This tapestry, designed by the Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (c. 1610–1662), was inspired by a specific scene from a poem called The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE). Virgil’s poem tells the story of a band of Trojan refugees that was led by the hero Aeneas. These wanderers were forced to resettle after being defeated by the Greeks in the Trojan War. Unsure where to go, Aeneas’ crew initially sailed along the southern coastline of the Mediterranean, taking a brief rest on the Libyan coast. There, the goddess Venus (who was Aeneas’ mother) decided to intervene and encourage the Trojan refugees to set out for Carthage, ruled then by the legendary queen, Dido. As told by the Roman poet, Venus disguised herself as a huntress nymph and appeared before Aeneas and his friend Achates, acting the scene out as if she was looking for other nearby huntresses. Virgil wrote:
“Aeneas moves out, with only Achates at his side,
two steel-tipped javelins balanced in his grip.
Suddenly, in the heart of the woods, his mother
crossed his path. She looked like a young girl,
a Spartan girl decked out in dress and gear
or Thracian Harpalyce tiring out her mares,
outracing the Hebrus River’s rapid tides.
Hung from a shoulder, a bow that fit her grip,
a huntress for all the world, she’d let her curls
go streaming free in the wind, her knees were bare,
her flowing skirts hitched up with a tight knot.”
(Virgil, The Aeneid, book 1, approximately lines 377-387).
After that peculiar method of introducing herself, Venus began regaling Aeneas about Queen Dido and the nearby realm of Carthage. When she noticed Aeneas was still unconvinced about what to do, and generally still mopey about the outcome of the recent Trojan War, Venus finally gave her son a more direct nudge toward Carthage. As told by Virgil, Venus proclaimed, “Whoever you are, I scarcely think the Powers hate you: you enjoy the breath of life, you’ve reached a Tyrian city. So off you go now. Take this path to the queen’s gates” (Virgil, The Aeneid, book 1, approximately lines 470-473). Such is the scene that is re-created in Giovanni Francesco Romanelli’s tapestry. It shows Venus, dressed as a huntress, appearing before Aeneas and his friend Achates in her effort to steer the Trojan refugees into going to see Queen Dido in Carthage. After a tragic stay with the Carthaginian queen, Aeneas and his crew would sail on to Italy, where Aeneas would play a role as an ancestor for the founding figures of early Roman legends and folklore.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.