In this painting, the Italian artist Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (c. 1727-1804) condenses several stories about the fall of Troy into one chaotic scene. It features elements such as the strategy of the Trojan Horse, the burning of Troy, and the escape of the Trojan hero Aeneas, without overly focusing on or emphasizing one piece over the other. Positioned near the center of the painting is the Trojan Horse, which led to the downfall of the besieged city and finally ended the Trojan War. The ancient Greek poet, Homer (flourished c. 8th century), described the legendary ploy in his Odyssey:
“It was destiny that they should perish when Troy received within her walls the mighty Wooden Horse, laden with the flower of the Argive might bringing doom and slaughter to the Trojans…the Achaean warriors, leaving their hollow ambush, poured out from the Horse to ravage Troy; how they scattered through the streets of the city leaving ruin in their wake” (Homer, The Odyssey, 8.510-520).
Descriptions of the other elements of the painting can be found in the works of the Roman poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE). Virgil’s poem, The Aeneid, follows the adventures of the Trojan refugee, Aeneas, as he flees the ruins of Troy and starts a new life in Italy, where, according to Roman myth and legend, he became an ancestor for Rome’s traditional founder, Romulus. As Aeneas was a Trojan, Virgil’s poem naturally had to address the fall of Troy. Using imagery that Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo would later re-create in paint, Virgil had his character, Aeneas, mourn the collapsing and burning wreckage of Troy in emotional speeches such as this:
“Then at last
I saw it all, all Ilium settling into her embers,
Neptune’s Troy, toppling over now from her roots
like a proud, veteran ash on its mountain summit,
chopped by stroke after stroke of the iron axe as
woodsmen fight to bring it down…”
(Virgil, The Aeneid, 2.770-780)
Finally, on the left side of the canvas, Aeneas and his family can be seen. This is the same Aeneas that is featured in Virgil’s epic—the one that narrated the quote that was just provided above. The family’s flight from the burning city comes straight from the pages of the Aeneid. Virgil, again narrating as Aeneas, wrote:
“So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders!
I lift my burden up. Little Iulus, clutching
my right hand, keeps pace with tripping steps.
My wife trails on behind. And so we make our way
along the pitch-dark paths, and I who had never flinched
at the hurtling spears or swarming Greek assaults—
now every stir of wind, every whisper of sound
alarms me, anxious both for the child beside me
and burden on my back.”
(The Aeneid, Book II, approximately lines 880-910)
In Virgil’s account of the story, Aeneas’ wife later became separated from the rest and ultimately did not survive the sack of the city. In other accounts, however, she successfully survived alongside her husband. Virgil, in his poem, may have killed the poor woman off to allow Aeneas to uninhibitedly partner with new women that the Trojan hero would soon meet on his odyssey toward Italy.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.