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THE ROSSETTIS, radical Romantics with a social defiance
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THE ROSSETTIS, radical Romantics with a social defiance

What Medieval Florence has in common with Victorian London?

 

The Spring exhibition at Tate Britain takes a gorgeous insight at a revolution in the Arts, both in Britain and beyond

It started with Dante, when Gabriele Rossetti established himself in London with his great knowledge of Italian literature focused on its Florentine founder. He, a poet and patriot, (a founder of the secret society ''Carbonari'') was forced into exile from the Kingdom of Naples and transferred his political passion to his 4 children, born in London after his marriage with the daughter of Gaspare Polidori, another scholar expat from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, who studied law at Pisa University and became secretary of Vittorio Alfieri.

Italian culture and political ferments ran deeply in the Rossetti family, who sided on the left wing in a growing industrial society with growing class discrepancy and increasing social problems. The Rossettis' passionate, anti-establishment personalities reflected Dante's feeling towards his contemporary Italy. His critics of the class and political feuds in medieval Florence chimed with modern Victorian London.

The young siblings lived in streets crowded with factory workers, vendors, ruffians, well-to-do men, prostitutes , but they ate bread and Dante's poems at home, Dante was part of the family as their father devoted his career to teaching, translating and interpreting Dante's works. Maria, Gabriele, William e Cristina were mesmerized by ancient stories of love and death, political fervor and celestial visions.

Dante provided especially Gabriele with a model of an artist searching for beauty, love and truth in a materialistic world. He felt himself as a reincarnation of Dante and adopted his name. Cristina and Maria explored social justice trough their writing and involvement with the Church, Gabriele and William championed revolution trough Art. The first one excelled in poems(''Goblin Market'' brought her fame and a ''Christmas Carol'' is still sung in church) Dante Gabriele triumphed in painted dramas of love and conflict, reflecting his attraction toward sensation and romance, which developed in the sensual beauty of his famous models' portraits surrounded by dreamy and symbolic atmosphere.

 

And so the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood was born (1848-53) founded by the Rossettis as the first British movement of an art challenging the ''soulless self-reflection'' of the state sponsored Royal Academy, declaring their pledge to old master style and past artists such as Raphael. Their paintings and writings focus on biblical stories and medieval books which reminded their modern lives.

Moreover Dante Alighieri offered Dante Rossetti a mirror reflecting his tragic love story with Elizabeth Siddal, whose hair were to be ''the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams''. It remembered Dante's distant and everlasting adoration of Beatrice Portinari, ideally met again in his Heaven. ''Beata Beatrix'' is Rossetti's most famous portrait of his Lizzie, rich in symbols connected with his love for her, painted while he was still full of grief and remorse after her suicide in 1862.

This painting is of course in the Rossettis exhibition at Tate Britain (6/4 - 29/9) together with a constellation of drawings and poems by the 4 siblings who created medieval fantasies of love and temptation, loyalty and betrayal as well as questioning victorian attitudes toward women labelled as ''fallen''.

Sexual fall and redemption is a recurrent theme in their work, which brought in the realm of Art working-class women as models interpreting ambitious historical issues. See ''Bocca Baciata'' , with reference to Boccaccio, another Florentine glory of Italian Literature, praised and consulted in the Rossetti family.

Underlying themes of erotic fantasy from the past are better underlined by the Venuses surrounded by mirrors in the last halls of the exhibition, fascinating portraits of ''sirens-sybils'' with flowers, jewels, exotic accessories and figures. They are mixed with archaic fantasies of femininity and scented with sensuality, echoing the definition of Art as ''a beautiful, romantic dream'' , but with a touch of morbid mind trip which may have been disturbing.

After all the Rossettis, like Dante, aimed at a shocking impact for contemporaries. They did it indeed and Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetic Movements influenced 19th and 20th century art and literature and beyond. Even in our cynical times, it is difficult to escape their legacy through romantic fiction, advertising, interior design, tv drama, fashion, fantasy, cartoons...and not falling under their spell.

MARGRETA MOSS

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