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  • Historical Imagination in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Casa Guidi Windows
  • Mollie Barnes (bio)

Revolutions are hardly ever realized in single moments, single years, or discrete turning points. Instead, they unfold over time. Elizabeth Barrett Browning stresses this historical reality in letters and poems she wrote about Risorgimento Florence during the late 1840s. In a letter to Mary Russell Mit-ford dated 30 April 1849, Barrett Browning glosses the events of 1849 as “two revolutions.” This perhaps surprising claim was provoked in part by her appraisal of Grand Duke Leopold II, whose duplicitous allegiances to Tuscans and Austrians had long been suspected. By the spring of 1849, they were undeniable. Yet her frustrations aren’t limited to him alone. “My faith in every species of Italian is however nearly tired out,” Barrett Browning confesses: “I don’t believe they are men at all, much less heroes & patriots. Since I wrote last to you, I think we have had two revolutions here at Florence—Grand Duke out, Grand Duke in—The bells in the church opposite rang for both—They first planted a tree of liberty close to our door, and then they pulled it down.”1 Famous for her rallying cries on behalf of the Risorgimento, Barrett Browning in fact understood mid-century Florence through a series of uncertainties: not one but two revolutionary springs, not only the planting but also the uprooting of new life.2 For Barrett Browning, 1849 brought the uncertainties of 1847 and 1848 into even sharper focus.

Barrett Browning’s 1851 diptych Casa Guidi Windows similarly dramatizes two revolutions: it dilates on the immediate aftermath of two events that read, at least at first, as inverses of one another.3 Part one is inspired by 12 September 1847, when Leopold II promised to support the Florentine civic guard, despite his personal and political allegiances to Austria. Part two is inspired by 2 May 1849, when the Austrian army occupied Florence after Leopold II fled the city, renewed allegiances with Pope Pius IX and Emperor Franz Joseph I, and then returned. The Grand Duke’s militarized re-entry confirmed his duplicity and marked the fall of the provisional Tuscan republic.4 For Barrett Browning, the Florentine civic guard and the Austrian army embody two [End Page 39] distinct historical possibilities. Indeed, as she chronicles her own wavering faith in Tuscan independence across Casa Guidi Windows, she returns, again and again, to the complex civic and political allegiances of two non-Italian figureheads: Pope Pius IX and Grand Duke Leopold II. While Pius IX was and is still notorious for renouncing his commitment to mid-century revolutions (Margaret Fuller famously excoriates him for reversing his implicit support of Roman revolutionaries between 1848 and 1849 in The New-York Daily Tribune), Grand Duke Leopold II will be my primary subject in this essay. Leopold II appears as an important counterpart to Barrett Browning’s speaker throughout the poem. As I’ll demonstrate, she compares her ambivalence to his at crucial moments, identifying with him in ways that reveal her historical imagination. By historical imagination, I mean not only how she blurs personal and political identifications with the Austro-Florentine Duke but also how she superimposes past- and present-tense expressions of patriotic sentiment, as she does in her 1849 letter to Mitford, through her reflections on him. By stressing Barrett Browning’s representations of Leopold II across the 1847 and 1849 “revolutions,” I’ll read this poem as a self-conscious meditation on historiography, one that presents seemingly recursive moments non-linearly and sometimes non-sequentially. Barrett Browning imagines poetic authority, I argue, as necessarily mutable and as an alternative to the Grand Duke’s push-and-pull, give-and-take power and the civic disillusionment that it incites by the midpoint of the poem.

Early critics of Casa Guidi Windows read Barrett Browning’s diptych structure as evidence of her patriotic naïveté: she doesn’t revise part one (written in 1847) to anticipate part two (written in 1849).5 Increasingly sophisticated discussions of the two parts, however, have revealed Barrett Browning’s complex sensibilities. In the reading that follows, I argue that what may appear at first...


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