Thursday, 8 December 2022

Thursday 8th December - Rienzi

 I thought I'd tackle a very familiar painting today, mainly because although I know it very well, I didn't actually know anything about the death involved.  It's this one...

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Younger Brother etc etc (1849)
William Holman Hunt

Apologies, I wimped out on the whole title, it's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Younger Brother, Slain in a Skirmish Between the Colonna and the Orsini Factions, so unsurprisingly it's normally known as simply Rienzi.  It's one of the first Pre-Raphaelite painting that founding Brother William Holman Hunt produced, exhibited alongside John Everett Millais' Lorenzo and Isabella at the Royal Academy in 1849.  Its source material was the novel Rienzi (1835) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, about Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354), who styled himself as the last tribune of the Roman people.  The scene presented is one of Adriano, Rienzi's brother, who had been collecting flowers for their sister Irene.  He gets caught between two rival factions, the Colonna and the Orsini (think Montagues and Capulets) and is killed in the resultant scrap.  This tragedy transforms Rienzi from a scholar to a politician, determined to unify his country and end the violence.

The figure of Rienzi was modelled on Rossetti who, as Holman Hunt said in 1886, 'would do much for art at a considerable amount of personal inconvenience, and so with characteristic good nature he sat for that figure.'  It is a very handsome likeness of the young man - I often feel puzzled about what Rossetti actually looked like as we have his early, extremely pretty self portrait then his later photographs where he looks like (forgive me) a chonky Tim Curry. I like the image of him here, together with his appearance in Millais's Isabella as you get the sense of a good looking young chap who was a bit of a one before life got the better of him.  

Beside him, William Michael Rossetti looks on the tragic dead figure of John Everett Millais, as the poor Adriano.  William Michael was evidently not shy about modelling for his Pre-Raphaelite brothers as he crops up quite a bit in these early paintings.

One of the soldiers was painted from a costermonger and due to his likeness to Dante, was used as a model by Rossetti subsequently, according to Hunt. Although Rienzi was dismissed and unsold to start with, eventually there was much praise for the painting, both within Hunt's lifetime and in the 1960s revival, although the Illustrated London News of 1969 remarked it would have been a better picture if the centre of it wasn't dominated by a couple of horses's backsides.

The death of Adriano in this picture is the catalyst for change rather than an end in itself.  Rienzi is not vowing revenge but justice, for the strength to lead a revolt against the Pope, reunify Italy and restore power to Rome.  It is probably one of the most constructive murders in Stabvent, being a moment of change and the impetuous for a better future (sorry Adriano).  It also seems to signify the end of innocence, with the blonde body of Adriano looking very young and blameless and the flowers still clutched in his hand, incongruously close to the dropped swords. So, is Holman Hunt saying Innocence is not helpful and needs to be dispensed with?  Possibly he is inferring that innocence is a luxury and a dangerous one at that.  The real world requires action and knowledge in order to facilitate change.  In that way, the PRB boys embody this, studying the teachings of Ruskin in order to change the world of art.

This is the painting that Holman Hunt poured all his new-found artistic spirit into, inspired by reading John Ruskin's book Modern Painters (1843).  He spent hours in the Tower of London, drawing armour and horses from John Blount Price, together with his friends and acquaintances as his figures.  The fact it didn't sell almost broke him, leaving him starving and desperate until fellow artist Augustus Egg arranged for a collector to see the picture. The spectre of poverty and having to quit art for a proper job apparently haunted Holman Hunt for the rest of his life, making him one of the hardest working and most dedicated artists of his generation.  He also is arguably the only one of the original Brothers who stayed true to Ruskin's teachings for his entire life.  By the time of his death, Holman Hunt was the last of the PRB painters left, a household name and never stopped, as Ruskin insisted, going to nature 'in all singleness of heart...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.' The result is one of the prettiest corpses you will see this month.

See you tomorrow...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Kirsty. I hadn't focused on the horses' backsides before, but once you see them, they do dominate a bit!
    Best wishes


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx