Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and the Myth of Italy in Victorian England, at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Roma, until June 12

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia (1864-8), Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia (1864-8), Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, e il mito dell’Italia nell’Inghilterra Vittoriana. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (Rome) until June 12.

The Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna follows up a Burne-Jones retrospective it hosted twenty-five years ago with a hundred pre-Raphaelite works illustrating the influence of Italian art on Victorian England.

Formed in London in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, like the Impressionists, felt challenged by photography and the emerging science of color. Whereas the Impressionists took to the fields, the Pre-Raphaelites closed themselves in a private, inner world of nostalgia. They staunchly opposed the academy as they strove to recapture pre-Renaissance ethical sensibilities, assimilating and re-expressing them in the language of modernity. They rejected Raphael because he forsook the truth for ideal beauty. They concluded that the only way forward was to go backward and construct a new grammar with elements of Gothicism, Romanticism, and Classicism, recapturing a Gefühl for nature to counter the devastating effects of “progress” on rural and artisanal life.

The first stanza features chromolithographs produced in mass quantity by the Arundel Society to satisfy the gusto dei primitivi sweeping across Britain and Europe. The new chromolithographic technique restored the splendorous color of original works and gave them a formal, didactic simplicity. Among the more impressive examples are F. E. Schaffer’s Pieta in the Arena Chapel, V. Brook’s Giotto Chapel, W. Greve’s Fra Angelico frescoes in San Marco, F. Frick’s Angels from a fresco by Bonozzo Gozzoli, and Storch and Kramer’s Madonna and Child of Lippi. These were more than “reproductions” as they required an imaginative reconstitution of the worn faces and faded lines of the originals. They were accompanied by explanatory texts that served as a sort of textbook for the common reader, but they also promoted the preservation of these masterpieces and the public’s familiarity with them.

The initial interest in these chromolithographs stems from a massive tide of Italian art that flowed into England during and after the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Aristocrats, collectors, and archbishops were desperately trying to save their collections by sending them to London, a city hardly prepared to deal with the influx since the National Gallery had not yet opened. This resulted in an international market boon and fueled a frenzy for Italian art in Britain.

Even more influential on the Pre-Raphaelites, however, were the Nazarenes: the Viennese monk-artists who settled in Rome in 1810 to cultivate the religious pietas of the primitivi. Charles L. Eastlake, who would eventually become Director of the National Gallery, promoted the Nazarenes, as did Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s teacher Ford Madow Brown. The Pre-Raphaelites inherited from the Nazarenes a penchant for medieval themes, sharp detail, pure colors, and a prosaic approach to great subjects in poetry, history, and religion. They also fed their souls with verses from Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson, not to mention Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.

Figuring large in this show is Edward Burne-Jones, who encountered Italian art through Rossetti and, like he, was a devotee of Ruskin. Unlike Rossetti, who had never travelled to Italy, Burne-Jones made several pilgrimages to the peninsula. The fruits of his first visit can be seen in Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (1861). Before his transition into symbolism, Burne-Jones was intent on capturing Botticelli’s palette and compositional sophistication to achieve highly stylized figures. His themes particularly come from Nordic mythology and medieval legends which he reassembled in strange and ambiguous ways, leaving the interpretation to the taste of the viewer. It is hard to decide whether this strengthened or weakened his ability to convey a pictorial message. In any case, the ambiguity grew as he finally entered the world of symbolist poetics. His later work shows a strong influence of Michelangelo and especially the Sistine Chapel frescoes which he studied during visits in 1871 and 1873. Among the more prominent works by Burne-Jones on display are Pan and Psyche (1872-74), a series of preparatory drawings for windows depicting Saint George, Saint Michael, and the Allegories, Studies for the Masque of Cupid (1872), and two marvelous tapestries of linen, silk, wool, and gold thread made in collaboration with William Morris (Romaunt of Rose Ponders the Statues of the Vices (1874-1882)) and Romaunt of Rose: A Pilgrim in the Garden of Leisure with the Dance of Virtues (1874-1882)).

Edward Burne-Jones, Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi (1861), Tate, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lucrezia Borgia (1860-1), Tate, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lucrezia Borgia (1860-1), Tate, London.

Burne-Jones remained a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti until a falling out, partly over Ruskin’s criticism of Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia (1864-1868). Rossetti’s extravagance and Burne-Jones symbolism continued to propel London toward aestheticism. Rossetti, wishing to combine Raphael’s skill, Titian’s color, and Da Vinci’s mysteriousness, revisited sixteenth-century portraiture only to reinvent it. His interest in tragic femininity was borne from frequent conversations with Algernon C. Swinburne who was obsessed with Lucrezia Borgia. Rossetti himself embarked on an exhaustive study of Lucrezia and produced a ravishing portrait of her in pastel and watercolor (1860-1861). Her translucent skin, flaming hair, and damask dress speckled in gold are set against an ominously dark background foreboding her future.

