Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece: Lorenzo and Isabella
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Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece: Lorenzo and Isabella

One of the first Pre-Raphaelite works to achieve notability was J.E. MillaisÂ’s Lorenzo and Isabella (1848-9). As its display of the P.R.B. initials would indicate, this was a firm statement of Pre-Raphaelite intent, and attracted accusations of archaism on every level.

One of the first Pre-Raphaelite works to achieve notability was J.E. Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella (1848-9). As its display of the P.R.B. initials would indicate, this was a firm statement of Pre-Raphaelite intent, and attracted accusations of archaism on every level. The subject derived from Boccaccio, a medieval Italian author. Consequently, the setting and costumes are literally Pre-Raphaelite, while the manner of painting self-consciously alludes to the Early Renaissance. Several of the figures, including Isabella and her brothers, are depicted in sharp profile, a device characteristic of 15th century Italian painting (e.g. Ghirlandaio’s Giovanna Tornabuoni [1488]). Moreover, each figure exists in an extremely shallow space and seems almost two-dimensional – in the manner of illuminated manuscripts. But before this can be accepted as simple revivalism, it should be noted that other historicist references are incorporated, which complicate the matter. Certain passages, such as the brother’s extended leg or Lorenzo’s shoulder, are executed with a strong black outline reminiscent of line engravings, and indeed the art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn has convincingly argued that Millais’s composition derives partly from an engraving after the Nazarene Moritz Retzsch (Macbeth, Act III, scene iv [1833]). Thus, Millais’s painting does not exhibit straightforward historicist revivalism, but a complex interplay between a range of past conventions, which Prettejohn has defined as “conceptual” primitivism: “It asks the viewer to think about the differences between naïve and sophisticated, archaic and modern, childlike and mature.”

Another aspect of this is the treatment of perspective. Academic precedent would have advocated the use of Brunelleschi’s single-point perspective system, which had flourished during the High Renaissance. However, the forms of Millais’s picture do not focus upon a single, central point: the floorboards veer towards the left of the image and remain completely parallel. This produces an imbalanced composition in which the left edge of the table, if it were visible, would appear foreshortened. Deliberately misinterpreting the principle of foreshortening, however, Millais has seated four figures on the left and eight on the right – as if this side was literally longer. He thus devises a consciously naïve image that suggests a “primitive” understanding of perspective. Similarly, the rear wall is emphatically flat and blank, precluding any perspectival lines and terminating the recession of space. An arched terrace projects from this wall, but it is impossible to tell if it does so parallel or perpendicular to it. Therefore, this ambiguous space resides irresolvably between the flat, manuscript-like and three-dimensional worlds of pre- and post-Raphaelesque art respectively.

This highlights the simultaneously archaic and radical character of Pre-Raphaelite painting. While certain archaic devices are undeniably present, the images are never entirely archaic. Modernising elements always coexist with reactionary ones. For example, Lorenzo and Isabella may evoke 15th century portraiture, but it possesses a particularity foreign to this source. The figures are uniquely expressive of character, scrupulously recording every detail of physiognomy in a way that demonstrates complete familiarity with the models. This resulted from the situation of the PRB – members and associates of the Brotherhood regularly posed for each other, making their figures appear alarmingly lifelike. It was also conditioned by the Pre-Raphaelite way of seeing which involved a scientific fidelity to nature, and produced an almost microscopic clarity of detail. This drastically modern way of looking at the world would seem to be incompatible with the generalisation favoured in 15th century portraiture. Therefore, the synthesis of these elements prevents the PRB form being dismissed simply as an historicist revival of Early Italian forms.

Similarly, it would be overly simplistic to attribute the Retzsch influence to a purely reactionary intention. The connoisseur Heinrich Wölfflin noted that such linearity was typical of pre-Raphaelesque art,6 but to cease analysis here would be to ignore the effect of this device. In Pre-Raphaelite (as well as pre-Raphaelesque) imagery, linearity emphasises the “tangible, separable “thereness’ of the objects represented.’ In other words, the Pre-Raphaelites used this archaic device to achieve a sense of immediacy wholly lacking in Raphaelesque art.

A corollary of this immediacy is the fact that Lorenzo and Isabella has a contemporary agenda. The ultimate source was Boccaccio, but Millais was informed by the retelling of the story by John Keats (1795-1821), at this date still a little-known poet. As a result, Millais’s picture of doomed love is set in an Early Renaissance mercantile society, which functions – as Prettejohn has demonstrated – as an analogue for the Victorian bourgeoisie. Thus, the class conflicts of Keats’s poem become in Millais’s image a critique of contemporary society, making it impossible to view the painting as a retreat from contemporary reality.

Viewed together, these factors demonstrate that the Pre-Raphaelite project was not the reactionary one of recreating the art of a past era, but to look at the era itself through eyes sharpened by the Pre-Raphaelite method. This involved a complex of modernising and archaic elements, and enabled the PRB to imbue even its medieval subjects with a striking immediacy and contemporary resonance.

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