My train was late, but that’s Italy for you.
I was following in the painter Henry Holiday’s footsteps. Had he taken the train? Was there a train to Florence to catch in 1881?
When I arrived at the hotel they’d given my room away. I waved my online booking, tried to sound assertive. They found me a poky room overlooking a rubbish yard where I was serenaded all night by brawling Florentine cats.
Things didn’t take long to get worse. I was standing on the Ponte San Trinita over the Arno looking down at the Ponte Vecchio, cigarette in one hand, a bag with my passport and money in the other. My mind on Dante, I tossed what I thought was the cigarette in the river, but threw my bag over the parapet instead. There was nowhere to hide, and what seemed like the whole of Florence cheered as I fished it out with a borrowed oar. Thank God the Arno was kind with its currents.
It’s raining, and judging from Holiday’s painting with its pale skies and gilded light, definitely not Dante and Beatrice weather.
Already things are out of kilter.
Henry Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’, a Victorian painting of unrequited love, and a favourite of mine. No, not a favourite, an obsession. When I stand in front of it I dream a different time. It starts happily, but by the end I’m heavy and morose, wishing things had turned out differently in my own love life—or the lack of it. If only I’d had a girl to court in a slow, formal manner when I was twenty-four, like Dante in Holiday’s painting. I wouldn’t have let her get away like he did. But it wouldn’t have been up to me—girls could tell straightaway I was happier in the library than on the dance floor.
Maybe that’s why I lecture. I practice in front of a mirror, project my voice, sound authoritative—I know my subject.
Be porous, I tell my students when they stand in front of Holiday’s painting. Let the colours, the deft brushwork, the luminescent light, the mood he’s conjured, seep into you. Feel the painting, grasp it intellectually, aesthetically, emotionally. Think why he’s conveyed the subject the way he has.
But today as I stand at the precise point over the Arno where Holiday stood over a century ago, I can’t say I’m receiving much of his painting’s tranquillity. My Lungarno riverside is noisy and congested, and I’m jostled by belligerent Italian youths on Vespas, darting in and out of the commuting Florentines.
So why am I here in Florence when I give the impression to my students I already know all there is to know about Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’? I’m here to search for him, just as I believe he came here with his palette and brushes searching for Dante. Was Holiday a fellow sufferer—unhappy, thwarted in life and love? Like me?
Standing here on the Ponte San Trinita I can see what Holiday actually saw rather than what he painted, and I’m aiming at getting closer to him than he got to Dante. With the start I’ve made I don’t feel particularly encouraged, but I’ll take my time, hope for a discovery, fresh insights.
How did this obsession begin, Holiday? Your obsession. Mine. Ours.
I was lecturing at the Walker, where your painting of the meeting of Dante and Beatrice hangs.
And there she was, one of a group of sixth-form students gathered around me, scribbling my pearls of art history wisdom in her notebook. Lecturing’s when I feel at my most secure, treading a well-worn path through a tried and trusted script.
Be porous, I was telling them, like the old ham actor I am. Imagine you’re back in 14th-century Italy. Absorb the harsh brilliance, see how Holiday’s colours float, shining and lustrous, spilling out of their containing frame like molten metal.
This is where students with a feeling for paint perk up. At their tender age I’m afraid they’re all feeling and precious little intellect.
I scan their faces. That one’s woken up all right. My Beatrice is on tiptoe, peering first at the painting, then at me. There’s feeling for paint there. With my tired old eyes fixed firmly on her I tell them to study the figures in the painting one by one. Are they connecting? Or do they seem strangers, disconnected? Are we witnessing a meeting, and if so, what sort?
I beckon the group closer, gather them around until we’re a yard from the canvas. Study the faces, I say. Notice how Holiday’s posed them, their eyes focused on a confusion of disparate points. I risk a glance. Is my Beatrice still with me? Yes! Her eyes bright, wide open. Most definitely porous! So, are any two relating? I address all twenty, but my appeal is to her.
