Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Robert Browning > Text of Old Pictures In Florence

A poem by Robert Browning

Old Pictures In Florence

Title:     Old Pictures In Florence
Author: Robert Browning [More Titles by Browning]

The morn when first it thunders in March,
The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say;
As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch
Of the villa-gate this warm March day,
No flash snapped, no dumb thunder rolled 5
In the valley beneath where, white and wide
And washed by the morning water-gold,
Florence lay out on the mountain-side.

River and bridge and street and square
Lay mine, as much at my beck and call, 10
Through the live translucent bath of air,
As the sights in a magic crystal ball.
And of all I saw and of all I praised,
The most to praise and the best to see
Was the startling bell-tower Giotto raised; 15
But why did it more than startle me?

Giotto, how, with that soul of yours,
Could you play me false who loved you so?
Some slights if a certain heart endures
Yet it feels, I would have your fellows know! 20
I' faith, I perceive not why I should care
To break a silence that suits them best,
But the thing grows somewhat hard to bear
When I find a Giotto join the rest.

On the arch where olives overhead 25
Print the blue sky with twig and leaf
(That sharp-curled leaf which they never shed)
'Twixt the aloes, I used to lean in chief,
And mark through the winter afternoons,
By a gift God grants me now and then, 30
In the mild decline of those suns like moons,
Who walked in Florence, besides her men.

They might chirp and chaffer, come and go
For pleasure or profit, her men alive--
My business was hardly with them, I trow, 35
But with empty cells of the human hive--
With the chapter-room, the cloister-porch,
The church's apsis, aisle, or nave,
Its crypt, one fingers along with a torch,
Its face set full for the sun to shave. 40

Wherever a fresco peels and drops,
Wherever an outline weakens and wanes
Till the latest life in the painting stops,
Stands One whom each fainter pulse-tick pains;
One, wishful each scrap should clutch the brick, 45
Each tinge not wholly escape the plaster,
--A lion who dies of an ass's kick,
The wronged great soul of an ancient Master.

For oh, this world and the wrong it does!
They are safe in heaven with their backs to it, 50
The Michaels and Rafaels, you hum and buzz
Round the works of, you of the little wit!
Do their eyes contract to the earth's old scope,
Now that they see God face to face,
And have all attained to be poets, I hope? 55
'Tis their holiday now, in any case.

Much they reck of your praise and you!
But the wronged great souls--can they be quit
Of a world where their work is all to do,
Where you style them, you of the little wit, 60
Old Master This and Early the Other,
Not dreaming that Old and New are fellows:
A younger succeeds to an elder brother,
Da Vincis derive in good time from Dellos.

And here where your praise might yield returns, 65
And a handsome word or two give help,
Here, after your kind, the mastiff girns
And the puppy pack of poodles yelp.
What, not a word for Stefano there,
Of brow once prominent and starry, 70
Called Nature's Ape and the world's despair
For his peerless painting? (See Vasari.)

There stands the Master. Study, my friends,
What a man's work comes to! So he plans it,
Performs it, perfects it, makes amends 75
For the toiling and moiling, and then, _sic transit_!
Happier the thrifty blind-folk labor,
With upturned eye while the hand is busy,
Not sidling a glance at the coin of their neighbor!
'Tis looking downward that makes one dizzy. 80

"If you knew their work you would deal your dole."
May I take upon me to instruct you?
When Greek Art ran and reached the goal,
Thus much had the world to boast _in fructu_--
The Truth of Man, as by God first spoken, 85
Which the actual generations garble,
Was re-uttered, and Soul (which Limbs betoken)
And Limbs (Soul informs) made new in marble.

So you saw yourself as you wished you were,
As you might have been, as you cannot be; 90
Earth here, rebuked by Olympus there:
And grew content in your poor degree
With your little power, by those statues' godhead,
And your little scope, by their eyes' full sway,
And your little grace, by their grace embodied, 95
And your little date, by their forms that stay.

