Nineteenth-century Realist painters sacrificed beauty and physical idealism in order to create art that might rely on ugliness, but it is the augmentation of ugliness that signifies a social idealism that transcends the physical representation of ugliness on the canvas. In a similar manner, Frà Pandolf, and especially Fra Lippo Lippi, seek to represent their subject matter as it appears to the eye, but it is the augmentation of realism and naturalism—and therefore of worldly ugliness in contrast to the divine beauty of the soul, according to the Prior in “Fra Lippo Lippi”—that signifies a humanist idealism that transcends not only nonrealist, medieval symbolism, but also transcends the physical representation on the painting surface in its signification of the complex human reality of beauty, ugliness, sin, grace, morality, immorality, etc. Likewise, Browning himself depicts the Duke and Lippi in a manner that transcends and distorts their dramatic personae in relation to beauty, ugliness, morality, and immorality. As William V. Nestrick observes, “God reveals himself on the level of human experience, not in an absolute or pure way, but in a way suited to the powers of human comprehension. Hence Browning’s focus on individual human beings. In their imperfection, he finds a human perfection which images divine perfection” (Nestrick 683).
Figure 12: Honoré Daumier, Le Wagon de Troisième Classe (The Third-Class Carriage), 1864, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
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Figure 13: Vincent van Gogh, De Aardappeleters (The Potato Eaters), 1885, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
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Therefore, when Omans observes of the poem “Fra Lippo Lippi” that “The monks want soul (spirituality, ideality) in art, of course, but believe that one gets soul by distorting reality” (Omans 132), the monks are actually not that far off. Physical realism indeed must be distorted in order to account for the metaphysical and the nonphysical. However, similar to the naturalistic progression observable in the work of Cimabue, Giotto, and Fra Filippo Lippi,—and also similar to the methodology of Browning’s Lippi and his attempts to “Make his flesh liker and his soul more like, / Both in their order” and to “take breath and try to add life’s flash, / And then add soul and heighten them three-fold”—such a distortion of reality must be an augmentation of reality, and therefore a participation in a progression rather than a regression. This qualification is consistent with Goldberg’s argument that “Art moves in a linear fashion, improving itself steadily as new techniques help signify that a new spirit has started to work itself out in social terms” (Goldberg 260-261). As Helen Gardner observes, “Whatever the ideals of spiritual perfection may have meant to artists in past centuries, those ideals now are realized in terms of the sensuous beauty of this world” (Gardner 608). But of course, as is observable in the poems and paintings that have been explored in this discussion, sensuous ugliness is just as much at stake (if not more) as sensuous beauty when taking into account the manner in which the metaphysical/nonphysical interior is expressed via the physical exterior in nineteenth-century and Renaissance expressions.
Cameron Dodworth has received degrees from Nebraska Wesleyan University, the University of Leicester, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and he is currently an Instructor in the Department of English at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. His primary research interests include nineteenth-century art and literature, Gothicism, and also food in literature.
Works Cited
Browning, Robert. “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1842). Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. 127-136.

Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess” (1855). Poems of Robert Browning. Ed. Donald Smalley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956. 49-51.

Gardner, Helen. Art Through the Ages [1926]. Vol. 2. “Renaissance and Modern Art.” 9th ed. Ed. Horst de la Croix, Richard G. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick. New York: HBJ, 1991.

Goldberg, Leonard S. “‘You think you see a monk’: The Illusions of ‘Fra Lippo Lippi.’” Philological Quarterly 81 (2002): 247-270.

Hawlin, Stefan. The Complete Guide to Robert Browning. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Nestrick, William V. “Robert Browning: The Maker-See.” The English Journal 55.6 (September 1966): 682-689.
Omans, Glen. “Browning’s ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ A Transcendentalist Monk.” Victorian Poetry 7.2 (Summer 1969): 129-145.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance (1873). New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Stevens, L. Robert. “Aestheticism in Browning’s Early Renaissance Monologues.” Victorian Poetry 3.1 (Winter 1965): 19-24.