Ancient History & Civilisation



When, in the Renaissance, artists turned from their nearly exclusive focus on sacred subjects to secular subjects, the Aeneid, as the central non-biblical narrative text of western literature, naturally became the source for innumerable artistic representations, above all in painting, but also in sculpture, as well as in the minor arts: prints, maiolica, cassoni (Italian wedding chests), metal plaquettes.1 As a secular source for artistic images the Aeneid is second only to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which with its greater variety of mythological stories can justly claim the title of ‘painters’ bible’. From the later sixteenth century on these two long narrative poems from antiquity were joined, as favourite textual sources for painted images, by two Renaissance romance epics, each heavily indebted to both Virgil and Ovid, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata.

A few images of episodes from the Aeneid survive from antiquity. There is only one Pompeiian painting that certainly illustrates an episode in the Aeneid, the doctor Iapyx attempting to heal Aeneas’ arrow-wound (Aen. 12.383–429) (Fig. 15).2 Unseen by the human actors, Venus appears in the background bringing the herb from Crete that will magically heal the wound. Scenes of the story of Dido and Aeneas appear on a mosaic floor from the Roman villa at Low Ham in Somerset, England (c. AD 350), from the Trojans’ sailing to Carthage to Dido abandoned, with a much reproduced panel showing a fully clothed Aeneas embracing a naked Dido in the countryside.3

The earliest surviving book illustrations of the Aeneid date from just a few decades after the Low Ham mosaic. We have far older manuscripts of Virgil than for almost any other ancient author, and the oldest, the so-called Virgilius Vaticanus of about 400 AD, contains 41 images from the Aeneid, still within the illusionistic conventions of classical art (Figs. 16, 17). The illustrations in the later, probably mid-sixth-century, Virgilius Romanus are already recognizably more ‘medieval’ in their flattened perspective and simplification of line.4 After these precious survivals there are a handful of illustrated Virgil manuscripts from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, before the more numerous illustrations of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which, however, more often accompany vernacular versions, in verse and prose, of the story of the Aeneid.5 Some fifteenth-century manuscripts of Virgil contain lavish illustrations, notably those attributed to Apollonio di Giovanni in a manuscript in Florence (Flor. Bibl. Riccard. MS 492). Apollonio is also known for his Virgilian scenes on Renaissance cassoni, wedding chests, that provide an early vehicle for the display of paintings illustrating classical myth and legend.6

Fig. 15. Aeneas and Iapyx, Pompeii, Casa di Sirico.

Fig. 16. Dido offers a sacrifice, from the Vergilius Vaticanus.

Fig. 17. Aeneas and Achates approach the Sibyl in front of the temple of Apollo, from the Vergilius Vaticanus.

Turning to the printed book, an exhaustive handbook of illustrated editions of Virgil’s works from 1502 to 1840 lists over 550 editions and translations with one or more woodcuts and engravings (if only on the title-page).7 One of the earliest has been called ‘one of the most wonderful illustrated books ever produced’, a 1502 Strasbourg Virgil whose production was overseen by the humanist Sebastian Brant, author of the satirical Ship of Fools. Brant’s Virgil contains 214 woodcuts, whose blocks were re-used in later editions of Virgil, and whose designs provided models for images in other media, including maiolica and painting (Fig. 2). Brant claims in an epigram at the end of his edition that, while others may expound Virgil in eloquent speech and teach him to schoolboys, he, Brant, wanted to use rustic pictures to publish him for the unlearned and country-dwellers, rather like the Biblia Pauperum, ‘Bible of the Poor’, picture Bibles designed to teach the illiterate. The architectural settings and the clothes of the Brant woodcuts are still fully medieval; the final encounter in the Aeneid between Aeneas and Turnus is set within a fenced-off area as for an early modern duel. Very different are the classicizing scenes in seventeenth-century editions, such as those by François Chauveau for the French translation of Virgil by Michel de Marolles (1649) (Figs. 1, 5, 14), and those by Franz Cleyn for the English translation by John Ogilby (1654) (Figs. 4, 18), reused in Dryden’s 1697 translation of The Works of Virgil. A more rococo air is found in the illustrations by Giuseppe Zocchi for a 1760 edition of the blank-verse translation of the Aeneid by Annibal Caro (1507–66), the best of the Italian translators (Figs. 13, 19). The artistic idiom has become neoclassical in the etchings by Bartolomeo Pinelli in the Italian translation by Clemente Bondi (1811) (Figs. 6, 11).

