Browning, renaissance painting, and the problem of Raphael.
You and I would rather read that volume, (Taken to his beating bosom by it) Lean and list the bosom-beats of Rafael, Would we not? than wonder at Madonnas-- Her, San Sisto names, and Her, Foligno, Her, that visits Florence in a vision, Her, that's left with lilies in the Louvre-- Seen by us and all the world in circle. (1)
"One Word More" laments the loss of the hundred love sonnets that Raphael had written to his mistress, Margherita, and cherishes the shared knowledge of this historical detail--this small secret from Filippo Baldinucci--as the quality that distinguishes Elizabeth's and Robert's veneration of the painter from that of the encircling world. The awareness of the loss rather than the loss itself is what matters most, since if the sonnets had survived, then, no doubt, the world would have closed in on them too, and because the regret defers the question of whether Raphael's poetry could really be more interesting than his painting. But the importance of losses and discoveries, of the knowledge of such things to the cognoscenti, and of the sharing of arcana with a readership, typified Robert Browning's response to Italian Renaissance art. Because he valued the sense of discovering the "life" behind the work, often in striking or improbable biographical details, and then tended to posit such life as the origin and key to the painting, his enthusiasm has sometimes been dismissed as inexpert or unsophisticated. (2) Relying on Vasari's Lives and Baldinucci's Notizie has obvious limitations, but the centrality of biography tailored with Browning's perception of a new emphasis upon "man" as subject in the paintings themselves. Browning's fascination for the so-called "primitives" ("Where you style them, you of the little wit, / Old Master This and Early the Other" "[Old Pictures in Florence," 8:60-61]), whom he began to collect, after a fashion, in Italy, is still essentially a poet's interest in what "One Word More" calls an "art alien to the artist's"(8.69). If his particular interest in and championing of Italian art of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, "the season/Of Art's spring-birth so dim and dewy," ("Old Pictures in Florence," XXLII.177-178) therefore attests to what Walter Pater would describe as the "partial alienation from its own limitations" whereby one art form would be "observed to pass into the condition of some other art," Browning's poems about painting may have something in common with other "primitivist" or "revivalist" modes of thinking, and most obviously with early Pre-Raphaelitism. (3)
The primitivist revival had its roots in German Romanticism in the last part of the eighteenth century, but its purest expression came perhaps in the early years of the nineteenth century from the Nazarene community in the monastery of San Isidoro, in Rome. Valuing what they perceived to be the closer spiritual connection to an ascetic Christianity in the early Italian painters, the Nazarene group emphasized the devotional employment of images and celebrated the simplicity and clarity of iconographical traditions--all of which implied a sympathetic relationship to Catholicism. "Purity," of course, is always in one way or another the issue, and in the first years of the Pre- Raphaelite movement, at least as it was later to be memorialized by William Holman Hunt, a similar reverence for what Hunt described as the "naive traits of frank expression and unaffected grace" in early Italian art, had inspired the Brotherhood to pick its quarrel with the Victorian art establishment. (4) Browning, like many others, was influenced by Alexis Francois Rio's impassioned revaluation of Catholic art in De la poesie chretienne, first published in 1835 and later added to as De l'art chretien (1861-67), as well as by the art history of his friend Anna Jameson, who transmitted Rio's ideas to an English audience and made them more palatable to Protestant sensibility, and he was also familiar with Francis Palgrave's Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy (1842), which, again, set about re-evaluating early Italian painting. (5) But he differed from what was being labeled as the "aesthetique nouvelle" in the important sense that his notion of Italian Renaissance painting was essentially morphological and evolutionary, seen through the Vasarian lens of development and improvement. (6) Browning is not in sympathy with that broad swath of Victorian thinking that took the Renaissance (or early modern period) as a moment of cultural and moral decline. Instead, he sought to connect the earlier art with a later naturalism for which he believed it had prepared the way, although he did not interpret this development as secular or demystifying. (7) In this he is perhaps closer to the Pre-Raphaelite insistence that there is an important connection between primitivism and a sacramental realism, that naivety or simplicity do not necessarily presuppose lower levels of complexity, but may offer direct routes to "reality"--including a Christian reality. (8) Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), for example, seems to share certain assumptions with Browning's own revaluation of religious art. The humanistic emphasis in Browning's reading of primitivist art is bound into a Christian aesthetics that makes corporeal life and its difficulty the grounds of its being:
On which I conclude, that the early painters, To cries of "Greek Art and what more wish you?"-Replied, "To become now self-acquainters, And paint man man, whatever the issue! Make new hopes shine through the flesh they fray, New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters: To bring the invisible full into play! Let the visible go to the dogs--what matters?" ("Old Pictures in Florence," XIX.145-152.)
The "visible" here means the merely visible--the perfect and finished lines and limbs of Greek statuary, while the set of Christian paradoxes, of hope in frayed flesh, of an aggrandizing fear, posits an aesthetic of conscious impurity, of roughness and uncouthness. "Old Pictures in Florence" was written in 1853, although it may have been begun as early as 1850, the year when the reviewers turned against the "ricketty children, emaciation and deformity" in Pre-Raphaelitism, and the year of Dickens' attack on Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents for, among other things, its "hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed" Christ, and its Virgin with a "dislocated throat." (9) It was the sense that certain things had become too visible in Millais' work that offended Dickens and others, while for Browning, as for Millais, the idea that there was value in frayed, coarsened flesh grew from the sense of a Christian reality more alive and intense than that offered by post-Raphaelite painting, and from a celebration of the body quite distinct from the emulation of the classical Greek ideal associated with a later stage in the Renaissance. Browning shares with Pre-Raphaelitism, then, a sense of early Italian art as spiritualizing the body-the awkwardness of the body, in particular. This was very different from that process of idealizing, or "etherealising" human beings, associated with the art of Raphael. (10) Moreover, for Browning, as in Rossetti's early paintings, the psycho-dramatic element of early Renaissance art was thought to serve a reinvigorated Christianity by making the emotion of the Christian narrative more recognizable and therefore more comprehensible in the faces and bodies of the figures represented.
