Light on the mystery of the mythical Böcklin painting

Arnold Böcklin was born in Basel in 1827, three years after Lord Byron’s death. It is said of him that he took his obsession with death further than anyone else. His is a self-portrait in which the same artist, stocky, blond hair thrown back, holding a brush while the grim reaper sneaks up and places a claw on his shoulder, the same one with which he wields a violin bow. .

I rummage through his biography and discover that he is buried in Fiesole, where he died after living long periods in Florence. And suddenly I think I know what the rock I saw from the ferry that brought me here reminds me of. Böcklin, of course, Böcklin and his sea graveyard! It’s not as famous a painting as The Birth of Venus, which Botticelli painted here, but once you see it, you can’t forget it. It’s called The Island of the Dead, Die Toteninsel.One of the five versions of the painting ‘The Island of the Dead.

Apparently, there are five different versions, one of them exhibited in the New York Metropolitan. The others are in Basel, Leipzig and Berlin. One that was in Rotterdam was destroyed by bombing in World War II. The writer María Belmonte maintains (in an article published in Cultura/s ) that the work could have arisen from the commission of a very rich woman from the island of Ponza who asked Böcklin for “the most romantic painting ever painted”. She recalls that the author himself always wanted the painting to be surrounded by mystery. For this reason, he never clarified in which cemetery or on which island he had been inspired. Sergei Rachmaninov composed a haunting musical poem based on the canvas.

Visit to ‘The island of the dead’

In the painting we are shown, in the foreground, a boat with an upright figure covered by what could be a shroud. He is about to enter a tiny cemetery. Charon steers the helm. The cemetery is located on an islet delimited by a large semicircular wall, with an outline of doors or windows open on the upper floors of the cliff. And, inside, a score of cypresses that surpass the rocks and scratch a stormy sky.

It is rash to conclude that the painter was inspired only by this islet, but the hypothesis should always be taken into account

There has been much speculation about the place that inspired the author such a tribute to death. The cemetery of San Michele in Venice, that of the English in Florence, Corfu, Lake Garda, the castle on the island of Ischia or Ponza are some of the hypotheses considered. Belmonte clearly leans towards the Florentine cemetery: the artist had his studio right in front of him and, furthermore, his daughter was buried there. As if that were not enough, we know that in the past there were two rocks similar to the ones in the painting, which were dynamited to build more tombs.

But I want to believe that, if it weren’t for Palmaria’s rugged coastline, I would now be in view of the very island that captivated the artist. I only have to walk a few minutes north to see it, even from afar. Enough to get around an inopportune outgoing.View of the Scola Tower, possible inspiration for Böcklin’s “Island of the Dead”. 

I would be lying if I said that when I saw the Torre Scola from the sea I related it to the famous painting. But I can affirm now that the same impression that Böcklin’s work caused me when I saw it for the first time, I have revived it at the sight of that piece of hell that floats in the waters of paradise.

Everything that can be seen in the painting is contained there, except for the cypresses, replaced by wild vegetation, and the corpse that sails towards its final destination, which is us, without knowing it, when, ignorant, we observe the tower from a summer ferry .

The original landscape has been the subject of many theories: the Cemetery of the English in Florence is another strong candidate.

Too bad the ship doesn’t pass a little closer. You have to enlarge the photos that I have taken before to verify the amazing resemblance between the semi-open structure of the royal tower and the marine cemetery that the artist painted. I read in an old guide that the Torre Scola was part of the defensive system of the Republic of Genoa. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century and it was active until the Napoleonic wars. He did not survive the fight. For decades it was abandoned to its fate, until it underwent several reforms throughout the 20th century.

While he lived in Florence between 1876 and 1885, the Swiss painter spent a few summers on this coast, between Viareggio and San Terenzo. If Torre Scola served as inspiration for The Island of the Dead, he must have seen it on those vacations at the beginning of his Florentine stage, because it is known that in 1879 he already made some sketches for the painting. He could also have been inspired by the work of a landscape painter of his time who knew the island.View of the house with porches where Mary and Percy Shelley lived in San Terenzo (Liguria)View of the house with porches where Mary and Percy Shelley lived in San Terenzo.

When he settled in San Terenzo for a few months in 1892, all the versions of the painting were already painted. There he lived in the house of fisherman (and pirate) Giacomino Rossi, situated a few streets above Villa Magni, the Shelley home.