Ravenna 3.1

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III

Spring 2010

Veils.  A Reading of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s St. Agnes of Intercession

Fabio Camilletti

Mais les ténèbres sont elles-mêmes des toiles
Où vivent, jaillissant de mon œil par milliers,
Des êtres disparus aux regards familiers.
– Charles Baudelaire, Obsession

I inquire here into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s unfinished short story St. Agnes of Intercession (1850) analyzing how uncertainty shapes the text and its structure.[1] In the course of my reading, I will frequently refer to Dante’s Vita Nova, translated by Rossetti in the 1840s and widely metamorphosed within the story.  Composed at the end of the thirteenth century, the Vita Nova can be considered as the culminating point of a definition of literary subjectivity progressively emerging in courtly lyric since the twelfth.[2] Through its combination of prose and verse, and via the predominance of a strongly self-constituted authorship, the Vita Nova performs the figure of an auctor who makes a selection of his previous poetic experiments and orders them along the narrative plan of an erotic and theoretical discovery.[3] My hypothesis is that the translation of such a text, as a predominant part of Rossetti’s poetic apprenticeship, provides him with a literary paragon through which he comes to question the problem of literary subjectivity as posed in the Victorian age.[4] St. Agnes of Intercession can be thus considered as one of Rossetti’s attempts (the other being the sonnet-sequence The House of Life) to compose a Vita Nova for his own time.  In the same way as Dante had questioned such crucial cores of medieval culture as those of auctoritas, of literary personifications and of medical-psychological description of love in his book of youth, so in St. Agnes Rossetti confronts the Victorian problems of influence, of the ghostly presence of the past and of the representation of a disjointed and deconstructed self.

St. Agnes of Intercession can hence be read as an afterimage of Dante’s erotic, poetic and metaphysical speculation.  As Terry Castle pointed out, the Uncanny is to be interpreted as a “toxic side effect” of Enlightenment, a metamorphosis undergone by the pre-Enlightenment supernatural after the paradigmatic break of early contemporaneousness.[5] The uncanniness of St. Agnes (related to its genre as well as to its oblique presence in Rossetti’s oeuvre) can be therefore interpreted as the outcome of a fateful operation of cultural translation.  And if we asked ourselves a question once posed by Harold Bloom, namely if Dante’s Beatrice ultimately has an autonomous existence, so to allow others than Dante to evoke her, our answer would be that yes, she does.  Still, speaking from a post-Freudian perspective, we should also add that no exhumation is without consequences, and that such a comeback would (as in Rossetti’s case) be helplessly corrupted by the means of its return.[6]

This corruption is what I call here the vagueness and irresolution of St. Agnes: my purpose is not however to underline how that of Rossetti is a misreading of Dante (definitely it is), but rather to explore such an irresolution as an absence, identifiable with the “non-sense” defined by Lacan in his seminar of 1964.[7] Since the 1980s we have witnessed a wide reading of medieval love poetry under the light of contemporary theory, from psychoanalysis to gender studies.[8] In these studies, the faithfulness of Romantic and Victorian re-elaborations of such texts has been largely questioned, undergoing a systematic process of demystification.  A key question has been therefore underestimated, namely if it is precisely because of the peculiarities individuated in such texts (such as the notions of subjectivity and authorship there implied, as well as the floating and tensile definitions of desire and gender relations constructed by them) that medieval courtly materials, including the Vita Nova, have been used in the nineteenth century as a cultural paragon against Petrarchism, or, better, against the normalization underwent by Petrarchism after the Renaissance.  From this perspective, of course, “Petrarch” has the same value as “Raphael” in the notion of “Pre-Raphaelitism”, that is as a mere (and clearly reductive) definition of sterile formalism, opposed to the avant-garde’s programmatic harshness.  The rediscovery of medieval love poetry is a backward movement, retracing in an idealized past a cultural perspective in order to frame and interpret the manifold tensions of modernity.  The purpose of my essay is precisely to analyse the forms of such a metamorphosis, through which an unfinished fantastic tale, whose writing is meant to be the most faithful attempt to translate Dante’s experience in the inferno of Victorian London, can be read as an eloquent allegory of the aporias of the primitivist utopia and of modernity itself.

***

1.  In Rossetti’s oeuvre, St. Agnes of Intercession seems to stand as a shadowy and uncanny object.  Posthumously published in the Collected Works of 1886, its composition is rhapsodic and tormented.  Rossetti probably started working on it at the end of the 1840s, concurrently with or after the completion of his other short story, Hand and Soul.  The first allusion to St. Agnes can be found in William Michael Rossetti’s notebooks.  On the entry of 21st March 1850 Dante Gabriel is said to be “now engaged […] on a tale entitled An Autopsychology”; the first manuscript dates however not later than 1848, and the title is The St. Agnes at Perugia (An Autopsychology).[9] Other redrafting attempts take place in the early 1850s (the incomplete sketch of this version is titled St. Agnes of Recompensation) and in 1870, when Rossetti makes a fair copy of the story during the editorial work for the Poems.[10] At this stage the story’s title is the definitive St. Agnes of Intercession.  Eventually, William Michael testifies that his brother “again paid some attention to it in the last two or three months of his life, but without writing anything additional, or even revising the extant portion”.  He adds that “the written portion of the tale may be surmised to constitute less than half of the projected whole”, and apparently Dante Gabriel had told Hall Caine “that it would only be about a third”.[11]

Such a complex elaboration is meaningful: while crossing Rossetti’s authorial career in its crucial phases, from the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848) and the meeting with Elizabeth Siddal (1850) to the last months of his life (1882), the fragmentary nature of St. Agnes seems to haunt his work by the constant deferral of any definitive elaboration.  Since there is no ending to the story, such incompleteness also determines a peculiar ambiguity regarding its genre: quite surely a fantastic tale, more or less belonging to the tradition of the “uncanny portraits”, from Poe to Wilde and via Balzac’s Le chef-d’œuvre inconnu.

The role played by St. Agnes in Rossetti’s work can be partially explained, I argue, by considering that its first, projected title – An Autopsychology – can be eloquently found in another work of Rossetti’s, namely the introduction to Dante and His Circle (1874).  Dante’s Vita Nova was there defined as the “autobiography, or autopsychology, of [Dante’s] youth”.  The Vita Nova, Rossetti asserted, was “a book which only youth could have produced, and which must chiefly remain sacred to the young; to each of whom the figure of Beatrice, less lifelike than lovelike, will seem the friend of his own heart” (CW II, 1-3).  More or less consciously, in that definition Rossetti staged a singular contamination between a passage of Dante’s Convivio (where the Vita Nova was defined as a “fervid and passionate work”, as it was “suitable” to a young age: I, i, 16-17) and the beginning of Goethe’s Werther, where the anonymous collector’s hope was that the book could become the reader’s friend.  In accordance with the myth of the “young Dante” arisen in Europe around the years 1840, the Vita Nova was thereby read as the account of a young poet’s love vicissitudes.  The notion of “autopsychology”, however, testified a deeper immersion of Rossetti’s in Dante’s writing technique, as well as in the “little book”’s newness within the tradition of medieval love poetry.  [12]

It is eloquent, I think, that the place chosen for translating Dante’s experience in Rossetti’s time is a literary work belonging to the genre of the fantastic.  Even more, it is a literary work which is fully self-conscious of its fictitious nature, as it is evident by the operation made by Rossetti regarding the story’s epigraph: where in the first version a passage from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound which included a reference to the Doppelgänger theme (“The Magus Zoroaster […]/Met his own image walking in the garden”) interacted with a Tristram Shandy pastiche, in subsequent versions of the story only the latter is left, as to suggest an intrinsically mystifying nature of the text.  The paratextual effect of the pseudo-quotation from Sterne acts on a double level: if, while evoking Tristram Shandy, the tale is automatically inscribed in a tradition of literary irony, the pastiche concerns the act itself of storytelling, thereby implicitly asserting that there are as many stories as many people telling them, and that every tale is ultimately a meaningless embroidery around the narrator’s own obsessions:

“In all my life […],” quoth my uncle Toby, “I have never heard a stranger story than one which was told me by a sergeant in Maclure’s regiment, and which, with your permission, Doctor, I will relate.”

