Persons in “The Ring and the Book” According to Historical Sources

Browning used as his sources The Old Yellow Book and an alternate version of the murder story labelled by scholars the “Secondary Source.” Beatrice Corrigan, in her Curious Annals: New Documents Relating to Browning’s Roman Murder Story, publishes documents from a codex she found in Biblioteca del Commune in Cortona in 1940, containing about twice as much material on the Comparini-Franceschini disputations as The Old Yellow Book. After examining all the versions, she gives her conclusions concerning the characters of the participants in the introduction to Curious Annals, pointing out specific differences between the Guido and Pompilia of Browning and of the records. Her conclusions are as follows:

Guido — Guido seems to have been not so much the craftily intelligent and intriguing man which Browning describes as a bungling and ill-fated man of perhaps limited intelligence. Guido was very devoted to his elder brother Paolo, who was secretary to Cardinal Luria, a distinguished prelate and favored for the papacy, and Guido seems always to have taken his brother’s advice. Miss Corrigan comments that in Guido’s known history we seem him taking action only three times, in his approach to someone who could help him with the wedding arrangements, in his pursuit of the escaping couple, and in th emurder, and that his mother and brother probably urged him to all three actions. At any rate, Guido came to Rome like his brother, and obtained a position with a distinguished Cardinal Nerli, but did not have the ability to keep it. Since his hope of a Roman career was diminished, his only alternative was to seek fortune in marriage. Of all of the four Franceschini brothers only Guido had not taken higher orders and was therefore free to marry, so upon him alone rested the obligation of continuing the Franceschini like. In perhaps a typically petty action Guido asked a Roman wig-maker to undertake a marriage negotiation for him, then cheated her out of her small commission. He also painted an over-glowing picture of his possessions in his statement to Pietro, in which even pending lawsuits were counted as assets. Yet before the first marriage contract Pietro was able to discover that the Franceschini home was owned, not by Guido, but by his two elder brothers, Paolo and Girolamo. Pietro seems to have signed the contract under few delusions, but to have done so in order to free himself from an entail on his property which would only release it to him upon the birth of a son or the marriage of a daughter. He even permitted Guido to use the proceeds of five bonds for wedding expenses, a provision perhaps indicating that the Comparini were aware of Guido’s poverty. Browning, following certain pamphleteers, claims that the marriage was performed without Pietro’s consent; this is probably false, since Pietro signed the documents the preceding month. Guido was 36 or 37 years old at the time of his marriage, not 47, the age which Browning uses.

Much of the difficulty in Arezzo was caused by conflicts between Violante Comparini and Guido’s mother, and by his brothers’ scorn for Pietro’s “low” habits. A maid later testified that the Franceschini family, especially the mother and Girolamo, behaved with violence and pettiness, but since the brothers rather than Guido owned the house, they could not be forced to leave. After Pompilia's escape and Caponsacchi's banishment to Civita Vecchia on a charge of adultery, Pompilia brought a suit for separation, the success of which would take her dowry from the Franceschini family. Also there were several other cases pending in court between the two families--the Comparini claim that Pompilia was not their daughter, Pompilia's counter suit to keep her property, a Franceschini suit in Arezzo against Pompilia, etc. Furthermore Pompelia had thus far remained barren, frustrating their hope for heirs.

Guido felt the public ridicule of his position as deceived husband very galling; according to established codes for the nobility he should already have avenged himself on both wife and lover. He had failed completely in both career and marriage, and had sunk his family into even greater distress than their original poverty. He obtained one favorable verdict in Florence against Guillichini (who helped Pompilia and Caponsacchi flee) and Pompilia, but since Guillichini had fled and Pompilia's judgment was suspended, the suit had no practical results. Guido left Arezzo, unable to endure his fellow townsmen's mockery. Paolo suffered greatly in Rome, being forced to resign from his position with the knights of Malta, and being accused both of avarice and of the cowardice of his brother. In bad health and nearly on the edge of suicide, he sold his property, gave up his almost brilliant Roman career, and fled the city, perhaps leaving Guido as parting instructions a command to clear the family name from dishonor. Before he left he had Pompilia removed from the convent to her parents' home, a suspicious detail. Guido waited for a long time; Ms. Corrigan suggests that perhaps not only Paolo's instructions but Pompilia's giving birth to a child he refused to believe was his own were needed to goad him to action.

