Art, Pre-Raphaelite, women of literature


Fiammetta is one of the most famous literary characters, she appears in several of Boccaccio’s works, she was his muse and lover and was traditionally associated with Maria d’Aquino, a noblewoman of Naples, who was an illegitimate daughter of Robert Wise, King of Naples and Count of Provence.

Fiammetta’s song by Edwin Austin Abbey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s known that she was accomplice in the 1345 murder of King Andrew, the husband of her niece and Robert’s successor, Queen Joanna I; for this she was sentenced to death and beheaded in 1382 on the orders of Queen Joanna I’s successor, King Charles III. However, most information on Maria d’Aquino’s life that we have today is from what Boccaccio wrote.

Boccaccio wrote about Maria d’Aquino and their relationship in several of his literary works. She is traditionally identified as Fiammetta and according to him, Maria’s mother was a Provençal noblewoman, Sibila Sabran, wife of Count Thomas IV of Aquino. She was born after Countess Sibila and King Robert committed adultery at his coronation festivities in 1310 but was given the family name of her mother’s husband. Her putative father placed her in a convent.

Fiammetta in Boccaccio’s works

Fiammetta by Eduard Veith, 1911 – Private Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fiammetta appears in the following works by Boccaccio:

  • The Filocolo
  • Teseida
  • Il Filostrato
  • Ninfale d’Ameto
  • Amorosa visone
  • Fiammetta (novel) – Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (The Elegy of Lady Fiametta): probably between 1343-1344. Written in form of a confessional-monologue in first person, it describes the passion of the protagonist (Fiammetta) for Panfilo, a Florentine merchant, and takes place in Naples. It has been characterised as the first psychological novel in Western literature. It consists in a prologue and nine chapters.
  • The Decameron (Novels nº I, 5; II, 5; III, 6; IV, 1; V, 9; VI, 6; VII, 5; VIII, 6; IX, 5; X, 6)
  • Sonnets (nº XLV, XCVII, CII, CXXVI)

Fiammetta in Art

Fiammetta became more popular in visual art with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti who made the famous painting A Vision of Fiammetta, in the frame of the painting there are three texts: the sonnet by Boccaccio entitled On his last sight of Fiammetta which inspired the painting; the translation of it made by Rossetti himself and one of his poems mirroring the poem.

Study of Marie Stillman for a vision of Fiammetta by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1878 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since Fiammetta was Boccaccio’s muse, and her representation in art are inspired by Boccaccio’s works, obviously she is always depicted in art in a very idealised way, as she was an example of the woman’s beauty of the time.

On his last sight of Fiammetta by Boccaccio ( Translation by Rossetti, first published in 1861. ):

Round her red garland and her golden hair / I saw a fire about Fiammetta’s head;/ Thence to a little cloud I watch’d it fade,/ Than silver or than gold more brightly fair;

And like a pearl that a gold ring doth bear,/ Even so an angel sat therein, who sped/ Alone and glorious throughout heaven, array’d/ In sapphires and in gold that lit the air.

Then I rejoiced as hoping happy things,/ Who rather should have then discern’d how God/ Had haste to make my lady all his own,

Even as it came to pass. And with these stings/ Of sorrow, and with life’s most weary load/ I dwell, who fain would be where she is gone.

A vision of Fiammetta by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1878 – Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And here it is Rossetti’s poem:

Behold Fiammetta, shown in Vision here.

Gloom-girt ‘mid Spring-flushed apple-growth she stands;/ And as she sways the branches with her hands,/ Along her arm the sundered bloom falls sheer,/ In separate petals shed, each like a tear;/ While from the quivering bough the bird expands/ His wings. And lo! thy spirit understands/ Life shaken and shower’d and flown, and Death drawn near.

All stirs with change. Her garments beat the air:/ The angel circling round her aureole/ Shimmers in flight against the tree’s grey bole:/ While she, with reassuring eyes most fair,/ A presage and a promise stands; as ’twere/ On Death’s dark storm the rainbow of the Soul.

Fiammetta by Emma Sandys, 1876 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among women artists, it seems that Fiammetta was not a favourite character, I could find only two paintings by Emma Sandys and Marie Spartali Stillman (who was also the model for Rossetti’s Fiammetta), both Pre-Raphaelite artists, as well as Rossetti.

Fiammetta singing by Marie Spartali Stillman – Private Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)