“No stranger, brother Toby,” said my father testily, “than a certain tale to be found in Slawkenbergius […], and called by him the History of an Icelandish Nose.”

“Nor than the golden legend of Saint Anschankus of Lithuania,” added Dr.  Slop, “who, being troubled digestively while delivering his discourse ‘de sanctis sanctorum,’ was tempted by the Devil in imagine vasis in contumeliam,– which is to say,– in the form of a vessel unto dishonour.”

Now Excentrio, as one mocking, sayeth, etc., etc.–TRISTRAM SHANDY.  (CW I, 399)

Since the beginning St. Agnes is then a complex interweaving of influences and language registers, at least alluding to a double reading option.  Here that of parody: the text objectifies and defines itself as a literary construct, not to be taken seriously nor even as a faithful account of the narrator’s (if not of the author’s) psychology; there, that of fantastic tale, so to say a genre marked by a clear predominance of subjectivity, expressed by the use of first-person narration.  As in the ‘liar paradox’, the two elements are mutually excluding: true and false at the same time, they determine an interpretative short-circuit obstructing any possibility of resolving the text’s irresolution.[13] And if it is true that such a technique is one of the constituting elements of the fantastic tale, through which the supernatural or rational explanation of referred facts is kept suspended, Rossetti’s possible inspirations for its use did probably not belong uniquely to fantastic literature.  Since the first paragraph, the Vita Nova itself is distinguished by an “I” who – adopting the metaphor used by Dante, and widely diffused in medieval culture – “copies” and “interprets” the “words” written in the “book of memory”.[14] The backward glance of such an Ego, who re-interprets and gives significance to its memories in the very moment of recollection, characterizes the Vita Nova by an inextricable intertwinement of time-plans, alternating between the “time” of past events and the “eternity” of their final, providential meaning.[15]

Besides, the Vita Nova is constellated by visions and apparitions, which can be fictive and allegorical personifications of inner conflicts (as Dante states explicitly while speaking of the Provencal god of Love, cf.  CW II, 70-73), dreams and “imaginations” (as that of Beatrice’s death, cf.  CW II, 63) or prophetic visions acting as mystic revelations (as the “wonderful vision” ending the book, cf.  CW II, 95).  In Rossetti’s transliterations, these psycho-theatrical embodiments play an ambiguous role: read within the frame of a Blakean and visionary conception of art, they are primarily transformed into uncanny manifestations, whose supernatural or rational explanation is left undecided, as in fantastic tales, by a predominance of subjective perception.  An eloquent example is that of the narrator’s dream, taking place after the visit at the Perugia gallery and meant as an ambiguous prophecy of Mary Arden’s death to come:

I dreamt that I was in London, at the exhibition […]; but in the place of my picture […] there hung the St. Agnes of Perugia.  A crowd was before it; and I heard several say that […] the painter (naming me) was dead.  At this, a woman […] began to weep: I looked at her and perceived it to be Mary.  She had her arm in that of a man who appeared to wear a masquerade dress; his back was towards me, and he was busily writing on some tablets; but […] I saw that his pencil left no mark where it passed […].  I spoke to Mary, but she continued crying and did not look up.  I then touched her companion on the shoulder […] and told him to resign that lady’s arm to me, as she was my bride.  He then turned round suddenly, and showed me my own face with the hair and beard quaintly cut, as in the portrait of Bucciuolo.  After looking mournfully at me, he said, “Not mine, friend, but neither thine:” and while he spoke, his face fell in like a dead face.  Meantime, every one seemed pale and uneasy, and they began to whisper in knots; and all at once I found opposite me the critic I met at the gallery, who was saying something I could not understand, but so fast that he panted and kept wiping his forehead.  Then my dream changed.  I was going upstairs to my room at home, where I thought Mary was waiting to sit for her portrait.  The staircase was quite dark; and as I went up, the voices of several persons I knew passed by me, as if they were descending; and sometimes my own among them.  I […] was feeling for the handle of the door, when it was opened suddenly by an angel; and looking in, I saw, not Mary, but a woman whose face was hidden with white light, and who had a lamb beside her that was bleating aloud.  She knelt in the middle of the room, and I heard her say several times: “O Lord, it is more than he can bear.  Spare him, O Lord, for her sake whom he consecrated to me.” After this, music came out of heaven, and I thought to have heard speech; but instead, there was silence that woke me.  (CW I, 419-20)

The dream is an interlacing of images from the Vita Nova.  The man who holds Mary’s arm recalls the god of Love who brings the lady away from her lover’s sight (CW II, 33).  Described as “a lord of terrible aspect”, Love seems “to rejoice inwardly”; then, after Beatrice has eaten Dante’s heart, “all his joy […] turned into most bitter weeping; […] he gathered the lady into his arms, and […] he went with her up towards heaven” (CW II, 32-33).  At the same time, the man draws invisible lines “on some tablets”, in the way Dante had referred to have done on the first anniversary of Beatrice’s death (“remembering me of her as I sat alone, I betook myself to draw the resemblance of an angel upon certain tablets”, CW II, 84).  The Provençal god of Love can be retraced also in the figure who “was saying something I could not understand’: in the first dream of the Vita Nova, Love ‘said many things, among the which I could understand but few” (CW II, 32).  Still, the strongest metamorphosis is undergone by the “fallacious” dream concerning Beatrice’s death:

Then, feeling bewildered, I closed mine eyes ; and my brain began to be in travail as the brain of one frantic, and to have such imaginations as here follow.  […] it seemed to me that I saw certain faces of women with their hair loosened, which called out to me, “Thou shalt surely die;” after the which, other terrible and unknown appearances said unto me, “Thou art dead.” At length […] I came to be I knew not where, and to behold a throng of dishevelled ladies wonderfully sad, who kept going hither and thither weeping.  […] while I wondered in my trance, and was filled with a grievous fear, I conceived that a certain friend came unto me and said : “Hast thou not heard? She that was thine excellent lady hath been taken out of life.” Then I began to weep very piteously; and not only in mine imagination, but with mine eyes, which were wet with tears.  And I seemed to look towards Heaven, and to behold a multitude of angels who were returning upwards, having before them an exceedingly white cloud : and these angels were singing together gloriously, and the words of their song were these: “Osanna in excelsis;” and there was no more that I heard.  Then my heart that was so full of love said unto me: “It is true that our lady lieth dead;” and it seemed to me that I went to look upon the body wherein that blessed and most noble spirit had had its abiding-place.  […] this idle imagining […] made me to behold my lady in death; whose head certain ladies seemed to be covering with a white veil; and who was so humble of her aspect that it was as though she had said, “I have attained to look on the beginning of peace.” […] And when I had seen all those offices performed […] it seemed to me that I went back unto mine own chamber, and looked up towards Heaven.  And so strong was my phantasy, that I wept again in very truth, and said with my true voice: “O excellent soul ! how blessed is he that now looketh upon thee !” […] Then […] this strong imagination was brought suddenly to an end, at the moment that I was about to say, “O Beatrice! peace be with thee.” And already I had said, “O Beatrice!” when being aroused, I opened mine eyes, and knew that it had been a deception.  (CW II, 63-64)

