Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is widely regarded as the quintessential cinematic study in perception. But ninety years earlier, Robert Browning found fodder for a similar study in the records of a real-life Italian murder trial. Knowing a good story when he saw one, Browning decided to turn it into a group of his famous dramatic monologues. The result is The Ring and the Book, a twelve-book epic that explores not only questions of truth and subjectivity but also of human depravity and the mercy of unflinching justice.
Certain facts of the case were never in dispute. In 1693, Guido Franceschini of Arezzo, an impoverished, middle-aged nobleman, married 13-year-old Pompilia Comparini, the only child and heir of an elderly upper-middle-class Roman couple. Accusations of abuse abounded from the beginning, worsened by the behavior of Pompilia’s… alleged parents. In truth, Violante Comparini had illegally adopted Pompilia, a prostitute’s daughter, and manufactured a miracle to trick her husband. Now they renounced the fraud and tried to reclaim Pompilia’s dowry, and lawsuit after lawsuit followed. Then, in 1697, Pompilia ran away with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. Guido claimed they were having an affair; both Pompilia and Caponsacchi denied it. The court sent Pompilia to a convent in Rome until her health failed a few months later, then allowed her to return to the Comparinis’ house. By December, however, the reason for Pompilia’s flight and breakdown became clear: she was pregnant. The Comparinis arranged for friends to hide the baby, fearing Guido’s reaction. And on the night of January 2, 1698, Guido and three accomplices broke into the Comparini villa, killed the Comparinis, and fatally wounded Pompilia. The attackers were arrested later that night, caught literally red-handed.
The story is thus less whodunit than whydunit. Guido pled that he’d acted within his rights as a husband to kill his unfaithful wife. But Caponsacchi still swore that Pompilia wasn’t unfaithful; she’d begged his help to escape her abusive marriage, he claimed, and Guido had framed them with forged love letters. And Pompilia lingered for four days, ample time to give her own deposition confirming Caponsacchi’s. The court therefore convicted Guido of capital murder. Then Guido played his trump card: he had taken minor clerical orders before his marriage and was entitled to appeal his case to the Pope.
Browning builds the story to this point in a series of monologues, each from a different perspective. Book I gives an account of his finding the court documents and an overview of the case, in which he admits his own biases but promises to give all sides and let the reader decide among them. Books II through IV showcase three schools of popular Roman opinion, one siding with Guido, one with Pompilia, and one attempting to stay neutral. Book V portrays Guido’s deposition, Book VI Caponsacchi’s, and Book VII Pompilia’s, and Books VIII and IX present fictionalized writs filed by Guido’s and Pompilia’s lawyers. With this circular structure, Browning highlights the idea that there is an objective truth to this matter, even if the he-said-she-said nature renders a straightforward approach impossible.
The climax of the poem is Book X, in which the Pope reviews the case. He admits that none of these narrators are reliable, but their testimony has revealed enough about their character for him to discern the truth. Thus, he acquits Pompilia of infidelity, praises Caponsacchi for his courage, and denounces everyone who failed to help Pompilia. He then confirms Guido’s death sentence because he sees no other way for Guido to understand his soul’s peril and repent. And in Book XI, once Guido’s alone with the friendly priests who’ve come to hear his last confession, his mask comes off, revealing the unrepentant sadistic psychopath beneath. Not only does Guido renounce his faith and confess to having hated Pompilia all along, he even rages against the idea of his son supplanting him.
Book XII returns to Browning’s point of view and presents both fictional and factual accounts of Guido’s execution and the fate of Pompilia’s son and estate. Among these, however, Browning includes a sermon on the Scripture verse “Let God be true and every man a liar.” This lesson allows him to conclude with an even broader moral: since no human narrator can be completely reliable, objective truth sometimes has to be told obliquely, especially through art. Precisely what truths Browning wants the reader to discern beyond the mere facts of the case are nowhere stated, but there are more than enough of them present to make the book worth many re-readings.