Broad inter-art analogies of this kind always carry with them an inherent instability and may often seem exposed; but they also have the virtue of pointing to the ways in which broad inter-art analogy is itself one of the methods by which the "past" (here the Renaissance) is conceptualized in Victorian writing. Browning thought of the new direction in early Italian art as resulting from an egalitarian, essentially democratizing historical impulse, a cultural groundswell that could be abstracted into painterly terms-the focus shifting away from central iconic groupings to the crowded human reality pressing into and against the consecrated space. In "Fra Lippo Lippi," Lippi's rising "out of a corner when you least expect" and shuffling "sideways" in his own painting of "The Coronation of the Virgin" enacts and symbolizes this process of a low or common human subject jostling for its own place--both actual and symbolic--within the celestial picture. In a letter to Elizabeth in 1845, Browning criticizes Mary Shelley's Rambles in Germany and Italy for misunderstanding Fra Angelico's contribution to this process:
Her remarks on art, once she has let go of Rio's skirts, are amazing--Fra Angelico, for instance, only painted Martyrs, Virgins & c--she had no eyes for the divine bon-bourgeoisie of his pictures,--the dear common folk of his crowds, those who sit and listen (spectacle at nose and bent into a comfortable heap to hear better) at the sermon of the Saint--and the children, and women,--divinely pure they all are, but fresh from the streets & marketplace. (11)
Again, the "uncomfortable" and "bent" heaps recall the angularity and disjointedness of the Pre-Raphaelite body, which is itself somehow a mark of the sacred, and which demands to be recognized and represented. The apparent contradiction in the idea of a divine purity that came fresh from the marketplace is characteristic of Browning's sense of the complexity of the Renaissance and is a central paradox and problem for the Victorians in their response to the period. The question is the one unceasingly asked of the Renaissance by the nineteenth century, and of course one the nineteenth century is urgently asking of itself. How far had a Christian spirituality penetrated the "world" in its aspect of street and marketplace, of common crowd, and in what ways had the marketplace in turn penetrated the spiritual side of Christian culture? The Vasarian outline of the development of art had enshrined the idea of a climax and turning point around the figures of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael--symbolically centered for Browning and other Victorians in the last of the three. Raphael had therefore become the "problem," as it were, in the sense that the vexed question of Renaissance worldliness versus spirituality, the insoluble riddle of the interpenetration of the two, had become focused--or perhaps it would be more accurate to say misfocused--in him. He is a deeply ambiguous figure in Browning's work, as he was more generally in the nineteenth century, an invisible presence in almost all of Browning's painter poems, never directly addressed or interrogated but always a source of anxiety. His "divine" status (Vasari had named him among the "mortal gods"), the crowning position he occupied in art history (Anna Jameson had compared it to that of Shakespeare in literary history), would perhaps inevitably be challenged in any age, but particularly in one of revisionist, Higher Critical zeal, and in many ways his example provides yet another analogue for that master-theme and parody of the epoch--the disappearing god. (12) The problem overlaps with a much broader historiographical question--really a narratological one, of what it means to think in terms of watersheds, turning points, and climaxes. If the beginning of the sixteenth century is the historical moment believed by many to embody art's supreme Christian achievements, it also signaled its turning a full face to the world, which included a pagan past; it heralded an ever closer involvement in commerce and connoisseurism, and, as the story was told, further stimulated the sensual and the materialistic side of the Renaissance mind that Ruskin had seen exposed in Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church." Raphael's example became a test of other contemporary attitudes and assumptions about art, the artist, and the marketplace, and was a natural focus for aesthetic disputes. He is a "crux" and doomed to embody all the contradictions such a concept attempts to make intelligible.
Louis de Beauffort, author of Souvenirs d'Italie par un catholique (1839), summed up the ambivalence many Catholic authors felt: "Raphael me parait une espece de Janus dont une face est tournee vers le christianisme palissant et l'autre vers le paganisme renaissant" [Raphael seems to me a kind of Janus, one of whose faces is turned towards Christianity which is waning, the other towards paganism which is being reborn]. (13)
Similarly, although coming from a Protestant position, Ruskin's letter to The Times in 1851 offering support for Pre-Raphaelite art divided the eras with terrifying clarity:
[The Pre-Raphaelites] intend to return to early days in this one point only--that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making; and they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael's time, and after Raphael's time did not this, but sought to paint fair pictures, rather than represent stern facts; of which the consequence has been that, from Raphael's time to this day, historical art has been in acknowledged decadence. (14)
"Decadence" is a word carrying at least as much moral as aesthetic weight. For Ruskin it was as if the painter had been an awesome but mysterious atmosphere through which art had passed in its glory, but from which it had somehow emerged diminished. Walter Pater had described this enigmatic quality as "diaphaneite," a transparency and simplicity, the guilelessness of a "clear crystal nature." This, according to Pater, had been the essential character of Raphael, "who in the midst of the Reformation and the Renaissance, himself lighted up by them, yielded himself to neither, but stood still to live upon himself." (15) Raphael and Raphaelism (the burden of an ideology), was something perhaps to hide from in obscurity, in trembling inferiority, rather than to venture forth to meet--too vast to brave, even by Robert Browning himself. Even so, the Janus-pair of poems, "Pictor Ignotus" (from Dramatic Romances and Lyrics ), and "Andrea del Sarto" (from Men and Women ), along with the treatment of Raphael in The Ring and the Book (1868-89), are among the most important and complex examples of Victorian thinking about Raphael and the High Renaissance, and are revealing precisely in the ways in which they are not directly about Raphael at all.
"Andrea del Sarto," the later and much better-known poem, pictures Andrea's relation to Raphael as a struggle to evaluate and to rationalize the anxiety of an influence that is experienced as a painful lack within the self, a guilt about something fundamental but also, perhaps, indeterminate. What appears to stand between Andrea and Raphael is the human female, Lucrezia, who is characterized in terms of the "world," and therefore in contrast to a Raphael Madonna: "'Rafael did this, Andrea painted that; / The Roman's is the better when you pray, / But still the other's Virgin was his wife'" (11. 177-179). What is the relative value of those alternatives? What is weighed in them, and what does Andrea salvage from the comparison? The lost chance to surpass Raphael (something Michelangelo had thought was possible) cannot be properly reckoned with because it is essentially unquantifiable: at moments Andrea puts it down to a failure of will and nerve; then it seems to signify a more essential moral lack of the "truer light of God" (1.79), a failure to "leave the ground" and "put on the glory" (11. 151-152), a failure to reach beyond his grasp; but it is also a sacrifice to desire, or at least a result of "the effect upon his art of the poisonous solvent of love," in Swinburne's phrase. (16) It is, in ways hard to measure, a consequence of temperament and circumstance, a sign of a certain unworldliness, which may or may not deserve full self blame. Failing to be Raphael, though, means that Andrea finds himself enmeshed within the commercial element at its most debasing. Having spent Francis I's commission, he is now working to earn money to give to Lucrezia so that she can pay off her "cousin"'s gambling debts. Whether such a fall is a form of heroic self-sacrifice, a matter of fate, or a just punishment, Andrea cannot decide. Whether it is an effect with a knowable cause at all, is undecidable--or at least, the dilemma of a decision is suspended by the monologue in the process of rationalization. And this is the crucial relation: that the failure to "put on the glory" is not transparent, it cannot be properly accounted for, but at the same time it must be understood, and understood as a consequence of what Browning called the "great choice of the Soul," freely made and wholly self-willed. (17) How, then, to understand it? One way would be to translate it out of the terms of individual psychology, to move in the opposite direction to Browning, and to discover the symptom of an historical anxiety which has been transposed to the Renaissance. The poem then seems to be an oblique commentary on mid-nineteenth century art debates, as Andrea's own craft evokes some of the negative criticisms that were leveled at post-Raphaelite art in the academic forms it had taken--accusations which go back as far as Blake's notes on Reynolds (that it is too perfect [senza errori], too systematizing, repetitive, type-ridden, and lacking something vital). Browning's Andrea has his desire of becoming like Raphael fulfilled, though in a later century; he is the ghostly prefiguration of the wan and emasculated Raphael of the Victorian drawing schools as they were criticized by the Pre-Raphaelites, a grey specter whom the world had drained of divinity. There is an especial irony, therefore, in his daring to correct the poorly drawn arm in the Raphael picture in his studio, as if he were an instructor at the Royal Academy. (18)
The painter-poems do carry Victorian burdens and symptoms and are often transparent in this sense, but they are also about the impulse to escape history by translating it into a subjective interior too far removed, too hidden to be touched by historical life. In relation to the other named and better known painter-poems, "Pictor Ignotus" has suffered from the very obscurity it thematizes, but it should be thought of as a companion poem to "Andrea del Sarto," almost as a kind of dark unconscious to the more rationalizing, talkative, later monologue. "Pictor Ignotus" stages the historical watershed of the early sixteenth century as a profound psychological crisis, a deeper version of the dilemma in which Andrea finds himself. Because it is a deeper crisis it cannot be meditated upon in order to be understood but is driven underground. The speaker is a Florentine painter of the early sixteenth century, possibly based on Fra Bartolommeo, (c. 1475-1517), as Browning had read about him in Vasari. (19) He bewails the fact that he "could have painted pictures like that youth's/Ye praise so" (l.1), (the youth, of course, is Raphael). Raphael is unnamed, perhaps unnameable for the speaker, who goes on to claim that he might have produced equal work of "truth made visible in man" (1. 12). He, too, he insists, might have pictured countenances with "Each face obedient to its passion's law, / Each passion clear proclaimed without a tongue," (11. 15-16) (20) Psychological truth, however, or the law of passion, is not only something to be discovered as already there, but always also something to be made, to be imagined. The unknown painter has dreamed of the worldly success that would have been a consequence of painting in this new way; he has dreamed of travelling to distant courts, to the "calmly-satisfied great State" (1. 29); he has longed for fame and glory, love and praise. What he tells us has prevented him from achieving all this is a fear he is only partly able to explain:
The thought grew frightful, 'twas so wildly dear! But a voice changed it. Glimpses of such sights Have scared me, like the revels through a door Of some strange house of idols at its rites! This world seemed not the world it was before: Mixed with my loving trusting ones, there trooped ... Who summoned those cold faces that begun To press on me and judge me? Though I stooped Shrinking, as from the soldiery a nun, They drew me forth, and spite of me ... enough! (11.40-49).