Though quite long, these two quotations are necessary in order to understand how Dante’s “imagination” turns radically into an enigmatic and deadly fantasy.  Bucciuolo draws, but his pencil leaves no mark; the critic met by the protagonist at the gallery speaks, but no word is understood; the narrator is awaken by an alienating silence.  Eventually, which is most relevant, Dante’s “deception” becomes a “dream […] not without a mystic reality”: shaped by the influence of Dante’s “book of memory”, first-person narration is used as a technique through which a dark zone of knowledge can be conveyed, showing a splitting of the Subject between “reality” and “otherness” and definitely matching “the perspectival use of the first person” individuated by Francesco Orlando in the “supernatural of ignorance” of fantastic literature.[16] Seen from this point of view, St. Agnes is hence an openly pre-Freudian work, which can surely be read from a psychoanalytic perspective, but which can also question crucial cores of psychoanalysis itself, more indebted than it might seem (as Freud’s analyses of Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann or of Jensen’s Gradiva testify) to the fantastic.  Indeed, under its literary surface, St. Agnes features elements which we could not hardly identify as fetishism, compulsion to repeat, substitution and condensation, as if fantastic literature had staged a set of uncanny metaphors in order to frame questions later developed by the psychoanalytical discourse.  The unrepresented icon of St. Agnes stands then, in a fully Freudian sense, as a vanishing point of desire intersecting childhood libido and adult fantasies (“My life had been, as it were, drawn by, and the child and the man brought together”, CW I, 409), staging love as a fantasmatic repetition (expressed in the tale under the metaphor of metempsychosis) of a “primary scene” condensed around an image.  It is also interesting to remark the crucial role played by the family in the story: the future fiancée, for example, is a friend of the narrator’s sister, met precisely via his sister and since the beginning inserted in the family circle, as to keep everything in a familiar environment where incest is purely metaphorical (the same “air of family”, we can add, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, structured as a familiar circle where women are indistinctly and concurrently spouses, sisters or lovers to everyone).[17] Most of all, it is eloquent how the text shows a somehow hampered structure where everything is delayed, from the discovery of the picture to the systematically deferred marriage, and for which it is difficult not to evoke the Freudian notion of “resistance”.  The trip to Italy, always projected by Rossetti and never concretely attempted, can be therefore seen as an open metaphor for anamnesis, for the retracing of an Italian “familiar romance” whose outcome is expressed (in a way that would have delighted Freud) with an archaeological metaphor:

I was as one who, coming after a wilderness to some city dead since the first world, should find among the tombs a human body in his own exact image, embalmed; having the blackened coin still within its lips, and the jars still at its side, in honour of gods whose very names are abolished.  (CW I, 417)

Through the ambiguity between personal anamnesis and historical quest, the primitivist and Pre-Raphaelite dream of the past is then intermingled with an archaeology of the self: the research for Bucciuolo’s St. Agnes, led through a peregrination in a chaotic, Grand Tour Italy, corresponds to an “autopsychology” retracing in childhood the first embryos of adult obsessions, and whose outcome is eventually the acknowledgment of influences which unconsciously shape affections and style.  The incessant travel through galleries and museums as living images of a historicized objectification of the past, reverberates in an inner research through a gallery (an afterimage of the Renaissance “palace of memory”) ordered and structured as a museum.[18]

The plot of St. Agnes is hence somehow parallel and opposite to that of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva: where, in St. Agnes, the supernatural hypothesis stands as an explanation for a childhood love, in Jensen’s story, written in 1907 after the birth of psychoanalysis, Norbert Hanold’s delirium masks an infancy reminiscence with the impossible illusion of a ghostly return.  The same ambiguity can be witnessed in Freud’s The Uncanny, where the two plans of personal recollection and historical memory are deliberately superimposed: the uncanny is either a feeling engendered by something which was familiar in childhood and then has come back in adult life as return of the repressed, and by something believed in “archaic times” and suddenly glimpsing as real in a rationalistic time.[19] St. Agnes is an uncanny tale since it stages an analogue phantasmal time-relation, namely the return of a repressed individual and of a historical past. The narrator’s painting, which is uncanny precisely in being at the same time Victorian and medieval, English and Italian (and both beyond the painter’s intentions), is structured as a compromise formation, thus eliding the principle of non-contradiction and fusing the two terms of the antinomy in an undecipherable sign: “my work,” writes Rossetti, “being in subject, costume, and accessories, English, and of the present period, could scarcely have been expected to suggest so striking an affinity in style to the productions of one of the earliest Italian painters” (CW I, 410).

***

2.  In closely analysing the tale, we witness that the structure of compromise formation is widely disseminated in the text.  Such a structure works even at the immediately perceivable level of language through tropes: the rhetorical devices employed in St. Agnes are from this point of view manifold, from negation and rhetorical questions (“How had I not at once recognized, in her I loved, the dream of my childhood?”, CW I, 409) to irony (the epigraph, CW I, 399; the fake Pre-Raphaelite poem read by the critic, 406-07), from oxymoron (“exquisite fear”, CW I, 417), to litotes (“a certain mental approximation, not easily defined”, CW I, 412; “my dream of that night […] was not without a mystic reality”, CW I, 419) and irresolution (“a strong and indefinable charm”, CW I, 400), and eventually to chaotic enumeration (“astonishment, admiration, perplexity, helpless of conjecture, and an almost painful sense of love”, CW I, 414).

