‘Andrea del Sarto‘ by Robert Browning was published in the collection, Men and Women. It is written in the form of a dramatic monologue told from the perspective of the Italian Renaissance painter, Andrea del Sarto.
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Summary of Andrea del Sarto
The poem begins with the speaker, the artist Andrea del Sarto, asking his wife, Lucrezia, to come and sit with him for a moment without fighting. He wants the two of them to have a quiet moment together before he jumps into a reflection of his life. The speaker begins by describing the passage of time and the lack of control he feels he had over his life.
The speaker then spends the majority of the poem discussing how his skill level compares to the work of other artists. He knows that he has more skill than others such as Michelangelo or Raphael, but his art does not have the soul the others are able to tap into. Somehow they have been able to enter heaven and leave with inspiration that he never receives. The artist is disappointed by this fact as no one seems to value his own art the way he thinks they should.
At points, he tries to put most of the blame for his life onto his wife. He thinks that she is the one that has been holding him back. He points out the fact that the other artists don’t have the same impediment. He thinks about the time that he spent in France working for the king. There, he was applauded by the court but then forced back to Italy by his wife who was tired of the way things were.
By the end of the poem, he concludes that although his life has not been what he wanted he knows that he cannot change it. He is happy to have spent this time with his wife and says as much to her. This nice moment is interrupted by the arrival of Lucrezia’s cousin. This “cousin” is demanding money from del Sarto to help pay off gambling debts. He gives in to the request and tells his wife, solemnly and sadly, that she can go.
Analysis of Andrea del Sarto
But do not let us quarrel any more,
No, my Lucrezia; bear with me for once:
Sit down and all shall happen as you wish.
You turn your face, but does it bring your heart?
I’ll work then for your friend’s friend, never fear,
Treat his own subject after his own way,
Fix his own time, accept too his own price,
And shut the money into this small hand
When next it takes mine. Will it? tenderly?
Oh, I’ll content him,—but to-morrow, Love!
The speaker of this poem, Andrea del Sarto, begins the piece by addressing his wife. These two will be the predominant characters that feature in this poem and many parts of the monologue are clearly spoken to Lucrezia.
He asks her at the beginning of the poem if they can just have one moment in which they are not fighting or “quarrel[ing].” He hopes that she will listen to him for just this once as he has every intention of conceding to her wishes. Lucrezia turns her face towards the speaker but he does not believe that she is genuine. He asks her if she brought “her heart” to their conversation.
Del Sarto tells his wife that he is willing to do what she asked and pay or lend money to her “friend’s friend. It is unclear why the friend is in need of money but he promises to do it “to-morrow.”
I often am much wearier than you think,
This evening more than usual, and it seems
As if—forgive now—should you let me sit
Here by the window with your hand in mine
And look a half-hour forth on Fiesole,
Both of one mind, as married people use,
Quietly, quietly the evening through,
I might get up to-morrow to my work
Cheerful and fresh as ever. Let us try.
To-morrow, how you shall be glad for this!
He confesses to her at the beginning of this section, in an attempt to keep her full attention, that oftentimes he is much “wearier” than she might think, and especially so this evening.
To help remedy this weariness, del Sarto asks that Lucrezia come and sit by him, with her hand in his, and look out on “Fiesole,” a section of Florence, Italy. Together there thy will sit “quietly,” and maybe be able to refresh themselves for the next day.
Your soft hand is a woman of itself,
And mine the man’s bared breast she curls inside.
Don’t count the time lost, neither; you must serve
For each of the five pictures we require:
It saves a model. So! keep looking so—
My serpentining beauty, rounds on rounds!
—How could you ever prick those perfect ears,
Even to put the pearl there! oh, so sweet—
The speaker is deeply endeared by the feeling of his wife’s hand. He sees it as being a representation of her entire body that can curl inside his own, a representation of “the man’s bared breast.”
He is cherishing the way in which his wife appears to him at this moment. He sees her as being a “serpentining beauty” that will serve him as the model for “five pictures” that he is planning. He says that it will save them money that way and he would rather paint her anyway. She’s so perfect and pristine that he can’t imagine why she would ever even pierce her ear to wear earrings.