Three accounts of the story say that Guido watched outside the Comparini house until a benefactor of the Comparinit family entered, but it is not known who this benefactor was or how he could have escaped. Guido as usual blundered in the murder, leaving Pompilia alive and speaking the name of his destination in her hearing. Also he had refused to pay his accomplices their full salary, although he had contracted for them at a bargain rate. He should instead have paid them and bade them disperse, to better elude pursuit, as bands of armed men were illegal in Rome. Also, he had forgotten to secure a permit to hire horses, and his leaving of Pompilia as witness caused him to be pursued before he arrived home. Guido would proabably have been freed by the courts if he had not waited so long to commit uxoricide, as vengeance was only permitted if taken immediately, and if there had not been several aggravating circumstances attending the murder -- banding of armed men, illegal use of lanterns, etc.

Guido spent his last hours in great piousness, leaving masses for the souls of those he had murdered, and saying that he hoped to be reunited with Pompilia in heaven, as no one could take her from him there He was deeply grieved over the destitution of his family and over Paolo's distresses, and even left money to a prison-spy who was kind to him. His comforters seemed to sympathize with him and feel he had been a victim of a plot against his honor; also he seems to have been surprised and hurt by his sentence, saying, "Then because I defended and repaired my honour must I die in this manner?" (Curious Annals, 93). Paolo went to Spain hoping to secure a pension, and his letters reveal great bitterness over the harshness of his brother's death. The Franceschini family no longer existed in Arezzo by 1775.

Pompilia — The letters claimed to be by Pompilia were probably not forged. She did form a friendship with Caponsacchi, under whose guidance she read amorous novels, and even received a volume of indecent verses from him, for which she reproved him but continued the friendship. She and Caponsacchi adopted the names Amarillo and Mirtillo for their secret correspondence, after persons from Guarini’s Il pastor fido, a sadly prophetic tale in which a wide is caught in a compromising situation and killed for adultery. Often the lovers talked through the window, causing Guido to be justifiably jealous. Pompilia’s letters at the time berate her husband for his jealousy but not for cruelty. Pompilia’s sudden flight may have had several causes; she had newly discovered she was pregnant and feared to tell Guido, and also according to Caponsacchi’s testimony one of their letters had recently been discovered by Guido. However it is also true that Pompilia may have planned to go to Rome with another friend, a young man related to both the Caponsacchi and Franceschini families, as she tells her parents this in a letter. Yet in her testimony Pompilia says she asked Caponsacchi to take her to Rome by calling him into her house; he testifies that she solicited him by letters. At any rate, her story and Caponsacchi’s disagree at a considerable number of points. Before escaping she stole not only property she might have considered her own but also, strangely, one of her husband’s suits. Two courts rendered decisions against her for adultery, and in her deposition she mentions interviews with Caponsacchi during her husband’s absence. The Comparinis aided her in trying to keep the birth of her son a secret from Guido. Those who testified to her innocence at the trial after her death were heirs who would have lost her estate if she were presumed guilty, or those procured by them to testify. Also the mysterious “benefactor” may have been her residual legate and guardian of her son upon the court. On her deathbed Pompilia affirm her innocence; still according to contemporary interpretation, anyone who had confessed and received absolution was technically innocent. Also she may have possibly been protecting her son’s right both to her property and to an honest name after her death by refraining from giving testimony against herself.

            Thus the actions of the Guido of the historical sources may have been somewhat less premeditatedly villainous, and Pompilia’s actions more ambiguous, than those of Browning’s characters of the same name in “The Ring and the Book”.

Lucretia Borgia — The Guido of “The Ring and the Book” apostrophized Lucrezia as a supremely evil woman. Like many legends concerning “monsters of iniquity”, that which has grown up around Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) is probably false. Will Durant devotes a chapter of his volume, The Renaissance, to the Borgias, in which he asserts that there is no evidence of the incest and other crimes attributed to Lucrezia. She was the daughter of Alexander VI, a much hated pope partially because of his Spanish background and his keeping of only Spanish advisors at his court. Also he permitted his children to live at the Vatican with him, whereas as most popes of the time, also with children, called them “nephews” and had them live nearby. Alexander was also hated for very assiduously selling church benefices. Lucretia had the ill fortune to have as her brother Ceasar Borgia, who after her first marriage was annulled due to her husband’s impotence, killed her second husband, Envoys from a third prospective husband, the heir of the Duke of Ferrara, reported her to be both intelligent and gracious. “Besides being extremely graceful in every way,” they reported, “she is modest, lovable, and decorous.” She married the Duke of Ferrara and they seem to have lived together happily, while she was loved by the people of Ferrara as a model of virtue, and is also said to have written poetry in several languages. She bore six children to her husband and died in childbirth after delivering a seventh child stillborn, at age thirty-nine.


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