Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (unfinished sketch)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

1859 (circa)

Physical Description

Medium: watercolour and pencil on cream paper
Dimensions: 18 x 21 3/4 in.

Production Description

Production Date: 1859 (circa)
Exhibition History: Rossetti Gallery 1883 (no.17); Tate 1923 (no.43); Fogg 1946 (no.66)
Model: Val Prinsep
Note: Prinsep sat for the head of Giotto.


Current Location: Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University
Catalog Number: 1943.488
Purchase Price: bequest
Archival History: Fanny Cornforth; Fairfax Murray; Grenville L. Winthrop Bequest

Scholarly Commentary


The importance of this subject for DGR is underscored by this unfinished replica of the work. DGR undertook the picture in 1852 as part of a planned triptych on key events in Dante's life and career. WMR elaborates how the picture was “to represent the life and work of the great Florentine in a triple relation” (see WMR, DGR as Designer and Writer , 16-17). DGR himself named that triple relation “Art, Friendship, and Love” ( Letters, DWI. 123). The other two panels of the triptych would have shown Dante as a Florentine magistrate sentencing Cavalcanti to exile, and Dante at the court of Can Grande della Scala. Sketches toward the latter survive as Dante at Verona .

The Art celebrated in DGR's picture is clearly a Rossettian “double work of art.” Indeed, the picture underscores DGR's attachment to the ideal of relationship per se, with love and friendship reflecting an interchange he pursued in his life as an artist, designer, and writer.

Production History

This unfinished watercolour is a replica made 1859 (circa). DGR had finished a drawing and another watercolour in 1852.


The figures in this imaginary historical reconstruction, besides Giotto and Dante, were to have been Cimabue (Giotto's master) standing behind the painter as he works, and Cavalcanti (holding a book of Guinicelli's verses) standing behind Dante. As in the finished drawing, Beatrice was to have been moving below them, reading from a book, in a procession of women. The arrangement is strongly conceptual, all but allegorical, of DGR's “triple relation” of “Art, Friendship, and Love”. Dante and Giotto represent Art, the relations between the various men (but especially between Giotto and Dante) represent Friendship, and Beatrice and the women focus the subject of Love.


A complex set of historical circumstances invest this picture. Giotto's original picture—a fresco celebrating the glory of Florence—included the figure of Dante holding a pomegranate. It was painted sometime between 1290-1300 on the altar wall of the Palace of the Podesta (later the Bargello) in Florence, but was subsequently covered with whitewash. It was rediscovered in 1840. Seymour Kirkup, one of the scholars who made the discovery and a friend of DGR's father, made a copy of the portrait of Dante and sent it to Gabriele Rossetti, from whom it passed to DGR.


According to DGR, the picture —illustrates a passage in the Purgatorio [XI. 94-99] . . . where Dante speaks of Cimabue, Giotto, the two Guidos (Guinicelli and Cavalcanti. . .) and, by implication, himself. For the introduction of Beatrice, who with the other women . . . are making a procession through the church, I quote a passage from the Vita Nuova [XXVI: Sonnet: For certain he hath seen all perfectness] ( Letters, DW, vol. 1, 123).


It is clear that DGR took the imaginary event pictured in the scene as an emblematic figuration of some of his most cherished ideas about art, and in particular about art's relation to love, friendship, and poetry.


Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante (unfinished sketch)
Description: Giotto paints Dante's portrait on a wall. Dante is seated, cutting a pomegranate, while Cavalcanti stands at his shoulder holding an open book of poems.


  1. image

    Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné , vol. 2, plate 48.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
File Name: s54.r-1.rap.xml