Becoming Raphael, in the sense of achieving worldly success, even in one's imagination, seems a dangerous fantasy. For the pictor ignotus the vision of glory darkens abruptly into nightmare at "a voice," which, if we accept the arguments of J. B. Bullen, is most likely to have been that of the Dominican priest and Florentine leader, Savonarola (Myth, pp. 196-197). He, too, is unnamed, which means that he is able to stand for the whole force of the ascetic "backlash" against Renaissance worldliness and pride, both at the end of the fifteenth century and in the mid-nineteenth century. Rather than thinking in terms of clues to an historical riddle, however, it is more useful to consider the unnamings as significant in themselves, because the poem is transmuting its historical or contextual detail into occluded psychic conditions and is about this very process of screening, obscuring, and anonymizing the external world. It explores the ways in which the moral outcry against the High Renaissance could be internalized psychologically and turned into a form of personal guilt more self-punishing than Andrea's, though also, by the end of the poem, more successfully neutralized. The speaker's change may be a change of heart and "genuine" in that sense, a counter-reformation of the self and a turning away in fear from what Catholic commentators would describe as the moment when Christian art "committed adultery with pagan beauty"--that glimpse he has had into the "house of idols"; but the awakened conscience is also perversely self-consuming, darkening into paranoia and panic. (21) The image of the nuns "shrinking" from the soldiery hints that the sudden intrusion of conscience from sources outside the self might be experienced as a violation, that reactionary cultural force may work in this way as parasitic upon the individual conscience, which convinces itself that it is being remade from within, but which simultaneously experiences its reformation as an assault from without. For the speaker there is a sexual guilt about painting in the new mode, a sense of having been exploited against his will in ways he refuses to name. Refusing to name is another form of repression, and so effective--we might say so ruthless--has it been, that the final part of the monologue seems to have immured itself within its own obscurity, resigned to a sense of disgust at the world of art in its connoisseurial, private, and perhaps essentially secular aspect:
These buy and sell our pictures, take and give, Count them for garniture and household-stuff, And where they live needs must our pictures live And see their faces, listen to their prate, Partakers of their daily pettiness, Discussed of,--"This I love, or this I hate, This likes me more, and this affects me less!" (11. 50-56).
"Garniture" carries the sense not just of decoration, of cabinet pictures, but of something extorted, a price unlawfully exacted. It has been exacted by the world, and by the individual himself. The painter has chosen (in a "choice" even more ambivalent than Andrea del Sarto's choice of Lucrezia) to remain unrecognized, inside the church. (22) He has engaged (with a sinking heart, he tells us), to serve the narrowest compass of Christian art, "as monotonous I paint / These endless cloisters and eternal aisles / With the same series, Virgin, Babe and Saint, / With the same cold calm beautiful regard" (11. 58-61). And he reassures himself--the special pleading which is most characteristic of the monologist--that "at least no merchant traffics in my heart" (1. 62).
This line would become one of the best known of Browning's. It is yet another of the self-justifications--the self-exculpations which are impossible to compute, but which are marshaled to defend a failure in silent relation to Raphael. Indeed, in relation to Raphael, it was only ever possible to fail, and over and over, from both sides of the Janus-face, Browning imagined what this might mean. What, exactly, was being failed? Despite the doubts about Raphael's own involvement with the merchants and collectors, the closeness of his grand connections, his paintings were considered by the Victorians to be the supreme examples of Renaissance art in its Christian aspect-particularly in the devotional possibilities suggested by his famous Madonnas. In Book Six of The Ring and the Book, Browning examines and tests this potency most searchingly when the priest Caponsacchi compares his first sighting of Pompilia to that of seeing a Raphael in the cathedral at Arezzo. (23) (We assume that he means a Raphael Madonna, though the submersion of female subject in male name tells us something about the conflation of art-value and religious meaning):
I Found myself at the theatre one night With a brother Canon, in a mood and mind Proper enough for the place, amused or no: When I saw enter, stand, and seat herself A lady, young, tall, beautiful, strange and sad. It was as when, in our cathedral once, As I got yawningly through matin-song, I saw facchini bear a burden up, Base it on the high-altar, break away A board or two, and leave the thing inside Lofty and lone: and lo, when next I looked, There was the Rafael! (VI.394-4061.
If most critical accounts of The Ring and the Book have naturally, if rather doggedly, concentrated upon some aspect of the epistemological challenge of the poem in the relation between language and truth--whether these terms can be opposed, are always opposed, whether the "truth" is mediated by, or evolved in language, and the poem has various (occasionally contradictory) statements on this subject--less attention has been given to the idea of the truth in painting, particularly to the notion of the devotional image as both representing and miraculously embodying such truth in itself, in ways that circumvent or perhaps even annul language. (24) The narrative of the poem turns around the idea of the spontaneous and mutual recognition of virtue between Pompilia and Caponsacchi. This is the truth most closely and pressingly examined and most insistently repeated and one Caponsacchi immediately connects to the recognition-compulsion of seeing the Raphael--"epiphany" is the word often used to describe this phenomenon, a word with both specific and general religious meaning, but which also has an aesthetic sense that expands over the century. The assumption must be that this assertion would have carried some force for his auditors, the trial judges, but it is a large claim and, again, it is difficult to reckon with or evaluate. (25) This is partly because Browning blurs the distinction between the rhetorical assertion of an experience and the question of the authenticity of that experience. The value of any claim to authenticity can only really be comprehended within specific cultural and social configurations. Here Caponsacchi is claiming to have had a direct experience of something notably similar to what Walter Benjamin would call "aura," the diminishing of the possibility for which Benjamin divined as a symptom of nineteenth-century modernity. Aura is a term used with extreme caution if it is used at all in more recent art-theory, partly because it developed and changed over the course of Benjamin's writings, and partly because the idea is notoriously hospitable to theory. But it is an important word precisely because it embodies (like the word "epiphany") a fundamental ambivalence that occurs at the intersection of aesthetic and religious concepts. Is Caponsacchi thinking about a Raphael, or a Madonna, or some third entity of a "Raphael-Madonna"? What would the existence of this third entity signify? (26) For literature, the challenge of auratic art must always be to reproduce or describe its effect verbally. This requires a way of representing the subjective nature of an experience which is at once fully authentic and historically contingent. As it was developed by Browning, the dramatic monologue was suited to such a task since it promised to restore particular states of feeling, or modes of thought, to their supposedly authentic historical moment. They would be subject to a process of "repristination"--to adapt the gorgeous noun Browning may have borrowed from Cardinal Wiseman at the beginning of The Ring and the Book: a return to an "original" lucidity. (27) The significance of the phenomenon chosen for repristination, however, would be in the relation between the supposedly authentic moment located in the past and a Victorian present in which the same emotional/psychological state was perceived to be in crisis, under pressure, passing away, or irrecoverable ["Half-burned-out, all but quite-quenched" 0.7360)]. If though, as Benjamin argued, aura is only ever experienced as a disappearing phenomenon, embedded within a certain tradition, here the tradition under pressure is the Catholic seventeenth century--the moment when Renaissance religious painting still functioned within an "original" context, a context in which it "worked," but one already in decline, and which would eventually be broken up by gallery culture.
