Pollinated with the spirit of the Renaissance, spring-like, fresh and full of individual passion and wonder, the Pre Raphaelites went back to a state of painting when the Renaissance was in its stride if not its prime. Rather than seeing painting as a continuous development up to their own day, they when back to an approach and a world view at a point when art knew where it was going, striving toward a most sublime peak, a peak attained perhaps twice in western human history. The Pre Raphaelites took as their teachers and masters those of Titian's, Michelangelo's and Raphael's and via intelligent imitation that went beyond mere copying they progressed, very roughly speaking, through the styles of the Italian Renaissance, and at times managed to break free of their teachers' styles. They even wrote poems too. One can see something of this progression in the quite broad and thorough collection of their drawings and watercolors currently on display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, most of which come from the Tate and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
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.