Note: Robert Browning first visited the Basilica of Santa Prassede, near Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in October 1844, and sent this poem to Hood's Magazine (London) on 18 February 1845, although the accompanying cover letter implies an earlier date of composition. Much of the poem's irony lies in the fact that "St. Praxed" (as Browning has anglicized her name) was a virgin saint of the second century who gave her wealth to the poor and to the Church.
The pagan, Christian, materialistic, and artistic elements of the Renaissance spirit, its essential "neo-classicism," which lie behind "My Last Duchess" are again evoked in this poem, as John Ruskin remarked in Modern Painters IV:
Its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin. It is nearly all I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice [1851-3] put into as many lines, Browning's being the antecedent work. [Works, xx, 34]
Rhetorically, these are the Bishop's last words, only some of which are addressed to his sons, who depart as the poem concludes. Bargaining (about the quality of the stone and position for the tomb) and confession (about the hidden lapis) are formulaic of a deathbed speech. The opening line suggests the ornamental trapping of a sermon, but the Bishop's life has been at total variance with the spirit of that quotation from "Ecclesiastes." His bargaining point for the tomb is that, having Saint Praxed's ear, he will be able to intercede to see that his sons get what all young men in the Renaissance most wanted: fast horses, beautiful mistresses, and Greek manuscripts. Sensuality, paganism, and Christianity are inextricably connected in the Bishop's mind, for he is characteristic of the clergy of his age.
And yet the Bishop is more human and sympathetic than that other representative figure, the Duke in "My Last Duchess," because of his love for the boys' mother and his jealousy of Gandolf, a rivalry he intends to pursue throughout eternity. Unlike people in the Middle Ages, his concept of Heaven is earth- and pleasure-bound. Furthermore, this poem possesses a marked vein of humour lacking in "My Last Duchess." The Bishop's programme for his tomb is typical of Renaissance artistic taste (similar to Julius II's for his projected tomb, and Sigismundo Malatesta's for his Tempio in Rimini). The speaker uses Ciceronian syntax, making his sentences richly complex and ornately artificial. Like the Duke, he is a connoisseur, but a genial one in love with life, and ready to bless his sons, even though he suspects that they do not intend to honour his request about the tomb, which represents the Renaissance ideal of undying fame.
Pettigrew, John, ed. Robert Browning The Poems. Vol. 1. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 1981.
Modified Last modified 19 February 2004