Paradoxically, then, the phenomenon is recognized not exactly in a pristine state, but because it is already in crisis--the crisis of the seventeenth century reflecting that of the nineteenth. For this it is important that the setting of Rome 1698 is conceived as a watershed, as Isobel Armstrong explains:
[The Ring and the Book] is set in a society where feudal and ecclesiastical authority is disintegrating under the economic pressure of a new middle class and the intellectual anarchy of what the Pope calls the "educated man."... The institutions created at the high peak of Christian achievement are in decay and a moral authority located in the individual is superseding them. (28)
Every historical present is perceived as a watershed of some kind, but this one is also an echo of the past and an anticipation of the future. It mirrors what nineteenth century historiography had identified as the earlier crux of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, turning around Raphael, the Janus-faced figure who faces backwards to a purer Christianity and forward to a more profane immersion in materialism, sensualism, and paganism. Then, too, Christian institutions seemed to be in decay and about to be superseded by a moral authority located in the individual. This is the force of much of the Pope's monologue in book ten, which looks both backwards and forwards in time. We have, then, a triple historical-overlap of watersheds or cruxes, a thoroughly Victorianized late seventeenth century that re-plays a Victorianized Renaissance, a moment of a perceived concentration of historical forces that would unfold in the nineteenth century. Suspended in these fine historical filaments and threads, in this fragile web, hangs the Renaissance image, the authority of which is also, in a sense, on trial. What status or validity might Caponsacchi's appeal to a Raphael Madonna have and how it will stand or fall as part of a legal testimony?
When Caponsacchi is interrogated as to why exactly he felt sure that the love-letters he had been receiving--apparently written by Pompilia--had in fact been written by her husband Guido, he returns to the notion of the Raphael Madonna as a test of truth:
Learned Sir, I told you there's a picture in our church. Well, if a lowbrowed verger sidled up Bringing me, like a blotch, on his prod's point, A transfixed scorpion, let the reptile writhe, And then said "See a thing that Rafael made-"This venom issued from Madonna's mouth!" I should reply, "Rather, the soul of you "Has issued from your body, like from like, "By way of the ordure-corner!" (VI.666-77).
Is the priest prone to a heated or exaggerating rhetoric? (Julia Wedgewood had complained that the metaphor of the "ordure-corner" was Swiftian). (29) Is he making his appeal on the "sacred" objects of a culture that he knows his auditors would not dare to question? When it is suggested that Guido had only forged letters to express what Pompilia had secretly desired, as was proven by her eventual appeal to the priest to come to her aid, Caponsacchi answers by again returning to the Raphael Madonna:
Sirs, that first simile serves still,-That falsehood of a scorpion hatched, I say, Nowhere i' the world but in Madonna's mouth. Go on! Suppose, that falsehood foiled, next eve Pictured Madonna raised her painted hand, Fixed the face Rafael bent above the Babe, On my face as I flung me at her feet: Such miracle vouchsafed and manifest, Would that prove the first lying tale was true? Pompilia spoke, and I at once received, Accepted my own fact, my miracle Self-authorized and self-explained,--she chose To summon me and signify her choice. ... As I Recognized her, at potency of truth, So she, by the crystalline soul, knew me, Never mistook the signs. (VI.903-934)
The lines beginning "Pompilia spoke ...," are among the most discussed in the poem, but what comes before them is less often noted. Not mistaking the signs consists of making a distinction between the false and true, the forged note and the authentic call, between what might be believed of a Raphael Madonna and what could not. What might be believed is quite extraordinary enough: that the picture might move, raise its hand, and look out at the observer; that the miracle might be "vouchsafed and manifest," and that such an experience lies outside juridical argument. Shifting from the hypothetical cases to his own "fact," placing one credible supernatural event against a previously incredible supernatural event, the logic of Caponsacchi's argument is not rigorous and may even be slippery, but it allows him to present the moment of recognition as both like a miracle and as a miracle at the same time. The moment is then presented as the beginning of a conversion experience in which the sign offered is at once "received" and interiorized, the validity of its miracle settled not by external account, but with the most inward form of subjectivity: "I .. . / Accepted my own fact, my miracle / Self-authorized and self-explained." (30)
In contrast, then, to the interiorizing of the "voice" heard by the pictor ignotus, to the choice he makes of obscurity, and unlike the choice Andrea has made of Lucrezia, the "receiving" of the call from Pompilia seems to be experienced, paradoxically perhaps, as an authentic, voluntary movement of the self to obedience, a choice which is no choice at all but simply the receiving of what is given. What is given, though, is only ever what it is possible to receive, and Caponsacchi's experience appeals to the very limits of what his auditors are prepared to credit. Browning is careful not to have the priest claim to have actually had a miraculous experience before the Raphael Madonna, but to be offering the case of Raphael only as an analogy (a "simile" in fact), though Victorian readers would have been able to believe that in Rome, in 1698, such an appeal would have had some potency; that this kind of feeling and assumption about art would have been possible (still possible) at that time, even though, no doubt, it would have been exposed to risk. They would have been able to believe this because Caponsacchi is invoking an auratic effect that is recognizable as the mysterious origin of contemporary losses-or what were perceived to be contemporary losses. But can they be thought of simply in such terms? None of these assumptions about seventeenth century Rome would have been possible had Raphael's Madonnas not had their own distinct potency in the gallery culture of the nineteenth century. Predictably perhaps, gallery-goers, especially those from Protestant cultures, were often able to discover Christian meaning more directly and more powerfully when the paintings had been removed from their original contexts within Catholic churches and cathedrals. (31) The gallery encouraged the idea in particular that the artwork was better able than language to express certain less theologically exact notions-a sense of the ineffable or the paradoxical, for example; or that a Raphael Madonna could provide a theological lesson more effectively than any sermon or tract. Writing to her sister Arabella in May 1847, Elizabeth Barrett Browning described a visit to the Pitti Palace in Florence:
But oh, Arabel, the Raffaels of the Gallery!--I shall not speak of them--I cant paint Raffael over again. Divine, divine they are --the Madonna della Seggiola--and the Madonna del Gran Duca, my Madonna, which stood on my chimneypiece at Wimpole Street--Oh, that divine child, that infantine majesty--that supernatural penetrating sweetness of the eyes & lips--Raffael understood better than all your theologians how God came in the flesh, "yet without sin." Divine is the only word for these works. (32)
