Monday, March 29, 2010

My Last Duchess

In our discussions of the give and take between poetry and paintings in class thus far, the norm has been for poetry to do the giving and paintings to do the taking. Most often, it is an artist who interprets or draws inspiration from a selection of poetry, not the other way around. Interestingly, I think the tables might be turned if we examine Browning's "My Last Duchess." This poem is commonly understood to be an historical reference to Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, and his first wife Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who lived in the mid 16th century. According to history, Lucrezia died under suspicious circumstances after only a few years of marriage at age 17. Poison was suspected to be a possible cause. Anyway, the famous Italian painter Agnolo Bronzino painted a portrait of Lucrezia before she died -- and so naturally I have been looking at the painting to see if it could have served as the source for Browning's inspiration three hundred years later.
File:Agnolo Bronzino, ritratto di Lucrezia de' Medici.JPG
This is a copy of the image (sorry it is so large). For me at least, there is something powerful and engaging about this portrait, especially if we examine the facial expression of Lucrezia. Certainly "the depth and passion of its earnest glance" is clear. I am not sure if the Duchess is smiling, indeed, her piercing look almost suggests the opposite - deep loneliness and despair. Either way, if Browning actually did look to this portrait for inspiration, I think it must be important to interpreting his poem. If he did not, then it remains interesting to compare the real-life representation of a character forever memorialized by Browning's famous poem.

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