The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy
Like it or not, Oxford’s name can not escape from being associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, in the loose sense of the mid-nineteenth century British artists who claimed inspiration from pre-Mannerist Italy. It is appropriate, then, that the first show in the new temporary exhibition space in the revamped Ashmolean should be on the likes of Ruskin, D. G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones. It is a significant change of location from the old exhibition room, where about twenty years ago, I remember seeing a previous display on the Pre-Raphaelites. There is more space and more spaciousness, assisted by the vista over the new central lobby from the main window in the middle of the three rooms. The lighting in the first room is so low that, while the pictures themselves can be seen, the captions often remain shrouded in gloom. That, though, can be remedied: the new rooms themselves are surely a success.
I should have started: like it or not, and I don’t. I am no fan of the Pre-Raphaelites and I did not go to swoon at them; I was there for the ‘and Italy’ of the exhibition’s title. I stayed for two hours because what it had to tell of Italy was engrossing – what was on display was an Italy that was more imagined than remembered, that was simplified from the clutter of its many lives, and celebrated in its passing rather than for its future. Let me clarify those aspects by reference to one painting for each.
I. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853)
A year after its painting, Ruskin wrote to its creator congratulating him on his ‘glorious work – the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life’ (my italics). The phrasing suggests a way of seeing which might be alien to most of us who go to this exhibition: we soak up the stories the images we want to tell, but some contemporary eyes saw something greater, an evocation of a nation, not just an event. Those accessory parts are, one presumes, both the vistas of seen through the doorway and the window – a verdant garden and a waterside cityscape – and the interior décor of the room, with its drapes and angel-head carvings. None of those, of course, could have been painted from life or from memory: Rossetti’s Italian name hid the fact that he had no more first-hand knowledge of Italy than did William Roscoe. The latter, as I have said before, is mocked for daring to write on Florentine subjects without setting foot there; Rossetti receives less censure.
The distance between a viewed Italy and an imagined one is perhaps summed up by the cityscape Rossetti depicts in the distance: it seems to avoid any attempt to emulate the physical Arno and its banks. The image is removed in space and also, obviously, in time – and yet, for Ruskin, it conjures up a ‘perfect piece of Italy’, a concept of a place more intriguing for being idealised – and nearly as dead as Beatrice.
It is stating a commonplace to recognise that outsiders’ concepts of a nation provide an imagined country. But it is interesting to ask how a vision became constructed and so to notice what locations inspired those Pre-Raphaelites who did, unlike Rossetti, have the opportunity to visit Italy.
A vagary of any exhibition is the unintended impact of the selection of material it has, by necessity, to show in its confined space. The images on display in the Ashmolean suggest an interest in Italy that centred on a few places – Venice, certainly, and Verona also, as well as Florence, though Lucca seemed to receive as much attention. Other cities have walk-on roles – Pisa or Padua, say – but it still interesting what is not here. Nothing of Siena, nor of Arezzo. Umbria is notably absent, as is Emilia Romagna or Lombardy. The selection, as I say, skews the evidence but it does hint at how the appreciation for ‘Italy’ was highly selective and partial. There was not an attempt to grasp the variety of the peninsula but rather to extrapolate from a smaller set of stimuli, declaring those inspirations to be the mark of what had been Italian genius.
It also mattered that it was a genius that had had its glory days. Again, it is Ruskin’s enthusiastic reaction to an image that is revealing. The American Newman was praised for ‘exquisitely [rendering] the colour of the marble … still uninjured by restoration’. The idea of restoration as damage still has its pull for us: we tend to prefer our history delapidated and romantically suggestive, rather than prosaically complete. Ruskin encouraged others on a sort of ‘rescue archaeology’ campaign of depicting the monuments of his favoured cities before they were cleaned and renewed. One wonders how he imagined the buildings would have looked in a century’s time if restoration had not occurred.
What makes the nostalgic element so notable is its political context – a context, of course, to which the Pre-Raphaelites rarely paid direct attention. Most of the pictures in the exhibition, when they are populated by humans at all, are home to medieval figures. In some of the architectural drawings, a reclining peasant or Florentine bourgeois might be allowed to appear, but very few paintings on display touch on contemporary life. One that does have a political relevance is the image by Arthur Hughes. Intended to depict Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Court Lady’, it shows an injured soldier, who has etched ‘Italia’ into the wall beside his bed, as the tricolore flutters in the sunshine seen through the window in the background. Maurizio Isabella discusses in the exhibition catalogue the British enthusiasm for Italian nationalism – for a state both unified and liberal. That political support might have been deeply sincere but what sort of Italy did these artists expect the new nation to be? Indeed, did such details matter to them? Was it, rather, that unification mattered less in their minds for what ‘Italy’ might become than for its affirmation of what they perceived the Italian genius to have achieved? In that sense, unification would be an ultimate accolade for past greatness – national unity as laureation.
I am left wondering about the nature of the love affair the Pre-Raphaelites had with Italy: in some ways, it is the most delicious sort, a love that delights in, rather than recoils from, imperfections but which is, all the same, based on a blindness to the whole, leaving out the elements you do not want to see. In a harsher light, though, can we deny that it was an abusive love, caring little about the object of desire and delighting instead in the emotions and responses it provides for yourself?