Clasped Hands of Elizabeth and Robert Browning

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An encounter in Rome in 1853 between the Brownings and the American sculptor Harriet Hosmer resulted in a life-long friendship and in this plaster cast of the poets’ hands, a year after Hosmer had become apprenticed to the English John Gibson in Rome. The Brownings had married in secret in London in 1846 and eloped to Italy, where they settled in Florence. The life-casting of their hands, subsequently joined into one compact piece, is a peculiar artwork, metonymic, truncated, indexical. The imprint of Elizabeth’s aging nails, thin veins, and atrophied right hand resting in Robert’s larger, firmer hand conveys the texture of skin and bone structure, giving the modern spectator a sense of being unusually close to the two long-dead poets: Elizabeth was 47 years old, Robert 41, when the casts were taken, and the eeriness of these hands, detached from their respective bodies, make us wonder about the purpose of this piece of sculpture.

Were Hosmer’s Clasped Hands intended for private or for public use? Are we looking at a piece of scientific documentation or at a sentimental object of an intimate nature? What kinds of touch do these two hands symbolize? Friendly and collegial touch? Erotic touch? The embodied presence of the clasped hands leaves a trace of one upon the other, as the duality of human touch involves both touching and being touched. The synecdochic hands evoke the Brownings’ shared professional lives as poets, while the scalloped sleeve suggests femininity and the plain cuff masculinity. Since Roman times, the socalled ‘fede ring’ (from the Italian ‘mani in fede’, ‘hands in trust’) of two hands clasping, had served as European betrothal or wedding rings. Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s fede rings of 1805 may provide an example of an iconography which may have inspired Hosmer. Mutual strength, inseparability––in life, in death––are some of the messages conveyed by Hosmer’s double portrait which invites us to consider whether the hand or the face best sums up the individual.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date12 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2023

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - Elizabeth Barret Browning, Robert Browning, Harriet Hosmer, sculpture, body casts, memorial, love

ID: 362060069