Turning to painting, the Aeneid is the subject of a number of pictorial cycles, mostly in Italy. The only cycle to assign a separate painting to each of the 12 books of the Aeneid is that by Nicolò dell’Abate for the Castle of Scandiano in Reggio Emilia (c. 1540). Each painting uses the technique of continuous narrative, in which several episodes from a single book are depicted, distributed around a landscape. The Wooden Horse in the panel for Aeneid 2 is based on woodcuts in the 1502 Brant Virgil. Virgilian cycles may serve various intellectual and ideological agendas. The Scandiano scenes from the Aeneid were part of a larger scheme which included battle scenes all’antica in the dado beneath the Aeneid frescoes, and sixteenth-century figures in landscapes in the lunettes above, while from the octagonal panel in the ceiling members of the Boiardo family, owners of the castle, look down. It has been suggested that the battle scenes allude to the tradition of conflicts between Umbrians and Tuscans in Emilia before the coming of Aeneas: ‘the lord and lady of Scandiano, eminent on the contemporary scene, are rooted in time reaching, through the glorious episodes of the Aeneid, into a history more ancient than Rome’s.’8 The Aeneid roots Virgil’s contemporary Rome and its ruler Augustus in a glamorous legendary past; patrons of art in post-antique centuries seek to legitimize and glamorize their own pretensions with the legend and history contained in the Aeneid. Attempts have also been made to link some aspects of the Scandiano cycle to the most famous Boiardo, Matteo Maria (1440/1–94), author of the romance Orlando Innamorato.

One of the grandest of the cycles is the Gallery of Aeneas in the Palazzo Pamphilj, on the Piazza Navona in Rome (1651–54), decorated for Pope Innocent X Pamphili.9 Its ceiling bears frescoes of scenes from the Aeneid by the great baroque painter Pietro da Cortona, reaching from the storm in Book 1 to the death of Turnus in Book 12. In a context of papal display, the frescoes advertise the fact that the Rome whose foundation followed from the struggles and victory of Aeneas now rules a spiritual rather than a temporal empire. In an elegiac poem on the origins of Christianity, Innocent’s predecessor Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) had presented Aeneas as a prefiguration of the pope, the Pontifex Romanus, picking up on the emphasis that Virgil does indeed lay on Aeneas’ priestly role in the Aeneid, foreshadowing the pontifex ‘high priest’ of pagan Rome. The link between Virgil’s legendary narrative and Christianity is made in other ways. In one of da Cortona’s many visual allusions, the pose of Neptune, stretching out his arm to calm the storm in Aeneid 1, evokes that of God in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (Plate 6)). It has further been suggested that the head of Neptune bears a resemblance to the bronze bust of Innocent X by Algardi. Even without that it is an easy step to see in the scene of the calming of the storm, as often in representations of this subject, a political application of the programmatic scene of order restored from disorder at the beginning of the Aeneid (see Chapter 5, pp. 96–8). More particularly Innocent had been involved in the negotiations that brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Another personal allusion is the prominence given to Venus’ doves, for the Pamphili coat of arms bore a dove with an olive branch in its beak, below three fleurs de lis. The olive is associated with Minerva, and the lily with Juno, together with Venus the three goddesses set at odds with each other through the Judgement of Paris. On the Pamphili coat of arms the symbols of the three goddesses are harmoniously united; the Aeneidtells of a hostility between Venus, mother of Aeneas, and Juno, persecutor of Aeneas, which will be resolved by the end of the poem.

