Pre-Raphaelites and the Myth of Italy

DANIEL B. GALLAGHER is an American philosopher and theologian stationed in the Vatican. He is exquisitely placed to pursue interest in aesthetics and, if I can phrase it this way, the intersection of aesthetics and metaphysics. Fr. Gallagher’s specific concerns are the adjoining issues of classical, medieval and modern theories of art and—beginning to assert itself once again—beauty.

He writes in the current issue of The Berkshire Review for the Arts, a small, elegant international e-journal devoted to just what its name indicates. On view until June 12th, at the Galleria Nazionale d”Arte Moderna, in Rome, is an exhibition illustrating the influence of Italian art on Victorian English sensibilities. Gallagher’s useful commentary on “Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and the Myth of Italy in Victorian England” appears here.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Lucrezia Borgia" (1860-1)

In his discussion of the exhibition format, Gallagher highlights the difficulty facing a modern audience bereft of the mythological and classical allusions that enrich viewing:

I am already anticipating the response that the artists themselves were bent on latent symbolism, but that is only partially true as the Proserpina demonstrates. Rossetti clearly wanted to appeal to our imagination but also to coax us to learn more about the story. Besides, he and his patrons were familiar with the same body of literature, a literature all but extinct in educational systems today.

While Gallagher wants paintings to speak for themselves, as we like to say, he is quite aware that historic works do not necessarily behave so openly. Accessibility being blocked by the viewer’s time-bound limitations, it becomes the critic’s responsibility to open a window onto the iconography. Viewing in a vacuum is very much a waste of time.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Proserpina" (1873)


Without being able to identify Proserpina or grasp the dense symbolism of the pomegranate, the viewer is left with a beautifully rendered, rather sour-faced woman who heralds nothing so much as Clara Bow or Theda Bara. Or, to keep things in the realm of paintings, those cupid’s-bow-lipped nudes—undressed flappers—that made Modigliani popular. Rossetti’s Proserpina becomes a very different experience in the light of its emblems. The richness of the symbol, as both a classical and a Christian metaphor, moves the eye off the surface of the painting, off the intricate transparancies of drapery, and into the very history that sustains a culture.

Gallagher could have done a better job at that. He is right to file complaint about contemporary ignorance of earlier references. But his own commentary is too cautious in filling in the gaps:

I am all for allowing pictures to “speak for themselves,” but that can be meant in two ways. The first way is to offer tendentious descriptions that favor a single way of interpreting a piece and its significance for art history. This kind of description tells us “what to look for” before we even look. The other way is to offer a synopsis of the piece’s subject, its intended location, and a reference to other works to which it may be related. Whereas the first way presumes that we cannot understand art without criticism, the second helps us to stand in front of a picture the way the artist and patron did. When the artist and patron stood in front of the picture they knew what it was “about” (is it Pia de’ Tolomei, Proserpina, or Pandora? (all pictures by Rossetti on display)), even if it was meant to embody the general idea of femininity and utilized the same model found in other pictures (namely Jane Morris, unhappy wife of William Morris, model for all three of Rossetti’s pieces listed above). At least initially, knowing who Proserpina is will be of more help than knowing who Jane Morris was. That said, perhaps the curators wished to highlight the perennial value of an outstanding picture of Proserpina no matter who she is. Besides, maybe it is by reading the Italian text in the picture or the English text on the frame that we best stand in the shoes of the artist or patron. I’ll let you decide.

There is nothing tendentious in elucidating the elements of a work that make it what it is. That is simply providing the ground of understanding, without which art history is drained of meaning. That final “I’ll let you decide” is a dodge, an instance of academic reluctance to stand squarely with the very history the art on view affirms.

Note: Daniel Gallagher added this codicil to his article in The Berkshire Review. I am glad he did:

. . . let me simply say four things about my hesitancy to “fill in the gaps”: (1) by “tendentious descriptions”, I had something quite specific in mind: namely, the formalist “art history” of, say, Clement Greenberg, not the history represented by, for example, Ernst Gombrich; (2) given the current cultural milieu (or malaise), I am open to the possibility that perhaps (and only perhaps) it is best to look at Proserpina first, take in her beauty, note that she is holding a pomegranate and then find out why; (3) which implies that a certain (albeit limited) understanding of the picture is possible simply by looking at it; (4) which, in turn, suggests that looking at it – even in a supposed “vacuum” – is never a complete “waste of time”.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Fascinating topic! I don’t have a problem with the “I’ll let you decide.” I don’t see what is has to do with academic reluctance. In fact, in art history at least, the tendency is for personally held beliefs to be phrased in a manner that claims it as fact.

