The Love of Dante: ‘Dantis Amor’ (1860)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, 1860

I thought it would be nice to discuss the namesake of my blog’s url, dantisamor. It’s a typically Rossettian title with allusions to Dante Alighieri and divine love and with a Latin or Italianate feel to it, so I thought it would make a pretty-sounding WordPress name! Contextually, Dantis Amor also has connections with that divine palace of Art which I am sadly yet to visit, Red House, and therefore with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Let’s see why.

Rossetti painted Dantis Amor, which translates as ‘Dante’s Love’, on a panel on the door of a settle in Red House, Bexleyheath, which had been built in 1860. ‘More a poem than a house,’ in the words of Rossetti, Red House was designed by the architect Philip Webb as the home of William Morris and his new bride Jane. While today Bexleyheath has been absorbed into the suburbs of London, in the 1860s it was still very much a rural village miles from the city, and Red House was actually built on the land of an orchard. Its name derives from the colour of its bricks, and its distinctive style, based on medieval vernacular buildings, went on to influence Arts and Crafts architecture in the nineteenth century and beyond. Morris intended it to become a locus of artistic energy and collaboration, with the Burne-Joneses (Edward was also recently married, to Georgiana MacDonald), Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ford Madox Brown and other artists and poets frequently visiting of the household. Many accounts of lively parties and garden gatherings survive. Elaborate, collaborative schemes were put in place to decorate the walls, windows and furnishings of the house with paintings and hangings, all in the medieval manner. Beautiful murals by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and others, which were (shockingly!) covered over with panelling and whitewash by later tenants, are still being uncovered today. In the airy, barn-like drawing-room upstairs stands the large, heavy settle whose cupboard doors were originally painted with scenes by Rossetti — these were removed sometime before 1863. Dantis Amor, the central panel, is now in the Tate, and was included in the 2012 exhibition along with two other Dante-themed panels (below) from the Red House settle (although they were only displayed in Washington).

Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the central half-quadrangle.
Red House, Bexleyheath, Kent. Designed by Philip Webb in 1859, construction completed in 1860. View from the rear garden. Image copyright National Trust.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence' and 'The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden', 1859. Like 'Dantis Amor', these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in Florence’ and ‘The Salutation of Beatrice in the Garden of Eden’, 1859. Like ‘Dantis Amor’, these two panels were also painted on the cupboard doors of the Red House settle. Note the winged figure of Love bearing a sundial in the middle.

The complex iconography of Dantis Amor — and almost all of Rossetti’s other Dante-themed paintings — is derived from a literary source, Dante’s autobiographical La Vita Nuova (The New Life) (1295), in which the medieval Italian poet immortalises his unrequited love for Beatrice Portinari. It was a fundamental favourite of Rossetti’s, who even produced a translation of it in as early as the 1840s. His father, the Italian political exile Gabriele Rossetti, was an eminent Dante scholar, and J. B. Bullen writes of ‘the imaginative life of the Rossetti household [being] dominated by the figure of Dante Alighieri.’ Much has been written of Dante Rossetti growing up to live in a Dantesque dream, venerating and beatifying Elizabeth Siddal as Dante did Beatrice. According to the Rossetti Archive, the title ‘Dantis Amor’ has a threefold meaning, referring to Dante’s love of Beatrice, God and Love itself, even though Dante himself does not appear in the painting. The colour palette of Dantis Amor is just gorgeous, with its blend of rich golds, royal blues and fiery reds. Standing at the centre is the allegorical figure of Love, as an angel with sweeping scarlet wings, a golden robe and a halo of auburn hair. The composition is strikingly geometric, divided up into diagonal, symmetrical segments. Framed in a crescent moon in the bottom left corner is the head of Beatrice — she looks diagonally up to the haloed head of Christ in the top left. A bottom-left to top-right diagonal separates two celestial realms: the golden world of Christ, filled with radiant sunbursts, and the nightly world of Beatrice, patterned with gold and silver stars. Here Rossetti visualises the final words of Dante’s Divine Comedy, ‘Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

Detail of Christ
Detail of Christ. The Latin inscription, ‘qui est per omnia saecula benedictus’, is the last line of ‘La Vita Nuova’ and means, ‘Who is eternally blessed’.
Detail of Beatrice
Detail of Beatrice. The facial features are probably those of Elizabeth Siddal.
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial
Detail of the winged Love, holding an unfinished sundial