Fig. 18. Ascanius shoots Sylvia’s stag. Engraving after drawing by Franz Cleyn, in The Works of Publius Virgilius Maro, translated by John Ogilby (London, 1654).

Fig. 19. Dido and Aeneas in the cave. Engraving by Giuseppe Zocchi, in L’Eneide di Virgilio del commendatore Annibale Caro (Paris, 1760).

Far lighter in tone are the frescoes by G.B. Tiepolo in the Villa Valmarana near Vicenza (1757).10 The Stanza dell’Eneide is one of four rooms, the other three being decorated with scenes from Homer’s Iliad, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, prompting comparisons between the ancient and modern epics of a kind found in early modern literary-critical discussions of the epic poem. Tiepolo’s figures appear as if on stage, a painterly recreation of the operatic world of Metastasio, whose libretto on Dido was set to music by many composers in the eighteenth century (see Chapter 3, pp. 75–6). In the scene of ‘Aeneas presenting Cupid in the guise of Ascanius to Dido’ Tiepolo improvises on the text of Aeneid 1 (Plate 7)). To show us that this is Cupid, the figure of Ascanius, who appears reluctant to come forward in the presence of the regal figure of Dido, still wears the god of love’s wings. Aeneas leans towards the welcoming queen, motivated by a father’s love. The introduction made in this scene ofpietas will lead to a very different, and disastrous, kind of love once the disguised Cupid begins to work on Dido.

The story of Dido is one of the most frequently represented in painting, as it is also a favourite subject for theatre and opera.11 In the Palazzo Pamphilj in Rome the Dido and Aeneas story is reserved for separate treatment in the frescoes by Francesco Allegrini (c. 1653) in the Sala di Enea e Didone, the bedroom of the Pope (and latterly of the Brazilian Ambassador to Rome), built actually inside the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone. The scenes on the four sides of the ceiling show the history of Dido ending with her suicide. Opposite the prelate’s bed is the most intimate of the scenes, Dido and Aeneas in the cave, but in the central panel at the top of the ceiling Jupiter appears, looking rather like the Christian God, sending down Mercury to recall Aeneas to his mission, reminding the occupant of the bed of his Christian duties.

Single paintings from the story of Dido focus mostly on the erotic and pathetic aspects, with the largest number devoted to the death of Dido. She appears either as a single figure, as in examples by Rubens (in the Louvre) or Andrea Sacchi (Caen, Musée des Beaux-Arts), focusing on the private emotions of the despairing queen in an image that contrasts soft female flesh and cold hard steel, as in that other popular subject of female suicide, the death of Lucretia; or else surrounded by her bereft sister and members of her court, as in the important treatment by Guercino (1629, in the Galleria Spada, Rome), commissioned for another woman called to rule after the death of her husband, Marie de’ Medici.

The subject of the death of Dido was the battleground for an artistic challenge to Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, by the Romantic Swiss artist Henri Fuseli, at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1781 in the newly opened Somerset House. Fuseli chose to hang his own phantasmagorically sublime version opposite Reynolds’ emotional but conventionally classical composition (Plates 8, 9).12 The death of Dido had recently been chosen as a subject for the history painting prize for Royal Academy students, and Reynolds painted his version as a pedagogical showpiece. The distraught figure of Anna echoes the pose of the Virgin Mary at the deposition of Christ. Fuseli arranges his composition vertically, and Dido’s outstretched limp arms are reminiscent of nothing so much as the Crucifixion.

From the many other works of art based on scenes from the Aeneid I focus now on a selection of subjects that have proved particularly popular with artists over the centuries. I start at the beginning of the poem, with the opening narrative sequence of the unleashing of the storm-winds by Aeolus at the request of Juno, and the calming of the storm by Neptune, this latter often in a political allegory of good government, as in paintings by Rubens (see Chapter 5, pp. 97–8) and Pietro da Cortona (see p. 193 above).

