In reading Robert Browning's Renaissance-set dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess," one must bear in mind that "Browning is not primarily concerned to tell a story. . . or describe a mood . . .: his aim is to depict a man as he is, with such autobiographical flashbacks as may be necessary to explain the character of the speaker" (Ian Jack, Browning's Major Poetry, p. 196). In his psychological portrait of the Duke of Ferrara Browning was as much inspired by his general notions of Italian court portraiture as he was by any specific individual--and yet there is an actual historical figure behind the poem.
John Pope-Hennessy, in The Portrait in the Renaissance (1979), feels that the Renaissance vision of man's self-sufficient nature marks the beginning of the modern world, the world of scientific thought and materialism. The Renaissance assertion of man's place--the individual's place--in the scheme of things coincided with the humanistic art initiated by Giotto in Italy. Although somewhat idealized, those faces that peer out at us from Renaissance portraits and paintings evoke an immediate and sympathetic response because they remind us of our own, reflecting all the human follies, passions, desires, and disappointments that we see in the mirror every day.
Part of the appeal of Browning's Duke is that there is someone like him somewhere in every reader; and, although Browning knows better than to attempt an outright exorcism, his poetry has a salutary if not always flattering way of making readers confront this ducal reader or Duke within. [Tucker, p. 181]
The historical basis for the character of the Duke, however, is not merely a type, but a very real individual, Alphonso II of Ferrara, a member of the extravagant D'este family, who satisfied their obsession for luxury and money by borrowing and by arranging substantial marriage dowries. There is a depth to this psychological study, quite apart from the dramatic tension created by the reader's imagining the disturbed envoy of the Count, eager to escape the portrait of the most recent duchess and its concomitant revelation of the owner's sociopathic psyche. This dramatic action, as Thomas Blackburn argues in Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry (1967), renders the poem "a novel [which] in about sixty lines conveys a sense of the infinite complexity of life, of the under and overtones of existence" (p. 173).
Under Browning's hand, the Duke becomes a portrait of a type: the petty aristocrats who governed the city-states of Renaissance Italy. "There she stands / As if alive," remarks Alphonso of his wife's portrait: however, he finds the picture preferable to the original because he now has total control over who will view her and because she can no longer mar her beauty by unseeming behaviour or emotion. Ironically,
Browning's Duke, displaying the picture of his last Duchess, is himself a full-length portrait. His dignity, courtesy, cruelty, interest in sculpture, in painting, unite, unconsciously and without exaggeration, to show this cross-section of a Renaissance aristocrat. As Browning's aim too is not moral instruction but the dispassionate study of individual character, good and evil qualities are allowed to intertwine in the same perplexing fashion as in actual life. [Palmer, p. 133]
Although Browning does not make overt statements about the Duke's moral turpitude, he nonetheless gives us clues as to how we, along with the implied auditor, the Count's envoy, are to react to the Duke. For example, a significant piece of unintentional self-revelation is the Duke's proudly pointing out his statue of "Neptune, / Taming a sea-horse" (lines 54-55), in fact an emblem of the Duke's attempt to dominate his former duchess as if she were an unruly animal. The statue becomes a metaphor for the Duke's view of himself, as well as a second object lesson for the envoy (the portrait itself being the first) who has just attempted the presumption of preceding his imperious host down the stairs.
But there is an even greater, unconscious revelation of character in the Duke's proprietary command: "Notice" (line 54).
Neptune is seen in an attitude of doing what the Duke cannot do, . . . [since] the latter can only have ordered to be "cast" a symbol that might represent his desires in "taming," subjugating, vanquishing, bending to his will--or, in the form of a bronze group, his accomplishment in art impossible in his life. [Berman, p. 85]
The Duke's having commissioned a statue in which he figures himself as Greco-Roman the earth-shaker in a display of power is a sort of wish-fulfillment. Perhaps, as Herbert F. Tucker, Jr., has hypothesized, encasing both his last duchess and himself in objets d'art is his only means of exerting control of those vital forces which continually frustrate his understanding:
He literally encloses his Duchess in a tomb or convent and imaginatively encloses himself in an icon of possession, a bronze statue of Neptune, in order to avoid confronting what he perceives as an absence of meaning in his surroundings, in his marriage, and in himself. [p. 182]
The irony of the Duke's conceiving himself as godlike is that the real Alphonso was impotent--either congenitally, or as a consequence of a tournament injury sustained in youth (according to Berman, p. 100)--and, therefore, quite incapable of passing on his "gift of a nine-hundred years-old name" (line 33). Historically, by the way, the Count with whom Alfonso II was negotiating was lord of the Tyrol, whose principal city was Innsbruck; so that the Duke's passing reference to the craftsman responsible for the Neptune statue may be a subtle way of implying that he already has some knowledge of and ties with the Count's region which marriage to the Count's daughter will serve to strengthen (Berman, p. 86).
