AN OLD YELLOW BOOK: THE DOCUMENTS AND MONUMENTS IN THE CASE
THE DEATH AND BURIAL OF
y story begins and ends in the Swiss-owned so-called 'English' Cemetery in Florence. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning's day and at her funeral, 1 July 1861, it looked very different, nestled by the wall and gate Arnolfo di Cambio had built. Gathered about her coffin were Robert and Pennini, widower and orphan, Isa Blagden, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, Kate Field, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the Powers, the Storys, but no carriage was dispatched to bring Walter Savage Landor.
And this is how Elizabeth had described the burial of Lily Cottrell.
And here among the English tombs
In Tuscan ground we lay her,
While the blue Tuscan sky endomes
Our English words of prayer.
The Ring and the Book declares 'But Art may tell a truth/ Obliquely'. Here in Italy murder mysteries, published in paperback, are called 'gialli', yellow books. Robert had bought in the San Lorenzo Market in June of 1860, 'The Old Yellow Book' consisting of a gathering of documents bound in vellum about a Roman trial that took place in Arezzo in the Renaissance, where a husband murdered his wife. Robert brought that book home joyously, liberatingly, tossing it up in the air and catching it by the great gold-leafed framed mirror in Casa Guidi's salone. But Elizabeth was not amused with his obsessing on it, begging him to put the book away. Let us turn the tables on Robert and investigate his wife's death, as if in such a 'giallo' as that which he bought, compiling together the documents in the case. Years ago, Mary Beckinsale remarked to me that it would be important to see the pharmacy prescriptions in Florence concerning EBB's laudanum dosage, she believing Robert overdosed Elizabeth. Peter Dally's study clearly shows that the dosage had become far too high. For Robert's poetic themes are so often of husbands who kill their wives: The Ring and the Book and 'My Last Duchess', and men their mistresses, 'Porphyria's Lover', or of an Andrea del Sarto who feels his wife, his model for the Madonna, Lucrezia del Fede, has blocked him from becoming a Michelangelo, Raphaelo or Leonardo, this, the painting now in two in the Pitti which Robert knew,
while the poem that attracted Elizabeth to Robert in
the first place was his youthful Paracelsus,
celebrating the inventor of her beloved - and deadly -
laudanum, and celebrating, too, what Robert would come to
hate, a belief in manifestations of the after-life. Later,
their child, Pen, will protest his mother taking so much
medicine, the opium, the cod-liver oil, the ass's milk (Arabella
We need to examine Robert's poetry in the light of reality, his fiction and their fact. For The Ring and the Book is excellent camouflage. Ernest Jones in Oedipus and Hamlet noted in a mere footnote that the dream within a dream, like the play within the play, is the truth, and the surrounding dream and surrounding play are the lie. If this is so, Robert's 'lie' is his love, the lilied Ring by the Castellani brothers, the 'aureo anello' of the Casa Guidi plaque by Niccolò Tommaseo, not even using Elizabeth's poetry, but instead the arts crafted by male goldsmiths and poets (I, opening and closing lines, XII, ending lines); while the truth is the Book found one morning in a market stall in San Lorenzo, which is not fiction, but fact, the documents concerning a Renaissance murder trial, safely displaced in time, a 'Distant Mirror' deflecting us from his own Victorian moment in history, Browning himself reiterating it as being 'pure crude fact/ Secreted from man's life'. However, scholars have found that his Ring and the Book departs from the Old Yellow Book. The trial hinges on whether Pompilia is literate or not, if not she is innocent and Franceschini has concocted the letters to justify his murder of her. Scholars find that, in fact, neither Pompilia nor Caponsacchi were innocent, nor was Franceschini as evil as The Ring and the Book has him. This leads us to an interesting algebra, if we have equivalences between Pompilia/Elizabeth and Guido/Robert. If Pompilia/Elizabeth is illiterate then Guido/Robert is guilty and is the writer of 'her' letters, while if Pompilia/Elizabeth is literate, her letters being her own, then Guido/Robert is wronged and victim. Two things occupied much time in the Browning household, the dressing of Elizabeth's and Pen's spaniel curls for public show, the much writing of letters and poems, the letters needing to be posted, the poems to be published, both censored by Robert. It is undeniable that Elizabeth is literate, knowledgeable in fact, in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian and other languages as well as English. But she in turn split herself into two in Aurora Leigh, Marian Erle, her own look-alike with spaniel curls, who is innocent and uneducated, and Aurora Leigh, the woman writer. Which of all these is Pompilia?
This study of Elizabeth's death and burial will go to primary sources, much as did Robert with The Old Yellow Book. Modern biographies of Elizabeth gloss over details that were still known to witnesses to her life such as Kate Field, and Mrs Sutherland Orr, and in the copious letters Elizabeth wrote to her family members and others, and the archival documents in the case. This study will rely on archival documents, mostly unpublished, of the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church, the Letters edited by Frederic Kenyon, Richard Curle, Edward C. McAleer, Paul Landis, Philip Kelly and Scott Lewis, and the detailed biographies of the Brownings written long, long ago by Mrs Sutherland Orr, in her official biography, Life and Letters of Robert Browning, published in 1891, its frontispiece Pen's painting of his father holding 'The Old Yellow Book', giving copies of letters supplied to her by Miss Sarianne Browning (being specifically commissioned to deflect the suspicion concerning Robert's ancestry as Jewish, which Mrs Orr tackles in her first paragraph), and also those by Lilian Whiting and Jeannette Marks.
Elizabeth had written great love poetry to Robert for which she is ever remembered, creating of the couple the icon of ideal married love, who now lie asunder, she in Florence, he in Westminster Abbey: she prophesying her romance with him by referring to his Bells and Pomegranates in Lady Geraldine's Courtship; crafting her exquisite sonnet cycle in secret from Robert because of his tactlessness concerning women's writing; playing as if a fugue with Pippa Passes in the child's song, 'O bella libertà', and then presenting their own child Pen, in Casa Guidi Windows, a poem which, like the red, white and green flag, and the colours of the Casa Guidi salone, the Austrians had banned (Arabella, II.9);
and, in the best-selling epic poem as novel romance, Aurora Leigh VI.562-565, again she presents their child, as like some pomegranate, again paying tribute to Robert's poetry published in his Bells and Pomegranates; as well as the Wimpole Street love letters between herself and Robert, filled with references to poppies and to Aaron's Bells and Pomegranates, that Pen would later publish, following the publication by Robert of Elizabeth's Sonnets from the Portuguese.
The story of the exquisite Petrarchan sonnets, probably the best ever written, is heart-rending. Robert later tells Julia Wedgewood of seeing them for the first time in the summer of 1849, following Pen's birth and during their stay in Bagni di Lucca.
Yes, that was a strange, heavy crown, that wreath of Sonnets, put on me one morning unawares, three years after it had been twined, - all this delay because I happened early to say something against putting one's loves into verse; then again, I said something else on the other side, one evening at Lucca, - and next morning she said hesitatingly 'Do you know I once wrote some poems about you?' - and then - 'There they are, if you care to see them', and there was the little Book I have here - with the last Sonnet dated two days before our marriage. How I see the gesture, and hear the tones, - and, for the matter of that, see the window at which I was standing, with the tall mimosa in front, and the little church-court to the right (Wedgewood, 99-100),a scene which Elizabeth drew.
In Sonnet 18/XVIII Elizabeth offered Robert a lock of her hair, mentioning she had thought that they would instead have been cut by the 'funeral shears':
I never gave a lock of hair awayAlready, following the death of her brother, Edward, heir to the Jamaican slave estates, following that of her mother, Miss Mitford had given Elizabeth the spaniel Flush, so like her as to be an alter ego. Flush had gone with them on the elopement, realizing he must keep silent on the stairs of Wimpole Street, then, at Petrarch's Vaucluse, had dashed across the waterfall, being baptised, Elizabeth said, 'in Petrarch's name'. The English climate suited him, Italy's did not. Poor Flush was to lose his curls to mange and eventually die and be buried in Casa Guidi's cellars. To be resurrected by the childless, surrogateless Virginia Woolf in her Flush: A Biography. But Elizabeth now had this other and most miraculous alter ego, the baby Pen, whom she kept in long curls, who imitated her even to writing a 'great poem' in 1855 with a heroine named Lucy Lee, for which John Kenyon paid him a guinea. Elizabeth, the cripple, in constant pain, could bask in the energy of Flush, forever running away, and in Pen on his beautiful pony, as surrogate selves. She even tells Arabella that she and Robert confuse their names, addressing the child as Flush, the dog as Wiedeman, and suggesting this is no longer proper, now that Pen is baptised in the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church (Arabella, I.264).
To a man, dearest, except this to thee,
Which now upon my fingers thoughtfuly
I ring out to the full brown length and say
'Take it' - My day of youth went yesterday -
My hair no longer bounds to my foot's glee,
Nor plant I it from rose or myrtle tree,
As girls do, any more. It only may
Now shade on two pale cheeks, the mark of tears,
Taught drooping from the head that hangs aside
Through sorrow's trick- I thought the funeral shears
Would take this first; . . but Love is justified -
Take it, thou, . . finding pure, from all those years,
The kiss my mother left here when she died.
When Pen was born and Robert's mother Sara Ann Wiedeman died in March of 1849 Robert seems to have had a mental breakdown, similar to the one just before the elopement, and which he will seem also to have at the time of Elizabeth's death. We catch him, depressed, saying gravely to Elizabeth, in 1850, "Suppose we all kill ourselves tonight" (Arabella, I.290). Elizabeth had the one successful pregnancy with Pen but also suffered four miscarriages, endangering her life. The doctors counselled that she and Robert live celibately - which cannot have helped their domestic tranquillity. Elizabeth's was the prophetic voice to the world: her poem, The Cry of the Children, effecting changes in child labour laws when it was read in Parliament in England, Dosteivsky's brother, Michael, translating it into Russian; Massimo D'Azeglio quoting from Casa Guidi Windows on the death of Charles Albert in an address to the Piedmont Chamber of Deputies in 1852, and Francesco Dall'Ongaro translating 'A Court Lady', about Margaret Fuller's friend, the noble Princess Belgioioso working in Garibaldi's hospitals, while Arthur Hughes the Pre-Raphaelite would paint both 'The Court Lady' and Aurora's rejection of Romney's suit. She champions a black slave who murders her child in Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point, she champions a self-taught single mother, Marian Erle, a gypsy, in Aurora Leigh, both victims of rape. We find Elizabeth jokingly mentioning Robert's quarrelling in an 1852 letter to her sister Arabella (Arabella, I.545). Her money, from her poetry and from the ship the "David Lyon", was supporting the entire household, husband, child, servants, dog, and an addiction to laudanum. Robert and Elizabeth were to increasingly argue over Pen, he wanting his son to be English, she wanting him 'to be an intelligent human being, first of all. Time enough for national distinctions!' (Arabella, I.289). We find Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne, 8 June 1858, describing how at Casa Guidi 'Mr Browning introduced the subject of spiritism, and there was animated talk. Mr Browning cannot believe and Mrs Browning cannot help believing' (344-347).
Jealousy seems to have seized hold of Robert, paralyzing him from his poetic career, if we read Andrea del Sarto as a mirror of his marriage. Elizabeth quotes in a letter to her sister Arabella in 1860 from an American newspaper, the Boston Daily Evening Transcript:
Another figure one is almost sure to meet on his little pony at four or five in the afternoon in the . . . Pincian. With his long light curls, and his gay little cap with a red feather stuck in the side. I do not know a more interesting sight or a more lovely boy. As he trots up the avenue with his father, or followed by his groom, all who know him delight to greet him - His mother wrote 'Aurora Leigh' and his father is the author of 'Paracelsus'. (Arabella, II.463)A justified jealousy seems also to afflict EBB, as, for instance, when she, Robert tells here - which is a lie - being a woman, is forbidden entry to the private library of the Gabinetto Vieusseux and its newspapers, safe from the Grand Duke's and the Austrians' censorship, which have to be filtered to her through Robert who is not sympathetic to her political ideals, and when Queen Victoria arranges that the Prince of Wales in Rome meet Robert, rather than Elizabeth. She had escaped from the sickroom of Wimpole Street, presided over by her father Edward Barrett Moulton Barrett mourning the loss of his slave wealth, to find herself still physically helpless, still enclosed in sickrooms, now presided over by Robert, who carefully monitors her letters and her conversations and administers her tincture of laudanum drop by drop, then increases the dosage. She lives under double censorship, political and spousal. She catches glimpses of the freedom of Madame de Staël, George Sand, Félicie de Fauveau, Margaret Fuller and Harriet Hosmer, but keeps her vows to love, honour and obey Robert made that fateful morning in St Marylebone Church. She upholds for both of them the ideal of poetic love in lawful matrimony. When she is proposed for Poet Laureate, she considers Robert the more worthy.
In 1860, posing with her son Penini, she could still smile.
The terrible last photographs taken in Rome show her with emaciated deathhead, despite the crinoline and curls. In 1861, the year of her death, we see a prematurely aged Corinne in front of a painted backdrop of Rome's Colosseum (Arabella II.533). She was only fifty-five, though pretending to the even younger forty-five, and having packed into those years the writing of an epic poem longer than Homer's Odyssey, marriage, and a son. In May of that year, Hans Christian Andersen visited them, commenting on how ill Elizabeth looked (Arabella II.536). Her last poem, 'North and South', was about him, for the children played with Robert his Pied Piper of Hamelyn, processing through the rooms, and listened to Andersen's Ugly Duckling.
But between these two dates, 1860-1861, is also the publication of her poem, 'A Musical Instrument'. Robert felt Elizabeth's poetic gift had ended, saying to her brother George in a letter written from Asolo, 22 October, 1889, 'the publication of "Aurora Leigh" preceded by five years the death of its writer - who was never likely to produce such another work', he being her literary agent during their marriage and following her death. But one of those last disparaged works was illustrated by Frederic Leighton for the Cornhill Magazine and this poem, 'A Musical Instrument', is of interest as a meta-poem, a statement about her poetic craft and life. It is also a poem in which Elizabeth takes up a theme she has often used before, drawing on her classical and Christian learning, on the 'Great God Pan'. Pan, we recall, is that chimaera, part beast, part man, related to centaurs, satyrs and fauns, EBB speaking of Flush as 'Faunus', and echoing Milton on the death of the pagan Gods in 'The Morning of Christ's Nativity', both borrowing from Plutarch's 'De oraculorum defectu' in her 'Great Pan is Dead', and the Hawthornes noting that Robert is Donatello of the Marble Faun.
This is Lord Leighton's fine illustration from the July 1860 Cornhill Magazine:
And this is Elizabeth's poem, "A Musical Instrument" it illustrates:
What was he doing, the great god Pan,The verse about cutting the reed evokes The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point and the slashing at the sugar cane by slaves with their machetes. Robert, at Bagni di Lucca, would similarly swim in the river. In Pythagorean teaching there are two kinds of musical instruments, the harp, which is Reason, and the wind instrument, which is Nature, about the world of procreation and sexuality. Yet in this poem Elizabeth seems to be speaking of her life and its thwarted sexuality as a sacrifice - which is killing her - for the sake of her art. The poem is very close indeed in its verbal echoes to her magnificent translation of Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche, this section where Pan rescues Psyche from her suicidal despair, telling her to love innocently. But if so it is now re-written away from the Apuleian version towards that in Ovid, where Pan seeks to rape a nymph, who becomes a reed, which he then mutilates for his instrument upon which to play.
Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
From the deep cool bed of the river:
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
Ere he brought it out from the river.
High on the shore sat the great god Pan
While turbidly flowed the river;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of the leaf indeed
To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,. . .
(How tall it stood in the river!)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of man
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
In holes, as he sat by the river.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man:
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, -
For the reed which grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds in the river.
She leaves further clues about this poem's meaning. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in What I Remember (II. 175-179), his gossipy book about the Anglo-Florentines, describes finding enclosed amongst Isa Blagden's letters,
one from Mrs Browning which is of the highest interest.Elizabeth's comment about the 'passion for essential truth (as apprehended) and a necessity for speaking it out at all risks, inconvenient to personal peace' is in reference to the Greek concept she well knew of parrhesia, the obligation to speak the truth, at personal risk, for the common good, so closely related to eleutheria, to freedom. And this is the classic principle, discussed by I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates and by Michel Foucault in a lecture he gave at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shortly before his death, which underlies this iconoclastic essay.
. . .
'Dearest Isa, - Very gentle my critic is; I am glad I got him out of you. But tell dear Mr Trollope he is wrong nevertheless
. . . There is an inward reflection and refraction of the heats of life . . . doubling pains and pleasures, doubling therefore the motives (passions) of life. I have said something of this in Aurora Leigh. Also there is a passion for essential truth (as apprehended) and a necessity for speaking it out at all risks, inconvenient to personal peace. Add to this and much else the loss of the sweet unconscious cool privacy among the 'reeds' . . . which I care so much for - the loss of the privilege of being glad or sorry, ill or well, without a 'notice.' . . . Yes! and be sure, Isa, that the 'true gods sigh' and have reason to sigh, for the cost and pain of it; sigh only . . . don't haggle over the cost; don't grudge a crazia, but . . . sigh, sigh . . . while they pay honestly. . . .
But he is a beast up to the waist; yes, Mr Trollope, a beast. He is not a true god.