What does "divine" mean, exactly, in this context? Catholic theology does not, of course, take the Madonna as divine in herself, though she is venerated (in the technical term hyperdulia), and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception--that Mary was also born without sin--would be established by Pope Pius IX in 1854 (seven years after this letter was written). Those potentially troubling discriminations--(does Raphael "better" understand the nature of the Virgin as well as the nature of the Son, and from what historical perspective do we grasp his understanding?)--troubling, that is, for a Protestant, are glossed over or dissolved in some vaguer, non-specific form of "divinity," which for Barrett Browning, as for Caponsacchi, is more rather than less complex as theological argument. Painting is somehow better able to make certain large paradoxes intelligible, emotionally intelligible, and is able to do so because it is non-verbal. Behind this lies a particularly potent, quasi-mystical idea of the image as being irreducible to meaning while simultaneously offering a plenitude-even an excess of meaning--a super-signification. This is a notion more often than not posited upon gender difference. The "irreducible" is given and taken as the sign of the feminine in a male poetics in which the feminine belongs to the category of the beautiful. Thus, particular kinds of feminine beauty are taken as direct signs of virtue and goodness, and virtue and goodness are represented under the signs of beauty. As Hilary Fraser has demonstrated, this simple equation could lead to gross reductions. The secularization of Raphael Madonnas in the nineteenth century, the imitation of their compositional and pictorial values in domestic paintings and the translation of their perceived religious values into more neutrally "human" terms, unsurprisingly tended to offer "a restatement of traditional notions of the moral and religious responsibilities of women" that do not significantly differ from "the most conservative upholders of traditional notions of the home and hearth." (33) Where the religious ends and the secular begins is hard to identify, but it seems as though Barrett Browning's exclamation of "divine" is metamorphozing into a term of particularly strong approbation, unexamined, vaguely religious and vaguely aesthetic at the same time. It is also not surprising, then, that Raphael was able to move those whom the theological arguments had ceased to persuade at all. His Sistine Madonna was an important painting for the Positivists' "religion of humanity," and, as Fraser has demonstrated, was frequently reproduced in their meeting places or Churches of Humanity. George Eliot and G. H. Lewes recorded extreme reactions to the Sistine Madonna when they saw it in Dresden in 1858, Eliot describing "a sort of awe, as if I were suddenly in the living presence of some glorious being," Lewes describing himself as becoming "quite hysterical" (Fraser, p. 81). Anna Jameson's Legends of the Madonna (1852), described the painting in terms that make little sense as theology, but which borrow from a romantic rhetoric of the sublime:
There she stands--the transfigured woman, at once completely human and completely divine, an abstraction of power, purity, and love, poised on the empurpled air, and requiring no other support; looking out with her melancholy, loving mouth, her slightly dilated, sybilline eyes, quite through the universe to the end and consummation of all things. (Fraser, p. 83)
"There she stands" recalls James Thomson's lines about the Venus de Medici, ("So stands the Statue that enchants the world"), which had become shorthand for the power, duration, and lifelikeness of the artwork (Browning's Duke of Ferrara pre-echoes them, as it were, in "There she stands / As if alive"). (34) But Jameson's Madonna is not at all like life, nor like anything in Christian thinking: transfigured, completely human and completely divine at the same time, an abstraction, floating on air, sybilline, omniscient--she moves beyond intelligibility. These were outrageous terms, which, as Browning knew, simply could not be met. In Henry James' short story of 1873, "The Madonna of the Future," one of several stories James wrote partly in relation to Browning, an American artist named Theobald guides the narrator around the Uffizi gallery, where they pause before Raphael's "Madonna in the Chair":
Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius. The figure melts away the spectator's mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or earthly charm. He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth. (35)
Being without "manner," "method" or "style," appearing as an "immediate exhalation of genius," the painting forecloses all possible objections, whether aesthetic or doctrinal. It "melts away the spectator's mind" into acquiescence. The question of whether this is a heavenly or earthly charm is sunk. Theobald's response is one of even deeper intoxication:
"Think of his seeing that spotless image, not for a moment, for a day, in a happy dream, as a restless fever-fit, not as a poet in a five minutes' frenzy, time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza, but for days together, while the slow labour of his brush went on, while the foul vapours of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now!"(p. 20)
"Idealism is that!" Theobald exclaims, resolving never to compromise his own artistic standards and quoting the line from "Pictor Ignotus," almost as a mantra, to reassure himself that "At least no merchant traffics in my heart!'" (36) When the narrator points out that the demand for Madonnas had dwindled in recent years, Theobald's reply is defiant: "that ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of man's heart; but pious souls long for it in silence, almost in shame. Let it appear, and this faith grows brave" (p. 22).
Caponsacchi's appeal is to the same silent need within the Victorian reader, to this apparently undiminished capacity to respond to Raphael in extraordinary ways. James may even have had Caponsacchi in mind as the one whose faith had "grown brave" before the "ineffable type"-although he may also be remembering Andrea's failure. But the transfiguration of the female is the most vulnerable, the least secure element in The Ring and the Book, and therefore the most daring and significant aspect of the poem. The "type" is created, the "type" appears, and is recognized. Caponsacchi's skeptical auditors want to insist that this must be a case of sublimated sexual desire --desire disguised from itself no doubt, but desire nevertheless. Occasionally Caponsacchi meets the accusation directly: "'The priest's in love,'" he says, "have it the vulgar way" (VI.1868). In James's story it becomes apparent that Theobald's reverence for Raphael prevents him from ever producing any work himself-he is like the "English Students at Rome" whom William Hazlitt had complained about in an essay of 1827-and the model for the Madonna of the Future, his projected picture to rival Raphael, turns out to be a coarse old woman who is having an affair with a peddler of cheap statuettes.
This sense of something absurd, some narcotic self-deception, would also be among the things to occur to a Victorian reader in response to Caponsacchi's appeal, and certainly to a modern one. (37) The appeal is under pressure, then, from all sides, from above and beneath, from the skepticism that would desublimate its assumptions, and from the objection that it is merely an aesthetic mystification of a religious experience. Readers of Victorian dramatic monologues would also recognize the self-authenticating, "self-authorising and self-explained" fiat of the individual will, as that which forms or fixes "character"--the moment when what Armstrong calls "the romantic notion of the 'Spontaneous Me,'" in which the monologue is born, settles into the Victorian mold of dramatized subjectivity. (38) Among the many others who prove ready to receive the "fact" of something given would be those solipsists who clearly do mistake the signs (Johannes Agricola is the best example), or those who attempt to control and absorb the sign in some other drastically "self-authorising way," such as the Duke of Ferrara. Pompilia remembers meeting a madman in her childhood who had run through the square shouting "I am the Pope, am Sextus, now the Sixth.... [T]he angels, met in conclave, crowned me!" (VII.1173-1176). None of this, of course, either confirms or cancels Caponsacchi's particular claim. The appeal to aura, to miraculous embodiment of truth, would not automatically be taken as a sign of madness either by the lawyers of Catholic Rome or by a Victorian readership when they considered Raphael's pictures. The problem is not really one of whether to believe Caponsacchi or not, but rather of what it would mean if his claims were true. What would this "potency of truth" really be like?
Guido is able to imagine what the critic-connoisseur of paintings would say:
How you had loved her! Guido wanted skill To value such a woman at her worth! Properly the instructed criticize "What's here, you simpleton have tossed to take "Its chance i' the gutter? This a daub, indeed? "why, 't is a Rafael that you kicked to rags!" Perhaps so: some prefer the pure design: Give me my gorge of colour, glut of gold In a glory round the Virgin made for me! Titian's the man, not Monk Angelico Who traces you some timid chalky ghost That turns the church into a charnel: ay, Just such a pencil might depict my wife! She,--since she, also, would not change herself,-- Why could not she come in some heart-shaped cloud, Rainbowed about with riches, royalty Rimming her round, as round the tintless lawn Guardingly runs the selvage cloth of gold?" (XI.2112-29).
