Part 5 of The Dream of a Victorian Quattrocento: D.G. Rossetti's answer to the Dilemma of his Anglo-Italian Identity
Rossetti's sense of displacement increased after the suicidal death of his wife in 1862 and led him to escape within himself. As an obvious consequence of the creation of his imaginary past, Rossetti came to build an imaginary world, different both in time and space from the one he lived in.
The 1860s can be considered as a period of transition during which Rossetti still drew heavily upon the Italian tradition (11 out of 16 works in our corpus), even though the exact source of his inspiration became increasingly difficult to identify. His art from then on was less the illustration of other poets' verses than an expression of his own soul. This is certainly the case of Beata Beatrix, which he started painting in 1863. The painting already portrayed the Rossettian dream-world. This Dantesque memorial to his British wife was "an intensely visionary, Symbolist picture" (Wood 96), which despite its obvious reference to Dante, was very private in meaning. It marked the beginning of a new phase in his art which relied increasingly on his own inspiration. This painting initiated a change not only in inspiration, but also in technique, and in format. We may perhaps consider that Rossetti had by that time reached maturity, had absorbed the essence of England and Italy, made a synthesis that suited him, and in which he chose to exile himself. This internal setting in turn made him feel more relaxed in his art. The painstaking technique of water-colour was replaced from then on by oil painting, the pictures became larger and larger in size, and the format, which had been predominantly horizontal, became vertical.
It would seem that the artist had achieved in his mind the dream of a perfect Victorian Quattrocento, the vision of which soothed his sufferings after the death of his wife and solved the dilemma of his identity. This was the dream he called forth for inspiration : Rossetti wrote "I shut myself within my soul / And the shapes come eddying forth" (Versicles and Fragments, VI, 379). The artist's soul therefore became his ultimate place of retreat where he felt so much at home that no more effort was needed to produce art. His task as a artist was then simply to copy the visions he had inside. Whether the shapes belonged to England or Italy had little meaning to him, they came from his inscape, where both cultures had been blended. Rossetti in his later works represented a far country in ancient times which came from his visions. Sometimes the paintings were without a subject, such as Veronica Veronese (1872) or The Bower Meadow (1872), and only the title makes it possible to classify them as Italian or English. The first one "a study of varied greens" is a portrait of Alexa Wilding, one of his favourite models in a setting so absolutely out of time and space that the Italian title provides the only landmark. The landscape for The Bower Meadow was painted at Knole, near Sevenoaks, and yet despite the Englishness of the title and the setting, the composition bears a resemblance to the 15th-century Italian tradition of the "dancing in the garden scenes", the most famous of which is Botticelli's.
His later paintings portray an idealistic and sensuous dream-world, which had become the real world for the artist : "I do not wrap myself up in my own imaginings, it is they that envelop me from the outer world whether I will or no" he said, thus emphasizing the opposition between his 'inscape' — a mixture of medieval England and Italy — and the outer world of Victorian London.
After a first mental crisis in 1872, he became more and more "a solitary prisoner of his own dream of a world", as Pater put it (Hunt 98). His paintings from then on portrayed gigantic, sensuous and cruel women, with pouting lips, masses of wavy hair and columnar necks. These are now the paintings for which Dante Gabriel Rossetti's name is still remembered. As Rossetti gained autonomy from the Italian and English sources which had inspired him in his youth, his later paintings were accompanied by poems of his own composition. Whether their titles have an Italian or English ring, is as irrelevant as the language in which the accompanying poem was written. Proserpine (1872-82), of which there are eight versions, was sometimes painted with the appended sonnet in Italian (the 1874 version, which now hangs in the Tate Gallery, shows the poem and an inscription "Dante Gabriele Rossetti ritrasse nel capodanno del 1874", both in Italian. In the inscription, the artist reverted to the Italian name which he had used for the signature of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin in 1849), while sometimes the sonnet appears in English, such as in the 1882 version on which the artist was still working a few days before his death. As the artist's sense of national identity became increasingly blurred, his paintings frequently incorporated simultaneously pieces of England and Italy. One version of The Blessed Damozel (1875-8), which is now at the Fogg Museum of Art, shows a maiden inspired by Dante's Beatrice who is looking down from heaven, not on her poet-lover as could be expected, but on an Arthurian hero with a dagger at his side, lying in a suspiciously English-looking countryside. The poem is in English. In 1875, Rossetti painted La Bella Mano, a very large portrait of Alexa Wilding as 'the Virgin of beauty and modesty'. This oil, despite its Italian title and elevated imagery, looks rather odd because, far from the austere settings of the early Italians, it features a crowded, "unmistakably bourgeois Victorian interior" (Rodgers 118). The majority of the works produced in the last period show a reconciliation of two influences which seemed almost incompatible with one another : the paintings of the 1870's appear to have transcended the dilemma of their creator's identity. Astarte Syriaca (1877) portrays Jane Morris as a love goddess, in a sphere "betwixt the sun and moon", in which the notion of national identity has clearly become meaningless.
It seems that D.G. Rossetti managed to create in his imagination, and occasionnally bring to life in his art, a world that suited his needs, which borrowed aspects of England and Italy, of the 15th-century artists and 19th-century poets, and reconciled his two artistic models : Dante and Blake. This is possibly the reason why he never lived in Italy. Rossetti's exile was not a geographical one as his father's had been. It was a place and time of retreat and solace for his mind. While living his earthly life in Victorian London, he felt he had incorporated the spirit of medieval Italy. When asked why he had never travelled to Italy but had only painted it and written about it, Rossetti allegedly answered, "Why bother? I've got it all inside."
Last modified 27 February 2017