You would fain be kinglier, say, than I am?
Even so, you will not sit like Theseus.
You would prove a model? The Son of Priam
Has yet the advantage in arms' and knees' use. 100
You're wroth--can you slay your snake like Apollo?
You're grieved--still Niobe's the grander!
You live--there's the Racers' frieze to follow:
You die--there's the dying Alexander.

So, testing your weakness by their strength, 105
Your meager charms by their rounded beauty,
Measured by Art in your breadth and length,
You learned--to submit is a mortal's duty.
--When I say "you" 'tis the common soul,
The collective, I mean--the race of Man 110
That receives life in parts to live in a whole,
And grow here according to God's clear plan.

Growth came when, looking your last on them all,
You turned your eyes inwardly one fine day
And cried with a start--What if we so small 115
Be greater and grander the while than they?
Are they perfect of lineament, perfect of stature?
In both, of such lower types are we
Precisely because of our wider nature;
For time, theirs--ours, for eternity. 120

Today's brief passion limits their range;
It seethes with the morrow for us and more.
They are perfect--how else? they shall never change;
We are faulty--why not? we have time in store.
The Artificer's hand is not arrested 125
With us; we are rough-hewn, nowise polished;
They stand for our copy, and, once invested
With all they can teach, we shall see them abolished.

'Tis a life-long toil till our lump be leaven--
The better! What's come to perfection perishes. 130
Things learned on earth we shall practice in heaven:
Works done least rapidly, Art most cherishes.
Thyself shalt afford the example, Giotto!
Thy one work, not to decrease or diminish,
Done at a stroke, was just (was it not?) "O!" 135
Thy great Campanile is still to finish.

Is it true that we are now, and shall be hereafter,
But what and where depend on life's minute?
Hails heavenly cheer or infernal laughter
Our first step out of the gulf or in it? 140
Shall Man, such step within his endeavor,
Man's face, have no more play and action
Than joy which is crystallized forever,
Or grief, an eternal petrifaction?

On which I conclude, that the early painters, 145
To cries of "Greek Art and what more wish you?"--
Replied, "To become now self-acquainters,
And paint man, man, whatever the issue!
Make new hopes shine through the flesh they fray,
New fears aggrandize the rags and tatters: 150
To bring the invisible full into play!
Let the visible go to the dogs--what matters?"

Give these, I exhort you, their guerdon and glory
For daring so much, before they well did it.
The first of the new, in our race's story, 155
Beats the last of the old; 'tis no idle quiddit.
The worthies began a revolution,
Which if on earth you intend to acknowledge,
Why, honor them now! (ends my allocution)
Nor confer your degree when the folk leave college. 160

There's a fancy some lean to and others hate--
That, when this life is ended, begins
New work for the soul in another state,
Where it strives and gets weary, loses and wins:
Where the strong and the weak, this world's congeries, 165
Repeat in large what they practiced in small,
Through life after life in unlimited series;
Only the scale's to be changed, that's all.

Yet I hardly know. When a soul has seen
By the means of Evil that Good is best, 170
And, through earth and its noise, what is heaven's serene--
When our faith in the same has stood the test--
Why, the child grown man, you burn the rod,
The uses of labor are surely done;
There remaineth a rest for the people of God; 175
And I have had troubles enough, for one.

But at any rate I have loved the season
Of Art's spring-birth so dim and dewy;
My sculptor is Nicolo the Pisan,
My painter--who but Cimabue? 180
Nor ever was a man of them all indeed,
From these to Ghiberti and Ghirlandajo,
Could say that he missed my critic-meed.
So, now to my special grievance--heigh-ho!

Their ghosts still stand, as I said before, 185
Watching each fresco flaked and rasped,
Blocked up, knocked out, or whitewashed o'er:
--No getting again what the church has grasped!
The works on the wall must take their chance;
"Works never conceded to England's thick clime!" 190
(I hope they prefer their inheritance
Of a bucketful of Italian quicklime.)

