Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Several Pre-Raphaelite painters, the painter John William Waterhouse, and the novelist George Eliot all showed an interest in classical mythology. Their visions of the classical world, however, were shaped by an equally strong interest in Renaissance art and literature and it is this combined interest that differentiated their masterpieces from those of the Neoclassical movement.
George Eliot’s 1863 novel, Romola, takes place in Florence in 1492, the year that the Alexander VI became pope and Lorenzo the Magnificent, who ruled over Florence, died, leaving Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar and enemy of the pope, free to gain power and promote religious extremism. But most of the Florentine characters we meet seem more interested in looking back to Ancient Greece and Rome than they are in discussing how they themselves are being ruled by one harsh dictator after another.
The first section of the novel introduces Tito Melema, a young man who has come to Florence from Greece under dubious circumstances, and Romola, the titular character, who lives with her blind father Bardo. Both Romola and Bardo are drawn to Tito, partly because they associate him with Classical Greece. Romola’s brother, on the other hand, is firmly dedicated to the church. Before he dies, he gives Romola a vague warning about her wedding day, as well as a small cross. This makes her uneasy about her relationship with Tito, and Tito quickly decides that it is the cross, a physical representation of her brother, and of the church, that is causing her distress.
His solution is to lock the cross in a wooden box, which he asks to have painted with the likenesses of himself and Romola, turned into Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus) and Ariadne. Tito explains to the painter that “It is a favourite subject with you Florentines—the triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne; but I want it treated in a new way. A story in Ovid will give you the necessary hints.” (Eliot, 185) The painter also uses the likenesses of Romola and her father to paint Oedipus and Antigone, two other characters from Greek mythology, and Tito is able at least temporarily to cover Christian obligation with classical tradition.
The Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt’s 1868 painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, was inspired by a tale from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book of stories narrated by friends fleeing from the Black Plague, and by a subsequent John Keats poem about Isabella. The original stories come from a variety of different cultures and time periods. In the story, Isabella’s brothers kill her lover and she grieves by keeping his head in a pot of basil.
In 1916, John William Waterhouse, a late Victorian and early twentieth century artist heavily influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, painted A Tale from the Decameron, possibly meant to portray the group of storytellers who introduce each tale.
Waterhouse also painted Dante and Beatrice (later retitled Dante and Matilda), showing characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which recreated elements of the classical world, despite its stern enforcement of contemporary Catholic morality.
These three Victorian artists, two painters and a novelist, each in his or her own way, looks back to ancient Greece and Rome through the words and images of writers and artists of the Italian Renaissance.
Interestingly, this tactic of examining one historical period through the artwork of another continues in modern day historical fiction. An episode of the recent television series The Borgias, shows its Renaissance protagonists, Lucrezia and Cesare, in clothing reminiscent of Echo and Narcissus, Waterhouse’s 1903 painting.
In this scene, Cesare says to Lucrezia, “I may not be Narcissus, but may I dance with Echo?”, alluding to Lucrezia’s lover, who she has nicknamed Narcissus.
Holliday Granger as Lucrezia and François Arnaud as Cesare in The Borgias.
Eliot, George. Romola. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.
“The Borgia Bull.” The Borgias. Showtime. 8 Apr. 2012. Television.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Proserpine”, Google Art Project. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgD
William Holman Hunt, “Basilpot.” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.
John William Waterhouse, “Decameron”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waterhouse_decameron.jpg#/media/File:Waterhouse_decameron.jpg
John William Waterhouse, “Dante and Matilda” [originally entitled “Dante and Beatrice”]. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_Dante_and_Matilda.jpg#/media/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_Dante_and_Matilda.jpg
John William Waterhouse, “Echo and Narcissus”, Google Art Project.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Photo from The Borgias by Showtime © Copyright: Showtime 2012