Robert Browning's poem, "Old Pictures in Florence," is a rather cynical examination of the fate of artwork and can be read as a criticism of man's typically fleeting interest in work that was once considered paramount. Throughout this poem, Browning makes skillful use of alliteration, assonance and repetition while expressing his adoration for the long-dead artists of the early and middle Italian Renaissance with a passion resembling religious veneration. Browning also laments for lost artwork and pleads with the ghosts of the artists to be so lucky as to find their missing masterpieces. Browning's most poignant argument however, is that the artwork that is most daring and risks the fate of being unfinished is actually the more perfect form of expression. Expanding from the example of the Florentine Duomo's unfinished Campanile ("the most to praise and the best to see"), Browning makes a political statement criticizing the presence and influence of Austria in Italy and hypothesizes that when such company is gone, Florence will be able to finish such works of genius.
Browning's concern for the fate of lost artwork might be read as a fear for the outcome of his own writing as supported by his expression of apprehension in stanza 10:
"There stands the Master. Study, my friends,
What a man's work comes to! So he plans it,
Performs it, perfects it, makes amends
For the toiling and the moiling, and then, sic transit!
Happier the thrifty blind-folk labor,
With upturned eye while the hand is busy,
No sidling a glance at the coin of their neighbor!
ŒTis looking downward that makes one dizzy"
1.Throughout the poem, Browning uses phrases in Latin. Is this an attempt to elevate his own artwork to the level of great masters or is this part of his attempt to prove himself worthy of their attention?
2.The words "sic transit" are a part of the phrase "sic transit Gloria mundi," which translates to "thus passes away the glory of the world." Is Browning attempting to compare artists with Christ, or is there another meaning behind the allusion to this phrase?
3.Why is it that in stanzas 26, 27 and 28, Browning complains that the great artists are less likely to answer his requests than lesser known artists of the Renaissance?
4.Why does Browning feel that he has been wronged by Giotto in particular when he does not even remember what church he saw the artist's paintings in ("I that have haunted the dim San Spirito, Or was it rather the Ognissanti?)
Modified 30 September 2003