Dante Alighieri. “Sestina. Of the Lady Pietra degli Scrovigni.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1848?
Date: 1861, 1874
Meter: iambic pentameter
Genre: sestina


◦ Durling and Martinez, Time and the Crystal, 109-137

◦ Barbi and Pernicone, Rime della maturita, 554-561

◦ Foster and Boyd, eds., Dante's Lyric Poetry vol. 1, 163-165; vol. 2, 265-268.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné vol. 1, 135 (no. 237).

◦ Marillier DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 188.

◦ Fraticelli, Opere Minore di Dante Alighieri vol. 1, CCXL-CCXLIII, 97-98.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the Early Italian Poets Text.

Scholarly Commentary


This double work centers in the only one of Dante's rime petrose that DGR translated, the great sestina “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d'ombra”. DGR's translation is exceedingly well done, not least because he has adhered so strictly to the structure of Dante's original. DGR's key principle of translation—to imitate as closely as possible the metrical character of the original works—was perhaps never more effectively followed than in this case. The order of the rhymes in Dante's sestina is known to have been carefully related to the sestina's content. It is a poem “in which rhetorical (converso, antistrophe, retrogradatio) and cosmic order (solar conversio, planetary retrogradation) coincide” (Durling and Martinez 136).

Whether by choice or oversight, DGR departs once from Dante's rhyme scheme—in the fifth stanza: Dante's scheme is DEACFB whereas DGR's is DEAFCB. The only other variations involve several lines that have only ten syllables in DGR's translation.

DGR used his copy of Fraticelli (1834) for the text of Dante's original sestina.

Textual History: Composition

Although we don't know precisely when DGR wrote his translations published in The Early Italian Poets, it must have been fairly early, in the late 1840s.

Production History

DGR has a notebook entry that dates from around 1866 projecting a picture of “Pietra degli Scrovigni seated on a stone, holding glass globe reflecting fertile hilly landscape”. He does not seem to have acted on this idea until March 1874, when he wrote to WMR (on 21 March): “Have you among your photographic slides or other photos any representing rocks & water chiefly distant—something in the way of the background to Leonardo's Lady of the Rocks? Of course I mean from nature. If so, could you keep it for me when I see you. Or a circle of hills also? I want these things for background of Madonna Pietra from Dante's Sestina”. By 3 April he wrote to Leyland that he had made “a chalk drawing from Miss W[ilding] (subject—Madonna Pietra from Dante)—with a view to your fourth picture if it suits you. It will be about the size of the Proserpine but perhaps a little wider—would hang however excellently with that. A pen-&-ink sketch of the whole arrangement would best give an idea of it, so I will make one & let you see it.” This drawing would not be the pen and ink sketch of the clothed and standing figure now in Birmingham, for DGR added in a PS to his letter to Leyland: “I came to conclusion that it might suit you well as to size if I make it a sitting instead of a standing figure. Will show you the drawing when you come” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 74. 63 and 64 ).

Sometime after April DGR made a finished pastel design of this work, with the woman unclothed, and he projected an oil picture that was never undertaken. This pastel, originally owned by Charles Howell, is in a private collection in Japan. DGR refers to it in a letter dated 26 April 1876 to Clarence Fry (who bought the work from Howell): “The drawing of which you sent me a sketch was one I made for a proposed subject from Dante—Madonna Pietra. The crystal globe in the lady's hand was to reflect a rocky landscape surrounding her and symbolizing her own pitiless heart. The first study was made nude but in the picture the figure was to be draped chiefly, and the upper hand was to be holding a portion of the drapery which would float from the shoulders. I am still proposing to paint the subject at some time but in a different action. I fancy H[owell]. must have received and taken away this drawing (as towards the exchange account) about the time you name as the date of your cheque of which you do not state the amount. I believe the drawing ranks among those which I should not regret your possessing.” (see Fredeman, Correspondence, 76. 74 ).

Printing History

The translation was first published in 1861 in The Early Italian Poets; it was reprinted unaltered in 1874 in Dante and his Circle.


This an imaginary picture of Pietra degli Scrovigni, daughter of the Paduan moneylender Rinaldo Scrovigni. DGR arbitrarily (and wrongly) associated her with Dante's great sestina “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d'ombra”, but she was probably not even born when Dante wrote his sestina.


Dante's original sestina follows the model laid down in Arnaut Daniel's “Lo ferm voler q'el cor m'intra”. DGR's note to his translation shows him well aware of the Provençal origins of Dante's work. It also casts an interesting light on his translation's subtitle. In his long prose note to the poem DGR allows the translation to be associated with Pietra della Scrovigni even though he is aware that the ascription is “doubtful”. In fact we do not know who the poem's “donna” was, if indeed it had any reference to an actual person. In any case it could not have been Pietra della Scrovigni, nor does DGR's scholarly source, Fraticelli (1834), make any suggestion that the poem might be related to the lady. DGR's conviction, however, was that Dante's poems nearly always had some biographical reference, however concealed or obscured by time; and he may have chosen this member of the Paduan Scrovignis because the family made its fortune from moneylending. Dante puts Pietra's father Rinaldo in hell among the usurers (see Inferno XVII. 64-75). In his 1874 reorganized reprinting of his translations DGR added a note to the sonnet that follows this sestina in both 1861 and 1874. The sonnet has a subtitle referencing Pietra della Scrovigni in the 1861 edition, but in 1874 this is removed and DGR's note suggests the sonnet may have been addressed to Beatrice. The alteration underscores DGR's sense of the “doubtful” connection of the sestina to Scrovigni.

Dante has two important discussions of his sestina in De vulgari eloquentia (II.x.2, II.xiii.2).

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