And I am neither god nor beast, if you please - only a
Lilian Whiting wrote Kate Field's biography, composing it from her letters, publishing it in Boston in 1900 as Kate Field: A Record. This is the eye-witness account Kate, the young American journalist, gave in two letters written to her aunt concerning Elizabeth Barrett Browning's death and burial:
Florence, June 29th, 1861
I am sick, sick at heart, for dear Mrs. Browning is dead. The news was as sudden as it is dreadful, for though she has been quite ill for a week past, yet her health has always been so feeble that I firmly believed she would rally as of yore. . . Yesterday Mrs. Browning said that she felt better, read a little in the "Athenaeum" and saw Miss Blagden as late as eight o'clock in the evening, who left her with but little misgiving. This morning, at half-past four, she expired unconsciously to herself with the words, "It is beautiful," upon her lips. Poor Mr. Browning was entirely unprepared for the terrible blow. When she raised herself to pronounce her dying words wherein she expressed the glorious life which was opening upon her, he thought it was simply a movement premonitory to coughing. I have not seen him, but Miss Blagden, who is constantly with him, says he is completely prostrated with grief. The poor boy wanders about the house, sad, and disconsolate, hardly realising that his angel mother is no more. We went to the house the moment we heard of Mrs. Browning's death, but could be of no use. All that we did was to buy flowers and consecrate them by placing them around all that is left of one who was too pure to remain longer in this world. They have cut off all her hair, and the emaciated form was heart-rending to look upon. I almost regret that I have seen her in death, only that I do not wish to shun the house of mourning. . . . I cannot help perceiving that Dr. Wilson, who was called in owing to the absence of Gresanowsky, and who is most forbidding in physiognomy and is said by some to be a humbug, has hastened Mrs. Browning's death by resorting to a violent practice which her weak body was thoroughly incapable of enduring. He began by frightening her, telling her what a fearful state her entire system was in, - a fine way to treat an imaginative person. Gresanowsky knew her constitution, and it does seem most unfortunate that he should have been absent. Since the medical murder of Cavour, I have begun to distrust all doctors in Italy. . . . (Whiting, 134-137)I do not recall anywhere else it being said that not only were Pen's curls cut off but so also were Elizabeth's. That mirroring identity, so crucial to Elizabeth, shorn by the 'funeral shears'. We remember the story of Elizabeth being upset one day because Robert had in a fit of fury cut off his own hair.
Florence, July 1, 1861Let us turn to the entries concerning Elizabeth Barrett Browning's burial for more clues. As Custodian of the Swiss-owned 'English' Cemetery I kept asking whether there were any more documents concerning these burials, apart from one ledger compiled in 1877 of the list of burials in alphabetic order. Always it was said everything had been lost in the 1966 Florence Flood. Finally, these were handed over: two ledgers created contemporaneously, and a third listing burials in temporal order, created in 1877 from the previous records, like the alphabetical register, Plus further ledgers giving the burial expenses, and the duplicate receipts for these funeral expenses and the payments to the grave-digger, which I now share with you.
I have been completely upset for the last three days, - the death of Mrs. Browning has unfitted me for doing anything. We have just returned from her funeral. We have seen all that is mortal of her buried in the beautiful Protestant burial-ground outside of Florence's walls, . . . The service was according to the Episcopal form. No discourse. Her life had been a sermon; she needed no other. It was agonizing to look on Mr. Browning - he seemed as though he could hardly stand, and his face expressed the most terrible grief. The poor boy stood beside him with tears in his eyes, and when I glanced from them to the pall where their loved one's remains lay, it seemed as though the sorrow was too much to bear. I yearned to go to Mr. Browning and weep with him that wept. The scene was made impressive in spite of the ministery; it was very short, and we were hurried away by Mr. Trollope. A lovely wreath of white flowers and a laurel wreath were placed upon the coffin. The funeral was managed by a friend of the Brownings, and so managed that no one knew anything about anything. Orders were given to the greatest confusion during the three days, and up to this morning I was told that no ladies were to be at the grave. However, Mr. Browning expressed a wish that Miss Blagden should be present and all other friends that desired to; therefore at the last moment I sent word to those whom I knew would wish to attend, and in this way there were sorrowing women to mourn for a great woman. The funeral would have been meagre without them. I thought that Mr. Landor ought to have been there, and had I known that the service would have been so short would have gone for him. The Storys came up from Leghorn; young Lytton, Mr. Trollope, the Powers, and others paid their last tribute to her memory (Whiting, 137-138).
The Burial Registers
neither of which give
her status as married, nor her parentage, and not even her
II. The duplicate volume of the above:
Pen's baptismal certificate in the same Swiss Evangelical
Church's Register tells us that it was performed on what would
be almost her death date, 28 June, 1849, she dying 29 June,
III. The chronological listing of burials in the Swiss-owned so-called 'English' Cemetery, compiled in 1877 from the previous records:
The Alphabetical Register, compiled in 1877 from the previous records:
In all these documents Elizabeth's age is
given incorrectly as '45', rather than '55'. We recall that
she did not tell her husband she had visited the Battlefield
of Waterloo immediately following Napoleon's defeat, though
she describes a child loosed upon that same battlefield in Aurora
Leigh. (The English Cemetery has six participants in the
Battle of Waterloo, some of whom were Elizabeth's friends.)
Nor does her tomb give her birth date, only that of the year
of her death, 'O+B+1861'. Her initials are given, 'E+E+B', but
not her name, as if Robert penny-pinched on the payment to the
stonemason, who would have charged for every letter. Another
husband composed a lengthy poem at the death of his wife,
Caroline Napier, and paid for each letter of it to be engraved
on her tomb slab.1
The Funeral Expenses
IV. Signor L. Gilli, Inspector of the Cemetery, is paid 271 paoli for the funeral of Elizabeth Barrett Browning out of which he pays the tax to the English Church of 113 paoli. Further payments are made to the English 'pasteur' of 108 paoli for conducting the service, and 10 paoli for his carriage. Yet further payments still are made for him to have crepe for his hat and gloves. But Elizabeth, clearly, from Pen's christening through her last letter to Arabella, would have wanted to be buried by the 'pasteur' of the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church, not by that of the Church of England. Apart from a pauper funeral this is the lowest amount paid at this time for an adult funeral. Those of Charlotte, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorn, and of Theodore Parker cost more than a 1000 paoli each.
V. Then Ferdinando Giorgi, Master Mason, is paid a total of 760 lire toscani from Signor L. Gilli for the burial of 16 persons, the first of which is #737, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's.
