Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted La Pia de Tolomei at the beginning of his affair with Jane Morris, the wife of his friend William Morris. In this painting, Jane models as La Pia, from Dante Alighieri’s poem the Divine Comedy. La Pia is found by Dante during his travel through Purgatory, in Part II of the epic work. La Pia has died without absolution. She says to Dante “remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me”
The one who “first encircled my finger with his jewel” refers to La Pia’s husband, Nello, who was responsible for her death so that he could marry a Countess. La Pia’s husband imprisoned her in Pietra Castle, which is the scene we see in Rossetti’s painting. Is Rossetti painting Jane as a prisoner of marriage, just as La Pia was a prisoner of the castle? Perhaps Rossetti is projecting his desire to free Jane and rescue her for himself.
I always enjoy the small details that Rossetti includes in most of his works. Often symbolic, he adds imagery that helps add to the tale. Such as the rooks flying in the sky. Rooks bring omens of death, and we should not overlook the fact that rooks play an important role in one of Rossetti’s poems, Sunset Wings:
And now the mustering rooks innumerable
Together sail and soar,
While for the day’s death, like a tolling knell,
Unto the heart they seem to cry, Farewell,
No more, farewell, no more!
Time passes on as La Pia is imprisoned. We see this with the inclusion of a sundial. To pass the time, we see her prayer book, her rosary, and possibly some old love letters.
Most importantly, we see that Jane (as La Pia) lightly fingers her wedding ring, the fair jewel given to her by the husband who trapped and imprisoned her.
Also see Shades of Dante for more on Rossetti’s lifelong passion for Dante Alighieri.