How does the duke describe Fra Pandolf's activities in "My Last Duchess" and why is this important?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Fra Pandolf is the name of the painter who painted the famous portrait of the Duke's last Duchess that is being surveyed by the Duke and his guest during the poem. We are told how "busily" Fra Pandolf's hands worked to create this masterpiece. However, it is also important to note that Fra Pandolf, who is a character that we never meet in person during the course of the poem, is also used to signify the obsessive jealousy of the Duke. Note where else Fra Pandolf occurs in this poem:

Sir, 'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess' cheek; perhaps

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps

Over my lady's wrist too much," or, "Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half flush that dies along her throat." Such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy. She had

A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed...

The Duke imagines that even in response to Brother Pandolf's innocent compliments his last Duchess had her interest in other men kindled. The fact that Fra Pandolf was probably part of a religious order and therefore celibate emphasises the jealous nature of the Duke. He imagines his last Duchess to have "looks" that "went everywhere," especially, it is implied, to other men apart from himself. Thus we can argue that this character is used to emphasise the character of the Duke himself and his obsessive jealousy.

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a suggestion that the painter was "making a pass" at the Duchess: 

Fra Pandolf chanced to say 'Her mantle laps
Over my lady's wrist too much," or Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half flush that dies along her throat': such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of you.

It's possible that this is courtesy, something a painter might say to someone sitting for a picture, or something more serious.  I do not think this is the issue.  The Duke is an extraordinarily jealous person who misreads any attention that his wife gives to anyone.  As he suggests, her heart was too easily impressed;  although he was special and gave her "status," his nine-hundred-year-name, she seemed to grace everyone equally with her attention:

Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile?

Although this poem "seems" to be about the actions of the Duchess, it is really about the Duke and his own obsessive compulsive disorder.  Either he got all her attention or she got the "ax."  The great irony is that he seems to be telling this story dealing to get yet another wife.  

So my suspicion is that the painter is merely making flattering talk; sadly, the Duke didn't/couldn't/wouldn't see it that way.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Robert Browing's "My Last Duchess," Fra Pandolf is not only the painter--"Fra Pandolf's hands/Worked busily a day--but he is also the cause of "The depth and passion of its earnest glance" in "that pictured countenance."

The duke tells the viewer of the portrait that no one ever views this beautiful portrait without wondering "How such a glance came there."  It was not, the duke continues, "Her husband's presence" that causes the blush, the "spot of joy into the Duchess's cheek."  It was Fra Pandolf who causes this blush. In lines 3-4 the words "busily a day" and "piece of wonder" carry with them a mocking tone, ridiculing and scorning both the painter and the duchess. Clearly, there seems to be a sexual jealousy in duke's allusions to the painter, Fra Pandolf.

Since the portrait of the duchess is that of the duke's "last duchess," the implication are also that other women have  "glanced" and "blushed" at the attentions of other men.  And, now, they, too, hang only as a portrait on the duke's walls because, in his arrogance, the duke will permit no one to ridicule his name or his home.

reidalot eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the artist, Fra Pandolf, paints the Duchess, the Duchess flushes (blushes), which is apparent in the artist's rendering, the portrait, and Pandolf may have said that his work could not truly capture the beauty of the Duchess. However, the Duke has no evidence that the painter flirted with the Duchess;the Duke is insanely jealous and arrogant, and it is this arrogance that, more than likely, leads to the death of the Duchess. The Duke also believes the Duchess flirts with every man: "Her looks went everywhere." Unfortunately,a good artist must capture the personality of his subject, and in this case, ironically, by capturing "the depth and passion" of the Duchess, Fra Pandolf contributes to the Duke's unavoidable jealousy. Thus, paradoxically,the Duchess is immortalized and owned by the Duke as art. At the close of this poem, the Duke elevates himself to become, metaphorically, Neptune, and the poor Duchess, a sea-horse: "Notice Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse."

getsmart123 | Student

because she is the painter of the dukes widow,