Paradise Descending:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Obsession with Dante Aligheri

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was not born with that name; not entirely, that is. In truth, he was born Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, son of an Italian scholar living in London, but later changed the arrangement of his name so as to closer identify himself with the great 13th-14th century Italian poet Dante Aligheri, author of la Divina Comedia and Vita Nuova. This is only the beginning of his obsession with the poet, culminating in one of Rossetti's greatest works, "Beata Beatrix," a portrait of his late wife Elizabeth Siddal as Beatrice, the love of Dante.

It is difficult to say whether Rossetti's interest in Aligheri is the result of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's fascination with the Middle Ages, or if the PRB's love of the medieval is the result of Rossetti's interest in Dante and legends of the Dark Ages. Certainly it would have started, even been nurtured by, his father, who named him in part for the poet; indeed, it would seem that his interest may predate the formation of the Brotherhood. It could be that they coincided, with both Rossetti and the PRB movement being in the right place at the right time. Still, the Pre-Raphaelites' love of the medieval, so prevalent in the later Circle of Burn-Jones, Morris, Waterhouse, and the like, can be traced more to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom the later artists so idolized, as opposed to William Holman Hunt's religious obsessions or John Everet Millais' Victorian sentimentalism. It was Rossetti who truly formed the backbone of the early Brotherhood, and was a mentor to the later Circle.

Even early in his career, Rossetti's interest is apparent. In 1848, he translated portions of Aligheri's Vita Nuova, which details Dante's unconsumated love for Beatrice, a theme that also runs through the Divine Comedy. It is at this time that Rossetti changed the order of his name and initials, dropping "Charles" altogether. This would become a lifelong identification with the poet, emphasized by his relationship with Elizabeth Siddal.

One year later, he did a preliminary sketch for "Dante Drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice." The sketch is an angular pen and ink, quite different from the finished painting of 1853. This is one of his finest early works; the grainy style typical of Rossetti is apparent, and like a true Pre-Raphaelite painting, the colors are bright and jewel-like, red is predominant, and it is full of symbolism, such as the hourglass on the shelf above Dante. Also typical of the Pre-Raphaelite style in this painting is the close, confining quarters of the interior with a window to the outer world; such a device served as a comment on Victorian lifestyle, which the PRB found suffocating, as well as a way to recall the feel of medieval illuminations, with its tight quarters and bright colors (hence the name "illuminations"). An interesting note resides in that the woman at the far left is Elizabeth Siddal, whom Rossetti had just met. This was before she became his Beatrice.

In 1855, Rossetti completed "Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Wedding Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation." Again, this is a very crowded painting, full of wedding guests and well-wishers. Dante is dressed in red, symbolic of passion, while Beatrice, with the face of Elizabeth Siddal, is dressed in green, symbolic of life, an ironic color, given Beatrice's status as the dead beloved of Dante. It is a grainy watercolor, which results in bright, almost translucent colors. The same year he completed "Dante's Vision of Rachel and Leah," a detail from the Purgatorio. This is also in vein with the PRB's commitment to pastoral, natural scenes. It is likewise a grainy watercolor. There is said to be a companion piece, of the sequence "Matilda Gathering Flowers," but it is missing. However, a triptych of the story of Paolo and Francesca, doomed lovers in the Inferno, does still exist. In it, we see the lovers' first adulterous kiss (note Paolo's red tunic and Francesca's red hair, symbol of passion and the fallen woman), then Dante and Virgil (who, like Beatrice, is dressed in green, which seems to be Rossetti's symbol for eternal life) looking on, and finally Paolo and Francesca in hell. However, Rossetti changes the story somewhat--in the original, the lovers can never touch each other, and this is their punishment. In the painting, they are in each other's arms, while flames dart past them. This representation of physical love stands in contrast with Dante's spiritual love for Beatrice, but the painting tries to reconcile the two types of love, which always perplexed Rossetti. However, he wouldn't be successful in reconciling the two types until his later work.