When they go at length, with such a shaking
Of heads o'er the old delusion, sadly
Each master his way through the black streets taking, 195
Where many a lost work breathes though badly--
Why don't they bethink them of who has merited?
Why not reveal while their pictures dree
Such doom, how a captive might be out-ferreted?
Why is it they never remember me? 200

Not that I expect the great Bigordi,
Nor Sandro to hear me, chivalric, bellicose;
Nor the wronged Lippino; and not a word I
Say of a scrap of Fra Angelico's;
But are you too fine, Taddeo Gaddi, 205
To grant me a taste of your intonaco,
Some Jerome that seeks the heaven with a sad eye?
Not a churlish saint, Lorenzo Monaco?

Could not the ghost with the close red cap,
My Pollajolo, the twice a craftsman, 210
Save me a sample, give me the hap
Of a muscular Christ that shows the draftsman?
No Virgin by him the somewhat petty,
Of finical touch and tempera crumbly--
Could not Alesso Baldovinetti 215
Contribute so much, I ask him humbly?

Margheritone of Arezzo,
With the grave-clothes garb and swaddling barret
(Why purse up mouth and beak in a pet so,
You bald old saturnine poll-clawed parrot?) 220
Not a poor glimmering Crucifixion,
Where in the foreground kneels the donor?
If such remain, as is my conviction,
The hoarding it does you but little honor.

They pass; for them the panels may thrill, 225
The tempera grow alive and tinglish;
Their pictures are left to the mercies still
Of dealers and stealers, Jews and the English,
Who, seeing mere money's worth in their prize,
Will sell it to somebody calm as Zeno 230
At naked High Art, and in ecstasies
Before some clay-cold vile Carlino!

No matter for these! But Giotto, you,
Have you allowed, as the town-tongues babble it--
Oh, never! it shall not be counted true-- 235
That a certain precious little tablet
Which Buonarroti eyed like a lover--
Was buried so long in oblivion's womb
And, left for another than I to discover,
Turns up at last! and to whom?--to whom? 240

I, that have haunted the dim San Spirito,
(Or was it rather the Ognissanti?)
Patient on altar-step planting a weary toe!
Nay, I shall have it yet! _Detur amanti!_
My Koh-i-noor--or (if that's a platitude) 245
Jewel of Giamschid, the Persian Sofi's eye;
So, in anticipative gratitude,
What if I take up my hope and prophesy?

When the hour grows ripe, and a certain dotard
Is pitched, no parcel that needs invoicing, 250
To the worse side of the Mont Saint Gothard,
We shall begin by way of rejoicing;
None of that shooting the sky (blank cartridge),
Nor a civic guard, all plumes and lacquer,
Hunting Radetzky's soul like a partridge 255
Over Morello with squib and cracker.

This time we'll shoot better game and bag 'em hot--
No mere display at the stone of Dante,
But a kind of sober Witanagemot
(Ex: "Casa Guidi," _quod videas ante_) 260
Shall ponder, once Freedom restored to Florence,
How Art may return that departed with her.
Go, hated house, go each trace of the Loraine's,
And bring us the days of Orgagna hither!

How we shall prologuize, how we shall perorate, 265
Utter fit things upon art and history,
Feel truth at blood-heat and falsehood at zero rate,
Make of the want of the age no mystery;
Contrast the fructuous and sterile eras,
Show--monarchy ever its uncouth cub licks 270
Out of the bear's shape into Chimaera's,
While Pure Art's birth is still the republic's.

Then one shall propose in a speech (curt Tuscan,
Expurgate and sober, with scarcely an "_issimo_,")
To end now our half-told tale of Cambuscan, 275
And turn the bell-tower's _alt_ to _altissimo_:
And find as the beak of a young beccaccia
The Campanile, the Duomo's fit ally,
Shall soar up in gold full fifty braccia,
Completing Florence, as Florence, Italy. 280

Shall I be alive that morning the scaffold
Is broken away, and the long-pent fire,
Like the golden hope of the world, unbaffled
Springs from its sleep, and up goes the spire
While "God and the People" plain for its motto, 285
Thence the new tricolor flaps at the sky?
At least to foresee that glory of Giotto
And Florence together, the first am I!


