This painting, by the Italian artist Vincenzo Camuccini (c. 1771-1844), depicts the ancient Roman poet, Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE), reading sections of his epic poem, The Aeneid, to the family of Rome’s authoritarian ruler, Augustus (r. 32/27 BCE-14 CE). Virgil can be seen on the right side of the canvas, dressed predominantly in red and holding a written copy of his work. He is shown narrating his poetry to the imperial family, who sit opposite of Virgil. Octavia is closest to the poet, with her brother, Augustus, close beside her. Further to the left lounges Livia, Augustus’ wife, and behind her, perhaps, is her son, Tiberius, who later succeeded Augustus as emperor of Rome.
Vincenzo Camuccini’s scene draws inspiration from ancient Roman history, or at least its folklore and legend. As the story goes, the fainting portrayed in this painting was caused by a section of Virgil’s poem that described the realms of the dead. In particular, Virgil had worked a reference to Octavia’s deceased son, Marcellus, into his account of the supernatural landscape, and when the line was narrated by the poet, it caused Octavia to momentarily lose consciousness. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-122+), described the incident in his Life of Virgil, claiming that when the poet was invited to perform his epic for Augustus and the imperial family, “Virgil read to him three books in all, the second, fourth, and sixth. The last of these produced a remarkable effect on Octavia, who was present at the reading; for it is said that when he reached the verses about her son, ‘Thou shalt be Marcellus,’ she fainted and was with difficulty revived” (Life of Virgil, section 32). It is this scene that Vincenzo Camuccini re-creates in his painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.