Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance

Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance

Some pre-episode insights, in preparation for the live-streamed exhibition visit on April 8 with co-curator Peter Trippi

Thu 04 Apr 2024 12:36 PM

To “wire up” a museum for an online broadcast, you need a floor plan, loads of reliable cable and a bit of good math. But even the best of calculations does not solve our core question: with this extraordinary exhibition displaying some 350 pieces, including paintings, sculptures, prints, ceramics and decorative works, and 45 minutes in which to feature them live, what rooms do we choose? I am torn, as any Florence-loving anglophile would be, because the show’s title alone moves me: Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance. The exhibition, held at the San Domenico Civic Museum in the sleepy town of Forlì, a good two hours from Florence, is pure dreamscape. It combines what co-curator Peter Trippi calls “rock-solid Celtic themes” with “a relationship of mutual respect between Britain and Italy, where Florence is the locus of the love affair”. 

Pre-Raphaelites: Modern Renaissance exhibition, San Domenico Civic Museum, Forli

The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to explain the name in two lines or less, was founded by a group of poet-artist chaps in their early twenties, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They sought out the stories of bygone Britain and took Vasari’s Lives of the Artists a step further by putting the Old Masters at the centre of their canvases, in terms of style or as the protagonists of evocative imaginary scenes from daily life. A passionate group who read rivers of words when the sun went down were still mourning the death of 37-year-old Raphael more than three centuries after the fact, and because anger often comes with bereavement, they were enraged that Raffaello’s followers “mucked it up”, as Peter says, while trying to emulate their master post-mortem. Already bored with the stuffy Royal Academy, which loved landscapes and pet pictures at the time, the Brotherhood had to go further back to be inspired, and who wouldn’t choose the 15th century (and Florence) as a banner for all that ought to be? 

Evelyn Pickering De Morgan, Aurora Triumphans, 1886

The Brotherhood, whose later iterations also included the art of several women like Marie Spartali Stillman, Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and Elizabeth Siddal, is heart-wrenching, the way a summer night might break one’s heart because its silence ends too soon. In it we find all of our friends, from Florence and Great Britain, and most of them are either fighting the good fight or in need of serious help. Boccaccio’s Isabella is carrying her lover’s head around in a big pot of basil. Divine Comedy lovers Paolo and Francesca are wind-whipped in their circle of Hell in too many canvases to count. The eternal heroes of Arthurian Britain, like Lancelot and Galahad, are still pure of heart and of utmost relevance today in a modern materialist world wary of the “big ideas”. 

In this episode of Restoration Conversations, we will be looking for what Peter calls “girl power”, in sync with the program’s customary quest. “The history of 19th-century art is filled with women being depicted, and there’s no surprise there,” says Peter. “Women in this era were vessels of meaning. They were objects of great admiration or lascivious desire, or they represented noble things like love, liberty and faith.” But the exhibition holds other stories too: of the real women who went from models to makers, honing their own skills in the Pre-Raphaelite world. Some were painters and activists like suffragette Christiana Herringham. Others were models similar to Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal, a fine artist in her own right. Then we have the widely successful Evelyn Pickering De Morgan, whose mother wanted “a daughter, not a painter”, and whose tutor resigned as soon as she presented him with a study of a male nude. How many days until Monday, April 8? I’m counting down to when all of us will be standing with Peter Trippi in front of Marie Spartali Stillman’s Botticelli-inspired paintings, for spring and La Primavera need celebrating. 

Tune into Restoration Conversations: Women Artists and the Pre-Raphaelites live on Monday April 8 at 7pm CET, 6pm in the UK, 1pm EST, 10am PST.

This broadcast is sponsored by Calliope Arts with partners The Florentine, the De Morgan Foundation, and exhibition organizers the Fondazione Cassa dei Risparmi di Forlì, Grandi Mostre Fondazione Forlì, in conjunction with the San Domenico Civic Museum.

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