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Textual Physiognomy: A New Theory and Brief History of Dantean Portraiture


Dante Alighieri, as we understand him and read his poetry, is a construct crafted from posthumous portraiture. Dante’s famous profile appears at a pivotal transition point from icon to image, where the aura of the saint is transferred to the poet. In this aesthetic creation of identity, portraits and visual representations of Dante are influenced by, and in turn influence, commentaries, translations, and biographies of the poet.  This visual and textual synergy is called textual physiognomy, and it reaches an important juncture point in the 19th century, when Dante Gabriel Rossetti—as both artist, critic, and translator of Dante—creates a new and influential alternative to the traditional Dantean identity. Rossetti challenges the Dante the 19th century had taken for granted as fact: the divine “poet saturnine,” with “hatchet” profile, aquiline nose, austere face, and laurel crown. Through his iconoclastic approach to the Dantean portraiture tradition, Rossetti gives Dante a new life by emphasizing the human Dante, the pre-exile Dante before the Divine Comedy.

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