    There is a difference between an academic like Salvatore Settis (for example) saying ‘Giorgiones Tempest represents Adam and Eve’ and Martin Kemp’s work on La Bella Principessa. One is an iconographical reading based on little documentary evidence and shaped by the commentator’s own indoctrination as to the meaning of Renaissance symbolism. Kemp on the other hand takes several pieces of documentary evidence and scientific findings and makes a probablistic statement about the work being a Leonardo attribution.

    In the absence of conclusive primary evidence about what an artists wants his work to be undertstood to mean(for the PRB there is luckily quite a lot extant!) any subsequent explorations must walk the line between presenting an opinion or a verifiable fact.

    The academic reluctance that is most prevalent in art history can be summarised hence:
    *an inability to subject logical arguments to rational criticism based on quantifiable elements. eg. being able to prove an iconographic decription is historically valid to the artists time.
    *an inability to decribe one’s pet theory in plain language (Michael Fried is the poster boy for this)
    *a reluctance to engage the public, or defend one’s work in a public forum. So much scholarship goes unnoticed because it is locked into the academic publishing system. So many times I have heard of exciting research done by a PhD candidate that never sees the light of day. Then you have journals and academic publishers getting surly at these researchers for daring to put their work online!

    Luckily, these archaic practises do not plague us in the Sciences. I shudder to think where we would be if they did!

    I think Mr Gallagher has done a good job at presenting a rational argument. If he does not want to shove it down his reader’s throats, then one can only praise him for it.

    This is the age of information and empowerment. A scholar dictating what we can or can not take away from the process of dialectical exchange has no place in the 21st Century.

    Kind Regards

  2. That first comment is more complicated than it needs to be. If we are talking about symbols (e.g. the pomegranate) and classical references (who the hell is Proserpina?), we are not–NOT–talking about “personally held beliefs.” We are talking about information that was available to the original audience that is less available, even totally missing, to a contemporary one.

  3. I’m with Joe. There is less to this argument than meets the eye. Art history explicates. It conveys information about iconography. What is there to decide about the once-understood meaning of a particular symbol? We read art history to regain lost understanding. In that sense, it is not an arena of opinion. (Or am I missing something?)

  4. @Painterjoe… I wasn’t aware YOU were in charge of moderating this discussion. My response was in regards to Maureen’s comment of the academic dodge. The PRBs symbolic language is based on Medieval and Renaissance antecedents, particularly Emblem books and literary sources, and is hence relatively easier to track. In addition we often have artists accounts of what their intentions were – I recently posted an example of Rosetti doing exactly this with his ‘Beata Beatrix’ series.

    However, when the documentary evidence is more scarce, or entirely absent, this IS where “personally held beliefs” trickle into art history. The most perfect example of this are the 150+ published interpretations of Giorgione’s Tempest. It truly is an art historical Rorschach test… classicists see Homeric figures, people of faith see a scene from scripture, and rationalists see a deliberate attempt to confound.

    We are at least lucky in this instance that the PRBs visual language is still extant. Those of us embroiled in study of earlier periods are usually not as fortunate!

    Kind Regards

  5. Can’t we leave this with Gallagher’s own comment? His distinction between Clem Greenberg’s brand of commentary and Gombrich’s is nice. It’s answer enough to the demurral in the initial post.

  6. These things are there. The garden and the tree
    The serpent at its root, the fruit of gold
    The woman in the shadow of the boughs
    The running water and the grassy space.
    They are and were there. At the old world’s rim,
    In the Hesperidean grove, the fruit
    Glowed golden on eternal boughs, and there
    The dragon Ladon crisped his jewelled crest
    Scraped a gold claw and sharped a silver tooth
    And dozed and waited through eternity
    Until the tricksy hero, Herakles,
    Came to his dispossession and the theft.
    –RANDOLPH HENRY ASH (aka A.S. Byatt)
    from The Garden of Proserpina, 1861

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