Juno’s visit to Aeolus in Aeneid 1 is balanced in Book 8 by the visit of the goddess who opposes Juno, Venus, to another divinity with control over vast elemental energy, her husband Vulcan. Venus uses her erotic charms to seduce Vulcan into agreeing to make a new set of arms for Aeneas, which he does when he descends after their love-making to the subterranean forge of the Cyclopes (Aen. 8.370–453). Artists select from, or combine, several stages in the narrative. The appearance of Venus before Vulcan produces a contrast between the voluptuous white flesh of the goddess of love and the knotted and muscular body of her ugly craftman husband, whose job is to make the weapons of war, so producing also a contrast between Venus and the world of Mars, to which artists have often been attracted. Venus often appears in the forge of Vulcan itself, conflating the two stages in the Virgilian narrative, and licensed by Virgil’s model in Homer’s Iliad for the episode, Thetis’ visit to the forge of Hephaestus (the Greek name for Vulcan) to ask for a new set of arms for her son Achilles. The making of the arms allows for the depiction of muscular bodies in vigorous action, in a variety of poses, sometimes with chiaroscuro effects of the flames of the forge in a dark smithy. The French rococo painter François Boucher painted a number of versions of Venus asking Vulcan for the arms that verge on soft porn (Plate 10)); admittedly Virgil’s description of Venus and Vulcan’s love-making is the closest thing to explicit sex in the Aeneid.13 The bringing of the arms by Venus to Aeneas in a sacred grove at the end of Aeneid 8 is also a favourite subject for artists.

Two of the most famous images associated with the Aeneid frame the narrative of the sack of Troy in Aeneid 2. At the beginning a family unit is wiped out when two monstrous serpents emerge from the sea to kill the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons, apparently a sign that Troy and its future generations are doomed. At the end of the book three generations of a family survive to start the search for a new Troy as Aeneas makes his way from the burning city carrying his father Anchises, who bears the Trojanpenates, and leading his own son Ascanius by the hand. There are many pre-Virgilian images of Aeneas and Anchises fleeing from Troy, but it is now forever associated with Virgil’s account of the story, as it perhaps already was in the statuary group of the subject that occupied a prominent position in the Forum of Augustus, dedicated in 2 BC, the most elaborate monument of Augustus’ Rome and whose iconography has much in common with central themes of the Aeneid. The statues themselves are lost, but copies in painting and relief sculpture survive from antiquity, as does also a comic version in which the three humans are replaced by the figures of apes with dangling phalli:14 it was already a cliché to be parodied. It is the subject of Bernini’s earliest large-scale sculpture, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome, an exercise in accommodating the three figures within a narrow marble block and in the contrastive depiction of the three ages of man (Fig. 20).15 The face of Aeneas recalls that of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, suggesting perhaps an analogy between Aeneas as the saviour of the Trojan people and Christ as Saviour, and looking forward to the ‘resurrection’ of Troy in new city-foundations in Italy. In Rome Bernini was preceded by Raphael’s painting of ‘The Fire in the Borgo’ in the Stanza dell’Incendio in the Vatican, which includes on the left a man escaping with an old man on his shoulders, accompanied by a boy, a clear ‘quotation’ of the Virgilian subject (Fig. 21). The fresco depicts the miraculous halting of a fire in a district of Rome near St Peter’s by Pope Leo IV in 847, and the visual allusion to the Aeneid suggests an analogy between the roles of Aeneas and the Pope as city-founders and city-preservers, and perhaps also between Aeneas and Raphael, energetic in supplying Rome with new, classicizing, works of art, as restorers of destroyed cities.

The only surviving ancient representation of the death of Laocoon is the statuary group in the Hellenistic baroque style unearthed in Rome in 1506 (Fig. 22). It was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece of ancient art, the subject of many poems, and the model for countless later works of sculpture and painting.16 An engraving of the group by Marcantonio Raimondi is labelled ‘as in the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid’, but both its date and its relationship to Virgil’s account of the death of Laocoon are much disputed – did Virgil know of it when writing his verbal tour de force, or is it an early illustration of, or homage to, the Aeneid? Allusions to the group are frequent in post-antique depictions of the Virgilian scene, and a comparison between the sculpture and Virgil’s narrative is the starting point for a seminal eighteenth-century work on the difference between visual and verbal arts, Lessing’s Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766). Like the group of Aeneas fleeing from Troy with his father and son, the over-exposure of the Laocoon group has spawned numerous parodies, for example a Punch cartoon of 1909 showing John Bull struggling in the coils of excessive rates for telegraphic cables (Fig. 23).