Normally, Ferdinando Giorgi is paid 45 Tuscan lire a burial. He gets 90 Tuscan lire for EBB's burial, number #737, because he had to dig two graves. Which means the Swiss Evangelical Church this time only got 68 paoli. I puzzled over this payment for the digging of two graves. Had Robert had one dug for himself when his time came? Had another body been found in it while digging the first? Then I thought I had found the answer to this question.
Mrs Sutherland Orr in Life and Letters of Robert Browning tells us that in September of 1861, writing from St.-Enogat, near Dinard, where he is staying with his father and sister, two months after Elizabeth's burial, Robert Browning requests Isa Blagden to arrange moving his wife's body from one grave to another as this is required for the subsequent placing of the monument designed by Leighton:
. . . Isa, may I ask you one favour? Will you, whenever these dreadful preliminaries, the provisional removement, etc., when they are proceeded with - will you do -- all you can - suggest every regard to decency and proper feeling of the persons concerned? I have a horror of that man of the graveyard, and needless publicity and exposure - I rely on you, dearest friend of ours, to at least lend us your influence when the time shall come - a word may be invaluable. If there is any show made, or gratification of strangers' curiosity, far better that I had left the turf untouched. These things occur through sheer thoughtlessess, carelessness, not anything worse, but the effect is irreparable. I won't think of it - now - at least . . . (Orr, 395-396; McAleer, 175, however dates this letter as of 19 September 1863, from Ste Marie, Pornic).Earlier, Elizabeth had noted Robert's great fear of cemeteries. He had refused, for instance, to go to the funeral and burial of his first cousin James Silverthorne, the witness at their wedding (Arabella I.490-91,494). Mrs Orr similarly observes this of Robert and remarks of this letter: 'The dread expressed in this letter . . . connects itself with an habitual aversion for the paraphernalia of death, which was a marked peculiarity of Mr Browning's nature' (366-367), noting that he never visited her grave. Nathaniel Hawthorne modeled the character of Donatello in The Marble Faun on Robert Browning and likewise vividly described his horror of death.
Immediately after the funeral, Robert commissioned the painting by Giorgio Mignaty of the Salone at Casa Guidi as it was when she died, on finding the room could not be photographed, perhaps by Longworth Powers, who would later photograph the tomb, perhaps by the Fratelli Alinari.
We recall that two of the Mignaty children, Demetrio and Elena, are buried in the English Cemetery, one with the inscription in Greek,2
and that the head of the beautiful but not faithful Signora Mignaty was model for Hiram Powers' Greek Slave about which Elizabeth wrote her powerful anti-slavery sonnet.
The American sculptor Hiram Powers, who had been present with his wife Elizabeth at Elizabeth Barrett Browning's funeral, is also buried in the English Cemetery,3 while Michele Gordigiani, who painted the portraits of Elizabeth and Robert and likewise that of Camille Cavour, whose death on June 6th Elizabeth so deeply mourned,
had his studio just across the street, his
descendant, Francesca Gordigiani, still living there.
Robert Browning, who sculpted and who wrote poetry on the ordering of tombs, who was himself indulging in sculpture rather than poetry at the end of their marriage, commissioned Frederic Leighton to design Elizabeth's tomb, Francesco Giovannozzi to carry it out. Frederic Leighton had studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti and would become President of the Royal Academy. His earliest triumph had been to paint what Elizabeth had already described in Casa Guidi Windows, the 'Procession of Cimabue's Madonna from Borgo Allegri to Santa Maria Novella', the huge canvas being purchased by Queen Victoria when he was all of twenty-four.
Leighton, we noted, illustrated Elizabeth's final poem to Pan, 'A Musical Instrument', when it was published in the Cornhill Magazine in 1860 (175-179), the year before her death. Leighton also illustrated George Eliot's Romola, including the despicable Tito's return home to her, which both author and artist set in the Via dei Bardi house of Elizabeth's friend, Seymour Kirkup:
Robert, who similarly often went out at night, leaving Elizabeth at home, after the initial years of marital bliss, immediately following the funeral left Florence with young Pen, accompanied by Isa Blagden. He proceeded to write The Ring and the Book, the Aretine and Roman trial account in verse about spousal abuse and murder, as if his own confession, with Caponsacchi as if Robert being Elizabeth's rescuer from the bondage of Wimpole Street, and with Franceschini as if Robert, who as husband constantly quarrelled publicly with his wife over politics, over spiritualism, over their son, who carefully administered her laudanum, and who, as the author of Paracelsus, the inventor of laudanum, may have knowingly overdosed her, while blaming Dr Wilson for doing so. If so, it is a kind of mercy killing, for he carefully explains to everyone that she is unaware that she is dying, only that she is in a state of euphoria from the drug. She does not die hemorrhaging from the lungs with tuberculosis.
Leighton Sketch Book XXXV, Royal Academy Library
____Leighton's tomb for Elizabeth is a magnificent monument. But Robert never saw it, never returned again to Florence, though Pen did, living in the Torre di Antella, seeking to make Casa Guidi a museum, searching out memorabilia of his parents, which at his death were all dispersed in auction sales. Leighton did return to Florence and did see the work in progress, and was deeply angered by the changes made to his design by Francesco Giovannozzi and tolerated by Count Cotttrell. Lilian Whiting's biography of Kate Field, the young American writer who had been present at that funeral, tells us that on Christmas Day, 1864, nearly three and a half years later than the funeral,
Greek Lyre Christian Harp Hebrew Harp
Tragedy and Comedy Cross Jubilee with Broken Slave Shackle
Mrs Browning's monument has not yet been erected, but will shortly be so. Leighton, who was intrusted by Mr. Browning with the design, was exceedingly and very reasonably angry on coming here in the autumn to superintend the erection of the monument, to find that the sculptor had most unwarrantably changed divers parts of the design. Some of these departures from his plan Leighton insisted on having restored, and this has led to considerable delay. And I should fear that the monument, when it is put up, will not be wholly satisfactory to Mr. Browning or Mr. Leighton (Whiting, 157).Count Cottrell, whose title was given to him for his services as Chamberlain by the Grand Duke of Lucca, had refused to go to the English Cemetery at the burial of one of his children there, Carlo Lodovico, Robert exceptionally officiating for him as chief mourner (Arabella, II.322-323). In some of the earlier Letters to Arabella the relations between the Cottrells and the Brownings became decidedly strained, for Mary Trepsack had had her life savings conned from her and lost in a bankruptcy by Cottrell relatives, partly through Robert's actions, Elizabeth desperately trying to get reparations paid to her in compensation while obeying Robert in keeping secret from her brothers his involvement in the case (Arabella I.268-269, 271-272, 286, 305, 311, 349-350). Mary Trepsack was the beloved freed slave in the Barrett Moulton Barrett entourage who had paid for the publication of Elizabeth's second magnum opus, The Essay on Mind, in 1826; Elizabeth's first magnum opus, The Battle of Marathon, begun when she was eleven, having been privately printed by her father in 1820. Robert now put Count Cottrell in charge of overseeing his wife's tomb in Florence.
