The Ring and the Book is generally conceded to be Robert Browning’s masterwork. It was inspired by what became known as The Old Yellow Book. Its depositions, written testimony for a murder trial in 1698 Rome, were covered in soiled, yellowing vellum. Browning came upon the collection of written testimony while browsing in the “flea market” of the Piazza di San Lorenzo on a June day in 1860. In the Piazza, “pushed by the hand ever above my shoulder,” his eye caught the volume, crowded among its insignificant neighbors. “One glance at the lettered back,” declares the poet, “and… a lira made it mine.” All the way home and all day long, he pored over these pages, until by nightfall he had mastered the facts of the case and the whole tragedy lay plain before his mind’s eye. No one knows how the once official Roman documents came to be in a stall in this Piazza in Florence two hundred sixty-two years after the trial ended.
Due to Elizabeth’s death and Browning’s return to England with Pen, he did not return to the Old Yellow Book until 1862. From that year to the publication of his artistic, poetic reinterpretation of the story and trial, (1868-69, in four installments), he worked almost continuously on what became the 21,000-line The Ring and the Book.
Daniel Karlin, an eminent Browning scholar, says this of the murders and the trial in a 2001 review of a new edition of The Ring and the Book:
Part 1: “In September 1693, Guido Franceschini, an improverished middle-aged count, originally from Arezzo in Tuscany but living in Rome in the retinue of a cardinal, married 14-year-old Pompilia, putative daughter of Pietro and Violante Comparini, a moderately wealthy middle-class couple. Shortly after the marriage, Guido, his wife and his parents-in-law moved from Rome to Arezzo. Subsequently the Comparini returned to Rome, claiming ill-treatment by Guido; Violante then publicly confessed that Pompilia was not really her child, but a prostitute’s whom she had passed off as hers to secure an inheritance in which Pietro held only a life-interest. The Comparini sued Guido for the return of the dowry; he counter-sued, claiming that the story of Pompilia’s illegitimacy was a fabrication. Meanwhile Pompilia, unhappy in Arezzo, eventually fled in the company of a priest who had befriended her, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido pursued the couple, caught up with them just before they reached Rome, and had them arrested. The subsequent hearing satisfied nobody. The charge of adultery was not sustained , but Caponsacchi was ‘relegated’ to Civita Vecchia for three years and Pompilia was placed in the care of a convent that also acted as a reformatory for fallen women. Guido was told to go home…
(Later), it was found that Pompilia was pregnant. She was released from the convent into the custody of her supposed parents, and a few weeks later bore Guido–or Caponsacchi–a son. This was in December 1697. On the night of January 2, 1698, Guido and four accomplices–farm workers from his Aretine estate–arrived at the Comparini house…claiming that they brought a letter from Caponsacchi… Once they entered the house…Guido killed Pietro and Violante and thought he had killed Pompilia, too, — she lay still after being repeatedly stabbed. As neighbors rushed to the scene, Guido and his accomplices fled…on foot because Guido had not…secured the necessary permit to hire horses in the city. The murderers…planning to escape Roman jurisdiction by going to Arezzo…covered twenty miles…before collapsing, exhausted…at an inn where the posse caught up with them. When the bewildered Guido asked how they knew who to look for and where to find him, and was told that his wife was still living, he fainted…Pompilia lived four more days — long enough for a death-bed confession and deposition.
At the subsequent trial Guido’s lawyers claimed that the murder of his wife was a matter of honor, and that Guido had acted under extreme provocation. Already maddened by his wife’s adultery and by the Comparini’s cynical chicanery, the birth of (according to Guido) Caponsacchi’s bastard had tipped the noble cuckold over the edge. The prosecution argued that Guido’s real and ignoble motive was money…(with the Comparini and Pompilia dead)…all the lawsuits would end and Guido as the legal father of the one remaining heir would walk away with the jackpot.
Guido was found guilty and condemned to death. But he had one card left to play — an appeal to the Pope, Innocent XII — on the grounds that he was in minor orders and subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. (It was thought that he would be let off)…but the Pope to everyone’s surprise confirmed the sentence and Guido, together with his four accomplices, was executed in February 1698.
Hodell, Charles W. Introduction to The Old Yellow Book: Source of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1911. Reprint, 1917.
Karlin, Danny (Daniel), Resurrection Man, Review of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, eds. Richard Altick and Thomas Collins. London Review of Books 24, no. 10 (23 May 2002) 13-16.
Part II will consider Browning’s use of the depositions in The Old Yellow Book: His poetic design, sections, etc.