In 1860, Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal, a model and artist with whom he had an affair. This wasn't a happy marriage, both partners suffering from depression and drug addiction. Moreover, this was a "pity" marriage, done not out of love but out of loyalty to Siddal, believing he could save her from herself. Part of Rossetti's obsession with Dante became an identification of two kinds of love, one being chaste and spiritual and identified with the person of Beatrice, the other being earthly and physical. In marrying Siddal, Rossetti felt he was destroying her position as Beatrice, despite the fact that they were already lovers. This confusion over the types of love is evident in his paintings, particularly those dealing with the theme of Dante Aligheri.

In this year, Rossetti also completed "Dantis Amor," a painting on a cupboard door for William and Jane Morris. It is an odd picture, with Christ in the upper left, looking at Beatrice in the lower right, with the personification of love as a red-winged angel in between. In the original sketch, the head is that of Jane Morris, with whom he would later have an affair, but in the finished painting, it is Lizzie Siddal who appears as Beatrice. The confusion of love is evident here, and ironically in the title, "Dante's Love."

The marriage was a short, tumultuous one, ending in the suicide of Siddal by way of a drug overdose of Laudanum, an opiate. Depressed, especially since the miscarriage of their only child, and no doubt also by Rossetti's infidelities, particularly with Jane Morris, wife of friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, Siddal is thought to have intentionally overdosed on the narcotic. Whether or not this is true, she certainly would have died eventually from an overdose of the drug, due to her persistent addiction (not uncommon for Victorian women). Rossetti was forever haunted by this, blaming himself and his infidelities for her death. His final tribute to her was the painting "Beata Beatrix," quite possibly Rossetti's finest painting (and certainly his finest on the subject of Dante), completed in 1870, eight years after Siddal's death. In it, we see the moment of rapture when Beatrice is dying, in transit to heaven. A red dove, symbolic of love and passion, drops a white poppy into her lap. The white poppy is not only a symbol of death but of the kind of death that Siddal suffered, poppy being the plant from which opiates are derived. She is dressed in green and red, the colors of passion and eternal life. The sundial represents fleeting time, much like the hourglass in the first painting did. The Angel of Love is dressed in red, though lacks the red wings, so typical of Pre-Raphaelite symbolism, and Dante is half hidden in the background of the right side. Siddal's face is an expression of ecstasy, both spiritual and sexual; finally, Rossetti was able to join the spiritual and physical loves in this painting. Here, Rossetti's obsession with Dante reaches its fulfillment--in his dead wife, he has found his Beatrice, and now is able to take the role of Dante himself, enduring his own inferno of guilt over her death, for Siddal's death did haunt Rossetti for the rest of his life.

The following year, he painted once more on the theme of Dante. This was "Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice," an oil version of a watercolor he did in 1856. The largest of his paintings, it returns the Vita Nuova, wherein Dante tells of being led by Love to Beatrice's funeral bier. There is a marked difference in the style of this painting, compared with his other works. The bright, grainy quality is gone, replaced with a dark, smooth texture which seems more in line with his later works on Jane Morris. The Pre-Raphaelite hallmarks are there, though--red-winged angel, close quarters, a window to the outside world, and a fascination with the medieval.

Rossetti's life progressively worsened. His long affair with Jane Morris continued until his death in 1882. He no longer turned to Dante, no doubt feeling guilt over the death of Lizzie Siddal, but focused on portraits of the various women in his life, in particular Jane Morris. It may be that he found he could go no further with this subject--moreover, the guilt he felt over Siddal's death, convinced as he was that he killed her, may have driven him away from a subject so dear to his heart and his art. But in the final painting "Beata Beatrix" (as "Dante's Dream" is really a reworking of an earlier painting), Rossetti does, for one brief moment, seem to exorcise those demons, his confusion between spiritual and physical love.

Works Cited

Everett, Glenn. "Dante Gabriel Rossetti--Biography." The Victorian Web Overview: no date. Internet. Available at

Hilton, Timothy. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

McGann, Jerome J. The Complete Writings and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: A Hypermedia Research Archive. March 19, 1997. Internet. Available at

Rodgers, David. Rossetti. London: Phaidon, 1996.

Whiteley, Jon. Oxford and the Pre-Raphaelites. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1989.

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