My face, my moon, my everybody’s moon,
Which everybody looks on and calls his,
And, I suppose, is looked on by in turn,
While she looks—no one’s: very dear, no less.
You smile? why, there’s my picture ready made,
There’s what we painters call our harmony!
A common greyness silvers everything,—
All in a twilight, you and I alike
—You, at the point of your first pride in me
(That’s gone you know),—but I, at every point;
My youth, my hope, my art, being all toned down
To yonder sober pleasant Fiesole.
He continues to lavish praise on his wife as he thinks about her image hanging in the homes of men that have purchased his work. Each of these men looks at the painting and considers it theirs but she does not belong to any of them.
The speaker seems to believe that Lucrezia is the ideal model for his work as he says that with one smile from her he is able to compose a whole painting. That is all the inspiration that he needs. She is what “painters call our harmony!” She is his muse.
He remembers a time when they were both new to one another when they first met. Initially, she was proud of who he was and what he was going to be, but he knows that is “gone.” Additionally, he says that back then he had his, “youth…hope…[and] art” that he was living through. All this has been “toned down” later in life as things did not turn out quite as he expected.
Lines 41- 51
There’s the bell clinking from the chapel-top;
That length of convent-wall across the way
Holds the trees safer, huddled more inside;
The last monk leaves the garden; days decrease,
And autumn grows, autumn in everything.
Eh? the whole seems to fall into a shape
As if I saw alike my work and self
And all that I was born to be and do,
A twilight-piece. Love, we are in God’s hand.
How strange now, looks the life he makes us lead;
So free we seem, so fettered fast we are!
From where the two are sitting overlooking Fiesole, he can hear the chiming or “clinking” of a bell “from the chapel-top” as well as observe the church and the “last monk” leaving the garden for the day.
The speaker then takes a moment here to ponder the way in which “we,” he and Lucrezia, as well as all of humankind, are in “God’s hand.” Time is passing, giving him the opportunity to look back on his life and see if he was able to accomplish what he wanted. He recognizes that the life God makes for “us” is both free and “fettered.”
I feel he laid the fetter: let it lie!
This chamber for example—turn your head—
All that’s behind us! You don’t understand
Nor care to understand about my art,
But you can hear at least when people speak:
And that cartoon, the second from the door
—It is the thing, Love! so such things should be—
Behold Madonna!—I am bold to say.
The speaker believes that God made a “fetter” for human life and let it do what it wanted to. At this point in the poem, the speaker begins to lament the career that he did not quite have.
He believes that all those throughout his life did not truly understand his art. They did not care to take the time to truly see it.
Del Sarto does mention an instance of happiness, that was more than likely reoccurring, as people commented from afar that his “cartoon,” or sketch for a painting, was just “the thing.” Many have felt “Love!” For his work, but just not to the extent that he feels he deserves.
I can do with my pencil what I know,
What I see, what at bottom of my heart
I wish for, if I ever wish so deep—
Do easily, too—when I say, perfectly,
I do not boast, perhaps: yourself are judge,
Who listened to the Legate’s talk last week,
And just as much they used to say in France.
At any rate ’tis easy, all of it!
The artist knows the skills that he possesses, and he can feel his own ability, coming from his heart, that allows him to create anything. It is easy for him to do “perfectly” what others struggle with.
He does interject here to say that he does not want to sound like he’s bragging, but “you,” meaning Lucrezia, know of “my” ability and the ease with which “I” create.
No sketches first, no studies, that’s long past:
I do what many dream of, all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
The speaker goes on, allowing himself a few more lines of self-indulgence saying that he has never needed to sketch or study a subject before he draws it.
He is able to do what many “strive to do, and agonize to do, / And fail in doing.” There are many such men in this town.
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine.
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,
Enter and take their place there sure enough,
Though they come back and cannot tell the world.
My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.
While these men may envy the ease with which he creates perfect paintings, he does not have something that they do. They have in them a true light of God that exists in their “vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain.” These men are blessed by God but also suffer for his gifts.