I watch her bite her lip, then look at me and smile. She’s pointing, gingerly lifting a finger. Yes, my darling, exactly there! A secret intimacy, vivid, intense, as if the two share an understanding, something secret from the others. Like our secret, my little flame-haired darling!
She seems transfixed—by me, a balding fifty-five year-old. My own Beata Beatrix! I feel buoyed up, elated. I burn as I feel her eyes on me, her red hair tumbling to her shoulders, skin pure Pre-Raphaelite white, eyes an intense Holman Hunt blue—too much eye liner, of course, but that’s the young of today—nose broad and straight in true Rossetti style, lips full and pink with a distinct pout. She’s hanging on my every word, as if some profound insight has just been granted her.
But back to Florence and Holiday’s painting. I imagine I’m Dante, standing on the corner of the Ponte San Trinita, with the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. Three women stroll lazily towards him along the Lungarno (one with red hair like you, my darling!). They can’t be more than a few yards away, and Dante’s staring hard at them. The street’s empty so they know he’s watching. The woman in white clutching a red rose to her breast has turned her head away. It’s Beatrice, the woman Dante loves with mystic fervour.
What strikes me straightaway as I study my postcard print is how quiet the scene was in 1284. Today countless tourist cameras point down the Arno taking the same snap of the distant Ponte Vecchio. And that’s the first thing I notice you got wrong, Holiday. You painted the bridges too close together.
Does it matter?
It does. You made a point of coming all the way to Florence to get things right. Accuracy was an obsession with you, as it was with all pre-Raphaelites—think of your friend Holman Hunt trudging a thousand miles to the Dead Sea to set up his easel, then insisting on a real scapegoat to paint.
How did you put it, Holiday? ‘I wanted to get on the spot the general lie of the lines—the perspective, in fact, of the buildings and still more the sense of colour, and as far as possible to collect such fragments as remain of the buildings of Dante’s time, so as to be able to alter the details to the character of the period.’
If you exercised artistic licence with the bridges you tried hard to get everything else right. You’d read that the riverside path was paved with herring-bone bricks in Dante’s time, so you travelled all the way to Sienna where an original medieval brick pavement was still on the ground in the 1880s. Rigorous, laudable.
But the bricks aren’t what the painting’s about, are they? It’s about the celebrated meeting of Dante and Beatrice.
I’m finding it hard to swallow the received art history line that Dante is contemplating Beatrice with a spiritual longing. In fact, I’m not sure he’s contemplating Beatrice at all as she walks on. Is that what you wondered, Holiday, as you imagined the scene, standing where I’m standing now? Surely the poet’s looking at the woman in red?
Flesh against purity. We all know what usually triumphs.
The Walker has it that Beatrice is refusing to acknowledge Dante because of gossip that’s reached her that he’s been free in his affections with another woman. Dante said this was simply a ploy, that he was laying a false trail, reluctant to embarrass Beatrice by having his love for her made public.
But is Beatrice acknowledging him? According to Dante’s poem ‘Vita Nuova’ she is:
‘She was once more revealed to me, arrayed in the purest white, between two noble ladies, older than herself; and, as she passed along the street, she turned her eyes towards the spot where I, thrilled through and through with awe, was standing; and, in her ineffable courtesy, which now hath its guerdon in everlasting life, she saluted me in such gracious wise that I seemed in that moment to behold the utmost bounds of bliss.’
But if it did happen the moment has passed in Holiday’s painting, for Beatrice looks resolutely ahead. As my own moment of bliss had passed, when my red-headed beauty moved on to the Walker café with her friends.
So what did Dante do after this all too brief encounter with his life-long love? He went back to his room, the salutation he believed he’d received from Beatrice filling him with a profound bliss.
Ditto me, back to my flat, cat, and gas fire?
This time, no. I followed my own Beatrice into the cafe and sat in a shadowed corner with an espresso. A man in love clings to the faintest hope.
But back to the painting. Holiday seems to go with the Walker Gallery’s interpretation. Beatrice deliberately shuns Dante, and no wonder, if he was carrying on with her best friend.
