Roman Widow

Alternately titled: Dîs Manibus

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1874
Model: Alexa Wilding (Surtees identifies the model as Alexa Wilding, while Marillier and WMR argue that the model was Marie Spartali Stillman.)


◦ Fredeman, Correspondence, 73.293, 74.117, 75.93.

◦ Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial, 175-176.

◦ Sharp, DGR: A Record and a Study, 230-231.

◦ Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, 134-135 (no. 236).

◦ WMR, DGR Designer and Writer, 92.

Scholarly Commentary


When Frederick Stephens was preparing his article on DGR's new works for The Athenaeum, eventually published on August 14, 1875, DGR supplied him with this commentary: “Dîs Manibus. The title here suggests the subject—that of a Roman widow seated in the funeral vault beside her husband's cinerary urn, the inscription on which is headed with the invariable words as given above; and playing on two harps (as seen in some classical examples) an elegy ‘to the Divine Manes.’ She is robed in white—the mourning of noble ladies in Rome. The antique form of the harps is rendered in tortoiseshell chiefly with fittings of ebony or dark horn embossed in silver. The harp on which her right hand plays is wound with wild roses; and beneath the urn, across the wall of green marble, is a large festoon of garden roses, repeating as it were the festoon to be almost universally found on such urns and which this one displays round its inscription. About the urn is wound the widow's wedding-girdle of silver, dedicated to the dead as to the living husband. The moment chosen must be supposed to belong to those special occasions on which the Romans solemnized mortuary rites, and which recurred at intervals during the year” ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 75.93 ).

The painting is particularly important because of a set of strange and suggestive relationships that it has with other works by DGR that date from 1872-1877, especially Veronica Veronese, La Ghirlandata, and A Sea Spell. These four pictures share a number of features, motivic and compositional, even as their titles and nominal conceptions are very different. Considered together, they exhibit as it were four facets or aspects of a single iconic figure of highly ambiguous import.

For The Roman Widow in particular, DGR's own title—Dis Manibus—connects it to his trenchant epigram on Flaubert, written in 1880 after DGR had read of Flaubert's death. Titled by DGR “Dis Manibus”, the epigram draws a parallel between the decadence of Nero's Rome and the decadence of the Second Empire. DGR's treatment of all these materials draws his work into the same dark vortex, a fact underscored in the epigram, where the dying words of two Roman emperors, Vitellius and Nero, represent an antithesis of the glorious and the dreadful.

All of these pictures focus on a musical icon that traditionally represents an ideal order aesthetically pursued. Pater's famous pronouncement in “The School of Giorgione”, that “all art aspires to the condition of music”, is certainly being represented here. But in DGR's case the music—and therefore the practice of art—bears as well terrible meanings that Pater's work does not bring forward in this way.

Production History

DGR began the picture around October 1873, as his letter to Leyland of October 4, describing the plan of the work indicates: “This I have cartooned from nature and am now beginning to paint it. It is called Dis Manibus—the dedicatory inscription to the Manes, the initials of which (D. M.) we find heading the epitaphs in Roman cinerary urns. In the picture, a lady sits in the ‘Columbarium’ beside her husband's urn which stands in a niche in the wall, wreathed about with roses and having her silver marriage-girdle hanging among them. Her dress is white—the mourning of nobles in Rome—and as she sits she plays on two harps (one in her arm and one lying beside her) her elegy addressed ‘Dis Manibus.’ The white marble background and urn, the white drapery and white roses will combine I trust to a lovely effect, and the expression will I believe be as beautiful and elevated as any I have attempted. Do you like me to consider this picture as yours at 800 guineas?” ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 73.293 ). On June 9, 1874 he told Hake “of a picture (now just on completion, having been some time delayed till roses could be got) called Dîs Manibus,” His account of the picture to Hake adds some important details, “representing a Roman widow by the cinerary urn of her husband, playing her elegy on two small harps, a hand to each. I think it is one of my best & indeed shows advance: I should like to have shown you the classical drapery of which it very chiefly consists. I perched your photograph of the Fates before my eyes while I painted it & tried to get a faint reflex of that kind of beauty ( Fredeman, Correspondence, 74.117 ).

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: s236.raw.xml