William Holman Hunt. Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. 1848-49. Oil on canvas, 34 x 38 in. Collection Mrs. E. M. Clarke.
Hunt’s intense concern with the role of symbolism in art, particularly in any art which speaks to a wide audience, would help to explain his choice of Rienzi as his first Pre-Raphaelite work. This picture, which he based on Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel, embodies two subjects which had long interested him, a moment of conversion and the appearance of a saviour. Another factor which might have attracted the young painter to the hero of Bulwer-Lytton's novel is that when Rienzi arouses the Roman people to revolution, he chooses an elaborately symbolic painting displayed in a public square as his first weapon. Chapter IX of the novel — "When the people saw this picture, everyone marvelled" — describes how the spectators stood fascinated but puzzled before the picture until one of Rienzi's followers, Pandulfo di Guido, "a quiet, wealthy, and honest man of letters,' stepped forth to explain it to them:
You see before you in the picture . . . a mighty and tempestuous sea: upon its waves you behold five ships; four of them are already wrecks, - their masts are broken, the waves are dashing through the rent planks, they are past all aid and hope: on each of these ships lies the corpse of a woman. See you not, in the wan face and livid limbs, how faithfully the limner hath painted the hues and loathsomeness of death? Below each of these ships is a word that applies the metaphor to truth. Yonder, you see the name of Carthage; the other three are Troy, Jerusalem, and Babylon. To these four is one common inscription: "To exhaustion were we brought by injustice!" Turn now your eyes to the middle of the sea; there you behold the fifth ship, tossed amidst the waves, her mast broken, her rudder gone, her sails shivered, but not yet a wreck like the rest, though she soon may be. On her deck kneels a female, clothed in mourning . . . she stretches out her arms in prayer, she implores your and Heaven's assistance. Mark now the superscription: "This is Rome!" Yes, it is your country that addresses you in this emblem!
Having captured the attention of the crowd, Pandulfo di Guido then explains that the storm which threatens to destroy the Roman ship of state issues forth from the mouths of four groups of allegorical beasts. The lions, wolves, and bears, he tells the crowd, represent the "lawless and savage signors of the state,' while the dogs and swine are the "evil counsellors and parasites . . . Thirdly, you behold the dragons and the foxes; and these are false judges and notaries, and they who sell justice. Fourthly, in the hares, the goats, the apes, that assist in creating the storm, you perceive, by the inscription, the emblems of the popular thieves and homicides, ravishers, and spoliators." Pointing out that the picture offers hope of redemption, hope that the ship will yet save herself, the orator emphasizes that above the angry sea the heavens open and God descends "as to judgment: and, from the rays that surround the spirit of God extend two flaming swords, and on those swords stand, in wrath, but in deliverance, the two patron saints - the two mighty guardians of your city!"(Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes (New York, n.d.), 68-70.) Such, then, was Rienzi's successful call to revolution, his picture that "speaks" and speaking awakens the people to defend themselves against tyranny. One can understand Hunt's attraction to Bulwer-Lytton's novel even without drawing upon this particular scene, nonetheless, the young painter's fascination with the role of symbolism in public art makes it seem likely that the Tribune's use of such a painting had great appeal for him. In particular, the picture which Pandulfo di Guido interpreted for the crowd exemplifies the kind of art capable of speaking to all men, learned and unlearned alike.
In his memoirs Hunt explained how important the example of Shakespeare had been to him, for when he first began to read his works as a boy, he found himself
astonished at the condescension of his mind . . . As a dramatic teacher he did not despise the groundlings; indeed I concluded that the great measure of welcome awarded to this kingly genius was but a just reponse to his own large-hearted sympathy with his fellows of every class; he catered for the unlearned not less than for the profoundest philosopher.
The example of the great dramatist, he explains, also led him while yet a young man "to rate lightly that kind of art devised only for the initiated, and to suspect all philosophies which assume that the vulgar are to be left for ever unredeemed" (I.148). Immediately after emphasizing his own belief in the need for art to be accessible to all men, Hunt gently criticizes Rossetti for abstracting himself from contemporary affairs and, one may assume, from the needs of most men and women. From this vantage point, we may observe that, in Rienzi, this art-propaganda which successfully calls for revolution plays a role opposite to that of Chiaro dell'Erma's fresco in Rossetti"s "Hand and Soul." It is not that Hunt sees the artist fanning the passions which lead to war and revolt, while Rossetti believes him incapable of calming those passions to produce peace. Rather when Rossetti’s protagonist finds his mural of Peace splattered with the blood of rival factions, he turns, as did Rossetti himself, to a private symbolism. Believing that art cannot succeed at grandiose public enterprise, he chooses to be true to himself and concentrate upon a more intimate - if more limited - goal. In this work, written about the time that Hunt encountered Bulwer-Lytton's novel, Rossetti, the son of an exiled Italian revolutionary, seems to have responded to a conception of art that Hunt would espouse, denying its applicability to him.
Nonetheless, even assuming that Hunt was drawn to this scene in Rienzi, he could find it only an inspiring example. Rooted in the trecento, this fictional painting could not be a model for him to emulate except in the most general terms. In fact, the example of this symbolical painting, like that of earlier religious art, merely emphasized for Hunt how much the nineteenth century had lost, how much it had to regain. Similarly, the works of the Early Netherlandish school he and Rossetti saw during their pilgrimage to the continent in 1849 - and the graphic work of Dürer and others which he studied in the Print Room of the British Museum - only served to make him yearn for new solutions to the problem of creating an iconography suited to the needs of his Victorian audience.
created 19 September 2004
Last Modified 25 December 2021