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August 4, 2009

Italian homecoming for Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti

An exhibition celebrating the Italian origins of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, and his sister Christina Rossetti, the poet, has opened in the picturesque hilltop Adriatic seaside town of Vasto.
The centrepiece of the exhibition of specially loaned paintings, photographs, letters and books at the recently restored Palazzo d’Avalos is Dante Gabriel’s painting of his doomed wife, Elizabeth Siddal, as Beata Beatrix. On loan from the Tate Gallery, it is displayed in a room of its own on the piano nobile of the former hilltop palace overlooking Vasto’s sparkling blue bay and long sandy beach.
Jan Marsh, the biographer of both Dante Gabriel and Christina, and curator of the exhibition, said the painting, which depicts “Lizzie” as Beatrice, the muse of the great Italian medieval poet Dante Alighieri, appeared “bigger and even more luminous when singled out than it does at the Tate”. It is lit to appear glowing on a dark red background of the kind favoured by the Victorians.
Completed between 1864 and 1870, it was part of a cycle of paintings by Dante Gabriel illustrating Dante’s La Vita Nuova, and shows his wife at the moment of her tragic death (she died of a laudanum overdose in 1862 after a stillbirth). Seated on a balcony in Florence with a dove, the messenger of death, she appears “in a semblance of a trance in which she is suddenly rapt from Earth to Heaven”.
Dante Gabriel (who was given the name Dante as the last of his Christian names, but put it first) published translations of medieval Italian poets as well as his own verse. But he is best remembered today for his art and his creation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.
He buried his poems alongside his wife at Highgate Cemetery, but was later persuaded to have them exhumed and published. An addict of the drug chloral, he later became morbidly obsessed with Jane Burden, the wife of William Morris, and spent his last years as a recluse before dying in 1882. He is buried at Birchington-on-Sea in Kent.
Christina Rossetti, hailed as the “next female laureate” after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is still famed for her religious and children’s verse, including In the Bleak Midwinter and her long poem Goblin Market, which was illustrated by Dante Gabriel. She too suffered from depression, finding solace in the Anglo-Catholic movement and charity work at a home for prostitutes. She developed cancer and Graves’ disease, dying in 1894, and is also buried in Highgate Cemetery.
The Vasto exhibition, however, is infused with the sunlight of the Rossetti family’s Abruzzo origins rather than the gloom and repression of Victorian London. It features touching photographs of the Rossetti family in happier times at Dante Gabriel’s house at Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, taken by their close friend Lewis Carroll, and intricate, playful illustrations by Pre-Raphaelite artists for volumes by Tennyson and Byron as well as for Dante Gabriel’s own translations of Dante and the early Italian poets.
Dante Gabriel, Christina and their siblings, the critic William Michael Rossetti and Maria Francesca Rossetti, also an author, were the children of Gabriele Rossetti, an Italian patriot and poet, and Vasto’s most famous son. The main square of the town is named after him, with a statue of him at its centre. His house overlooking the bay — now a library and art gallery — bears a plaque recording his “exile in Albion”.
Born in Vasto in 1783, Gabriele studied poetry and painting in Naples thanks to the patronage of the lord of Vasto, Marchese Tommaso d’Avalos. Writing librettos for the San Carlo opera house, he also wrote poems and songs for the revolutionary nationalist movement, the Carbonari, and fell foul of the Bourbon monarchy in Naples, which put a price on his head.
He escaped into exile in 1821 at the age of 38. Disguised as a British naval officer, he fled at first to Malta, and three years later to London, where he became Professor of Italian at King’s College. In London he married Frances Polidori, daughter of another Italian exile, Gaetano Polidori. Gabriele Rossetti died in London in 1854 — but not before his children had imbibed his love of Italian culture.
Francescopaolo D’Adamo, head of culture for Vasto’s council and the driving force behind the exhibition, said neither Gabriele Rossetti nor his children had returned to Vasto. But the family spoke Italian at home and cherished its origins.
William Rossetti not only acted as keeper of the flame for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, editing its magazine and formulating its founding principles, but also kept alive the Rossettis’ Italian connection. He maintained correspondence with a cousin in Vasto, Giuseppe Marchesani, which is displayed, together with original photographs in a related exhibition at the nearby home of Carlo Marchesani, a descendant of Giuseppe.
The Rossetti exhibition also marks the 180th anniversary of Dante Gabriel’s birth. Jan Marsh said the Rossettis were in effect “the children of an asylum-seeker” for whom Italy was a lost paradise which informed all their literary and artistic output.

I Rossetti tra Vasto e Londra (The Rossettis between Vasto and London) is at the Musei Civici di Palazzo d’Avalos, Vasto, until November 16, open daily from 10.30am-12.30pm and 6pm-midnight. Entrance € 8.

L'immagine sotto è di una mostra degli anni Ottanta.

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