On this point there has been virtually unanimous agreement: Browning's Pandolf, the friar who causes so much difficulty for the Duke's 'last Duchess/ has neither historical nor literary source. Indeed, he is identified invariably in textual notes only as "an imaginary artist," a "creation of the poet," or "a fictional painter-monk."1
This opening paragraph is borrowed from my earlier note on "My Last Duchess" which suggests that Browning might have had a literary reason for drawing on the folkloristic tradition surrounding the name of Pandolfo. This present note sets forth the possibility that the poet based his conception of Fra Pandolf, the painter-monk, and his relationship to the Duke's Duchess on a source well known to Browning in 1842, the year in which the poem itself was first published.
This source is Richard Henry Wilde's Conjectures and Researches Concerning the Love, Madness, and Imprisonment of Torquato Tasso (1842),2 a book Browning reviewed in The Foreign Quarterly Review for July 1842,3 four months before the appearance of "My Last Duchess" (then entitled "I. -Italy") in Dramatic Lyrics. Wilde's book has on at least one occasion been linked with Browning's poem, by William Clyde De Vane, but the connection therein made has to do with the significance of Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, as Tasso's patron and, in time, his imprisoner.4 Without questioning the aptness of this link discovered by DeVane, I would point to another way in which Wilde's study served to inspire both the character and name of the hitherto untraced Fra Pandolf.
Wilde quotes extensively from one of Tasso's letters to the Duke of Ferrara in which the poet, under considerable pressure, admits: "I confess myself worthy of punishment on account of my faults, and I thank your highness for pardoning me. I confess myself in need of being physicked for melancholy humors" (I, 184). Indeed, anticipating the success of such treatment, he "beg[s] not to be deprived of the company of some of the friars, which is a great consolation to me," he says, "having seriously liberated, at the end of my cure, if I may have your highness's permission, to turn monk" (1,185-186). It is true that Tasso is a poet, not a painter, but his crimes, it was widely believed, were those of having both loved imprudently and written about it indiscreetly. Certainly there is a hint of such goings-on between the "last Duchess" and the artist-monk who painted her portrait. But it can be argued that it is not Wilde's Tasso alone who stands behind Browning's Frà Pandolf, for at the very point at which Wilde quotes Tasso's letter to the effect that he will, when cured, "turn monk," he directs us to a supporting footnote:
It is not undeserving of remark, that this was not an uncommon method of escaping punishment for love offences in that age. Alessandro Pandolfo, threatened on account of his passion for Leonora di Toledo de' Medici, turned capuchin. See Origine e descendenza della Real Casa de Medici, MS. (I, 186)
Here, then, is the source of the character and name of the painter-monk whose chance remarks called up in the Duchess that "spot of joy," the sign of a heart "too soon made glad."
As for the fate of the Duchess at the Duke's hands, Browning himself explained that the Duke's commands were that "she should be put to death, .... or he might have had her shut up in a convent" (quoted in DeVane, p. 109). Here again Browning could have drawn upon Wilde, for the latter calls attention to "the readiness with which death, at that time, was inflicted as a punishment for conjugal infidelity among persons of high rank." In a footnote, Wilde adds: "The examples are numerous; for instance, Isabella dei Medici Orsini strangled, and Eleonora di Toledo dei Medici poniarded, both by the hands of their husbands, at the very time Tasso wrote, i.e., 1576" (I, 72).
Frà Pandolf, pace DeVane, is not purely imaginary. Nor did Browning make him "a friar to remove all implications of an affair between the painter and the Duchess," as DeVane speculates (p. 109). On the contrary. The sources in Wilde point to the possibility that there is something more to the Duke's insinuations than mere smoke.
Last modified 28 November 2011