This painting, by the British artist Joseph Wright (aka Wright of Derby, c. 1734–1797), was inspired by two poets from ancient Rome. As the title of the artwork lays out, the scene is set at the tomb of the Roman poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE), author of such poems as The Aeneid and The Georgics. Silius Italicus (c. 26-102), a later wealthy Roman poet, statesman, and patron of the arts, was famous in his own time as being an extremely devoted fan of his late predecessor, Virgil. His fanaticism went so far that he carried out rituals on the days of Virgil’s birth and death. Joseph Wright, in particular, focused on Silius Italicus’ alleged habit of reading Virgil’s verses at the poet’s tomb on the anniversary of his death. Silius Italicus’ contemporary, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), described his lifestyle with the following words:
“Latterly his increasing age led to his retirement from Rome; he made his home in Campania and never left it again, not even on the arrival of the new Emperor…He was a great connoisseur; indeed he was criticized for buying too much. He owned several houses in the same district, but lost interest in the older ones in his enthusiasm for the later. In each of them he had quantities of books, statues, and portrait busts, and these were more to him than possessions—they became objects of his devotion, particularly in the case of Virgil, whose birthday he celebrated with more solemnity than his own, and at Naples especially, where he would visit Virgil’s tomb as if it were a temple” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 3.7).
Such, then, is the character of the man that can be faintly seen in the painting reciting poetry inside Virgil’s tomb. It should be noted that Silius Italicus was not trespassing during his vigils. Besides reading poetry at Virgil’s tomb, he reportedly also purchased the tomb’s grounds and funded restoration work at the site.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.