This painting, created by an unidentified 17th-century Flemish artist who signed it with “W. D.”, is a copy of a different painting created by the 16th-century Italian artist, Frederico Barocci. The anonymous copiest, however, did make noticeable changes in colors, lighting and style. Depicted in the scene is a family that links the myths and legends of Troy to the tales of ancient Rome. It is the Trojan hero Aeneas (along with his family) who can be seen escaping from his doomed homeland at the end of the legendary Trojan War. According to ancient Greek myth, Aeneas was a demigod, born of the goddess Aphrodite, and it was she who encouraged Aeneas to gather up his family and flee as the Greeks began ransacking and burning the Trojan capital. The hero obeyed his divine mother and rushed to collect his elderly father, his frightened wife, and their young son while time remained to escape. Virgil (70-19 BCE), a poet from Rome, assumed the point of view of Aeneas and described in verse the scene featured here in the painting:
“So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders!
I will carry you on my back. This labor of love
will never wear me down. Whatever falls to us now,
we both will share one peril, one path to safety.
Little Iulus, walk beside me, and you, my wife,
follow me at a distance, in my footsteps.
over my broad shoulders and round my neck I spread
a tawny lion’s skin for a cloak, and bowing down,
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, 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, where, according to legend, Aeneas would become an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, who were said to have founded Rome.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.