I woke in the middle of the night wondering whether Robert Browning could have been thinking of the 16th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566?-1613) when he penned his famous and much-anthologized dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess”.
The poem, you recall, is spoken by an unnamed arrogant nobleman who, as he begins to arrange the details of his upcoming marriage, betrays his raving jealousy of his late wife (a duchess) and reveals that he had her killed for inadequately respecting his name and station, casting her smiles and thanks too freely. Gesualdo, for his part, was a real-life count who married the daughter of a marquis whom he subsequently murdered when he caught her in bed with a duke. Gesualdo repaired to Ferrara for a couple years after the murder, drawn thither by the flourishing musical scene and by negotiations for his second wife, a duke’s niece.
What tipped me off, I thought, was Browning’s allusion to Ferrara: but the joke was on me. Turns out it’s common knowledge that Browning’s speaker is Alfonso II d’Este (1533–1598) a Duke of Ferrara who married, then eventually poisoned, Lucrezia di Cosimo de Medici.
I was off by a generation and misled by my casual and desultory knowledge of Italian history–but I’m struck by how easy and plausible the routine murders and power-plays of the Renaissance make such misidentification. I can live with my mistake, especially since my argument might have been buttressed by pointing out that Gesualdo was a prolific composer of very modern-sounding madrigals and that Browning knew his music history well, having employed it in several other poems such as “Abt Vogler” and “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”. Even now I might say that Browning could have been thinking not merely of a single historical figure but of a generation and a way of life among the nobility, his speaker’s voice informed by many long-lost real voices.
The details don’t need to track. We make art out of found stuff–bits of thread, jumbled histories–so many voices that it’s like a really chromatic madrigal. The art tracks.