I feel very grateful indeed for your letter, and all the kindness it is replete with. For the monument, I am simply rejoiced that you like it. You know it was just what I was able to accomplish in that direction, and no more: I meant, - that had it been of pure gold it would have gone no farther in the way of being a fit offering, - and on the other hand, if my circumstances had only allowed me to put up a wooden cross, that would have sufficed. But I was fortunate in the sympathy of Leighton, and so, I hope, have been able perhaps to manage that the little which is done, is on the whole well done. I could not be on the spot and care for the execution personally - and mistakes were made at first which have been rectified since: but, by the photographs, I judge that Leighton's work is adequately rendered, - and we must be content.Browning writes again, in 1875, to George Moulton-Barrett (298), who has been to see the tomb in Florence, noting in a letter to Robert that it was already grimed and needing care (Sutherland Orr, 367-68):
You will certainly have wondered at the delay in replying to your kind letter: it was occasioned by the necessity of consulting with Leighton about the proper course to take in a matter which concerned him so much. I am deeply obliged to you for informing me about what I might else have long remained in ignorance; and the particulars of the damage, as well as the estimates of needful repair & expenditure are just what I should have desired. I wish every fit measure to be taken, and leave the whole in your most capable hands: but there is this difficulty, - Leighton is very averse to the destruction of his design by the substitution of black marble: he would prefer the renewal of the old work, even if one needs to begin again in another eleven years. Cannot this be managed? I wish it were as easy to replace the coarse nature of the relic-mongers by some more human and decent stuff, but that is impossible. Would a more effectual railing be any use? or would a cover, such as you mention as being made for the Demidoff monument, answer the purpose here? You have such an advantage over me who never saw the Tomb, that I accept your judgment, whatever it may be. Leighton said he would prefer letting the ornaments quite go, in process of time, and then renewing them - that is, prefer this to substituting the black stripe.Elizabeth's absence from her own tomb is strange. There is no medallion portrait of her, only an ideal figure of Poesy, and we learn from Robert's letter from the Athenaeum Club, January 19, 1863, to Isa Blagden that the Italians, through Cottrell, sought to pre-empt Leighton's design, and that Robert himself decided against having her portrait,
On it there are no lines from her poems. There
is not her name, just 'E+B+B'. Nor is there her birth date,
just the death date 'O+B+1861+'. However, it seems
from sketches in the Royal Academy's Library that Andrew Potter
has so kindly sent me that Leighton conceived it not as a
classical sarcophagus so much as a medieval pilgrim tomb with
space under it for pilgrims to enter, like that of Edward the
Confessor's Tomb in Westminster Abbey. An aside: When Elizabeth
was preparing herself for the elopement with Robert, she dared
to go outside, to take walks, and on one of them visited
Westminster Abbey and its Poets' Croner where her husband would
come to be buried apart from her. This is how she described it,
31 July, 1846:
EBB's Tomb, Royal Academy Library
We find that Leighton indeed had intended a more true portrait on the tomb as he originally conceived it, these drawings being supplied by the Leighton House Museum from those in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Leighton even shows a togaed Robert approaching it!),
designated space for an inscription on it, perhaps with her
poetry, perhaps with his.
In an earlier paper, I lamented the lack of the major symbol Elizabeth and Robert shared in their poetry on her tomb, that of the pomegranate. We have now planted a pomegranate beside it that came from the Elizabeth's beloved Giardino Torregiani and we have rectified the lack of her name with a stele by the tomb.
Likewise we have sought to correct the absence of her poetry on her tomb with its presence on the walls of the Gatehouse's arch, unveiled by Dr Stephen Prickett at our conference with the Gabinetto Vieusseux on the 'English' Cemetery in 2004.
too, that Emily Dickinson, America's
greatest poet, treasured a postcard of this tomb, and wrote of
it and Aurora Leigh in her lyric, 'The soul selects her
own society, Then shuts the door; On her divine majority,
obtrude no more. Unmoved she notes the chariot's pausing At her
low gate; Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling Upon her mat. I've
known her from an ample nation Choose one, Then shut the valves
of her attention Like stone'. She also wrote of Elizabeth
Barrett Browning's final volume (312):
Five years later than Elizabeth's burial another grieving husband himself sculpted his wife's tomb up in Fiesole to be beside that of Elizabeth. Fanny, wife to Holman Hunt, died in Florence following childbirth.
Holman Hunt's wife modelling for Giovanni Boccaccio/John Keats' Isabella and the Pot of Basil is one of his most famous paintings.
and likewise her portrait during her pregnancy in Florence.
He created for her an ark,
complete with dove and olive branch doing double duty as a
pelican in its piety, and adorned with lilies (copied from
those on Elizabeth's tomb), which forever floats on waves
sculpted from marble, and he placed three scriptural
passages from Isaiah, the Gospels and the Song of Solomon,
one of these echoing Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet
XXVII to her husband, within Florentine triangled roundels4:
I WILL BE WITH THEE
AND THRO THE FLOODS
THEY SHALL NOT
IS STRONG AS
MANY WATERS CANNOT
NEITHER CAN THE
While sculpting his dead wife's tomb in Fiesole, Holman Hunt painted a portrait of a Tuscan girl plaiting straw and also a pencilled self-portrait of his sorrow, a 'Grief Observed'.
