Dante Rossetti, who assumed the professional name Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was born 12 May 1828 at No. 38 Charlotte Street, Portland Place, London, the second child and eldest son of Gabriele Rossetti (1783-1854) and Frances Polidori Rossetti (1800-1886). Gabriele Rossetti was a Dante scholar, who when younger had been exiled from Naples for writing poetry in support of the Neapolitan Constitution of 1819.He settled in London in 1824, where in 1826 he married the daughter of a fellow Italian expatriate and man of letters; Frances Polidori had trained as a governess, and she supervised her children’s early education. Gabriele Rossetti supported the family as a professor of Italian at King’s College, London, until his eyesight and general health deteriorated in the 1840s.
Frances then attempted to support the family as a teacher of French and Italian, and as an unsuccessful founder of two day schools.Few Victorian families were as gifted: Maria Rossetti (1827-1876) was described as talented, enthusiastic, and domineering as a child; in later life she published A Shadow of Dante (1871) and became an Anglican nun (1873); William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) was along with his brother an active member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and became an editor, man of letters, and memoirist; the youngest child, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830- 1894), became an introspective lyrical poet. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was bilingual from early childhood and grew up in an atmosphere of emigre political and literary discussion.From childhood he intended to be a painter and illustrated literary subjects in his earliest drawings. He was tutored at home in German and read the Bible, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, The Arabian Nights, Charles Dickens, and the poetry of Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron. At the age of eight he entered Mr. Paul’s day school in Portland Place and a year later began studies at King’s College School, which he attended for five years, from 1837 to 1842.
From 1842 to 1846 he attended Cary’s Academy of Art to prepare for the Royal Academy, which he entered in July 1846. After more than a year in the Academy Antique School, Rossetti left to apprentice himself to the historical painter Ford Madox Brown, who later became his closest lifelong friend. He also continued his extensive reading of poetry–Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake, John Keats, Robert Browning, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson–and romantic and satiric iction–Charles Robert Maturin, William Makepeace Thackeray, Friedrich Heinrich Karl de la Motte-Fouque, Charles Wells– and in 1845 began translations from German medieval poetry (Hartmann von Ave’s twelfthcentury Der Arme Heinrich, and parts of the Nibelungenlied), and from the Italians (Dante’s Vita Nuova and British Museum volumes of Dante’s little-known predecessors, published as The Early Italian Poets in 1861).In 1847 and 1848 Rossetti began several important early poems–“My Sister’s Sleep,” “The Blessed Damozel,” “The Bride’s Prelude,” “On Mary’s Portrait,” “Ave,” “Jenny,” “Dante at Verona,” “A Last Confession,” and several sonnets, including “Retro Me Sathana” and a trio, “The Choice. ” There is some evidence that Rossetti might have wished to take up poetry as a career but felt impelled to turn to painting to earn his living. In 1848 he wrote the poet and critic Leigh Hunt about the possibility of supporting himself by writing poetry, and his dual impulses toward art and poetry may have hindered his development as a painter.
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