Part 4 of The Dream of a Victorian Quattrocento: D.G. Rossetti's answer to the Dilemma of his Anglo-Italian Identity

Rossetti belonged to two different cultures, which at different moments of his life became predominant: the first seven years (1849-56) of his artistic career were devoted mainly to the illustration of Dante's Vita Nuova — which he also translated — , while the following three years (1857-59) were marked by inspiration from English lore. From 1860 until 1870, he reverted mostly to Italian inspiration, whereas during the last decade of his life Italian and English sources alternated and eventually blended. Yet, while belonging to two cultures, Rossetti actually belonged to neither: the titles of some of his poems, such as "Birth-Bond", "The Landmark", "Lost on Both Sides" betray the quest for identity which occupied him throughout his life.

The first two periods, based respectively on Italian and then Anglo-Saxon heritage, show an effort of the artist to define his art by establishing an artistic tradition.This tradition took the form of the two successive phases of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In 1848, Rossetti took part in the founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, together with two fellow-students from the Royal Academy School : W. Holman Hunt and J. Everett Millais. The name Rossetti coined for their association, which included seven young men, shows his conciliatory effort to bring together English and Italian traditions, as well as two different time periods : the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" had the "romantic, conspirational connotations" of a 19th century secret society, "as well as the ring of the early Christian monastic tradition" (Weintraub 29) which the young artists saw in 14th- and 15th-century art. It also brought together the Italian tradition of the painters who had preceeded Raphael, and the British taste for clubs.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's attempt to solve the dilemma of his dual background consisted in re-creating a past in which he could bring together the two parts of his identity. Haunted as he was by heroes from the English folklore and literature, he could not elude the Italian myths of his childhood. As he felt that he belonged intimately to both cultures, he could never take the decisive step to cut himself away from one or the other. His solution was an effort to merge English and Italian cultures into an ideal synthetic past which he constructed to fit his own needs, and which gave him a justification as an Anglo-Italian in his own right. This ideal Anglo-Italian medieval past was painted in powerful Italian colours, but used English models. Within the frame of his constructed ancestry, Rossetti invented an imaginary artistic tradition which he could draw upon ,for inspiration, and which he could perpetuate. Characteristically, the Brethren, under the impulse of Rossetti needed to stipulate, at the founding of the Brotherhood, the tradition in which they situated themselves and the heroes who became the object of their creed. A document, "the list of the Immortals" was therefore produced (Huefer 105-106). It formed an almost completely Anglo-Italian pantheon (40 out of 57 "Immortals" were either English or Italian), allowing for the insertion of three biblical characters, certainly to please William Holman Hunt, and a few outsiders such as Homer, Joan of Arc, and Cervantes. It is interesting to note that in the bulk of English and Italian entries, no doubt largely the work of Rossetti — for Hunt and Millais were little versed in literature or art history — the English are twice as numerous as the Italians. The former are mainly writers - including Romantic and Victorian poets such as Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Coventry Patmore, Thackeray and Tennyson — whereas the latter are predominantly Quattrocento artists : Raphael, Michael Angelo, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgioni, Titian, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico and Leonardo da Vinci. Therefore, the tradition which Dante Gabriel Rossetti was trying to establish drew heavily upon Anglo-Saxon literature but considered itself the successor of the early Italian masters.

After the first Brotherhood was dissolved in 1853, Rossetti still felt the urge to belong to a community, and he found an emotional and artistic compensation in his art teaching at the Working Men's College. In 1857, however, an unofficial second Brotherhood was formed with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones as the main disciples and Rossetti abandoned for a while his Dantesque obsession and developed an interest in the Arthurian Legends.

In Oxford, where the two new disciples were students, was the newly-built Oxford Union which had an octogonal reading gallery with large wall surfaces, pierced by attractive six-leaved windows. Rosssetti asked Woodward, the architect, for permission to gather a few painters to decorate the walls in an endeavour that would certainly be "an experiment", since mural painting of this kind had never been done in England. "Woodward was greatly delighted with the idea," Rossetti related in a letter of June 1861, "as his principle was that of the mediaeval builders to avail himself in any building of as much decoration as circumstances permitted at the time." (That Ne'er shall Meet again 101.)

Thus, once again, a group of seven dedicated young men was brought together — Rossetti's "brothers" from the first Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had declined the invitation — and they spent an unforgettable summer (which is still referred to as the "Jovial Campaign") decorating the walls of the Union with subjects from Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Rossetti had never worked in wall-painting, and does not seem to have enquired about fresco techniques. Perhaps he felt reassured that his Italian ancestry would lead him unconsciously to rediscover instinctive gestures. The choice of mural painting seems emblematic of Rossetti's quest both for Italy and for the Quattrocento. He had discovered in 1848 engravings of famous frescoes of the Campo Santo in Pisa by Giotto, Orcagna and Gozzoli, in a book by Lasinio, which had infused him with enthusiam. Typically, in enlumining a contemporary English building, which itself was Gothic in architecture, with paintings of Italian inspiration but illustrating ancient English legends, in the communal spirit of the old Italian masters or of the Round Table, Rossetti was doing more than just decorating the Oxford Union Debating Hall. He was enacting the effort that he had been making spriritually for a long time, which consisted in adapting his inherited Italian culture to the Victorian context of his life. But at this stage, the merging of both cultures had not yet been achieved and his efforts resulted in a superposition of Italian colours and mood over English literary subjects. This contributed certainly to the success of his illustrations of the Arthurian legends, which seemed traditional, and at the same time new and exotic. However, the solution provided by the second Brotherhood was only a transitory one, and after his marriage to Elizabeth Siddall in 1860, Rossetti went back to his early influences, and titles such as Dantis Amor (1860) or Bonifazio's Mistress (1860) evoke the Italian atmosphere of his first phase.

Last modified 27 February 2017