Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1852-1859


◦ Faxon, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 62-63.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 39-40.

Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters, 28.

◦ Treuherz, Prettejohn, and Becker, DGR, 157-158 (no. 40).

◦ WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer, 15-17.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 19-20.

Scholarly Commentary


The picture was undertaken as part of a planned triptych on key events in Dante's life and career. WMR elaborates how the picture was “to represent the life and work of the great Florentine in a triple relation” (see DGR as Designer and Writer 16-17 ). DGR himself named that triple relation “Art, Friendship, and Love” (see his long letter to Woolner of January 1853, in Fredeman, Correspondence, 53. 1 ). In this picture Giotto is painting the portrait of Dante on a chapel wall, while Beatrice moves below in a procession of women. The other two panels of the triptych would have shown Dante as a Florentine magistrate sentencing Cavalcanti to exile, and Dante at the court of Can Grande della Scala. Sketches toward the latter survive as Dante at Verona.

The Art celebrated in DGR's picture is clearly a Rossettian “double work of art”. Indeed, the picture underscores DGR's attachment to the ideal of relationship per se, with love and friendship reflecting an interchange he pursued in his life as an artist, designer, and writer.

The picture reflects DGR's response to the image of Dante that DGR knew from the tracing that Seymour Kirkup sent to DGR's father. The tracing was made from what was thought to be a portrait of Dante by Giotto, discovered in Florence when DGR was twelve.

Production History

DGR worked at the picture in 1852 and exhibited it, or rather the finished drawing, in the Old Water Colour Society's winter exhibition of that year. This pen and ink study, now in the Tate, is dated 1852. Hunt saw the finished watercolor in December 1852 (according to a letter from him to Thomas Combe, quoted in Surtees I. 19 ). This picture is now in the private collection of Lord Lloyd-Webber. DGR intended to do an oil painting on the subject but never did. The unfinished replica, now in the Fogg Museum, seems to have been planned at this time as well. Acccording to Hunt's letter to Combe, it was not executed until 1859.


The figures in this imaginary historical reconstruction, besides Giotto and Dante, are Cimabue (Giotto's master) standing behind the painter as he works, and Cavalcanti (holding a book of Guinicelli's verses) standing behind Dante. Beatrice moves below them in a procession of women; she is reading from a book. The arrangement is profoundly conceptual, all but allegorical, of DGR's “triple relation” of “Art, Friendship, and Love”. Dante and Giotto represent Art, the relations between the various men (but especially between Giotto and Dante) represent Friendship, and Beatrice and the women focus the subject of Love.

DGR's own elaborate commentary on the picture is important: “The main incident is that old one of mine, of Giotto painting Dante, but treated quite differently from anything you have seen, and with the figures of Cimabue, Cavalcante, Beatrice, and some other ladies. It illustrates a passage in the Purgatory which perhaps you know, where Dante speaks of Cimabue, Giotto, the two Guidos (Guinicelli and Cavalcante, the latter of whom I have made reading aloud the poems of the former who was then dead) and, by implication, of himself. For the introduction of Beatrice, who with the other women (their heads only being seen below the scaffolding) are making a procession through the church, I quote a passage from the Vita Nuova. I have thus all the influence of Dante's youth Art, Friendship and Love with a real incident embodying them. The combination is, I think, the best which has yet occurred to me in illustration of this period of the poet's life, and the design is certainly about the best I have made” (see Fredeman, Correspondence 53. 1 ).


A complex set of historical circumstances invest this picture. Giotto's original picture—a fresco celebrating the glory of Florence— included the figure of Dante holding a pomegranate. It was painted sometime between 1290-1300 on the altar wall of the Palace of the Podesta (later the Bargello) in Florence, but was subsequently covered with whitewash. It was rediscovered in 1839. Seymour Kirkup, one of the scholars who made the discovery, made a copy of the portrait of Dante and sent it to Gabriele Rossetti, from whom it passed to DGR.


As DGR's letter to Woolner indicates, the picture draws upon a pair of texts from Dante, both of which are copied on the Tate Gallery drawing: six lines from the Purgatorio XI. 94-99 (which deal with artistic fame and its transience) and a pair of lines from the sonnet about the perfection of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova (the sonnet translated by DGR as “For Certain he hath Seen all Perfectness”).


It is clear that DGR took the imaginary event pictured in the scene as an emblematic figuration of some of his most cherished ideas about art, and in particular about art's relation to love, friendship, and poetry.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
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