Dante and Virgil in Vallombrosa

Dante and Virgil in Vallombrosa. James Smetham. Oil on panel, 10.5 x 15.5 inches; signed and dated 1866. Click on image to enlarge it.

According to the Maas gallery site, “James Smetham – painter, poet, and a great admirer of William Blake – had a nervous breakdown in 1857, and was more or less insane by 1877. Craving the appreciation of his peers, but fearful of being populist, the ambitious Smetham painted pictures which were suffused with esoteric meaning. He was fascinated by the overlay of legend and poetry upon places; here, the place is the woods around the Benedictine Monastery of Vallombrosa, about 20 miles from Florence. According to a plaque erected during the Fascist era, Milton actually stayed there, and although it is unlikely, the notion that he did so encouraged many travellers to visit, including William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“There is a simile comparing the numberless dead to fallen leaves in Virgil’s Aeneid, while Dante imagined Virgil guiding him through Hell in his Inferno. Milton, in their shadow, wrote in Paradise Lost (I, 300-304) that Satan

... stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr...

The Maas Gallery, London has most generously given its permission to use in the Victorian Web information, images, and text from its catalogues. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with the Maas Gallery. Readers should consult the gallery website to obtain information about recent exhibitions and to order their catalogues. [GPL]


Casteras, Susan. James Smetham: Artist, Author, Pre-Raphaelite Associate. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1994. P. 114.

Last modified 8 July 2008