This illustration to Dante's Vita Nuova, which Rossetti had completed translating in 1848, is his largest watercolor. It depicts Dante drawing an angel in memory of Beatrice, interrupted by sympathetic visitors. The subject-matter was explained in the inscription below:
'On that day on which a whole year has completed since my lady had been born into the life eternal, remembering me of her as I sat alone, I betook myself to draw the resemblance of an Angel upon certain tablets. And while I did this, chancing to turn my head, perceived that some were standing beside me to whom I should have given courteous welcome and that they were observing what I did; also I learned afterwards that they had been there a while before I perceived them. Perceiving whom, I arose for salutation and said: "Another was with me."
Lizzie Siddal posed for the young woman in her first subject modeled for Rossetti, and Old Williams for the elderly gentleman. Dante's features resemble those of William Rossetti.
Rossetti's use of relatively dramatic chiaroscuro contrasts the sunlight with Dante's somber gown and rich glowing drapery, and the influences of both Dürer and Memling can be seen.
This painting was one of the works that became a catalyst for a second phase of
Pre-Raphaelitism in the mid-1850s, inspiring Burne-Jones and William Morris. It was
described by Ruskin, who first encountered Rossetti at this time, as 'a thoroughly glorious work- the most perfect piece of Italy, in the accessory parts, I have ever seen in my life'
The angularity of the figures was characteristic of contemporary Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood work, particularly that of Millais, the first owner of the picture. A greater attention to detail than in his earlier works is also clear. Rossetti had executed an earlier drawing of the same subject, finished in May 1849, that was compositionally very different; in the earlier version there was no Female visitor. The woman in this version is probably intended to represent Gemma Donati,
Dante's later wife, who appears again in Rossetti's La Donna della Finestra. Amongst the wealth of literary symbolism in the work, a crossbow, hanging on an easel next to a quill and ink bowl, represents Dante's active life, while the lute, skull and ivy symbolize vanitas.
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