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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 [1], 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 [2].


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 [5]. 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