Such strategies, it is evident, are meant to render an irreducible core of meaning through the surface of language: structurally speaking, St. Agnes is articulated upon a series of binary oppositions, whose antinomian dialectic determines a systematic shift and superimposition to and on each other.  The first one, of course, is that between rationalistic and supernatural explanations, which is somehow intrinsic to the tale’s genre: still, the text introduces many others, from that between childhood recollections and adult desires to those which are a kind of constant presences in Rossetti’s oeuvre, such as Italy and England, literature and painting, Middle-Ages and modernity, the “age of revolutions” (embodied by “the great tunes which have rung the world’s changes since ’89”, CW I, 399) and the Victorian age.  Far from stating the irremediable opposition between the two terms of the antinomy, however, Rossetti tends to compose them in an ambiguous and often not completely graspable unity: the character itself played by him throughout his life (in other words, his auto-staging as an artist and author) is a clear symptom of such a tendency, through which Rossetti performs an ambiguous ‘model’ of artist, at the same time poet and painter, English and Italian, and ultimately vanguardist despite (or precisely because of) being “mediæval and unmodern” (William Michael Rossetti).[20] How is it possible, Rossetti asks, that a “work, being in subject, costume, and accessories, English, and of the present period”, can show “so striking an affinity in style to the productions of one of the earliest Italian painters” (CW I, 410)? The problem is the same posed by St. Agnes as a narrative object: namely, the possibility of writing a Vita Nova in the nineteenth century, and of replicating Dante’s experience in such a radically changed context as that of Victorian England.  Rossetti’s question is thus, despite every Ruskinian proclamation, drastically anti-primitivist and anti-revivalist since the beginning: its aim is not to look for a possibility to make the past relive, but rather for a hybridism, for an art which could be capable of being medieval and Victorian at the same time:

The subject was a modern one, and indeed it has often seemed to me that all work, to be truly worthy, should be wrought out of the age itself, as well as out of the soul of its producer, which must needs be a soul of the age.  (CW I, 402)

The idea of metempsychosis (with which Rossetti played widely, most notably in the poem Sudden Light), as well as the Doppelgänger theme (explored in the watercolour How They Met Themselves or in the poem The Bride’s Prelude), are therefore the literary expedients through which such programmatic poetics are conveyed.  The “odd-looking” nature of such works (as the narrator’s painting is in St. Agnes defined by the critic, CW I, 407) is the sign of the out-of-time irresolution of the work of art, engendering what Jerome McGann – referring to the first version of Beata Beatrix (1864) – calls a “double perspective”.  In this painting, which can be considered as one of the possible fulfilments of the programmatic task outlined in Rossetti’s writings of youth, “details from nineteenth-century London are superimposed on thirteenth-century Florence”.  In a specular way to that of the narrator’s painting in St. Agnes, where a modern subject showed an impalpable affinity with an early Italian work of art, in Beata Beatrix a medieval Italian subject subtly evokes a Victorian scene.  As McGann puts it:

The river, the central figure, and the distant city might be seen as the Arno, Beatrice, and Florence, with the Ponte Vecchio and perhaps the Campanile also visible.  But a shift of our affections brings to view the Thames and the Old Battersea Bridge, south London, and Elizabeth Siddal.[21]

In the text of St. Agnes, this “double perspective” is staged through the interaction of two paintings: a modern one (suggesting a “striking […] affinity in style to the productions of one of the earliest Italian painters”, CW I, 410) and a Quattrocento one (which is the “surpassingly perfect resemblance of a woman now living and breathing”, CW I, 416).  The one is hence the other’s double: both belong to their own time, since the modern work is “in subject, costume, and accessories, English, and of the present period” (CW I 410), while Bucciuolo’s St. Agnes is described through a vivid ékphrasis as dressed “in the costume of the painter’s time” (CW I, 414), an expression that Rossetti had eloquently already used in Hand and Soul (“paint me thus, as I am, to know me: weak, as I am, and in the weeds of this time”, CW I, 394-95).  Still, the two paintings are connected by a je ne sais quoi: a certain something, however, which cannot be completely shown, which just shines on the canvas’s surface and which can only be alluded to through the supply of rhetorical devices.  The two paintings’ uncanny reciprocity is only rendered by means of circumlocutions: the connection between them, as well as with the physical person of Mary Arden, is expressed by such ambiguous expressions as “sympathy of relation”, “likeness” (CW I, 409), “affinity in style” (CW I, 410), “feeling and manner” (CW I, 412).

From this point of view, the dialectic staged by Rossetti between his literary and pictorial work is notable, and particularly regarding his two short stories.  Despite his constantly pursued project of a liber pictus, and although both tales are literary portraits as well as artistic manifestos, Rossetti’s attempts to illustrate them, fail systematically, perhaps not by chance.  In the same entry of the P.R.B. Journal where St. Agnes is firstly mentioned, William Michael also wrote that his brother had finished the design of “Chiaro’s painting”: in the Memoir of 1895, however, he speaks of an etching “representing Chiaro in the act of painting his Soul”, whose result “displeased” Dante Gabriel so much “that, in his vehement mood, he tore up the impression, and scratched the plate over”.[22] And while William Michael admits that “I hardly think I ever saw the picture” and that “would gladly do so now, were that but possible”,[23] the anecdote keeps a peculiar flavour of mystery, most of all since the subject itself of the painting is undetermined, emblematically shifting between 1850 and 1895 from “Chiaro’s painting” to “Chiaro in the act of painting”.  The first option is the more likely to be true: as I argued elsewhere, the only surviving sketch for this etching is to be individuated in a Study of a Young Girl dated 1849, where the posture clearly uncovers the girl to be Chiaro’s soul (as the gold ground suggests her iconic nature), but where the style operates a drastic warp from the one in the text.[24] Instead of a Pre-Raphaelite ligne claire, the drawing is violently sketched in chiaroscuro; the girl’s eyes, far from having the quiet and earnest expression of the story, are strongly circled in black pencil, suggesting an anxiety which stands as the most inner and unsaid core of Hand and Soul’s joyful, neo-medieval utopia.  Still, the ambiguity is deeper: and most of all since the story of the destroyed drawing, in William Michael’s notes to the Collected Works of 1886 (and also in those of the Works of 1911), is referred to an etching meant to illustrate St. Agnes:

He began an etching to illustrate it; but threw this aside in disgust at his failure in technique.  Sir John Millais then undertook to execute the etching.  His production was included in the great Millais exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1886, and manifestly represents the hero of the story painting the portrait of his affianced bride during her mortal illness.  […] At a later date, Rossetti himself painted the like incident, in its mediæval phase, under the title of Bonifazio’s Mistress.[25]

The purpose of illustrating his own literary portraits is therefore, for Rossetti, doomed from the beginning: the attempts at painting scenes from the stories or the portraits described in the texts, fatefully meet a “failure in technique”.  The same happens with Bonifazio’s Mistress, a subject including three drawings and a watercolour, and realized between 1856 and 1860.  The subject, as William Michael acknowledged, is clearly that of St. Agnes: a late-medieval lady, dressed in a flourishing Venetian style, is dead or agonizing; two ladies assist her, while at her feet stands a painter, and behind her shoulder we see her recently accomplished portrait.  Still, the reason for the title is unclear: it has been connected to Fazio degli Uberti, because of a song translated in The Early Italian Poets as His Portrait of his Lady, Angiola of Verona (CW II, 381-83) and of a painting of 1863 titled Fazio’s Mistress (but renamed Aurélia in 1873 as a homage to Gérard de Nerval).  The realisation of these drawings is placed outside any phase of St. Agnes’s complex elaboration: it is likely that Rossetti had thought again of a possible, visual accomplishment of the story, or even conceived the visual dimension as the right collocation in order to translate the obsessive image sketched in the text.  Still, just like St. Agnes, Bonifazio’s Mistress remains incomplete and isolated: only re-elaborated several times with minor amendments, it somehow meets the same fate of its literary counterpart.

