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Unrequited Love: On Canvas & In Our Lives | Neep Saikia

Neep Saikia

“Love is sweet but unrequited love is a sweet poison.”

Dante and Beatrice- A tale of two souls who were so near yet so far from each other. Dante’s love for Beatrice has inspired countless of his literature. His love though an incomplete and even an unacknowledged one (as Beatrice had no idea of Dante’s live for her), was yet a glowing motivation for a Lover an igniting inspiration for the artist.

The burning unrequited love of Dante

There existed a gulf between these two hearts-Dante and Beatrice. Dante stood with a passion on one side and Beatrice quietly walking on the other. She was loved from a distance. Both of them were an unknown creature to each other. This love had a chasm and probably this chasm never let Beatrice have any idea about the depth of Dante’s passion for her. But she went to become one of literature’s most famous figures.

Like many, the arrow of ‘love at first sight’ hit Dante Alighieri. He was just nine when he saw Beatrice for the first time in his life. This love became the central part in Vita Nuova, saying “Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.”

Beatrice in Dante’s heart was more than a simple muse. A love that was romanticized and idealized, the kind of love that surpassed physicality. This love was given a life in La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy. Beatrice was Dante’s redemption, the “gentilissima” (most kind)  and “benedetta” (blessed). It is Beatrice who becomes his guide in Heaven in Divine Comedy.

Famous Painter ‘Dante’ Gabriel Rossetti has kept alive the Pre-Raphaelite works of Dante and Beatrice. Gabriel Rossetti’s love was swayed by Dante’s unrequited love. Dante Alighieri’s influence upon Gabriel Rossetti was cosmic. Dante turned out to be an inescapable ghost in the Rossetti house. Gabriel’s father, Professor Gabriele Rossetti was also a Dantean scholar like his son. He domesticated an obsession for locating out Masonic allusions in the works of Dante and this allusion became his life’s fixation. Professor Rossetti’s earlier life was affianced by the work of English writers- Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott but the magic of Dante’s artistic beauty seems to have been absorbed into Gabriel’s genes and became a frequent subject of  his work. Gabriel later went on to translate Dante’s Vita Nuova and his own personal life and relationship with  Elizabeth Siddal, the model and painter who went on to become his wife, and who seemed at times, to be parallel to Dante’s love for Beatrice.

Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast, denies him her salutation – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1855)

In Rossetti’s 1855 watercolor of Beatrice meeting Dante at a marriage feast where Elizabeth Siddal was featured as Beatrice, love had hit high in Rossetti’s life and he began to see Elizabeth as his muse, molding her as the central female character in his work.

The importance of Elizabeth in Rossetti’s life can be traced out through this passage from Vita Nuova where he used in his water colour:

I began to feel a faintness and a throbbing at my left side, which soon took possession of my whole body.  Whereupon I remember that I covertly leaned back unto a painting that ran round the walls of that house; and being fearful lest my trembling should be discerned of them, I lifted mine eyes to look upon those ladies, and then first perceived among them the excellent Beatrice.  And when I perceived her, all my senses were overpowered by the great lordship that Love obtained, finding himself so near unto that most gracious being, until nothing but the spirits of sight remained to me.

Elizabeth Siddal worked in a millinery shop in London and there British artist Walter Deverell first discovered her when he noticed her, immediately when, he tried fitting her into his artistic mental space. Elizabeth Siddal posed for Deverell’s Twelfth Night also regarded as the magnum opus of Deverell’s works. After this Elizabeth’s career took a fine turn towards modeling and she started modeling for other Pre-Raphaelite artists which also included Rossetti.

Rossetti recognized Elizabeth’s fine artistic dexterity and he made her a subject of his every creation, with Elizabeth posing only for him. This professional relationship between Rossetti and Elizabeth started taking a complex and different turn. Professional relationship got decimated by a kind of romantic relationship between the two. Nine years of professional relationship and two years of romantic relationship tied this bond for forever by marriage. Rossetti once confided to British artist Madox Brown that when his eyes caught the hold of Elizabeth, Rossetti felt that the Lord Almighty had then set the course of his destiny. Although this course of destiny may not confirm with that of Dante’s nor did it establish itself as a literal truth, yet it illustrated Rossetti’s endeavor to identify his love for Elizabeth with the type that Dante had for Beatrice. Rossetti’s artistic obsession for Dante’s might led him to imitate his relationship with Beatrice by casting Elizabeth as his sole and ideal woman and asserting Elizabeth as his artistic Muse. Elizabeth’s features can also be seen in The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice in Paradise.

The Meeting of Dante & Beatrice in Paradise – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1854)

Rossetti’s work ‘The Blessed Damozel’ was highly influenced by Beatrice’s unpropitious death. Beatrice breathed her last breath at the tender age of twenty four. This notion of love after death would be taking a deepened connotation after the untimely death of Elizabeth from a Laudanum overdose. Rossetii’s tragic state of love and his identification with Dante’s state of love took him to the zenith of his artistic career. With Elizabeth no longer being the artistic muse for Rossetti, he converted her to an even more Beatrice-like figure, elusive in the after-life. In his posthumous tribute to her, he painted her as Beatrice lying at the edge of death.

