Historical Context

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Browning's poem, which is set in Renaissance Italy, may tell us less about the Renaissance itself than about Victorian views toward the period. The incident the poem dramatizes comes from the life of Alfonso II, a nobleman of Spanish origin who was Duke of Ferrara in Italy during the sixteenth century. Alfonso's first wife was Lucrezia, a member of the Italian Borgia family and the daughter of a man who later became pope. Although she died only three years into the marriage—to be replaced, as the poem suggests, by the daughter of the Count of Tyrol—Lucrezia transformed the court of Ferrara into a gathering place for Renaissance artists, including the famous Venetian painter Titian. As a result, Ferrara became exemplary of the aesthetic awakening that was taking place throughout Italy. The term Renaissance, from the French word, actually means "rebirth," and the time to which it refers is characterized by cultural and intellectual developments as much as by political events. During the Renaissance, which is generally defined as the period 1350 to 1700, Europeans experienced the resurrection of classical Greek and Roman ideals that had remained dormant since the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Artists and thinkers of the Renaissance believed that classical art, science, philosophy, and literature had been lost during the "dark ages" that followed the fall of Rome. They held that these ideals waited to be rediscovered, and Italians in particular believed themselves to be the true heirs to Roman achievement. For this reason, it was natural that the Renaissance should begin in Italy, where the ruins of ancient civilization provided a continual reminder of the classical past and where other artistic movements—the Gothic, for instance—had never taken firm hold.

Especially in Italy, the artistic achievement of the Renaissance was facilitated by a system of patronage: wealthy individuals commissioned paintings, sculptures, and buildings to glorify their own achievements. The works of such artists as Michelangelo Leonardo da Vinci Raphael, and Donatello come to us as a direct result of such patronage, and their visions reflect the ideals of the period. Foremost among Renaissance ideals was that of humanism. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the condition of earthly life, glorified man's nature, and celebrated individual achievement. These attitudes combined to form a new spirit of optimism—the belief that man was capable of accomplishing great things.

But there was a dark side to the Renaissance, and people of Browning's era often took a dim view toward the era as a whole. In some ways, this view was a subtle acknowledgment of the Victorians' own shortcomings and fears. For instance, just as Renaissance humanism seemed to elevate man at the expense of God, the Victorians found themselves puzzling over God's existence in light of Darwinism. Similarly, the Victorians' own experience demonstrated that the high points of civilization and progress do not necessarily coincide with moral virtues. As England was fighting colonial wars and grappling with mass poverty in its factory towns, Victorians looked at the Renaissance for a sense of moral superiority. And they had certain justification to do so. For all its cultural achievement, the Renaissance was rife with corruption, perversity, and violence. The same power that allowed wealthy families to commission great art also enabled them to crush rival individuals or even cities, and nearly all the noble art patrons— including the Borgia family, of whom the historical "last Duchess" was a member—had murders to answer for.

Compare and Contrast

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1842: English social reformer Edwin Chadwick publishes "Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain." The report, which exposes the poor conditions and high disease rate among England's factory workers, shocks the public and raises the need for reform.

Today: While the living conditions of workers in advanced nations remain acceptable, annual United Nations reports on conditions in Third World countries show workers experience ongoing poverty, disease, and occupational danger.

1843: A British force of 2,800 men under Sir Charles Napier defeats a 30,000-man Baluch Army, forcing India's Muslim emirs of Sind to surrender their independence to the East India Company.

Today: Great Britain relinquishes Hong Kong, the jewel of its remaining Asian colonial possessions, to the Republic of China. To many, the event symbolizes the increasing transfer of European power to other parts of the world.

1846: After a series of crop failures, Parliament repeals the Corn Laws, reducing tariff duties on imported goods and opening the door to free trade.

Today: Britain's political debate centers on whether the country should relinquish the pound in favor of the Euro. The single multinational currency is favored by the European Union, which proposes to make Europe a single economic entity.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements


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