Michael’s Musings: There She Stands As If Alive

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive. I call

That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said

“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps

Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy. She had

A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace—all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked

Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech—which I have not—to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,

Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—

E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master’s known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretense

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!



Robert Browning’s dark poem considers the portrait of a deceased woman through the eyes of her widower, Duke Ferrara – a rather sinister fellow as excruciatingly sensitive to the artist’s skill as he was to his late wife’s coquettishness. Over a hundred and seventy years on, the painting’s subject continues to stir lively debate among art and literary scholars, though is thought by most to be painter Broninzo’s rendering of Lucrezia de’ Medici, infamous scion of the family almost single-handedly responsible for bankrolling the Italian Renaissance. True or not, from the Duke’s enraptured and equivocal description we may, I think, rightly assume the style to be at least from de’ Medici’s time, when, awakened to the possibilities exhilarating new techniques, artists strove for a realism unprecedented in the history of two-dimensional representation.


But it needn’t have been.


Pareidolia: the deeply ingrained tendency of the human brain to see meaningful patterns where they are, at best, only dubiously in evidence – compels us to see the face of a coy noblewoman in the meticulous brushstrokes of a Renaissance portrait as readily as the profile of an anonymous fisherman in the deliberately skewed lines of a Picasso. Or a woebegone face in the trunk of a twilit oak.


How appropriate an infant’s first experience of faces is the mother – if not her surrogate. The sheer range and ever-shifting subtleties of expression we mature into recognizing from the body language of our first caregivers is astounding. We live or die by our ability to read the temperature, so to speak, of those on whom we rely for sustenance and protection, allowing us to shape the manifestation of our needs in such a way as to dovetail with reality – as best we’re able.


Uniquely perceptive infants, as defined by psychologist Alice Miller in her book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” hone in and identify the emotional state of guardians particularly exasperated by the demands of parenthood and, as a result, suppress their own needs in order to avoid aggravating an already precarious situation. If hearing her baby cry in the middle of the night sets the mother on a downward spiral of frightening histrionics, the baby quickly learns not to cry; an extreme example, one hopes, but indicative of the human’s mind instinctive capacity to read a room – even from the earliest stirrings of awareness.


Which is to say, imperfect and incomplete though our alignment to reality may be, it works. Mostly. Only natural, then, that we take such a time-tested survival strategy with us into adolescence and beyond.


I’m not suggesting that ghosts are reducible to our baked-in propensity for pattern-recognition, but it would be surprising were there not someconnection.


Think about it: to look at a painting and exclaim, “There she stands, as if alive…” Alive! Pigment, line and shading on stretched canvass – alive! The various components in their raw form bear no resemblance to the finished product, and yet, under the sure hand of an artist at the height of his powers – and our own aptitude for seeing the world through the prism of experience – a two-dimensional configuration becomes infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Having recently enjoyed a tour through the Louvre, I can tell you: truly masterful paintings look like they’re breathing, undulating, following you with their eyes. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of three-dimensionalrepresentation. I’m not sure I could spend the night alone among the volley of Greek and Roman sculptures – I’d see movement with every turn of my head.


Though full-bodied apparitions are said to be rare, perhaps spirits, divorced from the most vital component of human expression – the body – must rely on pareidoliato make an impression. True, we might create them from whole cloth, as skeptics are quick to argue, but… we might just as well perceive ghosts through some delicate mixture of subjective experience and bare fact; which is to say perhaps they doexist and must somehow manipulate the quirks of human perception to be seen – the same quirks a painter exploits to convince us we see the face of Lucrezia de’ Medici in a collection of brushstrokes.

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