Fig. 20. Bernini Aeneas and Anchises, from R. Norton, Bernini and Other Studies in the History of Art (New York, 1914).

Fig. 21. Raphael, The Fire in the Borgo, Stanza dell’Incendio, Vatican.

Fig. 22. The death of Laocoon.

Fig. 23. ‘In the coils’, cartoon from Punch, 16 June 1909, 425.

The Aeneid and landscape

Perhaps the most distinctive contribution of Virgil as an inspiration for visual artists has been in the depiction of landscapes.17 All three works of Virgil are set in landscapes charged with meaning and memory. The pastoral landscapes of the Eclogues are places of utopian contentment and abundance, but also of lost happiness. In the Georgics the busy countryside of the farmer is set within a wider panorama of man’s imprint on Italy, and beyond that of semi-fantastic places in distant parts of the world. In the Aeneid the Trojans make landfall on the shore of north Africa in a numinous but also ominous harbour in a landscape. Aeneas proceeds to meet his mother in the first of a number of dark woods in the poem that foreshadow the fully symbolic dark woods of Dante and the Renaissance romance, before making his way to the magnificent cityscape under construction in the newly founded Carthage, the fresh dawn of a city with a long history, but a history that from Virgil’s reader’s perspective is now in the past, its palaces and towers razed to the ground by the Romans after the Third Carthaginian War in 146 BC.

Landscape and cityscape interact in suggestive ways in the Italy of the second half of the Aeneid. When the Trojans arrive at the mouth of the Tiber they find an idyllic, prelapsarian landscape; soon they travel to the temple-palace of King Latinus with its statue-gallery of ancestors and spoils of past wars. The stage on which is played out the action of the Aeneid is notable for the depth of its historical memory: this is the story of the remote legendary origins of Virgil’s Rome, but that legendary past opens out on to remoter times still. The site of Rome in Aeneid 8, ruled over by the Arcadian king Evander, is a rural, quasi-pastoral, place, in the sharpest contrast to the temples of marble and gold of Augustus’ day, but already it contains the ruins of earlier cities, the settlements of Janus and Saturn, ‘memorials of men of old’ (Aen. 8.356). Part of the charm and fascination for Virgil’s first readers will have been the defamiliarization of very familiar Italian and Roman landscapes, placed in another time and seen through the eyes of exiles from another country.18

Landscape is already an important feature in the earliest of the cycles of paintings based on the Aeneid, that by Dosso Dossi for the ‘Camerino d’alabastro’ in the Ducal Palace at Ferrara (c. 1520), of which only three panels survive. In ‘The entrance of Aeneas into the Elysian Fields’ Aeneas and the Sibyl cross a bridge, past a rocky arch leading presumably to Tartarus, to emerge from the shadows into an idyllic landscape punctuated by occasional clumps of trees, in which the blessed converse on the grass or dance. Landscape also plays a major part in the paintings at Scandiano, an early work by Niccolò dell’Abate who went on to become a leading painter at the French court at Fontainebleau, known for his mythological subjects in a landscape which would inspire Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin.

A particularly atmospheric Virgilian landscape by Poussin is the Landscape with Hercules and Cacus (c. 1660) (Plate 11)).19 The subject is Hercules’ killing of the monstrous Cacus, the story told by Evander to Aeneas on the site of Rome in Aeneid 8. The gigantic figures of the victorious Hercules and the slain Cacus, on the craggy Aventine where Cacus had his cave, echo Poussin’s Landscape with Polyphemus, where the Cyclops towers on top of Etna (Fig. 13): there was a time when the site of Rome itself was infested by a man-eating monster. The parallels within the Aeneid between Polyphemus in Book 3 and Cacus in Book 8 are very clear.