Holman Hunt's versions of the 'Light of the World' are in St Paul's Cathedral and at Keble College, Oxford.
Meanwhile, the 'English' Cemetery became the final resting place of other of Elizabeth's friends. Walter Savage Landor's in 1864,5
The second tomb has his wife Julia on top of their
son's tomb, her back turned to her husband's, as far
from him as she can get. She was the daughter of a
Swiss bankrupt banker.
Another tomb is Isa Blagden's,6
whose view from her house at Bellosguardo Elizabeth would purloin for Aurora Leigh.
Robert Lytton, who attended Elizabeth's funeral along with Isa, was the son of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, had published poetry under the name of 'Owen Meredith' and became Viceroy of India. Elizabeth had hoped Lytton would marry Isa, for she had saved his life one summer in Bagni di Lucca, when the Brownings were also there, but Isa's mixed blood, part Jewish, part East Indian (she and Theodosia being Hawthorne's models for Miriam in The Marble Faun), prevented the match. They both wrote works about their romance, Lytton's Lucile, a kind of Aurora Leigh, in verse, Isa's Agnes Tremorne in prose.
Likewise Fanny and Theodosia Trollope,7 who as Theodosia Garrow had been Elizabeth's girlhood friend at Torquay in Devon, are buried here.
1865 Tom, Fanny, Bice, and Theodosia Trollope
in Villino Trollope, Piazza dell'Indipendenza
Elizabeth, Isa and Theodosia all shared in an exotic colonial background, not being completely English.
As for Pen, our Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church records also reveal much about him. Moisé Droin had baptised him in the Swiss Church at the Brownings' special request, for EBB's and Robert's families were Dissenters, and we have these baptismal records. Elizabeth writes to Arabella telling her she goes with Pen weekly to the Swiss Church in Florence. She allows Wilson to take Pen into Catholic churches and witness the Mass there. She herself describes several times in Aurora Leigh with great observation the liturgy of the Santissima Annunziata. She doesn't set foot in the English Church of the Holy Trinity. It was following Elizabeth's death that Robert would wrench his remaining family into the Church of England, with the burial service for her, even to paying the tax to the English church, in having Pen groomed to be a proper English gentleman, desiring that he study Classics at Balliol under Benjamin Jowett, and being himself buried with full honours in the 'Poets' Corner' of Westminster Abbey. The child, 'Pen', Robert Wiedeman Browning, of Casa Guidi Windows, became the man who as Robert Barrett Browning would drop the 'Wiedemann' part of his name derived from his father's dead mother, keeping instead his own dead mother's name of 'Barrett', alongside his father's 'Browning'. When Pen married, he and his wife even constructed a chapel in the Palazzo Rezzonico to the memory of Elizabeth placing there the same words as on Casa Guidi's plaque but in letters of gold. We recall that Pen studied art in France, including sculpture under Rodin. Then painted his father with The Old Yellow Book in his hands in the portrait given to Balliol College, a portrait Leighton, Millais, and Alma Tadema praised most highly (George Barrett, 326), Leighton having supported Pen for membership in the Athenaeum Club (316),
and he sculpted a fine bust of his illegitimate daughter Ginevra, Elizabeth's granddaughter, as Pompilia.
Robert Browning. From the portrait by R. Barrett Browning in the possession of the Master and Fellows of Balliol College, by whose kind permission it has been photo-engraved
The Savonarola Chair is that seen in the Mignaty painting, now in the Armstrong Browning Library.
For he returned to Italy, and gathered up all his family's faithful retainers and looked after them, especially the beloved and damaged Elizabeth Wilson who sought to protect his mother from harm.
Robert Barrett Browning, 'Pompilia', Armstrong Browning Library
(BENNETT) NAPIER/ ENGLAND/
Napier/ Carolina/ / Inghilterra/ Firenze/ 5 Settembre/ 1836/ /
141/ GL 23773/4 N° 50: died at Villa Capponi, Rev Knapp; Baptism
children: GL23773 N° 16 Arthur Lennox b 24/12/33 bp 31/03/34 Rev
Hutton, G23773 N° 52; Richard Henry b 11/03/36 bp 28/05/36 Rev
Hutchinson, father Henry Edward capt RN mother Caroline/ Maquay Diaries: 6 Sep 1836; 21 September/ DNB
entry: 'Napier, Henry Edward 1789-1853, historian, born on 5
March 1789, was son of Colonel George Napier [q.v.], younger
brother of Sir Charles James Napier [q.v.], conqueror of
Scinde, of Sir George Thomas Napier [q.v.], governor of the
Cape of Good Hope, and of Sir William Francis Patrick Napier
[q.v.], historian and general. . . . His chief claim to notice
is that he was the author of ‘Florentine History from the
earliest Authentic Records to the Accession of Ferdinand the
Third, Grandduke of Tuscany,’ six vols., 1846-7, a work
showing much independence of judgment and vivacity of style,
but marred by prolixity. He was elected a fellow of the Royal
Society on 18 May 1820, and died at 62 Cadogan Place, London,
on 13 Oct. 1853. He married on 17 Nov. 1823 Caroline Bennet, a
natural daughter of Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond;
she died at Florence on 5 Sept. 1836, leaving three
Napier's Florentine History/ NDNB entry for
husband, Henry Edward Napier/ CAROLINE
NAPIER/ WIFE OF/ CAPTAIN/ HENRY EDWARD NAPIER, R.N./ BORN/ 9TH
AUGUST 1806/ DIED/ 5TH SEPTEMBER 1836/ IF I HAD THOUGHT THOU
COULDST HAVE DIED/ I MIGHT NOT WEEP FOR THEE/ BUT I FORGOT
WHEN BY THY SIDE/ THAT THOU COULDST MORTAL BE/ IT NEVER
THROUGH MY MIND HAD PAST/ THAT TIME WOULD E'ER BE OER/ AND I
ON THEE SHOULD LOOK MY LAST/ AND THOU SHOULDST SMILE NO MORE/
AND STILL UPON THAT FACE I LOOK/ AND THINK TWILL SMILE AGAIN/
AND STILL THE THOUGHT I CANNOT BROOK/ THAT I MUST LOOK IN
VAIN/ BUT WHEN I SPEAK THOU DOST NOT SAY/ WHAT THOU NEER
LEFTST UNSAID/ AND NOW I FEEL AS WELL I MAY/ SWEET CAROLINE
THOU'RT DEAD/ IF THOU WOULDST STAY EEN AS THOU ART/ ALL COLD
AND ALL SERENE/ I STILL MIGHT PRESS THY SILENT HEART/ AND
WHERE THY SMILES HAVE BEEN/ WHERE EER THY CHILL BLEAK CORSE I
HAD/ THOU DIDST STILL SEEM MY OWN/ BUT HERE I LAID THEE IN THY
GRAVE/ AND I AM NOW ALONE/ I DO NOT THINK WHERE ER THOU ART/
THOU HAST FORGOTTEN ME/ AND I PERHAPS MAY SOOTHE THIS HEART/
ON THINKING TOO OF THEE/ YET THERE WAS ROUND THEE SUCH A DAWN/
OF LIGHT NEER SEEN BEFORE/ AS FANCY NEVER COULD HAVE DRAWN/
AND NEVER CAN RESTORE/-/ A10T(135)/ See Bennett, for mother's tomb beside hers,
also the Kellet tombs of three descendants from Captain Robert
John Napier Kellett (1797-1853).
