12 December 2019

Robert Browning – English poet

Writer who called Italy his ‘university’

Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about  a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Robert Browning pictured in 1888, about
 a year before he died in Venice,  aged 77
Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning died on this day in 1889 at his son’s home, Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Browning was considered one of the most important Victorian poets, who had made contributions to social and political debate through his work, and he was given the honour of being buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The poet’s early career had begun promisingly with his work being well received by the critics, but his long poem, Sordello, produced in 1840, was judged to be wilfully obscure and it was to take many years for his reputation to recover.

In 1846 Browning secretly married the poet, Elizabeth Barrett, who was six years older than him and had been living the life of an invalid in her father’s house in London. A few days later they went to live in Italy, leaving their families behind in England forever.

Elizabeth’s poetry became increasingly popular and after the death of Wordsworth in 1850 she was considered as a serious contender to become the next Poet Laureate. However, the position eventually went to Alfred Tennyson.

The Brownings lived in Pisa at first but then moved to Florence, where they lived in an apartment in a 15th century house, Casa Guidi, in the Oltrarno district.

A younger Robert Browning in a portraint by
 Italian painter Michele Gordigiani in 1858
Their only child, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, who they nicknamed Penini, or Pen, was born to them in 1849.

Browning became fascinated with the art and cultural environment of Italy and would in later life describe the country as his ‘University’.

While Elizabeth continued to write and achieved fame through her poetry, Browning’s own work was still being dismissed by other writers and critics.

While in Florence, Browning worked on the poems that would eventually comprise his two-volume Men and Women, for which he is now well known.

But in 1855 when they were first published they made little impact.

When Elizabeth’s health began to deteriorate, the Brownings moved to the Villa Alberti in Siena.

They moved to Rome in 1860, but when Elizabeth’s health became worse they returned to Florence. Elizabeth died in Browning’s arms in June 1861, aged 55. She was buried in a white marble tomb, designed by Frederic, Lord Leighton, in the protestant English Cemetery of Florence.

Now a widower, Browning returned to London with his 12-year-old son, Pen. Through years of hard work he gradually built up his reputation again and became part of the London literary scene.

A portrait of Robert Browning painted by his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
A portrait of Robert Browning painted by
his son, Pen, in aroud 1882
In 1868, after five years of intensive writing, he published The Ring and the Book, his most ambitious project,and considered by some to be his greatest work. The poem was a commercial and critical success and brought him the recognition he had long been hoping for.

In his later years, Browning travelled frequently to Italy, finding peace and inspiration in the small hilltop town of Asolo in the Veneto. However, he never visited Florence again.

After one last visit to Asolo in the summer of 1889, Browning, accompanied by his sister, Sarianna, travelled to Venice to visit Pen and his wife at the end of October.

Pen, who had by then become a successful painter, had recently bought and renovated Ca’ Rezzonico.

Browning would spend the mornings at the Lido, the afternoons visiting his friend, Katharine Bronson, at her residence Ca’ Alvisi, and the evenings at Ca’ Rezzonico with his family.

In December, Browning became unwell and was diagnosed with bronchitis and a weak heart.

On December 12 he received the news that his last volume of poetry, Asolando, had sold out on the same day it was published. Browning knew there was an advertisement for a new edition of Mrs Browning’s poetry on the back of the book.  He told his son he was ‘more than satisfied’ and died a few hours later. He was 77 years old.

The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
The elegant Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal
in Venice, which Browning's son, Pen, owned
A private funeral service was held in the sala (dining room) of Ca’ Rezzonico.

At the end of the service, eight pompieri (firemen) in blue uniforms and brass helmets, carried Browning’s body downstairs and on to a municipal barge, which conveyed the poet to the chapel on San Michele, the ‘isle of the dead’.

Two days later, Browning’s manservant escorted the coffin back to London by train.

On 31 December 1889, Browning was conveyed to Westminster Abbey along a route lined by thousands of people for a service, followed by an interment in Poets Corner, where he now lies surrounded by the great names of literature.

Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now been converted into a study centre
Casa Guidi in Florence, which has now
been converted into a study centre
Travel tip:

A plaque marks Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning in Piazza di San Felice in the Oltrarno district of Florence. The Brownings lived in the piano nobile apartment between 1847 and 1862. The New York Browning Society restored the apartment and then gave it to Eton College to be converted into a study centre. Casa Guidi is open to the public on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 3-6pm between April and November.

The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in the Veneto, which Browning made his home
The main square - Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi - at Asolo in
the Veneto, which Browning made his home
Travel tip:

Robert Browning’s beloved Asolo is a hilltop town in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It is known as ‘the pearl of the province of Treviso’ and also as ‘the city of a hundred horizons’ because of its beautiful views over the countryside and the mountains. Browning published Asolando, a volume of poetry written in the town, in 1889 just before his death. The main road leading into the town is named Via Browning in his honour. One of the main sights is the Castle of Caterina Cornaro, which now houses the Eleonora Duse Theatre.

Also on this day:

1685: The birth of composer Lodovico Giustini

1901: Guglielmo Marconi receives the first transatlantic radio signal

1957: The birth of author Susanna Tamaro

1969: The Piazza Fontana bombing kills 17


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