In the background of Beata Beatrix, we can see the figure of Dante and the emblematic figure of love.

Beata Beatrix – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1870)

Rossetti’s another sign of perfection-The painting of Jane Morris was completely inspired by Beatrice. Devoid of his usual props, flowers, and symbolism, Rossetti sculptured Jane as the role once held by his wife. The spiral hair pin worn by Jane will simply convey the truth.

Beatrice – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1879)

Jane Morris again made her appearance as Beatrice in The Salutation of Beatrice. We can figure out that as much as Rossetti had always longed to idealize the love that he had for Elizabeth, he was in need of an earthly love as well. Elizabeth’s presence can be felt to be the consummation of the love he depicted in The Blessed Damozel, but the grandiosity of his love for Elizabeth made it insufficient to sustain him or his art. Throughout the course of his professional life, he had passions for other women, including his models Fanny Cornforth,  Siddal, and Jane Morris. This artistic passion fits these women into each of his masterpieces. Each of these loves had irrefutable impact on his work and style.

The Salutation of Beatrice – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1869)

The creation of Rossetti’s Dantean work which can be said to have achieved, almost, perfected, can be his masterpiece, Dante’s Dream, where Dante is portrayed as dreaming Beatrice’s death in Vita Nuova. The scattering of poppies on the floor further beautifies the perfection. The role of Beatrice in this work was given the life by Jane but the love for Elizabeth compelled him to incorporate her feature in the picture by subsuming Elizabeth’s red hair over Jane.

Dante’s Dream – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1871)

Other Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian artists created works inspired by Dante’s unrequited love for Beatrice. Simeon Solomon was definitely influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, and Rossetti’s influence can be seen in his drawing of Dante meeting Beatrice.

Dante’s First Meeting with Beatrice – Simeon Solomon

Henry Holiday, who upon his death was described as “the last Pre-Raphaelite”, painted Dante and Beatrice in 1883-4.  He traveled to Florence in order to achieve accuracy in his work.

Dante & Beatrice – Henry Holiday (1883)

Marie Spartali Stillman studied under Ford Madox Brown and in 1867, she became a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti as well. That friendship helped inspire her paintings of Dante.  In the late 1870s, Spartali Stillman moved to Florence and living there, influenced many Italianate works, some of which were inspired by not only classical sources, but also Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s early Italian Poets.

Dante & Beatrice – Marie Spartali Stillman (1895)

All these artistic perfections has glorified the character of Beatrice to such an extent that now the character of Beatrice has been pulled into the rather engaging question-Whether Beatrice was a real lively woman or a just the fantasy of Dante or an artistic inspiration. Dante’s obsession further pierced the nature of Beatrice. However the expressive mode of Dante in his work was able to put a blanket on all these speculations. Everything of Beatrice was – silence. Nothing speaks from that side nor whispers, except Dante’s palatial obsession for her. The swains of literature still put questions regarding Beatrice’s passions, her fear, her loves. Dante and his artistic nimbleness has not only eulogized Beatrice, his obsession and of course establishing his savvy over literature. We always ignore the other side of this ethereal, exquisite and eternal Unrequited Love of Dante.

In this globalized and technologically-dominant civilization, where we humans have been just reduced to a critter with the over whelming tenets of individualism accompanied by selfishness. We the humans in-fact accept each other and look for each other with the view of extracting the possible benefits. This dark tenet has invaded the divine love. Love is no longer the love that Dante propagated or Jack and Rose created so magically in Titanic.

So, what does the love of Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari teach us? What is the value of Dante’s unrequited love in the 21st Century?

Our dynamic society has erased the value in, and of love. It seems that we have forgotten that love can be of many forms. We only regard love to be mutual. If there is no reciprocity in love then it ceases to be love. Dante’s love for Beatrice may have been idealized and unattainable, but at the core of that love is admiration, goodness, and respect. In this point, we should know that Dante’s love was not mutual. Dante’s love earned the badge of being unrequited or ‘one sided’. But the thing is that unrequited or one sided love is also among the many forms of love. In-fact, unrequited love bears some extraordinary aspects which often, not all mutual love carries. Unrequited love is divine, eternal and ephemeral. It harvests respect, tolerance and care in one’s heart. Yet, the value of unrequited love is not neglected. Only a very few literature has able to understand the divinity of unrequited love. We prize the scintillating effect, and love has become synonymous with physical lust. Dante’s love transcends the physical aspect of love. Unrequited love is a love of the heart and the intellect. Treasuring the people in your life who inspire us intellectually, prompting us to be the best version of ourselves that we can be? That’s something we all can aspire to be.

“O human race, born to fly upward, wherefore at a little wind dost thou so fall?” –Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

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