The angel Love holds a long bow and arrow, at an angle which counterbalances the other diagonal, and also what looks at first glance to be a big white bowl. This is in fact an unfinished sundial; a completed drawing for the picture (below) shows that its shadow would have pointed to the 9th hour. For Dante, the number 9 had deep, symbolic connections with Beatrice: he was nine years old when he first met her (she was eight), his love for her lasted for nine years, and she supposedly passed away at nine o’clock. Since Beatrice was represented by the number 3 (also indicative of the Holy Trinity), she could be tripled to make 9. The angel’s sundial points to this number in memory of the hour of her death, as in Rossetti’s later painting Beata Beatrix (see links below), and is thus an indication that Dantis Amor portrays the moment of Beatrice’s transfiguration into heaven. The figure of the sundial-bearing Love can also be seen on the frame between the other Red House Dante painting previously shown above, and a preparatory drawing for this shows the angel in a similar attitude. Clearly, it was an image which fixated Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial pointing to the 9th hour.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, design for the Red House painting. This finished version shows the sundial casting its shadow on the 9th hour, and it’s labelled with 1290, the year of Beatrice’s death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Dantis Amor', study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Dantis Amor’, study of Love with a sundial and a torch, 1860. Like the drawing above, this picture bears the date of Beatrice’s death, apparently on the 9th June. The Latin inscription, ‘quomodo sedet sola civitas’, is the last line of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and means ‘Love which moves the sun and other stars’.

So, there we have it. Hopefully it’s now clear why I’ve chosen such a typically Rossettian name for this blog!

*

Further information

  • Extensive images of the newly-restored murals in the living-room of Red House can be found on Claudia Fiocchetti’s blog. I’m dying to go and see the paintings in situ soon! A video about the discovery and conservation of a Biblical-themed mural, possibly a collaborative venture between William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Elizabeth Siddal, can be seen on Youtube.
  • Rossetti explored the theme of the dying Beatrice in one of his most popular paintings, Beata Beatrix, which exists in several versions (the most famous is now in Tate Britain). The painting uses the features of Elizabeth Siddal, who had died in 1862, and many regard the painting as Rossetti’s haunting memorial to his deceased wife and muse. To view the painting and listen to audio commentary by Alison Smith, see the BBC Desperate Romantics website.
  • A videoed lecture from Yale University about Dante’s La Vita Nuova.
Advertisements

‘But kind and dear is the old house here’: William Morris’s Bed and Kelmscott Manor

William Morris's bed in Kelmscott Manor, Gloucestershire
William Morris’s bed in Kelmscott Manor, Gloucestershire

It was strange to encounter William Morris’s bed in a room of Tate Britain’s recent Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, the seventh room, called ‘Paradise’; strange, like meeting an old friend in an unexpected place. I had seen the bed twice before at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, sitting comfortably in the cosy room from which it hadn’t been moved since it was first put there centuries ago. Now, specially for this exhibition, it had been carefully dismantled for the first time and reassembled in a London gallery. A seventeenth-century oak four-poster bed from a peaceful old manor in an obscure, rural village suddenly transported into the metropolis, the pastoral meeting with the urban.

But its inclusion in the exhibition was well deserved. Really, as far as beds go it’s perfectly lovely, and every time I saw it I found myself envying Morris for being able to snuggle beneath its covers o’ nights. (I also envied Morris for being able to live in such a beautiful house!) What makes it so special is, of course, the gorgeous embroidered bedspread, pelmet and curtains. It was a collaborative venture between Morris’s wife Jane, his daughter May, Lily Yeats (sister of William Butler), and two women named Maude Deacon and Ellen Wright who came from Hammersmith where Morris had his London home. The pelmet and curtains were embroidered from 1891-93, while the bedspread was not made until 1910, some years after Morris’s death. As a whole the bed is a fine example of women collaborating in the Arts and Crafts style, and a testament to the Morris ladies’ skill with a needle and thread (May was made head of the Embroidery Department at Morris & Co. in 1885).

