A New Kind of Beauty: Rossetti's Monna Vanna

Published 28 September 2012

One of the highlights of Tate Britain's major Pre-Raphaelite show is Rossetti's Monna Vanna. Carol Jacobi delves beneath the ArtFunded painting's sensual surface.

Rossetti’s Monna Vanna, painted in 1866, was one of the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings that the Art Fund helped purchase for the Tate Gallery, in 1916. The acquisition fell midway between the publication of Clive Bell’s Art and Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, the two books that signalled Modernism’s schism with Pre-Raphaelite art. The First World War was raging, changing Europe beyond recognition.

Origins of the painting

Monna Vanna is an early painting from the Aesthetic Movement, a convergence of art, design and literature that transformed European culture. It is one of a series of portraits of the young model Alexa Wilding made between 1865 and 1875. These included a rare nude, Venus Verticordia, which was purchased by Russell–Cotes Art Gallery with Art Fund assistance in 1945, and Lady Lilith.

Rossetti called them ‘double works of art’ – ideas that existed in poetic as well as pictorial form. Monna Vanna appeared in Rossetti’s 1861 translation of a sonnet by his hero and namesake, the medieval writer Dante Alighieri. She is named as the beloved of another poet, Guido Calvacanti, part of a list of the 60 most beautiful women in Florence.

On beauty

The painting can be seen as not so much about a beautiful woman as about beautiful art. Vanna was also short for Giovanna, connecting the painting to Raphael’s opulent Giovanna of Aragon, which Rossetti had admired in the Louvre in Paris in 1861 and 1863.

Rossetti originally called the picture Venus Veneta, alluding to the gorgeous courtesans painted in the 16th century by Titian. He described the picture in a letter as ‘a Venetian lady in a rich dress of white and gold – in short the Venetian ideal of female beauty’.

Venetian art was associated with specifically sensual beauty. In 1858, Rossetti’s friend John Ruskin, the celebrated critic, had been so overwhelmed by the visual splendour of a Venetian painting, Veronese’s Solomon and Sheba that it prompted him to become ‘an unconverted man’ and question his Christian faith. Rossetti reprised the half-undressed figure of Sheba in Venus Verticordia.


Colour, pattern and texture

Monna Vanna was not only a manifesto of feminine beauty, but of formal beauty. The final title on which Rossetti settled was Belcolore or ‘fair colour’. It expressed an idea that colour, pattern and texture were as important as subject matter. Colour, pattern and texture, were, moreover, powerfully universal qualities, common to art and design of all times and kinds.

Rossetti and his circle took an active interest in design and he kept an extensive collection of design objects such as Chinese porcelain. Monna Vanna features textiles, jewellery and furniture owned by the artist or his friends, all enclosed by a decorative frame. The pearl pin that sweeps the woman’s hair away from her brow was one of Rossetti’s favourite possessions and reappears in several other pictures by him.

A femme fatale

Like many men of his generation, Rossetti was ambivalent about feminine autonomy and about the power of feminine beauty. In his poems, beauty was often a form of enchantment and entrapment, the hair especially associated with the femme fatale.

In Monna Vanna the sumptuous textures of petal, silk and hair, cool coral beads caught against a soft palm, feathers tickling the sensitive skin of the neck, and the scent of the roses, all engage the senses of the viewer and bring us physically close. Her robes almost overflow into our space.

But for all this sensual intensity, her gaze remains aloof, self-absorbed, even cruel. ‘Her lips that have been often kissed are cherry-coloured, ripe and full’, wrote the critic Frederic Stephens, Rossetti’s fellow Pre-Raphaelite, ‘yet not warmed by inner passion, nor exalted by rapture of contemplation.’

A femme fatale surrounded by attendants reclines in her palace of art. Her searing orange robe vibrates with thousands of sculpted discs. She is indifferent to her lover lost in the cold world outside.

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