It is therefore legitimate to ask why Rossetti didn’t seem to be able to paint the portraits he had conceived on a literary basis.  Once sketched, Chiaro’s “figura mistica” is discovered to be haunted by an impalpable alterity (CW I, 395n); Bucciuolo’s uncanny portrait is only drafted in the backdrop of Bonifazio’s Mistress, a drawing attempting to illuminate the story but ultimately left apart in favour of a fuzzy and constantly re-elaborated text.  The hybrid nature of Rossetti’s literary portraits, their “double perspective”, will shine years later in Beata Beatrix: and that painting too will be nothing more than an episodic unicum, doomed to engender a complex game of refractions with another simulacrum (Elizabeth Siddal’s exhumed body), and ultimately deactivated in later versions, in which Rossetti, after the exhumation, will systematically discharge the “double perspective” of the first canvas.[26]

St. Agnes of Intercession defines therefore an artistic perspective which remains un-followed and undefined, the space of an uncanny je ne sais quoi situated in the domain of images and ungraspable by any theoretical definition.  Deferred in denotation, ambiguously situated in the domain of ‘style’, such a space is only alluded by means of periphrases, via the structure of a fragmentary story systematically hampered in its plot.  The textual dimension is the only one through which such an uncertainty can be conveyed, precisely insofar as it produces irresolution and an indefinable unsaid: in the course of this process, the text produces what I will call its “veils”, namely the points of resistance – charged with tension and oblivion – in which the text’s dichotomies collide.  As spaces of concretization of tensile conflicts, their effect shapes the text’s misty fuzziness, embodying its uncanny and indefinable nature.

***

3.  In St. Agnes, everything seems to be perceived through a veil, as to indefinitely procrastinate a revelation: the structure of the story itself is that of a quest which can be seen as a movement of progressive ‘unveiling’, constantly shifting between an inner dimension of auto-analysis and the outside, objective dimension of an actual detection.  Still, every veil hides other veils since the beginning.

In the opening of the story, the narrator watches the fire through his father’s knees, as one looking through this oblique perception for a hypnotic-hallucinatory effect (“till it burned my face […] till the music and the fire and my heart burned together”, CW I, 399).  His artistic vocation is explicitly said to be confused and unperceivable, as through a veil (“What was then the precise shape of the cloud within my tabernacle, I could scarcely say now; or whether through so thick a veil I could be sure of its presence there at all”, CW I, 400).  The image of St. Agnes is firstly perceived not in a direct way, but mediated by a book – “Hamilton’s ‘English Conoscente’ […] a kind of continental tour […] sufficiently Della-Cruscan” (CW I, 400) – providing almost no information on the work: the reproduction is an engraving “in the English fashion of that day, executed in stipple and printed with red ink; tasteless enough” (CW I, 400), thus engendering a double mediation through which a medieval Italian work is transmitted to the narrator’s Victorian sensibility by an eighteenth-century visual translation.  The book later disappears: the very features of Bucciuolo’s St. Agnes are somehow hidden behind the veil of oblivion (“the once familiar features of the St. Agnes, forgotten since childhood”, CW I, 409), standing like a “shadow” or a “cloud” confusing memory and actual evidence (“the cloud was still about me, and the street seemed to pass me like a shadow […] that which had cast the shadow of a man’s love in the path of the child, and left the seed at his heart to work its growth blindly in darkness, was surely much more than chance”, CW I, 409, my italics).  Even Mary Arden, when appearing for the first time, is not directly perceived: back home after a class, the narrator hears some voices coming from his room, and is then introduced to Mary by his sister; still, this perception too remains oblique, since “she had her back to the window, and I could not well see her features at the moment; but I made sure she was very beautiful, from her tranquil body and the way that she held her hands” (afterwards, he will say that she was “more beautiful” than he had thought at first, CW I, 401-02).  Mary’s beauty is never directly beheld: “her beauty seemed to grow on my sight by gazing, as the stars do in water” (CW I, 402), as if gaze was a filter, or a distorted mirror altering perception.  Her resemblance to Bucciuolo’s St. Agnes is eventually recognized by the critic, and only subsequently acknowledged by the narrator: “‘The head of your woman there’ (and he pointed to the figure painted from Mary) ‘is exactly like a St. Agnes of [Bucciuolo Angiolieri] at Bologna’.  A flash seemed to strike before my eyes as he spoke” (CW I, 409).  Equally, in the course of the travel to Italy, the St. Agnes systematically “eludes” the protagonist (CW I, 411).  A set of impediments is constantly staged between the narrator and the painting, reaching its peak in Perugia: here, the narrator is obliged to wait for three days before being admitted in the gallery (the biblical flavour of such a delay is probably not unintentional), so to create a peculiar sense of suspense before seeing the picture in the last of the gallery’s rooms (“as I entered I felt my heart choke me as if with some vague apprehension”, CW I, 413).  And when the picture is finally revealed, the possibility that everything could not be anything else than a creation of his personal delirium, projects a definite veil on the unfinished story.

What happens, therefore, is an ambiguous revelation, which is artistic and at the same time erotic.  Firstly, the story delineates a mechanic of influence as an impalpable and maybe “unconscious” “sympathy of relation”, through which the original painting “all substantial record” being lost – is perceived as “an unreal dream” (CW I, 410).  And eventually, while beholding several works by Bucciuolo in Italian galleries, the narrator acknowledges that

despite the wide difference both of subject and occasional treatment, a certain mental approximation, not easily defined, to the style of my own productions.  The peculiarities of feeling and manner which had attracted my boyish admiration had evidently sunk deep, and maintained, though hitherto unperceived, their influence over me.  (CW I, 412)

From the point of view of artistic theorization, hence, St. Agnes stages a notion of influence operating in a subtle way, through which art objects are possessed “beyond the knowledge or control of the artist”.[27] It is not difficult to notice an analogous acknowledgment in the Freudian statement of the Ego no longer being “master in its own house”, even if, as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst suggests, the Victorian discourse on influence is already “detecting another hand in one’s writing”.  This is strictly connected with spiritualistic practices and therefore linked to the notion of “afterlife” as a form of confronting “those questions of change, continuity, and continuity-through-change which were actively embodied in [the Victorians’] own methods of composition”.[28] Influence acts as a haunting, not perceivable even to the Subject (Freud would say: precisely to the Subject) and which can be individuated only by the external gaze of the critic-analyst:

“Stay a minute,” ejaculated my friend the critic; “I am trying to think what the style of your picture is like.  It is like the works of a very early man that I saw in Italy.  Angioloni, Angellini, Angiolieri,– that was the name, — Bucciuolo Angiolieri.  He always turned the toes in.  […] The name mentioned was a part of my first recollections; and the picture he spoke of…  […] I gazed fixedly on the work of my own hands; and thought turned in my brain like a wheel.  (CW I, 408-09)

