Art Throb #25: Dante incontra Beatrice al ponte Santa Trinita (1883) by Henry Holiday (1839–1927)

Henry Holiday (1839-1927), Dante and Beatrice (1883)
Oil on canvas, 142.2cm (56 in) x 203.2 cm (80 in)
Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

I first saw this painting before I knew what it was and who created it. Occasionally you come across something so lovely, out of nowhere, that you have to have it. It speaks to you. That's what happened when my husband and I saw a reproduction of this painting, a beautifully-framed print, in the window of a local shop recently. It called out to us, and we instantly fell in love with it. It may look a bit twee and 'chocolate box-y' but there's still much to appreciate and get your teeth into here. The setting – Florence – is one that we love, and we've been to this spot with the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. I'd love to go back to it and stand where those women are as it may help me work out exactly what is going on. Who or what, for example, is the woman in red looking at? Is it the man on the right, and if so, for what reason? Could she be chaperoning the woman in white and keeping an eye on the man, making sure his intentions are honourable, or is she in fact making eyes at him? The close-fitting nature of her red dress, highlighting her buxom curves, could be designed to capture his attention. Then again, could she be looking beyond him at something or someone else in the distance?

Meanwhile, where is the woman in white heading? She seems to have a lot on her mind. The rose she is holding must mean love, and her white dress must also mean purity. But is the target of her attention the man we see there, or someone else? Are the two women her friends or maidservants? Upper class women at the time were not allowed out in public on their own, so it would not have been unusual for them to accompany each other. As for the man himself, his doge-like attire suggests he is a respectable member of society. He's clasping his left side as if trying to act casually, but his gaze is very intense. He certainly seems taken by one of the women – the question is, which? Perhaps the woman in red, which is the most prominent colour of his hat.

Gazes criss-cross this picture like gunfire. Facially these women are reminiscent of pre-Raphaelite beauties – the 'stunners' with their pale skin, well-defined features and full figures – which makes me wonder if this image was created in the Victorian era, but harking back to a time before it. If that is the case, perhaps it is based on a work of literature – a poem or legend. That the three women are all dressed in the colours of the Italian flag may also be significant, suggesting an affiliation with the theological virtues and the three graces. Certainly, the cascading textiles here are beautifully, lushly rendered, the folds of the women's dresses contrasting with the hard lines of the stone walls.

The artist who created this image was Henry Holiday, who was in fact part of the pre-Raphaelite tradition of art. Friends with the major figures of the movement, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, on his death Holiday was described as 'the last Pre-Raphaelite'. Holiday was lifelong friends with Lewis Carroll, too, after being commissioned by Carroll to illustrate The Hunting of the Snark. The painting above is said to have been inspired by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), in whose autobiographical text, La Vita Nuova, the Italian poet describes his real-life love for Beatrice Portinari. As described by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool (which houses the painting), 'Dante concealed his love for Beatrice by pretending to be attracted by other women. The scene depicted in the painting is that of Beatrice refusing to greet Dante because of the gossip that had reached her. Beatrice is the woman dressed in white and she was modelled by Eleanor Butcher. The woman next to Beatrice is Monna Vanna, a companion of Beatrice and the mistress of Dante's friend Guido Cavalcanti. Monna Vanna was modelled by Milly Hughes.'
The print of this painting that my husband and I bought is now hanging in my house, so I get to look at it every day. One day I must go and see the original.  


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