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Exhibition review: The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The BBC2 bonk-buster Desperate Romantics presented the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as a story of sex, drugs and seduction. Arrogant, young and full of laudanum, it was a wonder that amid all the bodice ripping anyone had any time to paint at all.

The Pre-Raphaelites have suffered from their popularity. Teenage girls of a romantic persuasion tend to identify with the beautiful dresses and the copious hair of the female models, whilst Andrew Lloyd Webber is a collector. Now the Ashmolean has launched, as its first major exhibition in its new temporary exhibitions centre, The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It brings together over 140 pictures from the Ashmolean's own Pre-Raphaelite collection, along with international loans. The serious scholarship goes a long way to reclaim the Pre-Raphaelites from the lid of the chocolate box and to remind us that, in their day, their art was radical, vital and, yes, beautiful.

Italy's culture and landscape was a source of inspiration to the group, who met at the London home of John Everett Millais in September 1848, with the intention of altering the course of British art. The close study of nature was their credo. Their champion, John Ruskin, had written in Modern Painters, published in 1846, that artists "should go to Nature in all singleness of heart...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." The name Pre-Raphaelite was chosen to exalt Italian work before Raphael, who was considered the epitome of the classical style by the Academy, and in order to signal their determination to defy convention and the supremacy of history painting. In fact, if they had been better informed about early Italian art they would probably never have chosen the label, for an interest in the Italian primitives had become almost conventional by 1848.

In the early years the Brotherhood chose Italian subjects for their paintings. Yet apart from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who grew up in an Italian speaking household, their knowledge of Italy and its literature amounted to little more than a faux medievalism acquired from English poets such as Keats and Browning. Unlike many of their continental contemporaries the members of the brotherhood did not spend time in Italy. There were no mechanisms to study there and most did not have parents who could fund a Grand Tour.

Rossetti, arguably the most influential member and the most ardently Italian of them all, never actually went there, perhaps afraid that the real country would fall short of the one he had constructed in his imagination. Millais and his wife did visit in 1865 as tourists, while Holman Hunt ended washed up in Florence and Naples on his way to the Holy Land because quarantine restrictions put pay to his travel plans. Ruskin, on the other hand, visited Italy when he was 14, and over the next fifty years no fewer than fifteen times.

Ruskin was a passionate conservationist who believed that Europe's architectural heritage was being irretrievably destroyed by inappropriate "restoration". The exhibition includes many of his painstaking studies of the buildings at risk. Also included are the little known and rather wonderful designs by Burne-Jones for the American Episcopalian church in Rome, an invitation that was the culmination of a dream he had had for much of his life.

It is also strong on the associates of the Brotherhood. Holman Hunt's pupil, Edward Lear, lived in Rome and painted landscapes, while Frederic Leighton, another sometime resident of Rome, learnt the art of landscape painting from Giovanni "Nino" Costa, an ardent patriot who founded a new school that become known as the Etruscans.

Gradually the term Pre-Raphaelite was to evolve from meaning a Ruskinian "truth to nature" to a more sensual celebration of the Venetian masters of the High Renaissance, such as Titian and Veronese. During my visit, it was the wall of Rossetti's women - his Aurelia and Monna Vanna and his languid study for La Pia de'Tolomei, based on the model Jane Morris - that attracted the most attention. Full of emotional and sexual suggestion these voluptuous, eroticised images will always be what, for most people, define the Pre-Raphaelites.

Until 5 December 2010