Blake felt compelled to speak out against the criticism in the Monthly Magazine which his friend Fuseli's painting Count Ugolino received. Blake defended Fuseli's rendering of the subject and attacked the publication for undermining the taste of the British public by promoting the style imported from Flanders and Holland.
Print of Fuseli's lost painting
Letters, To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine (E 768) SIR,
My indignation was exceedingly moved at reading a criticism in Bell's Weekly Messenger (25th May) on the picture of Count Ugolino, by Mr. Fuseli, in the Royal Academy exhibition
... "My criticism on this picture is as follows: Mr. Fuseli's Count Ugolino is the father of sons of feeling and dignity, who would not sit looking in their parent's face in the moment of his agony, but would rather retire and die in secret, while they suffer him to indulge his passionate and innocent grief, his innocent and venerable madness, and insanity, and fury, and whatever paltry cold hearted critics cannot, because they dare not, look upon. Fuseli's Count Ugolino is a man of wonder and admiration, of resentment against man and devil, and of humilitation before God; prayer and parental affection fills the figure from head to foot. The child in his arms, whether boy or girl signifies not, (but the critic must be a fool who has not read Dante, and who does not know a boy from a girl); I say, the child is as beautifully drawn as it is coloured--in both, inimitable! and the effect of the whole is truly sublime, on account of that very colouring which our critic calls black and heavy. The German flute colour, which was used by the Flemings, (they call it burnt bone), has possessed the eye of certain connoisseurs, that they cannot see appropriate colouring, and are blind to the gloom of a real terror."The theme of Ugolino's imprisonment and suffering was common among artists. Milton Klonsky writes in Blake's Dante, "As an instance of papal tyranny, Ugolino's imprisonment and death by starvation became a popular subject for Protestant English artists." Blake included images of the family who had been sealed in a locked tower sentenced to die of starvation in Marriage of Heaven & Hell, in A Small Book of Designs, and in Gates of Paradise. The caption on the image in Gates of Paradise is, "Does thy God O Priest take such vengeance as this?" When Blake illustrated Dante's Divine Comedy near the end of his life he returned to the tragic incident.
Among the themes Blake alluded to in his images are his opposition to vengeance, the imprisonment of man in his five senses, and the suffering which man brings on himself and his children by violence.
In his final use of the image Blake adds two motifs not present in the earlier images; angels make there presence known in the cell, and the flames of a fire are seen behind Ugolino's head. The protection by the Divine Providence can be seen in the presence of the angels. The cleansing fire of the furnace preliminary to regeneration has been added as well.
Ugolino in Prison
Illustration to Dante's Divine Comedy