The overall tone and theme of the bed is rural, like the manor, and this is down to May Morris’s talents as a designer like her father. Alison Smith notes that May’s designs for the embroideries are ‘characterised by clear structures with stylised natural features contained within geometrical frameworks.’ The bedcover is a meadow, with small bouquets of wildflowers like embroidered botanical drawings set in an intricate network of twisting yellow borders; tiny birds and insects can be seen resting and crawling around the edges as if in hedgerows. To me, these creatures are rather like those which nestle in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry or medieval manuscripts. Also running along the edge of the bedcover is a stylised depiction of the River Thames, which flowed past the house, ending at a small embroidered miniature by Jane Morris of the manor itself.

Detail of the bedcover embroidered by May and Jane Morris, 1910
Detail of the bedcover embroidered by May and Jane Morris, 1910
Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing flora and fauna in the upper margin
Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing flora and fauna in the upper margin

The pelmet, running around the top of the four posts, is stitched with a poem by William Morris himself entitled ‘Inscription for an Old Bed’. I particularly love the fact that May Morris embroidered the words in Gothic script, as if the bed belongs in a medieval castle, and like an illuminated manuscript the letters are punctuated by little leaves and flowers. Morris’s poem opens thus:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.
But kind and dear
Is the old house here
And my heart is warm
Midst winter’s harm.

An important bed, to have a poem written about how comfortable and comforting it is! The third and most intricate, verdurous piece of embroidery is the bed curtains, which both portray a trellis twined with red roses and a fruit tree. Songbirds flutter among the leaves, and a brown rabbit crouches beneath. The design echoes William Morris’s Trellis wallpaper of 1862, though Alison Smith also likens it to the medieval tapestries in the Musée Cluny (the famous Lady and the Unicorn series), photographs of which May Morris owned.

The bed curtains open, displaying the bird-and-rose trellis design embroidered by May Morris and assistants
The bed curtains open, displaying the bird-and-rose trellis design embroidered by May Morris and assistants
William Morris, 'Trellis', designed 1862, manufactured 1864
William Morris, ‘Trellis’, designed 1862, manufactured 1864

The bed fits perfectly into the bucolic, artistic atmosphere of Kelmscott Manor. William Morris first discovered it, much to his delight, in 1871, and he took on a joint tenancy with Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The house itself is Elizabethan and rustic, something from a picture book: the river running by, slate floors, a panelled drawing-room, a creaking staircase, original seventeenth-century tapestries and a barn-like attic complete with quaint garrett rooms. Beyond the garden wall is the small village which even today lies hidden away down a series of winding country lanes with all its Cotswold-stone houses untouched by modernisation. For Morris the homely house and village embodied his ideal of rural living in which men and woman harmonised with nature and indulged in labour that was meant to be pleasurable rather than a chore. He wrote News from Nowhere in 1890 as a way of expounding his vision of an ideal society two centuries in the future. It is an idealistic, utopian novel which pastiches medieval romances and combines Socialism with soft science fiction (though don’t expect Doctor Who-style time travel). Kelmscott Manor features in the final chapters as the finishing-point of the hero’s journey along the Thames from London to the countryside. Morris’s fondness for the house shines through in the rich, descriptive prose, and when one visits the house one can still sense his warm presence in the willows, the stones, and even in the ancient yet cosy bed embroidered with birds and roses by his wife and daughter. After his death in 1896 Morris was buried in the graveyard of St George’s Church in Kelmscott, leaving behind him an artistic legacy influential to this day. Expect to see more of Kelmscott on this blog!

Kelmscott Manor viewed through the front gate. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.
Kelmscott Manor viewed through the front gate. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.
Jane Morris's bedroom at Kelmscott Manor. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.
Jane Morris’s bedroom at Kelmscott Manor. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.
Panelled drawing-room of Kelmscott Manor. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.
Panelled drawing-room of Kelmscott Manor. Picture from the Country Life Picture Library.

*

Further information

  • TateShots video by curator Alison Smith for Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, featuring rare close-ups of the bed’s embroidery
  • Article from the Society of Antiquaries of London about the dismantling of the bed for the Tate exhibition
  • A series of videos on the Kelmscott Manor website about Morris and the house
  • An online facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere. Kelmscott Manor appears as the book’s frontispiece in a drawing by Charles March Gere