Claude painted six scenes from the Aeneid in the last ten years of his life, works in which the landscape rather than the figures establish a mood.20 Coast Scene of Delos with Aeneas (1672) depicts a stage on the Trojans’ wanderings from Troy to Italy, drawing on both Aeneid 3 and Ovid’s retelling of the Virgilian story in Metamorphoses 13. From Ovid comes the detail of the king of Delos pointing out to Aeneas the two trees to which Latona clung while giving birth to her twins Apollo and Diana. This natural memorial to a long-distant event in the history of the gods is balanced by a man-made architectural monument, the Temple of Apollo, anachronistically modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, one of the great buildings of the city which will be founded and ruled by the descendants of Aeneas. In The Landing of Aeneas at Pallanteum (the name of Evander’s settlement on the site of the future Rome) (1675) Aeneas arrives in a pastoral landscape but already massive buildings rise out of the woods, including the Pantheon (Plate 12)). On the other side of the Tiber are the ruins of the earlier cities, and in the background is the Ponte Rotto or ‘Broken Bridge’, the ancient Pons Aemilius which crosses the Tiber below the Tiber-island, in ruins by the seventeenth century. The anachronistic palimpsest that results from this superimposition within the landscape of different times in the history of Rome is in itself highly Virgilian.

In Pallanteum the idyll still holds, just, but Aeneas has come upstream from the mouth of the Tiber because war has already broken out in Latium in the previous book, 7. The immediate casus belli is shown in Claude’s last painting, Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682) (Fig. 24). In a densely wooded, and slightly ominous, landscape, nature is taking over another ruined building, a great temple. The peace of Italy will soon be shattered when the infuriated Italian country-folk rush to arms to take revenge after Ascanius shoots a stag that he does not know to be the pet-stag of the shepherd’s daughter Sylvia. Sylvia’s name means ‘girl of the woods’: this is the point in Aeneid 7 when a landscape bearing the generic markers of pastoral is invaded by epic warfare. The wind that bends the trees on the left of the canvas is a harbinger of the whirlwind of war that will soon engulf Latium.

Fig. 24. Claude Lorraine, Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia.

Claude’s landscapes were especially popular in England, and their combination of trees, lawns and bodies of water inspired the creation of real landscapes in the shape of the eighteenth-century English landscape garden. More particular Virgilian references punctuate one of the grandest of these gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire, created by the banker Henry Hoare in the mid-eighteenth century.21 There is a major visual similarity between Claude’s Coast Scene of Delos with Aeneas and the first vista seen by the visitor to the Stourhead garden, with a bridge to the left and a replica of the Pantheon across the lake to the right. The inscription over the first classical temple, procul, o procul este profani ‘Keep away, keep away, you that are uninitiated’, are the words addressed by the Sibyl to Aeneas before they enter the Underworld in Aeneid 6. Over the entrance to the grotto was once an inscription referring to the Nymphs’ cave in the Carthaginian harbour (Aen. 1.167–8), the first and one of the most haunting landscape descriptions in theAeneid, and one of the models for Satan’s first sight of the wooded mound topped by the Garden of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost (4.131 ff.). Less high-minded activities in another of the great eighteenth-century landscape gardens are suggested by ‘Dido’s Cave’, a classical garden seat at Stowe, probably built to a design by Sir John Vanbrugh for a ‘garden of love’, around 1720. A mural inside shows Dido and Aeneas surrounded by torch-holding Cupids. In his poem ‘Stowe’ of 1732 Gilbert West, nephew of Lord Cobham who laid out the gardens, tells how the vicar of Stowe was so taken by the charms of a young woman on a swing that he chased her through the gardens until he came upon her in Dido’s Cave. Unlike Aeneas he did the honourable thing and is reported to have later married the girl.