Another fascinating historical footnote is that Browning's other great Renaissance man, the Bishop of St. Praxed's, was likely modeled on Cardinal Ippolito d'Este the Younger, brother to Ercole II, Duke of Ferrara (according to William Clyde De Vane's Browning's Duke, p. 167), making the Duke of "My Last Duchess," Alphonso II (the fifth and last d'Este Duke of Ferrara) his nephew. Further, Browning had encountered Alphonso when researching the life of the poet Torquato Tasso (whom the Duke of Ferrara had imprisoned) for Sordello (1840).
Like his uncle the Bishop, the Duke in Browning's poem fails to see the irony in his artistic commissions and aesthetic pronouncements because he is blind to his own repressive, sterile nature. The Duke especially, as Tucker points out, may be taken as a symbol for the sort of reader (or, in the broader sense, interpreter of art) who "imprison[s] the meaning of poems." (p. 181)
The Duke's artists, the sculptor Claus of Innsbruck and the painter Fra Pandolf, have no historical counterparts. They are, in effect, metaphors for the poet himself, for the function of all art is to enable the consumer--the viewer, auditor, or reader--to liberate himself from his own introspective inflexibility by permitting him to see his inner self through the mirror of art. Unfortunately, although a discerning patron, the Duke cannot penetrate beyond the superficial beauty of art to its underlying truth.
In this moral blindness the Duke is also very much a man of his time. The Barberini Pope Urban VIII, who sponsored the sculptor Bernini and condemned the astronomer Galileo, and had all the birds killed in the Vatican gardens, offers a real, historical parallel to Browning's Duke: on the one hand he is positive (a discriminating art-collector and patron who speaks with genuine elegance), and on the other negative (he is a chilling figure who kills off youth and living beauty to replace it with an artistic recreation).
Browning treats the Count's envoy ironically. "Nay, we'll got Together down, sir!" suggests that he is trying to get away from both the Duke and the "trophy" painting that is mute testimony to the owner's ruthlessness. The speaker assumes that he is about to win another fat dowry, but his doing so depends upon the report of the envoy (if his impression is anything like ours, the Duke will not succeed). Ironically, although the Duke so highly .regards his lineage and expensive art, he is in need of money. The poem is patently about the "last" rather than the "first" or "former" duchess, suggesting that the Duke is something of a Bluebeard, the ghastly antagonist of a cautionary tale translated into English in 1729 from Perrault's collection and vastly influential in the Victorian period. At the close of the poem, as the pair walk down the grand staircase of the ducal palace, Browning invites us to construct one of two conclusions for ourselves: either the envoy will support the Duke's "pretence" (meaning "claim," but also implying "act" or "deception"), or he will advise the Count against the marriage.
Brilliantly, Browning has the Duke condemn himself out of his own mouth; although he offers us no judgment himself, the poet would have us judge the Duke and the age in which he ruled. Browning's primary interest is in the villain's psychology, but in vividly, fascinatingly revealing the Duke's motivations the poet reveals him as the product of a definite set of traditions. In accordance with Machiavelli's advice in The Prince, the Duke reveals his power to the envoy by using his late wife's fate as an object lesson. Neptune's taming a seahorse, the bronze statue which the Duke commissioned, is yet another image of brutal domination. Browning sees the Duke as characteristic of the political leaders of the epoch: power, art, sophistication, pitiless tyranny come together in one splendidly-drawn figure. The Duke's superbia is a feature of his character that is reflection of the personalities of such Renaissance giants as Pope Julius II of Agaony and Ecstacy fame and Sigismundo Malatesta, the central figure in Ezra Pound's Cantos.
Berman, R. J. Browning's Duke. New York: Richards Rosen Press, 1972.
Blackburn, Thomas. Robert Browning: A Study of His Poetry. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967.
De Vance, William Clyde. A Browning Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955.
Jack, Ian. Browning's Major Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973.
Jerman, B. R. "Browning's Witless Duke." Modern Language Association Journal, June 1957: 488-493.
Palmer, George H. "The Monologue of Browning." Harvard Theological Review, XI, 2 (April 1918): 121-144.
Pope-Hennessy, John. The Portrait in the Renaissance. New York: Bollingen Foundation and Patheon Books, 1966.
Robert Browning The Poems, Volume One. Ed. John Pettigrew and Thomas J. Collins. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981. Pp. 349-350.
Shaw, David W. "Browning's Duke as Theatrical Producer." Victorian Newsletter 29 (Spring 1966): 18-22.
Tucker, F. Herbert, Jr. Browning's Beginnings: The Art of Disclosure. Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1980.
Modified 16 February 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007