Rossetti, Dante and the exhumed wife


In 1848, a group of painters, which included a very young and promising Dante Gabriel Rossetti, formed the seven member’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood., whose credo, penned down in an unusually latitudinarian manifesto for such a dogmatic group, was properly issued. The main tenets of the Brotherhood was the rejection of all painting that came after Raphael, and the promotion of the Quattrocento, with its bright colours, florentine predilection for the line and pre-mannerist style of composition. They also had, especially Rossetti, who would later bequeath it to William Morris, an avid interest in all things Medieval. 

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais. Elizabeth Siddal modeling

Exhibitions were held; magazines published; each painting was signed with the name of the painter and the initials PRB. Critics and academics hated them as much as the Pre-Raphaelites hated the critics and established painters. Effervescent, the Brotherhood split after 5 years, consumed by its own intensity.  Rossetti continued its style and subjects, producing a stream of well-delined medieval femme fatales from his numerous models and muses. Fanny Cornforth, Elizabeth Siddal, Jane Morris, Alexa Wilding, Marie Stillman. Some of them, besides the more chaste role of muses, were his lovers, not always sequentially. 


Elizabeth Siddal, who became Rossetti’s wife, died of a drug overdose of laudanum in 1862, at just 32 and only 2 years after marrying Rossetti. Her husband had painted hundreds of portraits, in different mediums, of her future wife. He wrote poems to her. They gave each other nicknames and lived in isolation, basking in their mutual love. When she died, the grieving husband, ridden with guilt, buried her with the unpublish collection of poems he had written for her, the meticulous manuscript deposited by the head of the muse that he had painted so often, her long Hayworth hair carefully wrapped around the book.

Dante Alighieri had been a source of inspiration for Rossetti from the beginning of his career, his Medieval sensitivities attuned to the works of the Florentine poet.  He had altered the order of his names, so Dante would come first. He had translated La Vita Nuova into English. After Siddal’s dead, using some of the drawings he had made of her as a model, Rossetti painted her as Beata Beatrix, Dante’s undying chivalric love, his cult object, the woman who had conquered death and guided him through Paradise. Beatrice had also died young, at 25, in the Republic of Florence.

Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


But neither pain nor mourning last forever and soon Rossetti found comfort on Cornforth’s embrace again, his ideals of courtly love unable to check his natural propensities. He also started an affair with another of his muses, Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris, with whom he lived in a more or less public menage a trois. Contradicting not only his Medievals notions, but John Keats, the poet he tried to emulate, Rosetti went to Lethe and allowed himself to be persuaded by Jane and others to publish the poems that he had carefully put down by his dead wife’s brow. He had a friend unbury the coffin, open it, and recover the impure manuscript which he published the following year, in 1870.

But the poems were not well received, he had a mental breakdown, and in order to sleep, took chloral hydrate, with whisky chasers to remove the bad taste of the drug or of his conscience, and spent the last 10 years of his life in a state of sopor, now himself a drug addict. In an appropriate Dantean contrapasso, Rossetti was condemned by failing to keep his ideals with the same punishment that Elizabeth had suffered, the wife whose love and body he had desecrated. 

Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Jane Morris as the beautiful goddess of the Underworld

Almost 200 hundred years ago, in a day like today, May 12, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London. He died in Kent at 53.

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