Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Pre-Raphaelites in Tuscany

Edward Burne-Jones, The Mirror of Venus, 1875

In the golden autumn of 1859 Edward Burne-Jones and his two friends awoke in Florence. They had already spent several days in Pisa sketching frescoes in the Campo Santo.  They were there on the advice of the critic John Ruskin.  The young painters had come in search of the real Pre-Raphaelites – artists like Giotto and Fra Angelico who had flourished in Tuscany at the moment when the Renaissance began to emerge from the late Medieval world. And now they were staying in the heart of Florence. On their rambles around the city, as yet untouched by tourism, they stumbled upon angels and Madonnas, tucked away in green cloisters and tiny chapels.

Workshop of Botticelli, Coronation of the Virgin, 1475-1500, owned by Edward Burne-Jones

Above all, they were smitten by Botticelli. Burne-Jones wrote lovingly about ‘a coronation of the Virgin…heaven beginning six inches above our heads as it really does.  It was terribly neglected and stuffed up with candles’. In the Accademia, the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi he discovered more delights – ‘the Spring’ and ‘the Dancing Choir’.  By the late 1870s, the infatuation with Botticelli was so prevalent among avant-garde British artists, that it was parodied by Punch, and Gilbert and Sullivan. But Burne-Jones was a pioneer in his enthusiasm. The sweetness and otherworldliness of Botticelli’s wistful Madonnas found a new life on his canvases. 

Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, Uffizi, 1481

The impact of this first visit resonated for decades: ‘Oh dear’, he sighed as he finished breakfast in his studio-house in London a while later, ‘when I think that this very morning Florence is going on, and I have to go into that muddle of work upstairs.’  But before he went home, he was able to saunter through Siena, take tea with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and study the sculpture of Pisano in the Cathedral there.

Siena Cathedral
I have recently been able to follow in Burne-Jones’s footsteps, leading fellow Victorian art lovers around Tuscany. We revisited the medieval cities that he saw as a young man, and those that he was drawn to as he grew older – Siena, Arezzo, San Gimigniano and of course, Florence.  Looking at the early Renaissance through the eyes of 19th century artists and poets, we found our way back to a freshness, a more vivid encounter with well-loved images.  The wall-paintings of Gozzoli and Pinturicchio, the altarpieces of Duccio were almost unknown in Victorian Britain.  Burne-Jones came home exclaiming, ‘I want big things to do, and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh! – only Oh!’

Piccolomini Library, decorated by Pinturicchio, 1402-7, Siena Cathedral
Dante’s Divine Comedy was available in English, thanks to Henry Cary, but was still an acquired taste.  Burne-Jones’ friend and fellow artist, D G Rossetti did not publish his translation of Dante’s ‘Vita Nuova’ and ‘The Early Italian Poets’ until 1861.   

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Giotto drawing a portrait of Dante, watercolour, 1852, Private Collection

These young Victorians were breaking new ground in their desire to explore and reinvigorate the art of Italy before Raphael. But within a few decades, word had spread, and there were 30,000 English and American residents in Florence, drawn by the climate and the culture.

For my part, as a history student who was enamoured of the Burne-Jones and Rossetti drawings I had seen in the Ashmolean, I came to Florence for the first time in 1989 with my head filled with Pre-Raphaelite drawings of Dante’s Beatrice.  The two worlds – the Victorian and the early Renaissance – were intertwined. I saw Botticelli’s heavenly figures, and remembered Burne-Jones’ response to his upbringing in industrial Birmingham: ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels I shall paint.’  These were his prototypes.  But it wasn’t just the subjects, but the manner itself that was drawn from the Italian Quattrocento.  There was kinship in the delicacy of the swaying figures, the blue of the skies above and the green of their gowns.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Garden of the Hesperides, 1869-73, Kunsthalle Hamburg

This is a timely tour, giving us a chance to look again at Burne-Jones as we approach another anniversary year, with a major exhibition of his work at Tate Britain in 2018.  Without his encounters with the fresco-cycles of Pisa, the refined panel-paintings of Florence, and the solemn church decorations of Arezzo and Siena, his yearnings for the landscape of his imagination would have been unfulfilled. As he wrote to a friend, many years later, ‘I belong to old Florence.’




No comments:

Post a Comment

I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, DorĂ© and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.