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The Bellini Madonna



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Author Suggestions for Further Reading

 

Browning and the Dramatic Monologue: Suggestions for Further Reading

 

Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues are masterpieces of irony which depend on the principle of triangulation. A single person, who is not the poet, utters the entire poem in a specific situation and usually at a critical moment, and in doing so may address one or more other people (who don’t, however, reply: we know what they say or do only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.) These are the first two legs of the triangle. The twist is that, while blithely holding forth in this way, the speaker unwittingly lays bare his or her true character. Browning hides behind the scenes, in cahoots with the reader, inviting us to supply the missing parts of the speaker’s one-sided account—he makes up the third leg of the triangle, without once appearing in person.

            The gold standard of all dramatic monologues is Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (1842). Browning drew on an actual episode in Tuscan history for his donnée, but the interpretation, and the glittering diction, are all his own. The scene is the grand staircase of the ducal palace in Ferrara, in northern Italy; time: the mid 1500s. The speaker is the lusty, avaricious Duke of Ferrara, and as the poem opens he is brokering a marriage deal with the envoy of the Count of Tyrol, whose daughter he intends to acquire as his second duchess—for Ferrara’s ‘last’ duchess, we realize, is dead. Rather like a modern aristocrat doing some calculated PR in Hello magazine (“To celebrate his engagement to the stunning Barbara, Ferrara welcomes us into his charming home...”) the duke offers the silent envoy, and the reader, an access-all-areas tour of the art he has amassed. Sequestered behind a curtain which only Ferrara is allowed to part hangs the prize of his collection, a portrait of his late wife. On his own account the young duchess was not only beautiful but girlish, unaffected, tender and spontaneous. She blushed easily, was warmly appreciative of small acts of kindness, and clearly utterly lacking in vanity: one of the poem’s most comically affecting images is of the duchess riding around the terrace on a mule, of all absurd animals. Without ever having laid eyes on the girl, we feel as if we, too, have savored “the depth and passion of her earnest glance,” the “spot of joy” in her cheek, and “the faint half flush” tinting the delicate skin of her throat. Yet it’s soon clear that the duchess’s very freshness made her irksome to her authoritarian husband: he found her altogether too impulsive, too unpredictable, for his taste, and therefore too threatening—too human, in a word. So he had her killed. But no matter: “There she stands/ As if alive.” Ferrara in fact prefers the image to the original because the image can be controlled.

None of this is said in so many words: because the self-satisfied Ferrara utters the whole poem, his loathsomeness and megalomania have to be inferred. They seep out at the edges of what he says; he is unaware of his own repulsiveness. And yet, though he is loathsome, he’s perversely vital at the same time: we are as mesmerized by his fluency as is the Count of Tyrol’s envoy (who, it is implied, makes a bolt for the stairs at the end—is he, one wonders, really going to square it with his conscience to recommend Ferrara as a match?) The poem is a gorgeous verbal icon with an elaborately carved frame, a portrait within a portrait, for Ferrara is every bit as interesting as the dead duchess, and every inch as real. Taken as a whole, the monologue is a profoundly human picture that is simultaneously a celebration of art’s power—because art, after all, is a uniquely human undertaking.

 

Browning wrote three other dramatic monologues specifically about Renaissance artists:

In “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855), we become intimately acquainted with one of the most exuberant and innovative painters of the cinquecento: we learn about his conscription as a boy into his religious order, his erotic escapades, his iconoclastic ideas on art and beauty and religion; and all of this through his affronted address to the captain of the Florentine guard who has seized him sneaking from the house of the Medici (where he is supposed to be painting) to visit a brothel. Fra Lippo Lippi’s lusty individualism makes him a disaster as a friar, but an out-and-out triumph as an artist.

“Andrea del Sarto” (1855), by contrast, is a study in mediocrity. Technically faultless but lacking in passion, Andrea reveals his strengths and weaknesses both as a man and painter during a speech directed at his demanding wife, Lucrezia. We are given an insight into the “silver-grey” perfection of Andrea’s technique and his conflicted feelings for the high-maintenance Lucrezia, whose expensive tastes, he feels certain, have stopped him from becoming another Leonardo, Raphael or Michelangelo by forcing him to paint lifeless, commercial kitsch. Yet the question lingers: would the chill Andrea really have been capable of producing anything better, or is his devotion to Lucrezia’s needs a convenient cover for the fact that he lacks the crucial spark?

“Pictor Ignotus” (1845), the earliest of Browning’s monologues about painters, anticipates the themes of both of the above: what the challenge of creating (or responding to) art reveals about the human personality. The speaker is an “unknown painter”
of the High Renaissance, equivalent to our modern “Anon;” a dutiful drudge who has chosen to turn out identikit madonnas and saints and be forgotten, rather than risk originality and possible distinction. The implication is clear: as far as Browning is concerned, nothing could be more fatal to the enterprise of art. It’s the proper business of art to accommodate what is piquant and original, even—or especially—if imperfect.