In the enormity of the mistreatment of his wife it is as if he had devalued a Raphael. At this point the art-historical analogy looks both forwards and backwards, as it always does with Raphael. Pompilia is compared to the art of Fra Angelico, to the Italian primitives, while Guido declares that he prefers the fuller-bodied colors of a late Renaissance painter such as Titian. (The 1860s is the decade when pre-Raphaelitism is said to have taken a Venetian turn.) In other words, by withholding her full sexual participation in their marriage, Pompilia is more like the "timid chalky ghost" of an earlier,
more austere phase of painting and of morality (the age of "the same cold calm beautiful regard," as "Pictor Ignotus" had put it). Raphael is the invisible fulcrum upon which the discrimination turns, the central apotheosis to which Guido, unlike Caponsacchi, is blind. Where the divine center should be, where Pompilia-as-Madonna stands, where the "type" appears, there is for him a space. Guido is blind, too, in his fury and violence towards this perceived lack, asking that "since she, also, would not change herself," why could she not have come to him in an entirely different form altogether? The question contradicts itself, and the final picture conjured by Guido is not of figural painting at all, but of a kind of sentimental late-baroque design, a "heart-shaped cloud, / Rainbowed with riches," a billowing valentine's card. Reversing the gender roles in the myth of Zeus coming to Danae's lap in a shower of gold, the subject of a well-known painting by Titian, Guido imagines this cloud or splurge to be gifting him not only with riches but with royalty. He envisions sovereign robes or heraldic tapestry, brashly emblazoned and consciously archaic ("tintless lawn" or linen, with a "selvage" or border of gold), perhaps recalling the "cloth-of-gold of tissue" with which Shakespeare imagines Cleopatra "o'er picturing" Venus. (39) It is a fantasy of material superabundance in which the female form has been transfigured into booty, a vision perhaps of the general tenor of the art of Rome in 1698, of a Caliban dreaming that the skies had opened. And it is a vision of art in which Raphael is erased. If there is an eloquence in the music, in the elevation of the diction with which the vision ends, Guido's lyricism signals the moment when his individual will strains most agonisingly against the things he knows cannot be changed. It recalls the Duke's grasping at some other order of speech in his attempt to describe his wife's pleasures in "My Last Duchess" (the elegiac note of "The dropping of the daylight in the West" [i. 26]). And if we should ever admit to sympathizing with a monologist, then there is a pathos here, as there often is with Guido, in the figure who fails to appreciate a Raphael, who cannot love the thing that he knows is perfect, and who is found out and measured in his own nature when confronted with the pure design.
"She,--since she, also, would not change herself," suggests what is most difficult about the notion of "purity" as it is imagined by Browning, and symbolized in the Raphael Madonna. (40) For Caponsacchi, the process of affirming such purity does seem to be just that, a process that is lived through and discovered within the self against the self's efforts to resist or deny its existence, so that he is able to present his own experience in terms of change or conversion: "Into another state, under new rule / I knew myself was passing swift and sure" (VI.964-965). Guido is able to imagine his own nature as subject to potential change, "Deformed, transformed, reformed, informed, conformed!" (XI.2063), and in his final appeal to Pompilia to save him, ("Pompilia, will you let them murder me?" (XI.2427)), apparently succumbs to the compulsion to recognize her as an intercessor or mediatrix. But for Pompilia there is no such passage--and how could there be? There is, for her, merely the absolutism of a state that is "changeless" and unincremental, a "sublime passivity and plasticity," as Henry James called it. (41) She, in other words, is like a work of art, the work of art conceived of as feminine, encased in the lineaments of a pure design. Guido understands that, however much they may protest to the contrary, the devotion between Caponsacchi and Pompilia is an aesthetic devotion as well as an ethical act of faith, the coupling of the good and the beautiful, the "great constringent relation" (Henry James again), which Guido perceives as an outrage, as tyrannous and punitive to himself (James, "The Novel," p. 325). And yet his iconoclasm, the kicking of a Raphael to rags in the gutter--nothing less than monstrous, of course, in itself--also stands in a larger relation to the nineteenth century. In the immediate decades after the publication of The Ring and the Book certain strands of aestheticism would transform his sense of outrage into the conscious perversity of asserting that the aesthetic category itself constituted the good (which would be as if to say outright to Guido: Pompilia is not only beautiful because she is good, but good because she is beautiful). Aestheticism's subordination of the ethical to the beautiful could only emerge, however, through the rejection of the conjunction of beauty and goodness in religious painting; it depended upon the decline of the notion of art serving a Christian moral purpose. In its profound ambivalence towards Raphael and his Madonnas, this slow, inexorable, iconoclastic process is underway in Browning's poetry. The "divinity" of art in a Christian sense was failing, and Browning seems to have responded to this by imagining the ways in which it might itself be failed by Renaissance figures. Guido's blindness to the "pure design," the vulnerability of Caponsacchi's appeal to a Raphael Madonna, the guilt paralyzing the pictor ignotus, and the consciousness of failure with which Andrea del Sarto punishes himself, betray an anxiety about Renaissance religious painting which might be taken as one of the harbingers of a "theology of art," in which the Christian content has been transfigured. Obliquely, Browning's Renaissance figures express iconophobic doubt about the divinity of painting, which will, in time, become a different kind of faith (or "faith") in l'art pour l'art. (42)
The North American Victorian Studies Association Conference for 2012, in Madison, Wisconsin, September 27-30, invites papers on the theme of networks. Keynotes include Amanda Anderson, Adam Phillips, and a visual networks panel with Caroline Arscott, Tim Barringer, Julie Codell, and Mary Roberts. Participants will also be able to sign up for networks seminars of 15 presenters of precirculated 5-page position papers on the topic.
March 1, 2012 is the deadline for electronic submissions of proposed papers and panels. We welcome proposals of no more than 500 words for individual papers; for panel proposals, please submit abstracts of 500 words per paper and a panel description of 250 words. Please include a one-page cv and submit all files in .pdf format to english.wisc.edu/navsa. Conference threads might include:
* Networks of artists, critics, consumers, scholars
* Networks of print (books, chapbooks, newspapers, magazines, letters, pamphlets), including relations among publishers, printers, editors, writers, readers
* Commodity culture networks and the circulation of things and bodies
* Networks of discourse (such as science, religion, nature, politics)
* The science of networks, then and now
* Textual networks (characters, plot, language, intertextuality)
* Networks of influence, production, reception
* Networks of display or exhibition
* Fashioning networks among otherwise unconnected authors and historical figures
* Transnational and other migrations: geographic, cultural, ideological, rhetorical
* Borders and "borders" - theorizing cultural connection, separation, entanglement
* Diasporic networks: cosmopolitanism, wandering, exile Clandestine networks such as spies, secret agents, and detection
* Networking technologies
* Network arts
* Social networks including leisure clubs and professional societies
* Family and kinship networks
* Victorian cities: streets, arcades, parks, or other networks of urban space
* Imperial networks
* Network forms: gossip, blackmail, suspense, serials,, periodicals, or other genres
* Psychic and supernatural networks: seances, spiritualism, mediums
* Digital networks and twenty-first century reading practices
(1) "One Word More," III.18-25; all quotations from Robert Browning's poetry are taken from The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, ed. Ian Jack, Margaret Smith, Rowena Fowler, Stefan Hawlin, and Tim Burnett, 9 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983- 2004); hereafter cited as PWRB.
(2) See Leonee Ormond, "Browning and Painting," in Robert Browning, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: Bell and Sons, 1974), p. 202. Ormond offers the particularly severe judgment that "none of the painter-poems reveals Browning as a poet with a true 'eye for a picture,' or with a pronounced visual sense" (p. 204). Dante Gabriel Rossetti, however, "found Browning's knowledge of early Italian Art beyond that of anyone I have ever met--encyclopaedically beyond that of Ruskin himself" (The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William E. Fredeman [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002], 2:80).
(3) Pater's comments come from the essay, "The School of Giorgione" in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), p. 85.
(4) This is from the passage in Hunt's autobiography in which he describes an early meeting of the Brotherhood (in 1848) poring over engravings after the Campo Santo frescoes in Pisa (those important frescoes for Pound's modernism) (William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols. [New York: Macmillan, 1905], 1:130-131). Hunt depreciates "the showy followers of Michael Angelo" who "had grafted their Dead Sea fruit on to the vital tree just when it was bearing its choicest autumnal ripeness for the reawakened world" (1:131).