3. _Aloed arch._ The genus aloe includes trees, shrubs, and herbs. The American variety is the century-plant. Browning's hill-side villa evidently had aloes trained to grow in an arch.

15. _The startling bell-tower Giotto raised._ Giotto began the Campanile in 1334, and after his death in 1337 the work was continued by Andrea Pisano. Its striking beauty impresses the poet as he looks out over the city. But it does more than that, for it rouses in him reflections on the progress and meaning of art.

17-24. The address to Giotto, thrown in here as it is with conversational freedom, is partially explained in lines 184-248. See note on l. 236.

30. _By a gift God grants me._ The power to re-create vividly and minutely the past. The artists of bygone centuries are called back by his imagination to their old haunts in Florence.

44. _Stands One._ The "one" (l. 44), "a lion" (l. 47), "the wronged great soul" (l. 48), and "the wronged great souls" (l. 58), all refer to the unappreciated early artists.

50. _They._ That is, the famous great artists such as Michael Angelo and Raphael. Critics "hum and buzz" around them with praise to which they are indifferent.

59. _Where their work is all to do._ Their place in the development of art is not yet understood. It must be made clear, Browning thinks, that painters like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) come in natural succession from earlier obscure artists like Dello, that art is a real and continuous record of the human mind and heart.

67. _The mastiff girns._ When some influential critic snarls, all the imitative inferior critics take the same tone. Cf. Shelley's "Adonais," stanzas 28, 37, 38.

69. _Stefano._ A pupil of Giotto and called "Nature's ape" because his accurate representations of the human body.

72. _Vasari._ Author of _Lives of the Most Eminent Painters and Sculptors_. (Published 1550. Translated by Mrs. Foster in _Bohn's Library_.) In his studies of art Browning made constant use of this book.

76. _Sic transit. Sic transit gloria mundi._ "So passes away the glory of the world."

84. _In fructu._ "As fruit." The fruit of Greek art at its best was that it presented in marble ideally perfect human bodies.

98. _Theseus._ The kingly statue of the reclining Theseus in the frieze of the Parthenon.

99. _Son of Priam._ In the sculptures of AEsina, Paris, the son of Priam, kneeling and drawing his bow, has a grace beyond that of any man who might think to pose as a model.

101. _Apollo._ At Delphi Apollo slew an enormous python.

102. _Niobe._ Through the vengeance of Apollo and Diana, Niobe's seven sons and seven daughters were all slain. In the Imperial Gallery of Florence there is a statue of Niobe clasping her last child.

103. _The Racer's frieze._ In the Parthenon.

104. _The dying Alexander._ A piece of ancient Greek sculpture at Florence.

108. _To submit is a mortal's duty._ The supreme beauty of the statues led men to content themselves with admiration and imitation.

113. _Growth came._ New life came to art when men ceased to rest in the perfect achievement of the past, and found a new realm opened up to them in representing the subtler activities of the soul. Lines 145-152 state the ideals that actuated the new art. The reference is to the religious art of the Italian Renaissance.

115-144. These lines sum up the reasons for the importance of the art that strives "to bring the invisible full into play" (l. 150). It may be rough-hewn and faulty; but it is greater and grander than Greek art because of its greater range, variety, and complexity, and because it reaches beyond any possible present perfection into eternity.

134. _Thy one work ... done at a stroke._ Giotto when asked for a proof of his skill to send to the Pope, drew with one stroke of his brush a perfect circle, whence the proverb, "Rounder than the O of Giotto."

156. _Quiddit._ Quibble. The humorous rhyme "did it--quiddit" is but one of the many whimsical rhyming effects in the poem. The use of a light, semi-jocose form to give the greater emphasis to serious subject-matter is characteristic of Browning. Lowell in "A Fable for Critics" employs the same device.

161-176. Not Browning's usual attitude. Even this poem is a deification of progress through effort, not through repose.