With the Venus Verticordia, painted in several stages between 1864 and 1868, Rossetti’s Venetian streak reached its zenith. The subject of the portrait is based on a chance encounter with a woman on a London street. Here she is surrounded with lush roses and honeysuckle, allegedly replenished each day while Rossetti was working on the picture. The arrow in her hand clearly alludes to Cupid and the poisoned dart that struck Paris, but the richly colored bluebird and butterflies are strangely polyvalent. Ruskin severely reprimanded Rossetti for the picture’s excessive sensuality. A potential buyer agreed to purchase it only on condition that the nudity be covered. Only later did public appreciation grow for the subtle contrast between delicate flesh, blazing hair, and velvety petals that Ruskin called “marvelously painted, but grandiose in their vulgarity.”

The visitor can judge whether Ruskin had the artistic right to make such a criticism by examining his own Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (1874), Zipporah of Botticelli (1874), and his sketch of the Annunciation of Fra Angelico (1873). One detects that he himself attempted to hold the spiritual and the sensual in a delicate balance. His exquisite study of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation shows that he deeply pondered the Dominican’s faith and marveled at how effortlessly and completely he represented Gabriel’s celestial nature in everything from countenance to attire to gesture. Yet he also esteemed Tintoretto’s sensuality, trying deliberately to fuse it with the Florentine austerity of Fra Angelico. Ruskin’s early praise for Turner and his condemnation of Palladian architecture complicate his aesthetics even further. If there is any hope at resolution, perhaps it can be found in his bold 1872 declaration that Botticelli’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel rival those of Michelangelo.

A primary aim of this exhibit is to tackle the historical-artistic question about the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and early twentieth-century Idealism and Symbolism. By the end of the nineteenth century several Italian artists, including Giulio Aristide Sartorio (The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1890-1893) and Madonna degli Angeli (1895)), Adolfo De Carolis (Le Castalidi (1905) and I cavalli del sole (1907)), and Gaetano Previati (Il giorno sveglia la note (1905)), were intent on recovering the early-Renaissance as an important component of the convoluted matrix of Italian identity. They turned to the loose brushwork and chromatic shimmer of George Frederic Watts (Orpheus and Eurydice (c. 1875)) and The Judgment of Paris (1874)) and were especially taken by his “non-literary” use of mythological themes. Walter Pater’s interpretation of art through the subjective emotions and sentiments of the viewer provided the theoretical basis for their experiments. I could not help but compare these pictures with the searing colors and carefully wrought shading of the three J. M. W. Turner pictures on display (The Arch of Constantine (c. 1835)) The Bell Tower of San Marco (c. 1840), and Andando al Ballo (San Martino (1846)). Turner’s works seem more a contrast than a precursor to Pre-Raphaelitism but oddly reemerge in the Italian avant-garde.

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice (c. 1875).

George Frederic Watts, Orpheus and Eurydice (c. 1875).

Not to be missed are bronze sculptures by Frederic Leighton (The Sluggard [1885] and Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877)) and the witty Alfred Gilbert (Comedy and Tragedy: “sic vita” (1891-1892)), John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s stereotypical Savior and the Resurrection (1892-94), Burne-Jones’s Venus Discordia (1873) and Death of Medusa II (c. 1882-98), and, of course the Italian masterworks that close the exhibition by Carpaccio (Annunciation (1504)), Paolo Veronese (The Rape of Europa (post 1580)), Titian (Maria Maddalena Penitente (1567)), Tintoretto (San Luigi, San Giorgio, and the Princess (c. 1552), Crivelli (Madonna of the Passion (1450)), and the incomparable Giotto (San Stefano (c. 1330-1335)).

Edward Burne-Jones, Venus Discordia (1873), National Museum of Wales.

Edward Burne-Jones, Venus Discordia (1873), National Museum of Wales.

Thus far the organizational scheme of curators Maria Teresa Benedetti, Stefania Frezzotti, and Robert Upstone has met mixed reactions. On the one hand, the sparseness of information provided allows the visitor to assimilate the language of the Neo-Raphaelites subconsciously. Roaming from room to room we are left to contemplate the sharp lines, pure colors, and symbolic allusions that constitute the Neo-Raphaelite grammar. On the other hand, the information that is provided is so choppy that one wonders whether it was worth providing at all.

A brief summary, for example, of the plot of Romaunt of the Rose would have been of great assistance in situating these wonderful tapestries by Burne-Jones and Morris within the context of the medieval tale they retell. There would have been no need to elaborate on Chaucer’s adaption of the story or how or why the artists were inspired by it. Similarly, why not place the evocative verses of Morris (“The ending of the tale ye see / The Lover draws anigh the tree / And takes the branch, and takes the rose / That love and he so dearly chose”) next to Burne-Jones’s The Heart of the Rose (1833-1898)? Or perhaps reprint the Italian and English [1] versions of the poem accompanying Rossetti’s Proserpina (1878) for ease of reading, even though the Italian text is in the picture and the English on the frame.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine (1874), Tate, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine (1874), Tate, London.

