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Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565.

A tribute to Robert Browning and in celebration of the 65th birthday of Harold Bloom, who made such tribute only natural.

My Lord recalls Ferrara? How walls rise out of water yet appear to recede identically into it, as if built in both directions: soaring and sinking . . . Such mirroring was my first dismay - my next, having crossed the moat, was making out that, for all its grandeur, the great pile, observed close to, is close to a ruin! (Even My Lord's most unstinting dowry may not restore these wasted precincts to what their deteriorating state demands.) Queasy it made me, glancing first down there at swans in the moat apparently feeding on their own doubled image, then up at the citadel, so high - or so deep, and everywhere those carved effigies of men and women, monsters among them crowding the ramparts and seeming at home in the dingy water that somehow held them up as if for our surveillance - ours? anyone's who looked! All that pretension of marble display, the whole improbable menagerie with but one purpose: having to be seen. Such was the matter of Ferrara, and such the manner, when at last we met, of the Duke in greeting My Lordship's Envoy: life in fallen stone!

Several hours were to elapse, in the keeping of his lackeys, before the Envoy of My Lord the Count of Tyrol might see or even be seen to by His Grace the Duke of Ferrara, though from such neglect no deliberate slight need be inferred: now that I have had an opportunity - have had, indeed, the obligation - to fix on His Grace that perlustration or power of scrutiny for which (I believe) My Lord holds his Envoy's service in some favor still, I see that the Duke, by his own lights or, perhaps, more properly said, by his own tenebrosity, could offer some excuse for such cunctation . . . Appraising a set of cameos just brought from Cairo by a Jew in his trust, His Grace had been rapt in connoisseurship, that study which alone can distract him from his wonted courtesy; he was affability itself, once his mind could be deflected from mere objects.

At last I presented (with those documents which in some detail describe and define the duties of both signators) the portrait of your daughter the Countess, observing the while his countenance. No fault was found with our contract, of which each article had been so correctly framed

(if I may say so) as to ascertain a pre-nuptial alliance which must persuade and please the most punctilious (and impecunious) of future husbands. Principally, or (if I may be allowed the amendment) perhaps Ducally, His Grace acknowledged himself beguiled by Cranach's portrait of our young Countess, praising the design, the hues, the glaze - the frame! and appeared averse, for a while, even to letting the panel leave his hands! Examining those same hands, I was convinced that no matter what the result of our (at this point, promising) negotiations, your daughter's likeness must now remain "for good," as we say, among Ferrara's treasures, already one more trophy in His Grace's multifarious holdings, like those marble busts lining the drawbridge, like those weed-stained statues grinning up at us from the still moat, and - inside as well as out - those grotesque figures and faces fastened to the walls. So be it!

Real bother (after all, one painting, for Cranach - and My Lord - need be no great forfeiture) commenced only when the Duke himself led me out of the audience-chamber and laboriously (he is no longer a young man) to a secret penthouse high on the battlements where he can indulge those despotic tastes he denominates, half smiling over the heartless words, "the relative consolations of semblance." "Sir, suppose you draw that curtain" smiling in earnest now, and so I sought - but what appeared a piece of drapery proved a painted deceit! My embarrassment afforded a cue for audible laughter, and only then His Grace, visibly relishing his trick, turned the thing around, whereupon appeared, on the reverse, the late Duchess of Ferrara to the life! Instanter the Duke praised the portrait so readily provided by one Pandolf - a monk by some profane article attached to the court, hence answerable for taking likenesses as required in but a day's diligence, so it was claimed . . .

Myself I find it but a mountebank's proficiency - another chicane, like that illusive curtain, a waxwork sort of nature called forth: cold legerdemain! Though extranea such as the hares (copulating!), the doves, and a full-blown rose were showily limned, I could not discern aught to be loved in that countenance itself, likely to rival, much less to excel the life illumined in Cranach's image of our Countess, which His Grace had set beside the dead woman's presentment. . . . And took, so evident was the supremacy, no further pains to assert Fra Pandolf's skill. One last hard look, whereupon the Duke resumed his discourse in an altered tone, now some unintelligible rant of stooping - His Grace chooses "never to stoop" when he makes reproof. . . . My Lord will take this as but a figure: not only is the Duke no longer young, his body is so queerly misshapen that even to speak of "not stooping" seems absurdity: the creature is stooped, whether by cruel or impartial cause - say Time or the Tempter - I shall not venture to hypothecate. Cause or no cause, it would appear he marked some motive for his "reproof," a mortal chastisement in fact inflicted on his poor Duchess, put away (I take it so) for smiling - at whom? Brother Pandoll? or some visitor to court during the sitting? - too generally, if I construe the Duke's clue rightly, to survive the terms of his . . . severe protocol. My Lord, at the time it was delivered to me thus, the admonition if indeed it was any such thing, seemed no more of a menace than the rest of his rodomontade; item, he pointed, as we toiled downstairs, to that bronze Neptune by our old Claus (there must be at least six of them cluttering the Summer Palace at Innsbruck), claiming it was "cast in bronze for me." Nonsense, of course.

But upon reflection, I suppose we had better take the old reprobate at his unspeakable word. . . . Why, even assuming his boasts should be as plausible as his avarice, no "cause" for dismay: once ensconced here as the Duchess, your daughter need no more apprehend the Duke's murderous temper than his matchless taste. For I have devised a means whereby the dowry so flagrantly pursued by our insolvent Duke ("no just pretense of mine be disallowed indeed!), instead of being paid as he pleads in one globose sum, should drip into his coffers by degrees- say, one fifth each year - then after five such years, the dowry itself to be doubled, always assuming that Her Grace enjoys her usual smiling health. The years are her ally in such an arbitrament, and with confidence My Lord can assure the new Duchess (assuming her Duke abides by these stipulations and his own propensity for accumulating "semblances") the long devotion (so long as he lasts) of her last Duke . . . Or more likely, if I guess aright your daughter's intent, of that young lordling I might make so bold as to designate her next Duke, as well . . .

Ever determined in My Lordship's service, I remain his Envoy to Ferrara as to the world. Nikolaus Mardruz.

Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565 first appeared in The Yale Review. It is reprinted here by permission of Richard Howard.
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Author:Howard, Richard
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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