Claude is also a major inspiration for the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner, who painted 11 canvases based on subjects from the Aeneid. Turner’s last four exhibited paintings (1850) were all on incidents in the story of Dido and Aeneas, with lines attached from Turner’s own poem ‘Fallacies of Hope’.22 He made two versions of Aeneas and the Sibyl at Lake Avernus. The first (c. 1798) was based on a drawing by the owner of Stourhead, Sir Richard Colt Hoare; the second (1814–15) hung in the cabinet room at Stourhead alongside another mythological Italian subject, Lake Nemi with Diana and Callisto by Richard Wilson, a founding father of British landscape painting, influenced himself by Claude and in turn an important influence on Turner. Italianate landscapes with Virgilian themes were thus visible inside and outside the house. In another Virgilian subject, Dido and Aeneas (1814), the small figures of the couple are on a bridge looking down on the classical cityscape of Carthage, superimposed on what is recognizably the riverscape of the Thames seen from Richmond Hill, another subject of Turner’s. This is a double vision in space and time that magnifies the effect of the Virgilian superimposition in the Aeneid of places seen at different times of their history. Turner practised poetry as well as painting, and in a draft of a poem on Dido and Aeneas located their love-making in Alexander Pope’s grotto at Twickenham, on the Thames close to Richmond.

The scenes of the Trojan War viewed by Aeneas in the Temple of Juno in Aeneid 1 are an ironic foreshadowing of the ultimate destruction of another great Mediterranean city, Carthage, as a result of the enmity with Rome that will result from Dido’s dying curse on the unfaithful Aeneas. Furthermore the sack of Troy might also raise thoughts about the perishability of Rome itself.23 Consciously or not, Turner hints at a similar analogy between ancient and more recent history in the paired canvases of Dido building Carthage; or the rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815) (Plate 13)) and The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire (1817) (Plate 14)). The composition of both is closely modelled on Claude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, and in his will Turner asked that his two paintings should be hung in the National Gallery beside Claude’s Seaport. In the first painting the sun is rising, in the second it is setting. They were painted at the end of the Napoleonic Wars: Turner saw in the fall of Napoleon an example of the inevitable rise and fall of great empires, which also contained a warning for the maritime empire of Britain. These are not the only nineteenth-century British paintings to suggest an analogy between Carthage and Britain: in Samuel Austin’s The Arrival of Aeneas at the Court of Dido Queen of Carthage (1826, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), Liverpool’s new classical buildings are part of the Carthaginian cityscape.24 The grand vision of the cycle of empires in Turner’s rise and fall of Carthage paintings is the vision of the Aeneid, whose larger temporal sweep takes in the destruction of Troy to be followed by the foundation and rise of Rome, whose empire is won to the cost of the Greek cities which had been victorious over Troy.

Turner’s visions of imperial rise and decline impressed the imagination of Thomas Cole (1801–48), the English-born American artist who founded the Hudson River School of painting. Cole’s most ambitious work is the five canvases of The Course of Empire(‘The Savage State’, ‘The Arcadian, or Pastoral State’, ‘The Consummation of Empire’, ‘Destruction’, ‘Desolation’).25 History progresses through a series of visual allusions, all superimposed on the same topography. The wilderness and its inhabitants of ‘The Savage State’ are those of North America before the white man. In ‘The Arcadian State’ we are in a landscape by Claude or Poussin. ‘The Consummation of Empire’ shows a city redolent of imperial Rome – or of the grandiose classical buildings of nineteenth-century Washington DC (Plate 15)). The harbour is reminiscent of Claude’s Seaport or Turner’s Carthage. ‘Destruction’ puts us in mind of Turner’s storm scenes or of John Martin’s apocalyptic biblical scenes. As a whole Cole’s The Course of Empirereflects contemporary American idealization of pastoralism, and anxieties that empire would lead to excess and decay. Cole’s nineteenth-century biographer described The Course of Empire as ‘a grand epic poem, with a nation for its hero, and a series of national actions and events for his achievement’.26 The latent Virgilian vision of the course of empire, mediated to Cole through Turner, was not the first or last time that the plot of the Aeneid informed American conceptions of the destiny of their young nation.

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