(5) The most detailed study of the revival of early Italian art and its influence upon Browning is David J. DeLaura, "The Context of Browning's Painter Poems: Aesthetics, Polemics, History," PMLA, 95, no. 3 (1980): 367-388.
(6) Charles Montalembert, author of Du vandalisme et du catholicisme dans l'art (1839), had described Rio as having set down the foundations of a new aesthetic: "la premiere pierre d'une aesthetique nouvelle." See J. B. Bullen, The Myth of the Renaissance in Nineteenth Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 81; hereafter cited as Myth. (I am particularly indebted to Bullen's work in much of what follows.) The idea of progress, morphology, and evolution in the arts had an obvious appeal to the Victorians. See Hilary Fraser, The Victorians and Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 48.
(7) See DeLaura, p. 385. "[Browning] plays Renaissance individualism off against the myth of Renaissance corruption" (Bullen, p. 185).
(8) Elizabeth Prettejohn has shown how Pre-Raphaelite writing sought to establish a link between an interest in the early Italian painters and a more heightened and concentrated naturalism or realism (The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites [London: Tate, 2000], pp. 59-61). We see similar notions being worked out in "Fra Lippo Lippi," in the complex thinking of a new relationship between the painting of flesh and the "soul," and in the extraordinary statement of the sacramental truth of "realism" (11. 300-306).
(9) "The Pictures of the Season," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 68 (July 1850): 82. Charles Dickens, "Old Lamps for New Ones," Household Words 15 (June 1850), repr. in Dickens' Journalism: The Amusements of the People and other Papers, ed. Michael Slater, 2 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1996), 2:245. The aesthetic opposition of Christian imperfection and Greek perfection received its most influential expression in August Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Poetry (1809; trans. 1846).
(10) In the essay attacking Millais, with an irony directed at the whole notion of Pre-Raphaelitism, Dickens had written of Raphael's "ridiculous power of etherealising, and exalting to the very Heaven of Heavens, what was most sublime and lovely in the expression of the human face divine on Earth--with the truly contemptible conceit of finding in poor humanity the fallen likeness of the angels of GOD, and raising it up again to their pure spiritual condition. This very fantastic whim effected a low revolution in Art, in this wise, that Beauty came to be regarded as one of its indispensable elements. In this very poor delusion, Artists have continued until this present nineteenth century, when it was reserved for some bold aspirants to 'put it down'" (Dickens' Journalism, p. 244).
(11) The Browning Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley and Scott Lewis (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1993), 11:69-70; hereafter cited as BC. Those rapt figures inside the painting seem to be surrogates for Victorian viewers unable to achieve quite the same transports perhaps, but at least able to translate such rapture into what they would perceive to be its equivalent in the gallery space.
(12) "One can claim without fear of contradiction that artists as outstandingly gifted as Raphael are not simply men but, if it be allowed to say so, mortal gods" (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists: Volume One, trans. George Bull [London: Penguin, 1987], p. 284).
(13) Cited in Bullen, p. 82. The translation is Bullen's. "Raphael creates a real dilemma for Rio, as he did for Beauffort and many others. On the one hand, there is the early Raphael, whose work for Rio is deeply imbued with Christian sentiment. On the other hand, there is the later Raphael, who seems to have capitulated entirely to classicism or, in the new vocabulary, paganism" (p. 87).
(14) John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-12), 12:322.
(15) Pater's "Diaphaneite," dating from 1864, is published as an appendix to The Renaissance, ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 157-158.
(16) Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence," Essays and Studies (London, 1876), p. 355.
(17) In a letter to Elizabeth of July 1845, Browning had written (probably in relation to "Pictor Ignotus"), of the "great choice of ... [the] Soul, which it is born to make and which--(in its determining, as it must, the whole future course and impulses of that soul)-which must endure for ever, even tho' the object that induced the choice should disappear)" (Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, 1845-46, ed. E. Kintner [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969], p. 129).
(18) "[Andrea] reveals an almost obsessive sense of rivalry with other painters, particularly with the great Raphael, who recurs to [him] like a bad dream" (Allan C. Dooley, "Raphael, and the Moment of 'Andrea del Sarto,'" Modern Philology 81, no. 1 : 38). Dooley posits a further hidden reason for the particular rivalry with Raphael, in an historical detail not specifically noted in the poem but which Browning was probably aware of: that is, the arrival and celebration of Raphael's St. Michael Vanquishing Satan and the Holy Family of Francis I, in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1518, while Andrea was working at the court of Francis I. Dooley is "convinced that in thinking about Andrea, Browning connected the dates, events, and paintings, and as a result found a meaningful instance of the rivalry that preys on his [Andrea's] mind" (p. 43). So, too, in Fifine at the Fair (1872), when Don Juan attempts to draw an analogy between his proper valuation of his wife (Elvire), and a precious Raphael he has long desired, and which he now keeps at home, "My housemate, evermore to glorify my wall" (1. 537), we sense the link between art-collecting and other kinds of rapaciousness, in which "Raphael" has become an ambivalent commodity.
(19) J. B. Bullen has put the strongest case for the connection with Fra Bartolommeo ("Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus' and Vasari's 'Life of Fra Bartolommeo di San Marco,'" Review of English Studies 23, no. 91 : 313-319). George Bornstein finds the identification with Fra Bartolommeo, offered by Bullen, "strained" ("The Structure of Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus,'" VP 19 : 65). Bornstein reads the poem as a representative movement of "mind" and describes the "recoil from vision into a sort of associative derangement" as a failure of imagination (p. 71). For another argument contra Bullen, see Michael H. Bright, "Browning's Celebrated Pictor Ignotus," English Language Notes 13 (1975-76): 192-194. A stimulating reading of the poem in relation to the gospel parable of the talents and the alienating demands of the market is offered by Loy D. Martin, Browning's Dramatic Monologues and the Post-Romantic Subject (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 34-47. John Woolford, Daniel Karlin, and Joseph Phelan, the editors of Browning: Selected Poems (Edinburgh: Longman, 2010), are also unpersuaded by the case for Fra Bartolommeo, connecting "Pictor Ignotus" to the letter in which Browning outlines a theory of the soul's choices and developments.
(20) This notion in particular--that Raphael's pictures constituted a language of human expression and psychological realism articulating the necessary connection between the "law" of passion and the nature of the individual ruled by that "law"--intersected with Browning's own poetics of the "fewest primitives" (Fifine at the Fair, 1. 1811), the idea of a bedrock of "pure" emotions by which human behavior is governed. Browning is interested in the theological and ethical complications of the "fewest primitives," the mystery and the terror of the "given" as both a beginning and an end, and in the strangeness of a will fixed in shapes out of which it cannot move. The problem, of course, has always been one of squaring these "givens" with Browning's obvious fascination with becoming (the metaphors of struggling, striving, fighting, which are the oxygen of his imagination), and with the possibility of growth. "Is self-making limited by what is given?" asks W. David Shaw in Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), p. 2.
(21) The phrase is from Louis de Beauffort's Souvenirs d'Italie par une catholique, quoted by Bullen, Myth, p. 82. Browning may have been following the story told by Vasari and Rio that Fra Bartolommeo had been deeply shocked by the corruption he had seen in Rome and had, on his return to Florence, faced certain provocative criticisms of his work. (See Bullen, "Browning's 'Pictor Ignotus,'" p. 318). I think the ambiguity of the entire passage is deeply suggestive.
(22) The letter to Elizabeth about the "great choice of ... [the] Soul," quoted above (see note 17), indicates the ways in which Browning saw such decisions as fundamental to the moral nature of the individual. And yet the poems themselves clearly make the notion of "choice" more problematic, more indeterminate, than Browning's letter would suggest.
