‘A kissed mouth loses no savour’: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Bocca Baciata’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Bocca Baciata', 1859
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Bocca Baciata’, 1859

Having heard enough experts say it, I can confidently tell you it’s pronounced ‘Bokka Batchy-ah-ta’. I say this more for my benefit, because Rossetti’s fanciful Latin and Italian painting titles occasionally confuse me, and also because I have numerously heard it pronounced ‘Bokka Backy-ah-ta’ and ‘Bokka Bassy-ah-ta’. Thus, pronunciation will probably become something of a recurring theme on this blog.

Tim Barringer has noted that Bocca Baciata ‘announced an entirely new departure in Rossetti’s art, which would dominate the rest of his career.’ It is therefore of importance to Pre-Raphaelite scholars, as well as being a beautiful painting to look at. From Bocca Baciata onwards Rossetti moves away from solely medieval and moralistic subjects and into the more sensual realm of bejewelled, luxuriant women for which he is best remembered today. The original Pre-Raphaelite manifesto of painting faithfully — even photographically — from nature is no longer as prominent, replaced with an emphasis on ornamentation and beauty for beauty’s sake. Bocca Baciata has no narrative or moral attached to it as the Victorians would have liked: as a first glance suggests, it is simply a half-length portrait of a woman, subjectless and with little in the way of an underlying message. Still, the picture isn’t entirely without meaning. The title is a quotation from the Decameron, a Canterbury Tales-style collection of stories by the medieval Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio which was a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites; the full quote, when translated, reads ‘A kissed mouth loses no savour, but rather renews itself like the moon.’ The tale in which the quote appears is particularly bawdy, concerning a alluring woman named Altiel who ‘consummates eight relationships’ before marrying a king. Viewers are therefore obviously intended to view the painting as erotic, especially since its original commissioner, George Price Boyce, was notorious for his love of attractive women.

There is also the clear influence of sixteenth-century Venetian art as opposed to Quattrocentro, late medieval painters: compare Rossetti’s paintings of ideal, sensuous female beauty with Titian and Palma Vecchio’s pictures of the same subject. Rossetti himself even described his new painterly style as having ‘a rather Venetian aspect’, and in Bocca Baciata his brushwork (in oils) is looser and fleshier than in his angular, stained-glass-esque watercolours of the earlier 1850s. Since Titian, Veronese and Palma Vecchio appear nowhere on the Brotherhood’s ‘List of Immortals’, Rossetti is clearly taking Pre-Raphaelitism in a new aesthetic direction.

Palma Vecchio, 'A Blonde Woman', about 1520
Palma Vecchio, ‘A Blonde Woman’, about 1520

The model of Bocca Baciata was Fanny Cornforth. Born Sarah Cox on a Sussex farm, she came from the rural working-class. She met Rossetti in 1858, sat for the painting the following year, and eventually became his housekeeper and mistress when he lived at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, from the 1860s-1880s. It is interesting, as a side note, that a woman from obscure, lowly origins ended up in the circles of bohemian, middle-class London, and a character like Fanny needs a separate post all to herself. Her beauty is unconventional by Victorian standards, red-haired, voluptuous and fleshy rather than demure and virginal — with, of course, those trademark Rossetti lips. Fanny’s lavish sexuality is symbolised by the apple on the shelf before her which invokes Eve and the Fall, and is expressed more frankly in her waterfalling, untrammelled hair and unbuttoned blouse. This is then curiously contradicted by the white rose in her hair, typically symbolising innocence, and by the background of marigolds which in the ‘language of flowers’ signify grief or pain; to me, this furthers the idea that the painting is intended to just be viewed and admired rather than scrutinised for symbolism and morality. Rossetti executed a drawing of Fanny in the same year as Bocca Baciata, and the likeness between the two pictures makes one wonder if the painting is really intended as a portrait of Fanny rather than simply an imaginary, generalised female head. It is this blurring between portraiture and idealism which makes Rossetti intriguing.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Fanny Cornforth', 1859
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Fanny Cornforth’, 1859

Bocca Baciata was exhibited at the PRB-founded, artistic Hogarth Club in London in 1860. It was well received, and heralded the start of a new phase of Rossetti’s work. And it’s beautiful.

*

Further information

    • Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate exhibition catalogue, p. 162
    • Bocca Baciata in The Rossetti Archive
    • Audio commentary by Alison Smith on the BBC Desperate Romantics website
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