What is the historical context of My Last Duchess with reference to the Victorian and Italian Renaissance period?
This dramatic monologue was written during the Victorian Period, by Robert Browning, but it is set in the Renaissance. The Duke is a wealthy Italian aristocrat. He collects art. When the poem begins, he is meeting with a representative of his fiancée’s family, negotiating the contract with them for her dowry, as would have been done during the Renaissance. He shows this representative his art collection, among which is a portrait of his “last duchess.” Since this poem was written during the Victorian period, however, it really presents a Victorian interpretation of what the Renaissance was all about.
During the Renaissance, there was a rise in humanistic philosophy. This meant that man was placed above God. In Victorian times, people were struggling with God vs Darwin. They looked back to the Renaissance in a rather idealistic way, a time when there was a “rebirth” of knowledge. However, the Renaissance was also the period of corrupt popes, powerful families like the Borgias of Italy who crushed their rivals with their power, and a lot of violence. The Duke in this poem was a jealous, controlling and sadistic man. He intimates that he had his “last Duchess” killed for not paying enough attention to him, for not appreciating the fact that he bestowed his family name upon her, for smiling at everyone and being nice to everyone, when she should have only been this way with him (in his sick mind).
You can read about the historical significance here on eNotes at the link below.