Del Sarto goes back to speaking about himself, using an insult that is often cast his way. He calls his own hand that of a “craftsman” that does not create with heart, only with skill. His art and his mind are “shut” out of heaven where the other men are readily entering and exiting with the subjects they paint. He can get close to heaven, but not quite all the way.
The sudden blood of these men! at a word—
Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too.
I, painting from myself and to myself,
Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame
Or their praise either. Somebody remarks
Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,
His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,
Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
The speaker has now worked himself into a serious frustration at the state of his own artistic ability. He is trying to find flaws in “these men” that are able to tap into the divine subject matter. While del Sarto sees himself as being even-tempered, “these men” are easy to upset and quick to cast blame on others.
Whenever someone comments on his work and critiques his efforts he thinks, “what of that?” He doesn’t care if he is criticized for how something is drawn because he knows his own skill.
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
“Had I been two, another and myself,
“Our head would have o’erlooked the world!” No doubt.
Yonder’s a work now, of that famous youth
The Urbinate who died five years ago.
(‘Tis copied, George Vasari sent it me.)
All this being said, the speaker knows that a man should reach for things that might seem unattainable. He looks at his own work and sees how it is perfectly one thing. It is “Placid” in a way that bothers him.
Even though he is able to see what he wants to create, he is unable to imbue his art with the soul that other’s works have. He knows that if he had been “two” different people in one body, himself, and someone with the skill of Michelangelo, he would have conquered the world of art.
From where the speaker is sitting he references a piece of art across the room. This line drags the audience back into the physical room with del Sarto and Lucrezia. The piece that he is referencing was sent to him by “George Vasari,” the famous Italian biographer of artists and their works.
Well, I can fancy how he did it all,
Pouring his soul, with kings and popes to see,
Reaching, that heaven might so replenish him,
Above and through his art—for it gives way;
That arm is wrongly put—and there again—
A fault to pardon in the drawing’s lines,
Its body, so to speak: its soul is right,
He means right—that, a child may understand.
This particular piece is easy for the speaker to break down. He knows how it was painted and how the artist “Pour[ed] his soul” into the art for “kings and popes to see.”
The art may be beautiful in its conception but del Sarto, with his eye for detail, can see that the “arm is wrongly put” and that there are faults in the “drawing’s lines.” These details are excused by other viewers as it’s “soul is right.” All may understand that, even a child.
Still, what an arm! and I could alter it:
But all the play, the insight and the stretch—
(Out of me, out of me! And wherefore out?
Had you enjoined them on me, given me soul,
We might have risen to Rafael, I and you!
Nay, Love, you did give all I asked, I think—
More than I merit, yes, by many times.
But had you—oh, with the same perfect brow,
And perfect eyes, and more than perfect mouth,
And the low voice my soul hears, as a bird
The fowler’s pipe, and follows to the snare —
Had you, with these the same, but brought a mind!
Even del Sarto understands that even if the arm is not quite right, it is still beautiful. He knows that with his skill he could fix it.
Once more he bemoans the fact that he was not given the soul to rise above everyone else. He could have even surpassed “Rafael.” He refers to himself and Lucrezia as rising together through the ranks of the art world and that if she with all of her perfections of physical beauty, only brought with her a mind that might have improved del Sarto’s life. He is casting part of his disappointment in himself onto her.
Some women do so. Had the mouth there urged
“God and the glory! never care for gain.
“The present by the future, what is that?
“Live for fame, side by side with Agnolo!
“Rafael is waiting: up to God, all three!”
I might have done it for you. So it seems:
Perhaps not. All is as God over-rules.
Beside, incentives come from the soul’s self;
The rest avail not. Why do I need you?
What wife had Rafael, or has Agnolo?
Some women, the speaker states, do bring brains with them into their marriages. Why, he thinks, didn’t his wife? The next lines of the poem are what the speaker wishes his wife had said to him throughout his life.
If she had really wanted to help his career and further his art she would have told him that he should give all glory to God without caring for “gain.” He should be attempting to raise himself to the status of “Agnolo,” meaning Michelangelo, or climb up to where “Rafael,” or Raphael, is.
