Hearing Voices at the Met

Fra Angelico and the dramatic monologues of Browning.
In Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, famous Renaissance painters talk their way out of sticky situations and obsess about painting. Yet the painter Browning might have cared about most was never given a voice. W.S. Di Piero explains why in his review of the recent blockbuster Fra Angelico show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I’m the sort of poet who when he writes about art writes about art. I mean, I concentrate on what I’m seeing and what I might say about it. But while walking through the Metropolitan’s exhibition in New York last fall of the work of the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, I kept hearing Robert Browning’s voice, or rather the various voices he invented for his dramatic monologues spoken by Renaissance painters. These poems have a Shakespearean immediacy and fullness, but they’re also essays in art criticism. The snag, though, is that Browning never wrote a poem in the voice of the painter whose work I was looking at, yet Angelico stands as the silent, cunning presence in and behind (and in a sense above) every one of Browning’s monologues having to do with realistic representation, especially that manic apology for realism, “Fra Lippo Lippi,” in which Fra Angelico at least merits special mention as a peerless spiritual painter. Narrated in the voice of the painter Filippo Lippi, like Angelico a friar in a religious order, the poem puts the question: How does an artist most faithfully represent the divine in the human, the spirit in the flesh?

Pressed by the nightwatch to explain his presence (decked out in monk’s robes) in Florence’s red light district after dark, Lippi, like an ardent memoirist on daytime TV, tries to charm his audience. His life, he says, determined his art, which he produces in hire to the great man, Cosimo de’ Medici. Growing up on the streets orphaned and destitute, Lippi came to value the glory of physical reality, above all the flesh and its pleasures, and so his work reproduces the actual look of the world–real faces, places, objects:

Can’t I take life’s breath and try to add life’s flash,
And then add soul and heighten them threefold?
Or say there’s beauty with no soul at all—
(I never saw it—put the case the same—)
If you get simple beauty and naught else,
You get about the best thing God invents.

This is also the source of an ongoing quarrel between Lippi and his religious superior, the Prior, who isn’t at all hot on the painter’s ideas, especially since he’s noticed that in a Salome picture the good Fra Lippo has modeled Herod’s wife, Herodias, “Who went and danced and got men’s heads cut off!” on his niece, whom he describes in the picture as “that white smallish female with the breasts,” as if there were other kinds of females. Browning skews the story: it was Salome who danced and called for John the Baptist’s head, but he’s following the lead of Giorgio Vasari, whom I’ll get to in a moment. To call attention to the flesh, the Prior insists, celebrates impermanence, and that won’t do. Paint the soul. Forget about accurately modeled arms and legs.

Browning folds another question into “Fra Lippo Lippi”: how should an artist express devotional piety? Saints’ faces in Lippi’s pictures are faces he would have seen crossing the Ponte Vecchio on market day. He paints people as they actually look, he says, because we are, after all, the best things God created, so to represent that supreme expression of His handiwork is to offer back our own grateful love. Painting is a sensual devotional activity. The Prior feels that it insults God to paint man as “perishable clay.” One should aim for something purer, less contingent, not so in thrall to mere appearance. Lippi believes his own vision is equally pious, though more earthly and primordial, that whenever he looks at the things of the world, “I speak as I was taught; / I always see the Garden and God there / A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned, / The value and significance of flesh, / I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.” The Prior replies that poor deluded Lippi will never hold his own against the two supremely spiritual artists of his time, Lorenzo Monaco and his most famous pupil, Fra Angelico.

In “Fra Lippo Lippi” and two other monologues spoken by Renaissance artists (“Andrea del Sarto” and “Pictor Ignotus”—more on these later), Browning relied on Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, a compendium of biographies published in 1550. Vasari, a painter himself, knew several of his subjects personally, and his facts went unchallenged for nearly 400 years. Item: Lippi refers to a gifted young student of his, Masaccio (Browning calls him “Hulking Tom”—Big Tomaso), when in fact it was Lippi and Angelico who learned from Masaccio’s innovations in crafting the body’s bulk and heft. (His muscular fresco decorations in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence articulate feelings in faces and physiognomies: Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden, seem shriveled and crushed by shame.) Dead at 29, Masaccio wrestled the impersonal, flat configurations of medieval art into the depths of illusionist space. On the other hand, Vasari was probably correct when he wrote that Fra Angelico was “most kindly and temperate, lived chastely, and withdrew himself from the snares of the world,” though one does wonder if Angelico always prayed before taking up his brush and never painted a crucifixion without weeping. Born Guido di Pietro sometime around 1387 and already an accomplished artist before joining the Dominican Order sometime between 1419 and 1422, he didn’t become pictor angelicus, the Angelic Painter (later Englished to Fra Angelico) until after his death in 1455. He was pious, curious, prolific, and painted with radiant sweetness. His pictures’ blues and golds have an almost unearthly aura—turn off the gallery lights and you’d expect them to hover freely and softly in the dark.

Angelico’s early work was still hostage to the technical limitations of late medieval painting. From Monaco he had mastered crisp, knifing highlighting of drapery and rhythmic grouping of figures, but he struggled with depth of field: space flattens to panel-like pictorial zones, serial events in a framed narrative are fixed in rigid processional ranks, and figures lack weight and rotundity. A rather worried Christ child isn’t tucked or weighted in the folds of the Blessed Virgin’s mantle; he’s sleeved inside them like a library card in its jacket. Angelico’s pictures, early and late—altarpieces, private meditative images, the ethereal frescos decorating corridors and cells in the convent of San Marco in Florence—were made as devotional objects meant to induce contemplation on sacred persons and events. They are stable, unambiguous emblems designed to elicit immediate, clear-channel emotions—pity, horror, compassion, joy. Most of the drama in a Fra Angelico inheres in the meaning of holy event, not in the worldly details of its occurrence, though there are certainly cannily crafted incidentals: a veil falling transparently across the Virgin’s lap; a soldier’s foot curving in its stirrup like a crescent moon.