2 Give tomb inscriptions for Mignaty children. Thomas Adolphus Trollope, What I Remember, II.311, notes that Signora Mignaty was the niece of Sir Frederick Adam, who himself had married a Greek lady. 'I remember her aunt, a very beautiful woman. The niece, Signora Margherita Albani as she was when I first knew her at eighteen years old in Rome, inherited so much of the beauty of her race that the Roman artists were constantly imploring her to sit for them. She has made herself known in the literary world by several works, especially by a recent book on Correggio, his life and works, published in French'7
3*°§ HIRAM POWERS/ AMERICA / Powers/ Franco [later corrected to Hiram]/ Stefano/ America/ Firenze/ 27 Giugno/ 1873/ Anni 69/ 1220/ F. Hiram Powers, America, Sculpteur, fils de Etienne Powers/ HIRAM POWERS/ DIED JUNE 27TH 1873/ AGED 68/ E15D °=Niccolò, Alessio Michahelles, descendants
Contemporary Photograph in the Diary of Susan Horner, 1861-1862. see the entries for Horner and Zileri for members of this family.
4*§ +/FANNY WAUGH HUNT/ ENGLAND/ (Wough)[Waugh]/ Holman Hunt]/ Fanny/ / Inghilterra/ Firenze/ 20 Dicembre/ 1866/ Anni 33/ 959/ Fanny Wough Hunt, l'Angleterre/ [Freeman, 227-230]/ NDNB entry for Holman Hunt/ [Written in Medallions on Coffin with Dove and Olive/Pelican in its Piety, Lilies, at each End, Floating on Water, on the Waves of the Sea]
I WILL BE WITH THEE
AND THRO THE FLOODS
THEY SHALL NOT
BE NOT AFRAID
IS STRONG AS
MANY WATERS CANNOT
NEITHER CAN THE
Barrett Browning. The Complete Works. Eds. Charlotte
Endymion Porter, Helen Archibald Clarke. 1900. Reprint, New
York: AMS Press, 1973.
The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Frederic G. Kenyon. New York: Macmillan, 1899.
Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella.
Ed. Scott Lewis. 2 vols. Waco: Wedgestone Press, 2002.
Robert Browning and Julia Wedgwood: A Broken Friendship as Recorded in Their Letters. Ed. Richard Curle. New York: Frederick Stokes, 1937.
Browning. Dearest Isa: Robert
Browning's Letters to Isabella Blagden. Ed. Edward C.
McAleer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1951.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A
Psychological Portrait. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Eliot. Romola. London: Smith Elder, 1862-1863.
Originally published in 14 parts in The Cornhill Magazine.
Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Marble Faun, or the Romance of Montebeni. 1860. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860.
Peabody Hawthorne. Notes on England and Italy. New York:
Henry James. William Wetmore Story and His Friends, from Letters, Diaries, and Recollections. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1903. 2 vols.
Ernest Jones. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: W.W. Norton, 1949. ['There is a delicate point here which may appeal only to psychanalysts. It is known that the occurrence of a dream within a dream (when one dreams that one is dreaming) is always found when analysed to refer to a theme which the person wishers 'were only a dream', i.e. not true. I would suggest that a similar meaning attaches to a 'play within a play', as in 'Hamlet'. So Hamlet (as nephew) can kill the King in his imagination since it is 'only a play' or 'only in play'. P. 101.]Jeannette Marks. The Family of the Barrett: A Colonial Romance. New York: Macmillian, 1938.
Geoffrey C. Munn. Castellani and Giuliano: Revivalist Jewellers of the 19th Century. New York: Rizzoli, 1984. [Notes also, figures 4-5, 34, that Fanny is portrayed by Holman Hunt with such an Etruscan jewel.]
A New Spirit of the Age. Ed. Richard Hengist Horne. London: Smith, Elder, 1844.
Sutherland Orr. Life and Letters of Robert Browning.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891.
Schornhorst. 'Kate Field and the Brownings'. Browning Society Notes 31
Michael Timko. Robert Browning and Magari: A Faint Show of Bigamy? Waco: The Armstrong Browning Library, 1992. The Armstrong Browning Library, Texas, 2006.
Thomas Adolphus Trollope. What I Remember. London: Richard Bentley, 1887.
Maisie Ward. The Tragi-Comedy of Pen Browning, 1849-1912. New York: Browning Institute, 1972.
Lilian Whiting. A Study of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Boston: Little, Brown, 1902.
Lilian Whiting. Kate Field: A Record. Boston: Little, Brown, 1900.
Virginia Woolf. 'Aurora Leigh'. Second Common Reader. London: Hogarth Press, 1935.
Virginia Woolf. Flush: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1933.
Cupid to a little girl's Psyche (Arabella, II.521), Rome
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