Besides, the revelation concerns the mechanics of love and desire.  Mary is firstly perceived as a voice, then by a name evoking echoes (“I remembered to have heard the lady’s name before”, CW I, 401), and eventually as an indiscernible shadow: standing against a window, she is perceived only by her silhouette, although her body and hand posture suggest her beauty.  Obliquely beholden, “as stars […] in water” (CW I, 402), and therefore never visible if not through the transfiguration of the narrator’s subjective perception, she will become manifest – to the subject and to the reader – only when her features are retraced in Bucciuolo’s painting.  The philosophy of love outlined by St. Agnes stages then desire as a dialectic relationship between the subject and an image, either mental or externalized-metaphorized as a painting: and if such an acknowledgment has for sure openly psychoanalytical implications, we should not forget that an analogous conception of love could have reached Rossetti through the mediation of medieval courtly literature.  St. Agnes stages a game of refractions constantly moving between several images, from an engraving to a childhood memory, from the features of a living girl to an English Victorian painting and eventually to a medieval Italian one.  And it will be interesting to remark that such a plurality of meanings floating around the notion of “image” – a mental one standing behind the narrator’s love and his own painting, the resemblance individuated between Mary and Bucciuolo’s portrait, the object-painting constituting the subject itself of the story – corresponds quite strikingly to the medieval polysemy of the word imago.  In Western medieval culture, actually, imago denotes at least three concepts: the ontological and cognitive relations between Father and Son in the notion of Trinity, as well as between God and the human being (“et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam”, Genesis I, 27a); the res created by humans, either as pictorial or sculpted images or as language figures (tropes); and, eventually, any form of immaterial or mental image, from dreams to mirror reflections, from ghosts to illusions.[29] These three acceptations collide and interact in the philosophy of love defined by courtly literature: as Giorgio Agamben argued, courtly love is a “falling in love through a shadow” whose reference myth is that of Pygmalion as staged in the Roman de la Rose.[30] The troubadours’ beloved is a mentally constructed image: the courtly poet is an idolatrous lover since he worships an image situated in his own heart, like Chiaro dell’Erma or the narrator of St. Agnes (“the idol of my childhood […] the worship I had rendered it”, CW I, 410).  Both stories, moreover, show images of idolatrous lovers (Chiaro painting his soul, Bucciuolo kneeling in front of his dying mistress) which show striking proximities to the medieval iconography, reconstructed by Agamben, of Pygmalion as a courtly lover.[31]

It is therefore possible, I think, to read St. Agnes through medieval courtly love, and more specifically through the young Dante’s singular re-elaboration (an Aufhebung, as it has been defined)[32] of courtly love in the Vita Nova.  I have previously referred to the image of the “veil”: my choice was not casual, since the notion of “veil” is fully Dantean, and, at the same time, Rossettian.  In the Vita Nova, as well as in the Comedy, the veil is crucial, both literally and metaphorically.  In the first dream mentioned by Dante, Beatrice is perceived as “sleeping, covered only with a blood-coloured cloth” (CW II, 32); in the dream concerning her death, as we have seen, “certain ladies seemed to be covering [her head] with a white veil” (CW II, 63).  Until the Comedy, Beatrice will be no longer physically staged in Dante’s text: in Purgatory, showing herself at the end of an allegorical parade, she will reappear covered by a veil (“in white veil with olive wreath’d,/A virgin in my view appear’d, beneath/Green mantle, rob’d in hue of living “ Purg.  XXX, 31-33, transl.  H.  F.  Cary).  Besides, as Robert Pogue Harrison argued, the image of the veil can be broadened to the textual dimension of the Vita Nova itself, and of Dante’s oeuvre as a whole:[33] like St. Agnes, the Vita Nova is the systematic unveiling of the “substance” of events inscribed in Dante’s book of memory, namely the recognition of a providential plan of the “eternal” in the domain of “time” (“the true meaning of that vision was not then perceived by any one, though it be now evident to the least skilful”, CW II, 34).  The notion of the veil is eventually evoked in the Comedy, where Dante invites the reader to admire the “doctrine hiding […] beneath the veil of these odd verses” (Inf.  IX, 61-63): the veil covering Beatrice’s body in the book of youth has become symbol and paradigm for the multiplicity of meanings articulated in the text.

Such an image was surely familiar to Rossetti.  The quoted lines from the Inferno had literally provided the bases for his father’s exoteric reading of Dante’s oeuvre, founded on what has precisely been called a “paradigm of the veil”.[34] And in Gabriele Rossetti’s latest work, the posthumously published La Beatrice di Dante (1842), Provençal courtly love and the Vita Nova were explained as the survival of a Gnostic “religion of the mind”[35] through which the adept worshipped his own soul, visualized as a feminine image.  The veil is therefore, from this perspective, what hides the intrinsically solipsistic nature of any artistic operation: the quest for the St. Agnes is actually an “autopsychology”, insofar as St. Agnes-Blanzifiore-Mary Arden is first of all “the glorious Lady of [the] mind” (CW II, 30), an expression of the Vita Nova that Rossetti read, as Hand and Soul shows, in its strictest literal meaning.  It is in Hand and Soul that the veil actually makes its first appearance:

[Chiaro] knew her hair to be the golden veil through which he beheld his dreams, the veil standing as an intermediary point between the Subject and the unconscious, a visualized and self-defensive image of femininity acting like a compromise formation.  In the poem Sudden Light, the veil acts in the same way as a barrier between the subject and anamnesis, masked, like in St. Agnes, as déjà vu: “But just when at the swallow’s soar/Your neck turned so,/Some veil did fall,/– I knew it all of yore”, as if the fetishist detail of the woman’s neck had allowed the reminiscence of a psychoanalytical “original thing.[36]

Following Francesco Orlando, we can thus speak of a metamorphosis leading from a medieval “supernatural of tradition” to the “supernatural of ignorance-uncertainty” of Victorian London, “veiled or seen through a veil”[37]: the veil, as the exoteric paradigm, refuses denotation in favour of a systematic connotation, never grasping an object which is continuously deferred and situated beyond.  Thereby the structure of St. Agnes as a hampered machine, in which everything is continuously procrastinated and suspended: speaking in terms of textual enjoyment, St. Agnes is a deferred orgasm, a perverse game of retardation inducted by repetition and interruption.  Blocked in such a vicious circle, the story cannot proceed, as the early etching for the tale had shown Rossetti’s limits in technique and Bonifazio’s Mistress had been caught in the trap of multiple reproductions.  The image at the inner core of St. Agnes – the imago connecting in a relationship of uncanny similitude the features of Mary, of a medieval Italian portrait and of a Victorian English one – is lost and hidden in such a profusion of veils, as it had happened to the Catherine Lescault painted by Frenhofer in Balzac’s Le chef-d’œuvre inconnu (1831), covered by veils of colour and visible only to the artist’s own delirium.

Maybe not by chance, as in Balzac’s story – sharing with Rossetti’s the theoretical problem of painting intellectual beauty – the place where this inner core becomes manifest is style: lacking any other possible connection between a painting realized in fifteenth-century Italy and one painted in the London of the nineteenth, the space where such an affinity emerges is a je ne sais quoi situated in the impalpable realm of manner, shaped by an influence dictated by unconscious (if not supernatural) reasons.  Like the definition of the “uncanny”, that of “Je ne sais quoi” is a non-definition, an aesthetic notion grounded on irresolution and which cannot be rendered if not by negation (un-canny, un-heimlich, je ne sais quoi) or by means of oxymora (“almost painful sense of love”, “most lively and exquisite fear”).  In the same way as Freud invoked a Bildersprache (figurative language) in order to speak of the unconscious, the failure of any attempt to paint his own story obliges Rossetti to go back to a textual dimension, to entrap the ungraspable uncanniness of St. Agnes in an interlacement of tropes.[38]

The unfinished, unresolved and somehow awkwardly hampered structure of St. Agnes appears then, far than being an accident, as a strongly structural element: the veil in the eye, as well as in the soul, “opens”, as Hélène Cixous writes, “the reign of an eternal uncertainty that no prosthesis can dissipate”.[39] This “eternal uncertainty” is what Lacan, in seminar XI, called “alienation” (aliénation), one of the possible names for the uncanny:[40] alienation, in Lacan’s reading, is the irresolution emerging in the intermediary area between the Subject (the “being”, l’être) and the Other (the sense):

Le vel de l’aliénation se définit d’un choix dont les propriétés dépendent de ceci, qu’il y a, dans la réunion, un élément qui comporte que, quel que soit le choix qui s’opère, il a pour conséquence un ni l’un, ni l’autre.  Le choix n’y est donc que de savoir si l’on entend garder une des parties, l’autre disparaissant en tout cas.