If she had said this he might have done it for her. Or, he says, maybe it wouldn’t have worked that way because God controls everything. He changes his tone here and says that it was not her fault for not speaking up to him. Instead, he should never have had a wife in the first place, like Michelangelo and Raphael.
In this world, who can do a thing, will not;
And who would do it, cannot, I perceive:
Yet the will’s somewhat—somewhat, too, the power—
And thus we half-men struggle. At the end,
God, I conclude, compensates, punishes.
‘Tis safer for me, if the award be strict,
That I am something underrated here,
Poor this long while, despised, to speak the truth.
I dared not, do you know, leave home all day,
For fear of chancing on the Paris lords.
The best is when they pass and look aside;
But they speak sometimes; I must bear it all.
In the world in which they are living, the speaker says that the men who want to do something are unable to, and the men who can do it, won’t. This is frustrating to him and to all the “half-men” that are only blessed with half the talent they need.
He decides that it is safer for him to have been given the life he has as he was not fit for one in which he has to speak with the “Paris lords.” He claims to like it when they ignore him.
Lines 149- 161
Well may they speak! That Francis, that first time,
And that long festal year at Fontainebleau!
I surely then could sometimes leave the ground,
Put on the glory, Rafael’s daily wear,
In that humane great monarch’s golden look,—
One finger in his beard or twisted curl
Over his mouth’s good mark that made the smile,
One arm about my shoulder, round my neck,
The jingle of his gold chain in my ear,
I painting proudly with his breath on me,
All his court round him, seeing with his eyes,
Such frank French eyes, and such a fire of souls
Profuse, my hand kept plying by those hearts,—
In this stanza, the speaker is slightly standing up against those that talk about him unkindly. He is remembering when he worked for the king of France, Francis, and was at Fontainebleau for a year.
It was here that he had confidence and could put on the clothes, or stature of Raphael. This was caused by his closeness with the king. He remembers how Francis’ clothes sounded when he walked and how he stood over his shoulder as the speaker painted. When he had this position he was admired by the French court and with his paint, he could influence them and gain confidence from their looks.
Lines 162- 171
And, best of all, this, this, this face beyond,
This in the background, waiting on my work,
To crown the issue with a last reward!
A good time, was it not, my kingly days?
And had you not grown restless… but I know—
‘Tis done and past: ’twas right, my instinct said:
Too live the life grew, golden and not grey,
And I’m the weak-eyed bat no sun should tempt
Out of the grange whose four walls make his world.
How could it end in any other way?
One more he speaks directly to his wife. He remembers that in those days the best thing of all was her face waiting for him, approving of his work. He asks her if these days were not “kingly,” and says that it is her fault, “had [she] not grown restless…” and made him leave, his future might have been brighter.
But, he concedes, what’s “done” is done. At this point in his life, he is but a “weak-eyed bat” that cannot be tempted out of his routine and “four walls.” He despondently concludes this section by saying that it could not have ended any other way.
You called me, and I came home to your heart.
The triumph was—to reach and stay there; since
I reached it ere the triumph, what is lost?
Let my hands frame your face in your hair’s gold,
You beautiful Lucrezia that are mine!
“Rafael did this, Andrea painted that;
“The Roman’s is the better when you pray,
“But still the other’s Virgin was his wife—”
Men will excuse me. I am glad to judge
Both pictures in your presence; clearer grows
My better fortune, I resolve to think.
It appears as if Lucrezia, bored with their situation in France, had asked him to come home and so he did.
He reaches his hands up to “frame” her face and golden hair and comforts himself by remembering that she is his. He “resolve[s] to think” that ending up with her, rather than painting something lasting, was his “better fortune.”
For, do you know, Lucrezia, as God lives,
Said one day Agnolo, his very self,
To Rafael . . . I have known it all these years . . .
(When the young man was flaming out his thoughts
Upon a palace-wall for Rome to see,
Too lifted up in heart because of it)
“Friend, there’s a certain sorry little scrub
“Goes up and down our Florence, none cares how,
“Who, were he set to plan and execute
“As you are, pricked on by your popes and kings,
“Would bring the sweat into that brow of yours!”
