The Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) is one of the eighteenth century symbolism’s most discussed painting; it is a work with lugubrious and dark tones that inspired intellectuals, artists, and musicians alike.
Its author is Arnold Böcklin, the Swiss painter who was an exponent of the art of symbolism. For years art historians tried to locate the place that inspired the landscape of the picture, and all tracks eventually lead to the English Cemetery in Florence’s Piazzale Donatello.
We are quite certain that Robert Langdon would have been very interested in this painting.
Biography of Arnold Böcklin
Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel, Switzerland, on October 16, 1827. The son of a merchant, his artistic development took place in Germany and in Italy, where he came across Romanticism.
Always very attracted to Italy, he would return several times during his travels. In 1874 he moved to Florence, where his daughter Beatrice was born. She unfortunately died at a young age.
It is in Florence in 1879 that he painted the first version of his most famous work, the Isle of the Dead, inspired by the layout of Donatello square, in which the English cemetery is located.
He died in Fiesole and was buried in Florence’s Cimitero degli Allori, a cemetery reserved for non-Catholics.
The Isle of the Dead
It’s his most famous painting. Between 1880 and 1886 the painter realized 5 versions that are similar but not identical.
The painting focuses on a rowboat conducted by an oarsman with a white-robed figure standing on the bow, behind whose feet can be seen a small white coffin. The boat heads toward a rocky island that contains in the center tall cypress trees, which usually adorn cemeteries. The sky is dark, the sea is calm, and the atmosphere evokes feelings of mystery and fear.
Böcklin never provided an explanation or a title for his work; he got the title from an art dealer much later on and never revealed the person who inspired him.
The debate among art critics on the source of the model for the rocky island is still ongoing: according to some, it was Pontikonisi, near Corfu, a small island adorned with a chapel in the middle of a grove of cypress trees; according to others, it was Capri or Ischia.
However, we do know that the painter produced the first three versions of the painting in Florence, perhaps being inspired by the English Cemetery located just a few steps from his studio, the place where his daughter was buried a few months later.
The Swiss painter was always very fascinated by mythology and the classics, and the various interpretations of the painting nearly all agree that the rower is a representation of Charon, passing over the waters of the river Styx, and that the passenger in white is simply a dead soul.
Of the five versions, one was destroyed in Rotterdam during the Second World War. The other four are kept in: (1880) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; (1880) Kunstmuseum, Basel; (1883) Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin; and (1886) Bildenden Museum der Künste, Leipzig.
The English cemetery in Florence
The cemetery was built outside the city walls by the Swiss Evangelical Reformed Church in 1827 to bury those belonging to the Protestant Christians. It is in fact an international cemetery for those that belonged to the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches. Before that, non-Catholics who died in Florence were buried in Livorno.
The structural peculiarity of this cemetery is that it has an oval shape; it was created by the Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi, the same man who rebuilt the mansion holding the Stibbert Museum. Avenues surround the cemetery, and the cemetery looks just like an island causeway, the island of the dead, in fact.
The Painting’s Legacy
The Isle of the Dead inspired many other artists, poets, and musicians during the 1900s. It would seem that it represented a sort of obsession for certain historical figures of recent memory, including Sigmund Freud, who owned several copies of the painting, Salvador Dali, and Gabriele D’Annnunzio. Both Hitler and Lenin were fascinated and each bought one of the five copies.
Picture by Wikipedia