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  • Browning, Renaissance Painting, and the Problem of Raphael
  • Stephen Cheeke (bio)

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 [End Page 437] and early fifteenth centuries, "the season / Of Art's spring-birth so dim and dewy," ("Old Pictures in Florence," XXIII.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 François Rio's impassioned revaluation of Catholic art in De la poésie chrétienne, first published in 1835 and later added to as De l'art chrétien (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...