This painting, created by the Italian artist Bonifacio de’ Pitati (aka Bonifacio Veronese, c. 1487–1553), depicts a legend from the life of King Servius Tullus of Rome, traditionally dated to have ruled the city from 578 to 534 BCE. According to ancient folklore, Servius showed signs of greatness even in his infancy. These omens, so the story goes, piqued the interest of Servius’ predecessors, King Tarquinius Priscus (said to have ruled c. 616-578 BCE) and Queen Tanaquil, convincing them that Servius Tullius would be a worthy heir to rule Rome. Bonifacio Veronese, in his painting, re-creates the most famous of the miraculous omens that was said to have occurred in the infancy of the future king. Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), a Roman historian, recorded the tale:
“A little boy named Servius Tullius was lying asleep, when his head burst into flames. Many people saw it happen. The noise and excitement caused by such an extraordinary event came to the ears of the king and queen, and brought them hurrying to the spot. A servant ran for water and was about to throw it on the flames, when the queen stopped him, declaring, so soon as she could make herself heard, that the child must on no account be disturbed, but allowed to sleep till he awoke of his own accord. A few minutes later he opened his eyes, and the fire went out” (History of Rome, 1.39).
Such is the story behind the scene that Bonifacio Veronese put on canvas. It shows the Roman masses, including King Tarquinius Priscus and Queen Tanaquil, gathering to view the miracle. All that is missing is the servant who was stopped short of dowsing the infant with a bucket of water. According to legend, after omens such as the one shown in the painting, King Tarquinius Priscus and Queen Tanaquil decided to bring Servius Tullius into their family by letting him become their son-in-law.
For formatting purposes, the image featured above was cropped. Bonifacio Veronese’s wide wide artwork in its entirety can be seen below:
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.