Most museumgoers, I’d guess, don’t live devotional lives and look at these pictures with secularized eyes as aesthetic goods. A contemporary would have responded soberly to imagery that to our own sensibilities looks quaintly comic. In The Decapitation of Saints Cosmas and Damian, sliced-off heads lie pertly on the ground with their roulette-wheel halos still attached. It’s this sort of stylized, formulaic rendering of human actions that Browning’s Filippo Lippi objects to. Lippi believes an artist shouldn’t deprive human presence of its earthbound fleshiness: the more realistic the depiction, the more pious the practice. He’s pointing the way, of course, to later Renaissance painting: to multiple-point perspective that freed painters to create complex unified fields of action; to the flashy suppleness of oil paint on canvas that replaced Angelico’s stiffer tempera-on-wood; to the obsession with embodiment that a hundred years later would result in Tintoretto’s angels, built like prizefighters, crashing into worldly space. And yet Lippi is no impious fool: he marvels as much as Angelico at divine creation:

The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!

Piety may have driven Angelico’s ambitions, but he also did what painters have always done: he looked around in the art world (in Masaccio’s workshop especially) for what he could use. With that curiosity came, in time, a more emotionally charged imagery that pushed toward the naturalism soon to be the common style in Italian painting. By the 1430s he can boost the kinetics of a picture so that it seems about to jump into action. In a tightly constructed depiction of the attempt to burn at the stake those same tenacious saints, Cosmas and Damian, the fire that fails to consume them lashes their executioners instead, whippy red tendrils and hairs swept back like a sea anemone’s fringe (Figure 1). Angelico also made quick (if uneven) progress in modeling heads into distinct expressive identities. The pathos of a preoccupied, grieving Joseph of Arimathaea jolts us, yet the picture is executed with a feathery touch, a light hand crafting a head heavy with distress.

Figure 1: Fra Angelico, The Attempted Martyrdom of Saints Cosmas and Damian. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland. Photo: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The mystery of the incarnation was central to Angelico, but Lippi and other Browning monologists had a more insistent passion for embodiment and carnality: their pictures are more expressive of the feeling for that great event when God intervened in history and became a human being, living through our cycle of birth, suffering, and death. Angelico comes closest to this in his aggrieved, weird image of Christ crowned with thorns. Weird because the head is so flushed with blood that a rheumy red films his eyes, and the sinews on the young man-god’s neck tense like an animal’s. Most of us are so at ease with irreverence and doubt, our view of art so mediated by self-awareness of ourselves as image-making creatures, that it isn’t always easy to share the contemplative awe these images inspired. Angelico’s pictures are more “other” than those of later Renaissance painters, “other” in their devotional reverence, certitude, and iconography.

What, for instance, are devils? What do we see when we look at those scaly, vulpine, horned horrors? We experience curiosity more than terror, I think, though we may feel terror if we consider the reality of relentless, conscienceless evil. Angelico makes demons an ugliness that menaces the beauty of God’s creation, a corruption that claws at vulnerable but divinely authored human souls. And sometimes we respond in ways he wouldn’t have anticipated or wanted. His depictions of hell are thrilling. In a Last Judgment, while swaying hipshot angels dance toward the Empyrean, down in the right corner crouch miserable naked creatures, brutalizing each other, herded and tormented by devils. Corruption and sin are more engaging (or titillating at least) to us—great grandchildren of Baudelaire that we are—than purity. We relish the gusto in agonized aghast-ness and punished flesh.

To Angelico, the damned are naked because they are merely carnal, having surrendered their souls to those scabby, long-tongued devils. There are certain continuities, however, between him and us. An Angelico Crucifixion, blood spouting from Christ’s wounds as if to water the earth, may be more an emblem or pictorial rubric of the body in pain than a dramatizing of physical suffering, but the Crucifixion as motif is still with us, still developing out of Angelico’s early attempts to humanize the scene. For several moderns, from Dali to Robert De Niro, Sr., the scene bears world-sorrow. And whatever you think of its appropriateness, Andres Serrano’s recent Piss Christ, a crucifix steeped in a jar of urine, reminds us that Golgotha was a disgusting site of blood-soaked clothes, filthy ground, snot, excrement, piss, and sweat.

Angelico may not celebrate the body or its pleasures, but for all their delicate politesse, his pictures sometimes wildly stir the senses, especially when the sunny, fine-tooled gold leaf he lays into most pictures explodes in glory to God and manipulates his sumptuous blues from the celestial to the velvety. The Virgin of Humility enchants not just with its tender affection between Virgin and Christ child but with the expansive, nebulous blue of the Virgin’s mantle (Figure 2). When I first saw it, I felt I was witnessing C
Originally Published: February 7th, 2006

W.S. Di Piero was born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and earned degrees from St. Joseph’s College and San Francisco State College. A poet, essayist, art critic, and translator, Di Piero has taught at institutions such as Northwestern University, Louisiana State University, and Stanford, where he is professor emeritus of...

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