[…] Nous choisissions l’être, le sujet disparaît, il nous échappe, il tombe dans le non-sens – nous choisissions le sens, et le sens ne subsiste qu’écorné de cette partie de non-sens qui est […] ce qui constitue, dans la réalisation du sujet, l’inconscient.[41]

The two plans of St. Agnes, the literary portrait and the “autopsychology”, are from this perspective inextricably connected, both falling in the field of “non-sense” insofar as both look for something situated in the “beyond”.

It is here, I think, that Rossetti’s unearthing of courtly love – through the meditation, incorporation and the game of transpositions operated over Dante’s text – reaches a point of maximal tension.  In his seminar on love, Encore (1972-73), Lacan dismissed nineteenth-century re-readings of courtly love: “L’amour courtois a brillé dans l’histoire comme un météore et on a vu revenir ensuite tout le bric-à-brac d’une renaissance prétendue des vieilleries antiques.  L’amour courtois est resté énigmatique”.[42] The crucial role played by Rossetti in such a cultural rediscovery should, of course, suggest us to extend to him the drastic cut of Lacan’s critique.  Still, our question of departure had been if it was precisely because of some intrinsic nature of courtly love that the nineteenth century had chosen such a “medieval and unmodern” material in order to mirror its own tensions, as well as its questions regarding subjectivity, writing and desire.  In courtly love, Lacan said:

La femme idéalisée, la Dame, qui est dans la position de l’Autre et de l’objet, se trouve soudain, brutalement […] mettre dans sa crudité la vide d’une chose qui s’avère dans sa nudité être la chose, la sienne, celle qui se trouve au cœur d’elle-même dans son vide cruel.[43]

Such a falling, as Slavoj Žižek argued, is the root of fetishisation, of morsels of the body – hands, eyes, like in Hand and Soul – somehow ennobled by concealing an absence, the whiteness of the Lady’s skin veiling (and alluding to) the otherness she stands for.[44] In the same way, in Rossetti, the feminine body is the reified outcome of an otherness perceived as suddenly fallen (from Florence to the “inferno of London”), and become, in the forms of a painting or of a dying-dead body, object-simulacrum.  As Jean-Pierre Klotz writes, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis “feminine eroticism is always something existing behind a veil, and the veil is always something veiling an absence, it is the surface on which an absence is projected”.[45] The veil constitutes itself as an intermediate point between the subject and the Other, and – divided as it is between the antithetic values of fetish-object and of phobic significant – it produces the irresolution of an “almost painful sense of love” (CW I, 414).  Indirectly, obliquely, Rossetti’s operation is then more courtly and “mediæval” than it could seem at a first glance, and the most so because of its programmatic choice for an upward movement with a backward gaze.  While disinterring courtly love, Rossetti is caught in the same mechanics of desire, displacement and fetishism staged by his sources, which have however become the more uncanny as far as the paradigmatic structure in which they were inserted (what Agamben calls the “discovery of the unreality of love, namely of its fantasmatic character”) has decayed.[46]

Exhumation – Rossetti knew it well – is never a neutral act, whether its object is Dante or Elizabeth Siddal’s corpse.  Even following the most vulgarized Freudianism, the object of a return is always something else, the most subtle being the most uncanny, insofar as the revenant’s familiarity shows impalpable glimpses of otherness.  While, in Dante, Beatrice was a sign denoting a specific meaning (in other words, there was something behind the veil) in St. Agnes the veils are superimposed one over the other, and the object is systematically placed beyond: what stands behind the last veil remains unknown, whether it is one’s own self (as in Hölderlin’s Hyperion, or Novalis’s Die Lehrlinge zu Sais) or nothing (as in Le chef-d’œuvre inconnu).  The same otherness haunts Beata Beatrix, the painting – as we have seen – where the programmatic instances of St. Agnes find their most fulfilled outcome, and which was by a curious set of circumstances elaborated in a quite similar way as Bucciuolo’s St. Agnes, closely before the death of its sitter.  In St. Agnes, the woman’s death is glorious: Blanzifiore dies in silence, sitting heroically until the painting is finished, and the painter decides to make of the portrait a perennial record of hers.  He, Rossetti writes, “kept it always near him during his lifetime, and, in dying, bequeathed it to the Church of Santa Agnese dei Lavoranti, where he was buried at her side” (CW I, 416).  Reality will be far different, surely less heroic, and definitely more sorrowful.  Elizabeth Siddal committed suicide, late at night, in her own room.  Rossetti tried to give her a theatrical homage, as that of Bucciuolo’s, by burying the only copy of his poems with her, but was forced to disinter her, years later, in order to publish them.  The picture for which Elizabeth had been sitting, Beata Beatrix, was accomplished, but slowly and through several years.  It was afterwards sold and replicated in many copies which show nothing of its original powerful nebulosity.  And at his death – in the same days when he “paid some attention” to his “autopsychology” of youth – Rossetti explicitly asked to be buried in Birchington-on-Sea, while Elizabeth had been buried in Highgate.

  • Fabio Camilletti studied in Pisa, Oxford, Paris and Birmingham, and is currently a Fellow in Literature, Art History and Psychoanalysis at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry.  He collaborates with the Zibaldone Project at the Department of Italian at the University of Birmingham, and has recently been appointed Assistant Professor of Italian at the University of Warwick.  His research work focuses on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the nineteenth-century reception of Dante’s Vita Nova, on Sade, Leopardi, Warburg and on the Freudian notion of the uncanny.  He published Beatrice nell’inferno di Londra (Trento, La Finestra, 2005), on Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  His second book, Dante’s Book of Youth.  The ‘Vita Nova’ and the Nineteenth Century, is expected for 2011 (London, IGRS Books).

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Royle, Nicholas (2003) The Uncanny, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj (2005) “Courtly Love, or, Woman as a Thing”, in Id., The Metastases of Enjoyment, London-New York: Verso.




[1] Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1886), The Collected Works, edited by William Michael Rossetti, 2 vol., London: Ellis and Scrutton, vol.  I, 399-426 (from now CW).  All further references to Rossetti’s works will be indicated by the volume and pages of CW.  Also, for evident reasons, the Vita Nova will be quoted in Rossetti’s translation (CW II, 30-95), based on Fraticelli’s edition of Dante’s Opere Minori (3 vols, Florence: Barbera, Bianchi e comp.  1834-39).  I have elaborated this essay during and with the support of a fellowship at the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in the course of a wider research project on images and the Freudian uncanny.  I take the opportunity for giving my warmest thanks to Christoph Holzhey, director of the ICI, to Manuele Gragnolati, and to all the associates and fellows of the Institute, who have heard a first version of this essay as a paper presented in January 2009 during our internal colloquia and who have widely contributed to its final shape with their help, suggestions and comments.  I owe a special thank to the library staff of the ICI, notably to Corinna Haas and Magdalena Taube, who provided me with all the sources I needed with great professionalism and kindness.

