Victorian Identity and the Historical Imaginary: Emilia Dilke's "The Renaissance of Art in France"

By Mansfield, Elizabeth | CLIO, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Victorian Identity and the Historical Imaginary: Emilia Dilke's "The Renaissance of Art in France"


Mansfield, Elizabeth, CLIO


Late-Victorian Britain enjoyed an unprecedented fascination with the French Renaissance. Beginning in the 1870s, British historians, poets, theologians, and novelists increasingly turned their attention to sixteenth-century French culture and society. Entranced by the period's magnificent chateaux and innovative poetry, yet appalled by the excesses of princely caprice and religious suppression, Victorian Britain's collective cultural imagination asserted a growing preoccupation with French Renaissance culture.

This heightened awareness of French Renaissance culture manifested itself most forcefully in Emilia Dilke's groundbreaking book, The Renaissance of Art in France. Published in 1879, the two-volume study offered the first comprehensive account of sixteenth-century French visual culture. Critical accolades greeted the book's publication, and commercial success followed. The popular appeal of a book devoted to a subject previously ignored by British scholars and tastemakers suggests that by the late 1870s, French Renaissance culture offered more than an arcane intellectual diversion. Indeed, a careful consideration of the Victorian perception of the French Renaissance, especially as it was constructed in Dilke's book, will reveal that the French Renaissance played a crucial role in the Victorian imagination, serving as a cultural and historical mirror through which Victorian society gained a perspective on its own cultural identity.

"Declaring that To obey me is to love Gothic and hate Renaissance,' John Ruskin disavowed one of his most promising disciples, the art historian Emilia Dilke (1840-1904)."(1) Dilke's offense? She had decided to make Renaissance France her field of expertise. As Victorian Britain's foremost advocate of medieval culture and Gothic revivalism, Ruskin found Dilke's decision akin to blasphemy. His reaction, though uniquely personal in its emotional intensity, betokens the significance of specific historical periods as popular touchstones of Victorian cultural identity.

Gothic revivalism and its importance for nineteenth-century Britain has been explored by many recent scholars. Now generally understood as a cultural response to the social, political, and economic changes wrought by rapid industrialization, Gothic revivalism offered a reassuring "return" to tradition and stability. Ruskin, as Victorian England's most influential champion of medieval culture, largely defined the period for his contemporaries. Ascribing to medieval society an unquestioning religious faith and indomitable community spirit, he exhorted his Victorian audience to embrace the material and spiritual splendor of this largely imaginary past. Furthermore, he associated Gothic art with England's cultural heritage and national identity. The popular appeal of Ruskin's mythologized Middle Ages led, in fact, to a proliferation of "Gothic" themes in Victorian art and architecture.

Alongside this Gothic revival arose a distinct though not unrelated resurrection of interest in Renaissance culture and society. Victorian England had experienced a radical shift in its popular as well as scholarly perception of the Renaissance. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Italian Renaissance had retained its position as a pinnacle of artistic achievement. Rome and Florence had been, since the eighteenth century, requisite stops on any "Grand Tour" of the Continent. Cultural pilgrimages were made to the Vatican in order to view the frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo. Obedient to Joshua Reynolds's canonization of these artists, nineteenth-century collectors eagerly acquired any work vaguely associated with sixteenth-century Italy. Likewise, contemporary British artists struggled to emulate antique and Renaissance models in order to advance through the ranks of the British Royal Academy of Arts.

The appearance of Ruskin's Lectures on Architecture and Painting in 1854 helped to change drastically the Victorian understanding of Italian Renaissance art.

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