I recently visited the exhibition Preraffaelliti – Amore e Desiderio currently on display at Palazzo Reale, Milan. The show, which will run until early October, gathers about 80 works made by members of the Preraphaelite Brotherhood, which was formed in England in 1848. The movement reacted to the quick changes of Victorian society and culture, producing a romanticised view of nature, myth, and religion. The selection includes outstanding masterpieces such as Millais’s Ophelia and Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, which are unlikely to travel outside the United Kingdom. The result is a concise and effective summary of the Preraphaelite movement’s identity and ethos.
The works are arranged thematically and present key themes related to the Preraphaelites’ poetics. Their sensual depictions of the English landscape and the ingenuity of their religious subjects contrast with the key features of modern society: the urban environment, industrialisation, utilitarianism. These were all aspects that the Brotherhood’s members clearly rejected through their paintings. Stanhope’s The Wine Press is a significant example as it symbolically evokes a rural religious sensibility which seems to coincide with a sense of idyllic timelessness. In creating such works, these artists were deeply inspired by Medieval culture as well as their own modern lives.
The exhibition’s rooms are decorated with saturated colours that mimic the Preraphaelite aesthetic: burgundy red, teal, emerald green. The lighting is dim and emphasises the evocative aura of the works, especially in the case of larger religious paintings such as Madox Brown’s Our Lady of Good Children and Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet. The archways between each room are shaped like pointed arches and constitute a reference to the neo-gothic style that became so popular in early-Victorian England.
Compared to Tate’s outstanding collection, the selection of works presented in this exhibition is hardly complete or extensive. However, the Milan show succeeds in summarising the key elements, both historically and aesthetically, that made the Preraphaelite Brotherhood such an influential contributor to modern British art. This is particularly relevant in a country like Italy, where there are no significant collections of Preraphaelite art on public display. As such, the exhibition is not only worth visiting but also greatly enjoyable.