I am already anticipating the response that the artists themselves were bent on latent symbolism, but that is only partially true as the Proserpina demonstrates. Rossetti clearly wanted to appeal to our imagination but also to coax us to learn more about the story. Besides, he and his patrons were familiar with the same body of literature, a literature all but extinct in educational systems today. Unfortunately, the catalogue does not help matters much since it contains many works not part of this exhibition and seems to be a collection of essays on pre-Raphaelitism rather than an explanation of what makes this particular show unique. I do not mean this as a criticism of Maria Teresa Benedetti’s scholarship, the quality of which is clear enough from her publications since 1981. Finally – and this I add by way of comment rather than criticism – little exposure is given to the social aims of the pre-Raphaelite project. Perhaps this is a good thing since that side of the movement has already received plenty of exposure.

I am all for allowing pictures to “speak for themselves,” but that can be meant in two ways. The first way is to offer tendentious descriptions that favor a single way of interpreting a piece and its significance for art history. This kind of description tells us “what to look for” before we even look. The other way is to offer a synopsis of the piece’s subject, its intended location, and a reference to other works to which it may be related. Whereas the first way presumes that we cannot understand art without criticism, the second helps us to stand in front of a picture the way the artist and patron did. When the artist and patron stood in front of the picture they knew what it was “about” (is it Pia de’ Tolomei, Proserpina, or Pandora? (all pictures by Rossetti on display)), even if it was meant to embody the general idea of femininity and utilized the same model found in other pictures (namely Jane Morris, unhappy wife of William Morris, model for all three of Rossetti’s pieces listed above). At least initially, knowing who Proserpina is will be of more help than knowing who Jane Morris was. That said, perhaps the curators wished to highlight the perennial value of an outstanding picture of Proserpina no matter who she is. Besides, maybe it is by reading the Italian text in the picture or the English text on the frame that we best stand in the shoes of the artist or patron. I’ll let you decide (please place your comments below).

[1] Afar away the light that brings cold cheer

Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar how far away,
The nights that shall become the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
O, Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) —
‘Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine’.
— D. G. Rossetti

About the author

Daniel B. Gallagher

Daniel Gallagher has taught philosophy and theology and is the author of numerous articles in metaphysics and aesthetics. He is particularly interested in the overlapping issues of classical, medieval, and modern theories of beauty and art. A catholic priest, Monsignor Gallagher is currently stationed at the Vatican.

Readers Comments (3)

  1. Maureen Mullarkey – in my opinion one of the foremost artists and critics of our time – has kindly commented on my review (http://www.studiomatters.com/art/pre-raphaelites-and-the-myth-of-italy). I have long admired Maureen’s limpid (and brutal) honesty, both in her images and in her essays. As an artist, she eschews the idea that draftsmanship is mere “academicism”, and as a writer, critical academicism is her fiercest enemy (cf. her review of Fried’s book (http://www.studiomatters.com/art/1141).

    In light of her comments, let me simply say four things about my hesitancy to “fill in the gaps” (see her review): (1) by “tendentious descriptions”, I had something quite specific in mind: namely, the formalist “art history” of, say, Clement Greenberg, not the history represented by, for example, Ernst Gombrich; (2) given the current cultural milieu (or malaise), I am open to the possibility that perhaps (and only perhaps) it is best to look at Proserpina first, take in her beauty, note that she is holding a pomegranate and then find out why; (3) which implies that a certain (albeit limited) understanding of the picture is possible simply by looking at it; (4) which, in turn, suggests that looking at it – even in a supposed “vacuum” – is never a complete “waste of time”.

    That said, I must confess that, being a philosopher rather than a critic, I am always on the lookout for a spark of “eternal beauty” in each individual beautiful object, no matter how historically conditioned. I hope that that – and not academicism – is the source of my “reluctance”, and my motivation to let “you decide”.

  2. Nice addendum. Well and ably said. But what is meant by “eternal beauty?” It’s a concept; something quite different from perceptual beauty. Or so it seems to a non-philosopher.

  3. I’m afraid that as soon as we ask the question if and how “eternal beauty” (if there is such a thing) relates to “perceptual beauty” we are all philosophers.

    I would recommend Plato’s inquiry into “to kalon” (the “fair”, “honorable”, or “beautiful”) in the Greater Hippias, his suggestion that beauty is an Idea among the eternal Ideas in the Phaedrus, and Diotima’s famous speech recounted by Socrates in the Symposium in which she asserts that love of the beautiful and love of the good are the same thing.

    Also of interest is chapter 1 of Roger Scruton’s book “Beauty”.

    For my own thoughts, from a philosophical point of view: http://hortulus.net/journal/20061Gallagher.pdf

    … and from a theological point of view:

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