178. _Art's spring-birth._ Nicolo the Pisan and Cimabue lived in the second half of the thirteenth century. From them to Ghiberti (1381-1455), who made the famous bronze doors of the Baptistry at Florence, and Ghirlandajo (1449-1494), a Florentine fresco painter, was a period in which Browning was especially interested. Mrs. Orr says that he owned pictures by all the artists mentioned here.

192. _Italian quicklime._ Many of the fine old Italian fresco paintings have been whitewashed over.

198. _Dree._ The pictures "endure" the doom of captivity. But they might be ferreted out if the ghosts of the old painters would only indicate where the lost works are.

201-224. He does not hope to get pictures of the famous Florentine painters, Bigordi (probably another name for Ghirlandajo), Sandro, Botticelli, Lippino (son of Fra Lippo Lippi), or Fra Angelico. But he might hope for better success in finding pieces by the obscure painters mentioned in lines 205-224. These painters are so described that we know concerning each one, some characteristic quality or work.

206. _Intonaco._ The plaster that forms the ground for fresco work.

214. _Tempera._ A pigment mixed with some vehicle soluble in water instead of with oil as in oil paintings.

218. _Barret._ A kind of cap.

230. _Zeno._ The founder of the sect of Stoics, and hence supposedly not stirred by "naked High Art."

232. _Some clay-cold vile Carlino._ Commercial dealers in art are unmoved by true beauty, but they go into ecstasies over uninspired work like that of Carlino. (Carlo Dolci, 1616-1686.)

236. _A certain precious little tablet._ Mr. Browning wrote to Professor Corson that this was a lost "Last Supper" praised by Vasari. The stanza in which this line occurs explains ll. 17-24.

237. _Buonarroti._ Michael Angelo.

241. _San Spirito_, etc. "Holy Spirit" and "All Saints," old churches in Florence.

244. _Detur amanti._ "Let it be given to the one who loves it."

245. _Koh-i-noor._ A famous Indian diamond presented to Queen Victoria in 1850.

246. _Jewel of Giamschid._ The splendid fabulous ruby of Sultan Giamschid, sometimes called "The Cup of the Sun" and "The Torch of Night." Byron ("The Giaour") says that the dark eyes of Leila were "bright as the jewel of Giamschid." The carbuncle of Giamschid is one of the treasures sought by the Caliph in Beckford's _Caliph Vathek_.

246. _The Persian Sofi._ The Sufi or Sofi is a title or surname of the Shah of Persia.

249. _A certain dotard_, etc. Radetsky (1766-1858) was in 1849-1857 governor of the Austrian possessions in Upper Italy. "The worse side of the Mont St. Gothard" is the Swiss side. "Morello" is a mountain near Florence. There had been frequent insurrections against Austria, but they had been fruitless. Browning prophesies the time when there shall be a great national council (a Witanagemot) by which, when Freedom has been restored to Florence, a new and vigorous Art shall be brought in. It will then be perceived that a monarchy nourishes the false and monstrous in art, and that "Pure Art" must come from the people.

258. _The stone of Dante._ The stone where Dante used to draw his chair out to sit. For this and other references in stanza XXXIV see Mrs. Browning's "Casa Guidi Windows," Part I. In this poem she suggests "a parliament of the lovers of Italy."

260. _Quod videas ante_--"Which you may have seen before."

263. _Hated house._ The poet hates the rule of the House of Lorraine, and prefers the days of the painter Orgagna, in the fourteenth century, when Italy was free.

273. _Tuscan._ The literary language of Italy and not given to superlatives such as are indicated by "_issimo_."

275. _Cambuscan:_ a reference to "The Squire's Tale," left unfinished by Chaucer.

276. _Alt to altissimo._ "High to highest."

277. _Beccaccia._ A woodcock.

281. _Shall I be alive._ According to Giotto's plan the tower was to have had a spire fifty braccia or cubits (about 95 feet) high. This spire has never been built.

[The end]
Robert Browning's poem: Old Pictures In Florence