(23) There was no Raphael Madonna at Arezzo, but the figure of Piero della Francesca was associated with that city, a painter whose works had been "rediscovered" by figures such as Lord Lindsay as part of the new enthusiasm for earlier, "purer" Christian art. See Bullen, Myth, p. 118.
(24) Worth reading in themselves, as well as for their summaries of these kinds of question, are two essays: W. David Shaw, "Browning's Murder Mystery: The Ring and the Book and Modem Theory," VP 27, nos. 3-4 (1989): 79-98; E. Warwick Slinn, "Language and Truth in The Ring and the Book," VP 27, nos. 3-4 (1989): 115-133. The strongest case against the poem being "relativist" is made by John Killham, "Browning's 'Modernity': The Ring and the Book, and Relativism," in Robert Browning, ed. Bloom and Munich, pp. 79-99. I have decided not to place the word "truth" in inverted commas.
(25) In fact Caponsacchi seems to hesitate and delay in his full recognition of the "call" from Pompilia. Isobel Armstrong's essay "The Conversion of Caponsacchi" explores the "slow process of change and reorientation in a complicated man," stressing the notion of process rather than instantaneous conversion ("The Conversion of Caponsacchi," VP 6, nos. 3-4 : 276). The notion of the secular epiphany as a literary trope is discussed in relation to Browning by Herbert F. Tucker, "Epiphany and Browning: Character Made Manifest," PMLA 107, no. 1 (1992): 1208-21.
(26) In Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire, on the history of photography and, most crucially, in the famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility," three central aspects emerge, each of which seems relevant to Browning's thinking about Renaissance painting and in particular to Caponsacchi's monologue: firstly, that aura appears as the semblance of a "distance" between observer and the artwork (in Caponsacchi's case this takes the specific form of the sanctity or separateness of the Raphael, but is also a temporal distance between Raphael and the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries); secondly, that the auratic object returns the gaze of the observer, a possibility to which Caponsacchi will later appeal directly and literally; and lastly, that aura depends upon an authority derived from the artwork's place in a tradition sustained by the accumulation of response-something connected to the role of the artwork within ritual (in this case the ritual of late seventeenth- century Catholic Rome). "The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition" ("The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility" in Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 217.
(27) Herbert F. Tucker traces the phrase to an 1838 essay by Cardinal Wiseman, which Browning may have known, on the subject of church history. See Herbert F. Tucker, "Representation and Repristination: Virginity in The Ring and the Book" ed. Lloyd Davis, Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature (New York: State Univ. of New York Press, 1993), pp.67-86. If Browning borrowed the word from this context, it is significant that it has to do with history.
(28) Isobel Armstrong, "The Ring and the Book: the Uses of Prolixity," in The Major Victorian Poets: Reconsiderations, ed. Isobel Armstrong (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 178, 184-185. Tucker adds to this sense of a watershed: "In seventeenth- century Italy the cult of the Virgin Mary was instrumental in the authoritarian reaction (spearheaded by the Jesuits in a second Counter-Reformation) against the liberalizing Jansenist and Quietist movements, which are represented in The Ring and the Book by 'Molinism.' Insofar as Browning portrayed Caponsacchi and Pompilia as Molinist sympathizers, he was subversively appropriating the devotional insignia of their Marianist opponents" (p. 229).
(29) In a letter of November 15, 1868, Julia Wedgewood had complained to Browning: "Would not Caponsacchi have touched more lightly on all that was foul while his soul was full of Pompilia? Might not his speech have been free from Swift-like metaphor?" Cited in PWRB, 8:138.
(30) Armstrong's essay explores this notion of self-authorization, which she connects to "the great Romantic doctrine of self-derived intuitive insight celebrated in Paracelsus" (p. 183), by analyzing the ways in which words such as "impulse" change their meaning and value depending on speaker and context (p. 183).
(31) Imagining his interlocutor Gigadibs' disapproval, Bishop Blougram invokes a nineteenth-century skepticism about such auratic effects (11. 374-379).
(32) BC, 14:217. "Divine" is the word Elizabeth Barrett Browning seems unable to avoid whenever she mentions Raphael: "The glance of the Louvre was a mere glance-the divine Raphaels... unspeakable those are" (letter to Anna Jameson, September 26, 1846, BC, 14:11); "Oh, your Raphaels! how divine!" (letter to Anna Jameson, July 29, 1847, BC, 14:264).
(33) See Fraser, The Victorians and the Renaissance, pp. 83-84. There are, of course, different readings of Pompilia, but most have assumed that in a basic sense her monologue is less open to hostile interpretation than any other and that she is as innocent as she would have her auditors believe. For a more skeptical reading, as well as a good summary of other approaches, see Susan Brown, "Pompilia: The Woman (in) Question," VP 34 (1996): 15-37. Brown points out the underlying assumptions about gender which connect women with "truth," moral superiority, the "facts" of the body, and the sustaining myths of the (domestic) social order (p. 33). See also, William Walker, "Pompilia and Pompilia," VP 22, no. 1 (1984): 47-63. For her tendency to model herself on the Virgin, see Tucker "Representation and Repristination."
(34) "With wild Surprise, / As if to Marble struck, devoid of Sense, / A Stupid Moment motionless she stood: / So stands the Statue that enchants the World" (James Thomson: The Seasons, ed. James Sambrook [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981], p. 122).
(35) Henry James, The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel, vol. 3, 1873-75 (London: Rupert-Hart Davis, 1962), p. 20. The narrator is half seduced by this idealism: "'I was more and more impressed with my companion's prodigious singleness of purpose. Everything was a pretext for some wildly idealistic rhapsody or reverie. Nothing could be seen or said that did not end sooner or later in a glowing discourse on the true, the beautiful, and the good. If my friend was not a genius, he was certainly a monomaniac'" (p. 24).
(36) Toward the end of the story the narrator discovers Theobald sitting in front of a blank canvas: "'I never began! I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation.... Michael Angelo didn't when he went at the Lorenzo! He did his best at a venture, and his venture is immortal'" (p. 47) Like Andrea, Theobald concludes that, "'I am the half of genius!'" (p. 47).
(37) Browning would deal with this kind of assumption about art most directly in the later Parleyings (1887), in the poem "With Francis Furini" in which he defended the seventeenth-century Florentine painter of nudes against the criticisms of Filippo Baldinucci (and, obliquely, defended his son's painting of nudes against the attacks of the Royal Academician, J. C. Horsely). There Browning takes to task the assumption that "Art was just / A safety-screen.., for a skulking vice," and that "mere lust" had inspired Michelangelo "when his Night and Morn / Slept and awoke in marble" (11. 174-175, 176, 177-178).
(38) See Armstrong, "The Ring and the Book and the Uses of Prolixity," p. 190.
(39) "For her own person, / It beggared all description: she did lie / In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue, / O'er picturing that Venus where we see / The fancy outwork nature," Antony and Cleoptra, 2.2.207-211.
(40) Herbert F. Tucker's essay "Representation and Repristination: Virginity in The Ring and the Book" mounts a forceful argument for the potency of "virginity" in the poem. On the analogy with the Raphael Madonna, Tucker writes that the "typological identification that Caponsacchi here sets up between Pompilia and the Blessed Virgin will govern the rest of his life story. Yet he frames this fulfilling typology, here as with subsequent references to the Rafael Madonna (6.672, 914), in the double mediations of rhetoric and painting. The priest's cultured simile thus deviates into the literal truth about his devotion to Pompilia, which for Browning is also the literal truth about virginity: that it is a cultural artefact, a precipitate that crystallizes, with however fine a suddenness, out of the conditions of an historically contexted life" (p. 82).
(41) Henry James, "The Novel in 'The Ring and the Book,'" Notes on Novelists (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1914), p. 314.
(42) "Theology of art" is a phrase from Benjamin's artwork essay (here in the more common translation): "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 219.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2011|
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