Andrea del Sarto continues to speak to his wife, Lucrezia, imploring her to understand the daily trauma he goes through as he thinks about his place amongst the great artists.
He imagines a conversation between the two great Renaissance masters, Raphael and Michelangelo. He likes to think of Michelangelo saying to Raphael, as he paints in Rome, that there is another artist that works in “our Florence” and is not acknowledged. This man, if he were to be given the same commissions that “you,” meaning Raphael, were given, then he would give you serious competition. In an effort to retain his place as one of the greatest painters of all time, Raphael would have “sweat” on his “brow.”
This is of course a completely imagined conversation that del Sarto thinks up as he dreams of what he wishes people thought of him.
Lines 194- 204
To Rafael’s!—And indeed the arm is wrong.
I hardly dare . . . yet, only you to see,
Give the chalk here—quick, thus, the line should go!
Ay, but the soul! he’s Rafael! rub it out!
Still, all I care for, if he spoke the truth,
(What he? why, who but Michel Agnolo?
Do you forget already words like those?)
If really there was such a chance, so lost,—
Is, whether you’re—not grateful—but more pleased.
Well, let me think so. And you smile indeed!
This hour has been an hour! Another smile?
In a torrent of emotion, contrary to how he portrayed himself previously, del Sarto turns to the Raphael copy that Vasari gave him and begins to make adjustments. He makes lines here and there, hoping to fix the arm, but then backtracks. He does not want to destroy the “soul” of the painting. “He’s Rafael!” Anything that del Sarto does to the painting will seem trite in comparison.
The speaker, now relaxed again, thinks once more about this imagined opportunity to have the same type of commissions that Raphael received. He dreams if only “really there was such a chance.” He hopes that if this had been the case, Lucrezia would have been proud of him. Already an hour has passed during this conversation and he sees it as being a productive one.
Lines 205- 213
If you would sit thus by me every night
I should work better, do you comprehend?
I mean that I should earn more, give you more.
See, it is settled dusk now; there’s a star;
Morello’s gone, the watch-lights show the wall,
The cue-owls speak the name we call them by.
Come from the window, love,—come in, at last,
Inside the melancholy little house
We built to be so gay with. God is just.
He tells her that if only she would take the time to sit with him every night, that he would work “better.” He would create better work, but he would also be able to take better care of her and give her more.
The sun has set and it has “settled dusk now.” There is a star in the sky and the owls are hooting around them. He tells her to come away from the window and deeper into their “melancholy little house.”
King Francis may forgive me: oft at nights
When I look up from painting, eyes tired out,
The walls become illumined, brick from brick
Distinct, instead of mortar, fierce bright gold,
That gold of his I did cement them with!
Let us but love each other. Must you go?
That Cousin here again? he waits outside?
Must see you—you, and not with me? Those loans?
More gaming debts to pay? you smiled for that?
Well, let smiles buy me! have you more to spend?
As the speaker is pondering how the king of France now regards him, he is staring around the room imagining the house transformed into a palace. His daydream is interrupted by the appearance of his wife’s “Cousin” who is waiting for her outside. He does not want her to go, especially since the cousin is demanding money to pay off his gambling debts.
He believes that she treated him kindly over the last hour in an attempt to get the money that her cousin needs.
While hand and eye and something of a heart
Are left me, work’s my ware, and what’s it worth?
I’ll pay my fancy. Only let me sit
The grey remainder of the evening out,
Idle, you call it, and muse perfectly
How I could paint, were I but back in France,
One picture, just one more—the Virgin’s face,
Not yours this time! I want you at my side
To hear them—that is, Michel Agnolo—
Judge all I do and tell you of its worth.
Will you? To-morrow, satisfy your friend.
Del Sarto feels a new pang of loss as his wife is leaving him that night. He knows that he still has his work and “some of a heart,” left but “what,” he asks, is “it worth?”
