Part 2 of The Dream of a Victorian Quattrocento: D.G. Rossetti's answer to the Dilemma of his Anglo-Italian Identity
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 - 1882) was an English painter, poet and translator of Italian descent. His father had migrated to England in 1824, as a political exile. His maternal grandfather, Gaetano Polidori, was also Italian.
Rossetti's Christian names were in fact Gabriel Charles Dante. It would thus seem that his parents had wanted to anglicize the name of the father : Gabriele. Gabriel was the name which his friends and family always called him, and the name which he used to sign his letters. When he had to sign The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849), his first major oil painting however, he reversed and italianized his Christian names into Dante Gabriele. The dropping of Charles, which may have sounded too English to him (and reminded him of his godfather Charles Lyell, with whom he did not get on well), together with the addition of a final "e" to Gabriel and the emphasis on Dante would seem to indicate that the young artist wanted to assert his Italian origins. Later he reverted to Gabriel as a middle name, thus forming the Anglo-Italian name by which he became famous. .
The influence of Italy on the young man can be traced in his physical appearance - in his biography, Stanley Weintraub insists on Rossetti's "Latin grace" (Weintraub 82) - and in the fact that many Italian exiles visited the Rossetti home, thus re-creating a continental microcosm. But the most important Italian aspects of Rossetti were his mastery of the Italian language, and his fascination for Dante Alighieri, both inherited from his father who was a Professor of Italian at King's College as well as a life-long Dante scholar. Therefore Rossetti was, at an early age connected, via his father's studies, with Italy's late mediaeval and early Renaissance poets. Of these, Dante had the most powerful and longer lasting influence. Rossetti stated in the preface to his translations "the first associations I have are connected with my father's devoted studies... Thus, in those early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine" (Hunt 75). Rossetti's fas cination for his fourteenth century namesake was such that it grew in his imaginative mind that he must be some sort of reincarnation of the great Italian, and that somewhere his own Beatrice was awaiting him. This is what he implied when, in a poem he addressed his father thus : .
And didst thou know indeed, when at the font
Together with thy name thou gav'st me his,
That also on thy son must Beatrice
Decline her eyes according to her wont...? Dantis Tenebrae (1861).
The influence of Dante pervaded most of Rossetti's iconographical production from 1849 until 1856 (8 out of 14 works listed in the Appendix). Many water-colours, small in format but highly finished in detail prove his obsession for rendering the mood of the 14th-century poet. Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast Denies him her Salutation (1851) or The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice (1853) are good examples of his production of that period. The gem-like colours Rossetti obtained by using very little water, and occasionally mixing his pigments with glue, were quite new to the Victorian public used to the tarrish browns which appeared regularly on the walls of the Royal Academy. The colours in Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast Denies him her Salutation appealed to the influential art critic John Ruskin who declared it "a most glorious piece of colour". "The breadth of blue - green - fragmentary gold" was to him "a perfect feast" (Whiteley 48). Upon seeing The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice, the author of Modern Painters sent Rossetti a letter which marked the beginning of their friendship. "I think it a thoroughly glorious work" he wrote " - the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life ..." .
John Ruskin knew exactly what he was referring to : he had travelled to Italy several times, first with his parents in 1833, then on his own in 1845 where he had realized the supremacy of early Italian artists such as Cimabue, Orcagna, Ghirlandajo, Giotto, Fra Angelico, who were still relatively unknown to the British public. He had discovered Tintoretto, seen and copied the colours of Italy, made sketches after the works of art he liked. Moreover he had lived in Venice for almost a year in 1849, during which he worked on The Stones of Venice.The first volume of the book had come out in 1851, and in 1853 volumes II and III were being published. So, at the time he wrote to Rossetti for the first time, John Ruskin was a specialist in early Italian art, and he between all other critics recognized in the small water colours the glorious pigments and the unmistakably Italian touch of the artist who, unlike himself, had no first hand experience of Italy. Indeed, despite his environment, influences, and the recognition of John Ruskin who described him as "a great Italian tormented in the Inferno of London", Rossetti could only feel Latin in his imagination . Mary Bradford Whiting remarked that "Italian as he was by birth and by nature, he had never watched the yellow Arno washing the palace walls of Florence, he had never seen the glow of the sunshine on the white colonnades and pillared loggias that he loved to paint; for him the grey-green olive and the dark pointing finger of the cypress existed only in imagination." (Whiting 278). Rossetti had never physically travelled to Italy.
Last modified 27 February 2017