I’m calling Beatrice a woman. Yet at the time of their meeting in 1284 she was just sixteen (just a year or two younger than my own red-headed love), and Dante a year older.
Another puzzle, Holiday. You’ve painted a Beatrice who looks in her late twenties. And Dante looks closer to my age, his expression the one I’m sure I wear much of my life—sad, hopeless.
Well, here’s my theory for what it’s worth: Beatrice didn’t acknowledge Dante because she had no earthly idea who he was. They’d met just once, when Beatrice was eight and Dante nine. Hardly much chance to build up a deep longing, spiritual or physical.
Did my little red-head see me watching her in the cafe? She did. I got looks, first from her friends and then from her, a look of first anxiety and then pure disgust.
I’m beginning to wonder whether your whole painting is a ludicrous fiction, Holiday. Did you scurry home to Hampstead armed with a bulging sketchbook, still fired by Dante’s ethereal vision of holy love? Or was your research overcome by lustful thoughts of young girls like mine?
If Beatrice is refusing to acknowledge the poet, Monna Vanna’s certainly showing an interest. She flaunts herself in your picture, her rich red dress hugging her sumptuous curves, poking out her breasts and glancing across at Dante with a lascivious look behind Beatrice’s back.
It’s on record that when you got home, Holiday, you straightaway modelled Beatrice and her sensuous friend in red on Eleanor Butcher and Milly Hughes, two lovely young girls. In your journal you say you just drew their heads. But we know that the clay models of them you sculpted were naked. Very courtly, very spiritual! I bet you enjoyed pressing and moulding wet gauze and plaster around the buxom breasts of Monna Vanna, our woman in red. You added the medieval gowns afterwards.
Curiouser and curiouser.
Odd, isn’t it, this Pre-Raphaelite obession with courtly purity? The whole crew of you were sex-obsessed, languidly sharing each others’ wives and girlfriends. Were you tired of bedding your embroiderer wife, Catherine? Maybe she had been getting into fleshly clinches with that animal Rossetti? Perhaps you hoped your Florentine painting would be a way of extricating yourself from a bitter marriage, sickened by the entire sexual merry-go-round?
So what’s left for me here in Florence in my quest for truth and verisimilitude? I run my fingers over the warm stones of the Ponte San Trinita, standing in the self-same position where Dante stood seven centuries before. At least that’s real.
No, Hitler blew the bridge up out of spite when he invaded Italy. What I’m standing on isn’t medieval, it’s a copy, a fake.
Is anything left here that’s not?
A girl edges in front of me. She’s leaning against the parapet. Seventeen, eighteen, no older. Someone jostles me and I fight for my balance, stumble, then inadvertently grab her shoulder, fall to my knees, brush her thigh, clutch her leg.
I lie on the paving breathing heavily, waiting for a slap, a kick. I clamber to my feet, terrified, my mind on the polizia, the infinite shame, a probable spell in a Florentine prison. I look up. Is this beauty grinding her teeth in anger at my sexual assault? No, she grants me a sweet smile—nothing enigmatic and Beatrice-like about that.
I study her face, she’s a painting already, with freckled arms and shoulders, a bare mid-riff, and smallish breasts. I back ignominiously away into the crowd.
My thoughts as I make my way back to the hotel? Ashamed, I can think only of her young body and the breasts I clumsily brushed. And, of course, a welter of lustful thoughts about my girl with red hair from the Walker.
Henry Holiday, his painting, Dante, Beatrice, courtly conventions, mystical love—all tossed like dry dust into the waters of the Arno.
I should have come in winter when the girls don’t go so undressed. An overcoat can be the saviour of a sad old man’s life.
Pigeons flutter on the herring-bone brick pavement, exactly as they do in Holiday’s painting. There’s nothing for me here. Time to go home, feed the cat, sit in front of the gas fire, plan my next lecture.
Beatrice went on to marry a banker, not a holy man or poet.