He agrees to pay the money but only if he can be let alone to brood through the rest of the evening. He thinks that if he could only paint one more picture, it would depict the “Virgin’s face,” and not this time modeled after Lucrezia. He wants her there beside him, not in the picture. He wants to prove himself and have her hear all the wonderful things that the others will say about him.
But this is all tomorrow. For now, he tells her she can, “satisfy” her friend.
Lines 235- 243
I take the subjects for his corridor,
Finish the portrait out of hand—there, there,
And throw him in another thing or two
If he demurs; the whole should prove enough
To pay for this same Cousin’s freak. Beside,
What’s better and what’s all I care about,
Get you the thirteen scudi for the ruff!
Love, does that please you? Ah, but what does he,
The Cousin! what does he to please you more?
In this stanza, it becomes clear that the relationship between the cousin and Lucrezia might be romantic. The speaker seems to understand this but knows that he cannot do anything to stop her. He gives her the “thirteen scudi” to pass on to the man, or “ruff” as he calls him.
He asks if this amount pleases her and then asks what exactly the “cousin” does to please her more. He does not expect an answer to this question.
I am grown peaceful as old age to-night.
I regret little, I would change still less.
Since there my past life lies, why alter it?
The very wrong to Francis!—it is true
I took his coin, was tempted and complied,
And built this house and sinned, and all is said.
My father and my mother died of want.
Well, had I riches of my own? you see
How one gets rich! Let each one bear his lot.
The last section of the poem breaks into one more long stanza. At the end of this night as he is looking back on his life he claims to “regret little,” and desire to “change still less.” It is hard to believe this assertion as he has spent the entire poem talking about how he wishes his life had been different.
He does know though that there is no way that he can alter his “past life.” He declares that the time he spent in France with King Francis was wrong. That he never should have taken “his coin.” He may have been able to amass a bit of money off the king’s patronage, but he still was never happy.
They were born poor, lived poor, and poor they died:
And I have laboured somewhat in my time
And not been paid profusely. Some good son
Paint my two hundred pictures—let him try!
No doubt, there’s something strikes a balance. Yes,
You loved me quite enough. it seems to-night.
This must suffice me here. What would one have?
In heaven, perhaps, new chances, one more chance—
Four great walls in the New Jerusalem,
Meted on each side by the angel’s reed,
For Leonard, Rafael, Agnolo and me
To cover—the three first without a wife,
While I have mine! So—still they overcome
Because there’s still Lucrezia,—as I choose.
Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my Love.
The last section of the poem concludes on a very solemn and self-pitying note with the speaker relating his own life to that of his parents. They were “born poor, lived poor, and poor they died.”
The speaker knows that he has “laboured” in his days on the earth and that he has not been paid well for it. He questions whether he has been a good son to his parents and knows that other “good sons” would not have been able to paint the “two hundred pictures” that he did.
Once more he turns to Lucrezia and tells her that, yes, “You loved me quite enough,” tonight. He must be happy with what he has received from her, and from life itself. He thinks that maybe he will have a new chance at success in heaven, but still, he will have his wife. When Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael get to heaven, they will not be married, but he will.
He concludes the poem with this reiteration, and misdirection of blame onto his wife. He tells her afterward that now she may go as her “Cousin” is whistling at her.
About Robert Browning
Robert Browning was born in Camberwell, London in May of 1812. His father was able to accumulate a large library containing around 6,000 books. This would form the basis of Browning’s early education and stimulate his interest in literature.
From early in his life Browning’s family supported his poetic aspirations and helped him financially as well as with the publishing of his first works. He lived with his family until he met and married the fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett. Elizabeth and Robert moved to live in Florence, Italy. They had a son in 1849 and Browning’s rate of production dropped off significantly. Elizabeth, now known by her married name, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, died in 1861. After this, Browning and his son moved back to England.
After receiving mixed reviews from critics when he was young, Browning finally gained some critical acclaim when he was in his 50s. His greatest work, The Ring and the Book, was published in 1868-69.
Before Browning’s death in 1889 in Venice, he lived to see the formation of the Browning Society and received an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Balliol College at Oxford University. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.