The Pre-Raphaelites’ love of Italy

In 1961, on a school trip to Rome, Andrew Lloyd Webber peeled off from his classmates and visited the deserted American church, St Paul’s Within the Walls, built in the 1870s and decorated by Edward Burne-Jones. He returned claiming it “the best thing” he had seen in the Eternal City – a presage of his future as a Pre-Raphaelite collector.

The composer later acquired several large-scale designs for the church, in body colour and gold paint – the dark languorous “The Angel Zophiel”; a brooding “Christ Enthroned”; a tumbling, steel-toned “The Fall of Lucifer”, planned, Burne-Jones said, for a wall “40ft sheer down, where I mean to shoot Lucifer and his knights out of a glittering heaven”.

At the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy, these join other designs, borrowed from St Paul’s and public and private holdings, to show for the first time the full scope of the project that occupied Burne-Jones’s final 20 years. Painting willowy archangels and depictions of Paradise in bright jewel-like tones was, admitted the elderly artist, “an unthankful task that no one will ever care for, but for the sake of many ancient loves I am doing it – for love of Venice and Ravenna and the seven impenetrable centuries between them.”

This show arrives at Oxford from Ravenna; the city’s mosaics were a key inspiration for Burne-Jones’s sinuous figures and decorative brilliance, which at once looks back to Byzantium and forward to art nouveau. The Ashmolean cannot show the originals but it elegantly traces Burne-Jones’s long relationship with Italy, from the self-consciously archaic “Buondelmonte’s Wedding”, a crowded pen and ink drawing on vellum depicting a vengeful scene recounted in Dante, made when 26-year-old Burne-Jones was visiting Florence on a trip paid for by John Ruskin, to “Music” – a near-symbolist rendering of a Giorgione concert champêtre.

Italian motifs were more than stylistic devices. Burne-Jones’s delicate, fraught copies of Bernardino Luini’s “Saint Apollonia” and “Saint Agatha” from 1862, exquisitely framed in black and gold, for example, were made in a dark Milan church that Ruskin, “by treacherous smiles and winning courtesies and delicate tips”, got opened for his use, encouraging his protégé to consider Luini “10 times greater than Leonardo”.

By the 1870s, though, Burne-Jones was studying the Sistine Chapel; his ethereal forms acquired weight and gravity but his love for Michelangelo strained his friendship with Ruskin to breaking point. Abandoning Ruskin’s ideal of “truth to nature”, he painted instead a fantastical world he called “too beautiful not to be true”. It chimed with French symbolism – the fin-de-siècle critic Robert de la Sizeranne praised his melancholy figures, “weary of their strength, embarrassed by their height, almost ashamed of their good looks”, for their mesmerising conflict between Italianate physical beauty and northern fatalism.

The grit of this show is an exploration of how the Italian Renaissance became the prism through which 19th-century artists and writers fought out their aesthetic and ethical battles, as well as their own psychological dramas. Although it includes work by those as various and little connected with Pre-Raphaelitism as the 18th-century throw-back Edward Lear and the arts-and-crafts illustrator Walter Crane – both painted lovely limpid Italian landscapes – its twin stars are Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and over both hangs the perverse, inescapable genius of Ruskin.

Recasting the architectural history of a declining Venice as an epic about the social price of Victorian capitalism, Ruskin heard a warning “uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves that beat, like passing bells, against the stones of Venice”. His account, romanticising gothic and the early Renaissance, appeared in 1851, when a trio of artists barely out of their teens – Rossetti, Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais – had just formed the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.

The Ashmolean’s superb collection of Ruskin’s Venetian architectural drawings is displayed here alongside Rossetti’s youthful paintings illustrating Dante, and Holman Hunt’s early, awkward Italianate portraits, such as “Il Dolce Far Niente”, its diverse textures precisely rendered – silken fabrics, glassy necklace and earrings, ivory and wood chair – in hard-edged detail.

Painstaking naturalism combined with literary-moral subjects delighted Ruskin, who championed the Brotherhood. In 1855 he paid Rossetti £40 for “Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast”, modelled by Rossetti’s copper-haired lover Lizzie Siddal, and then commissioned “Paolo and Francesca da Rimini”, depicted whirling through the second circle of hell reserved for lustful lovers, contemplated by Virgil and Dante. If this resonated with Ruskin’s own erotic frustrations, Dante’s Beatrice evoked for Rossetti his doomed love for Siddal. She committed suicide in 1862 but continued to haunt his paintings, notably in the deathly “Beata Beatrix” (1880), centrepiece of a gallery of Rossetti’s Renaissance-themed femmes fatales, which will be this show’s most popular section.

His mistress Fanny Cornforth is the voluptuous “Fazio’s Mistress”. His lover Jane Morris is Pia de’ Tolomei, imprisoned, according to Dante’s Purgatory, by her husband in a remote castle – as sultry, pouting Jane was imprisoned by wretched marriage to William Morris. An English model posed flamboyantly as “a Venetian lady in a rich dress of white and gold” is “Monna Vanna”, a lady from Dante’s The New Life, though the high artifice called to my mind rather a character from Browning’s sumptuous Renaissance poems.

The point is that Rossetti’s mature work, like Burne-Jones’s, is the reverse of Ruskin’s “truth to nature”. Rossetti, locked in dreams of medieval and Renaissance history, never once visited Italy and, like most of the pre-Raphaelites, derived his Italian contexts from Keats and Browning. Even the most acutely rendered topographical piece here, John Brett’s “Florence from Bellosguardo”, bathed in winter sun with the distant Apennines capped by snow, turns out to have been inspired by Browning’s “Old Pictures in Florence”.

It is a truism that English painting is distinguished by being literary, uninterested in formal innovation. But just as Browning’s dramatic monologues are historical pastiches whose interiority anticipates modernist poetry, so Rossetti and Burne-Jones herald 20th-century art in their introspection and erotic ambivalence, while belonging, in their sincerity and innocence, entirely to the 19th century.

This exhibition made me wonder whether the term pre-Raphaelitism means anything at all, so different are the tortured Rossetti, the didactic Holman Hunt and the pragmatic Millais – who, inexplicably, is unrepresented here. That, surely, will be the question of Tate’s 2012 Pre-Raphaelite blockbuster, for which this show is a piquant taster.

‘The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to December 5

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