By legend it was in the ‘huge, utterly gothic space’ of the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, situated in the very centre of the Centro Storico of Naples, that the 14th Century poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio first glimpsed his muse, Fiammetta or ‘Little Flame’. He was 21 years old at the time and had arrived in Italy’s biggest and richest city with his banker father from Florence a few years before.
Many thought, and think, that Fiammetta was Maria d’Aquino, a daughter of Robert, King of Naples. Boccaccio venerated her beauty and mind, even if her body remained out of reach as she retreated back into the court and away from Naples city life. Instead of a companion, she would become a constant feature of his later works, many of which recreate Naples in all its earthy reality.
After her death, Boccaccio wrote a sonnet, capturing the last time he saw his beloved:
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.
The English Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who translated Boccaccio, portrays Fiammetta above in 1878 as a ‘magnificent being, clad in a flame-coloured oriental robe’. The picture is in the collection of the British composer, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber whose website says:
Her figure stands glowing against a dark background: a vision of the brief moment between life and death. The short-lived apple blossom signifies the transience of beauty: Fiammetta stands entwined in the branches of an apple tree surrounded by emblems of the departing soul a shower of falling red and white blossom, a blood-red bird (the messenger of death), butterflies (symbols of the soul) and an angel in the aureole around her head. The painting has an extraordinary power and presence. With its frame designed by the artist, it is a beautiful object in itself and a representation of female allure; at the same time it is an image of death and of love that lasts beyond the grave.
A beautiful image for an ancient, unrequited love.