[2] Cf.  Sarah Kay (1990) Subjectivity in Troubadour Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Cf.  Manuele Gragnolati (2010), “Authorship and Performance in Dante’s Vita Nova”, in Manuele Gragnolati, Almut Suerbaum (eds.), Aspects of the Performative in Medieval Culture, Berlin-New York: de Gruyter.

[4] A first experiment in this direction has been done by Jerome McGann (2000) Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost, New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 46-65.

[5] Terry Castle (1995) The Female Thermometer.  Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 8-9.

[6] Harold Bloom (2002) Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, New York: Warner Books, 95.

[7] Jacques Lacan (1973) Le Séminaire livre XI.  Le quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse 1964, ed.  by Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 191.

[8] As do, among others, Rouben C.  Cholakian (1990) The Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading, Manchester-New York: Manchester University Press, Sarah Kay (Subjectivity inTroubadour Poetry, cit.), Simon Gaunt (1995) Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Id.  (2006) Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature.  Martyrs to Love, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] William Michael Rossetti (1975), The Pre-Raphaelite Journal: William Michael Rossetti’s Diary of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood 1849-1853 together with other Pre-Raphaelite documents, edited by William Fredeman, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 64.  The late 1840s draft (probably to be dated around 1848) is in the so-called ‘Notebook II’, now at the Duke University Library, on pages 9-26.

[10] Respectively included in the “Rossetti Album” (J.  Paul Getty Collection, Wormsley Library, p.  24-29) and in a manuscript of 21 pages now at the University of Virginia Library.

[11] See the note to St.  Agnes in CW I, 524.

[12] On the popularity of the Vita Nova and of the image of the ‘young Dante’ after 1840, see Steve Ellis (1983) Dante and English Poetry.  Shelley to T.  S.  Eliot.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 103-18, and Fabio Camilletti (2009), “Dante’s Vita Nova and the Victorians: The Hidden Image Behind Rossetti’s Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante”, in Alessandro Vescovi, Luisa Villa, Paul Vita (eds.), The Victorians and Italy.  Literature, Travel, Politics and Art, Monza: Polimetrica, 181-92.

[13] On the ‘liar paradox’ and undecidability see Pierre Bayard (1993) Le paradoxe du menteur.  Sur Laclos, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.

[14] See Mary Carruthers (1990) The Book of Memory.  A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[15] See Guglielmo Gorni (1999) “La Beatrice di Dante, dal tempo all’eterno”, introduction to Dante Alighieri, Vita Nova, edited by Luca Carlo Rossi, Milan: Mondadori 1999.

[16] Francesco Orlando (2006) “Forms of the Supernatural in Narrative”, in Franco Moretti (ed.), The Novel, 2 vol., Princeton/Oxford, Princeton University Press, vol.  II, 207-43, 232.

[17] Giancarlo Marmori (1966) Le vergini funeste, Milan: Sugar, 110, my translation.

[18] On the palace as an image of Renaissance art of memory, see Lina Bolzoni (1995) La stanza della memoria.  Modelli letterari e iconografici nell’età della stampa, Turin: Einaudi.  For the approaching of the Freudian notion of the unconscious and the historical perspective of the past I make reference to Michel de Certeau (1987) Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction, Paris: Gallimard.

[19] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, 24 vols., London: The Hogarth Press 1953-74, vol.  XVII, 219-256.

[20] Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1911), The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited by William Michael Rossetti, London: Ellis, 661.

[21] Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost, cit., 98.

[22] William Michael Rossetti (1895) Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  His Family-Letters with a Memoir, 2 vol., London: Ellis, vol.  I, 155.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Fabio Camilletti (2003) “The Golden Veil.  Purezza e malinconia in un racconto di Dante Gabriel Rossetti”, in “Rivista di Studi Vittoriani”, Pescara: Tracce, a.  VIII, fasc.  15, 77-93.

[25] CW I, 524-25; The Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, cit., 680.

[26] Jerome McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost, cit., 99-100.

[27] Jerome McGann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game That Must Be Lost, cit., 64.

[28] Robert Douglas-Fairhurst (2002) Victorian Afterlives.  The Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5-6.

[29] See Eugenio Burgio (2001) Racconti di immagini.  Trentotto capitoli sui poteri della rappresentazione nel Medioevo occidentale, Alessandria.  Edizioni dell’Orso, 6-7.

[30] Giorgio Agamben (1977) Stanze.  La parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale, Turin: Einaudi, 97, my translation.  See in general the pages 73-155.  The expression (in the Italian original, ‘innamorarsi per ombra’) is taken from a poem by Chiaro Davanzati, an author that Rossetti knew well: while he gives his name to the hero of Hand and Soul, ‘Davanzati’ had been considered as an alternative to ‘Angiolieri’ in St.  Agnes (see the note by William Michael Rossetti, CW I, 525).

[31] Stanze, cit., 79-83.

[32] Mario Mancini (1984) La gaia scienza dei trovatori, Parma: Pratiche Editrice, 6.

[33] Robert Pogue Harrison (1988) The Body of Beatrice, Baltimore-London: The John Hopkins University Press, 30.

[34] Umberto Eco (1989) “La semiosi ermetica e il ‘paradigma del velame’”, in Maria Pia Pozzato (ed.), L’idea deforme.  Interpretazioni esoteriche di Dante, Milan: Bompiani, 9-37.

[35] Gabriele Rossetti (1935) La Beatrice di Dante.  Ragionamenti critici, edited by Maria Luisa Giartosio De Courten, Imola: Cooperativa Tipografica Editoriale Paolo Galeati.

[36] Remo Bodei (2006) Piramidi di tempo.  Storie e teoria del déjà vu, Bologna: Il Mulino, 30-31, my translation.

[37]Forms of the Supernatural in Narrative”, cit., respectively p.  223, 230 and 235.

[38] Sigmund Freud, (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, cit., vol.  XVIII, 7-64, 60

[39] Hélène Cixous/Jacques Derrida (2001) Veils, translated by Geoffrey Bennington, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 6.

[40] Nicholas Royle (2003) The Uncanny, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 5-6.

[41] Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire livre XI., cit., 191-9.

[42] Jacques Lacan (1975) Le Séminaire livre XX.  Encore 1972-1973, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 79.

[43] Jacques Lacan (1986) Le Séminaire livre VII.  L’éthique de la psychanalyse 1959-1960, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 193.

[44] Slavoj Žižek (2005) “Courtly Love, or, Woman as a Thing”, in Id., The Metastases of Enjoyment, London-New York: Verso, 89-112.

[45] Jean Pierre Klotz (2004) “L’oggetto feticcio”, in AA.VV., L’oggetto feticcio e il significante fobico.  Commento al Seminario IV.  La relazione d’oggetto di Jacques Lacan, Macerata: Quodlibet, 27-47, 34, my translation.

[46] Stanze, cit., 96, my translation.

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