Foundling: Paintings of Romulus and Remus

Carlo Maratta (1625–1713), The Finding of Romulus and Remus (1680-92), oil on canvas, 263 x 394 cm, Bildergalerie (Sanssouci), Brandenburger Vorstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this pair about abandoned babies, I looked at the most popular story of a ‘foundling’, that of Moses. Although extensively painted from late classical times, none of those images considered the social issues of the abandonment of babies, despite it being longstanding practice and a growing problem in the cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This article looks at one of the best-known classical myths of abandonment, that of the twins Romulus and Remus. In this case, the babies weren’t abandoned by their mother, but taken from her with the intention of infanticide, to prevent them from challenging for power when they grew up.

The early history of the city of Rome is shrouded in myth. Although there is consensus that twin brothers Romulus and Remus played a key part, Plutarch admits that some ancient authorities didn’t even believe that the city was named after Romulus, let alone acknowledge his existence. He opens his famous biography of Romulus with a short review of different accounts of the origin of the name Rome, before telling the story with the widest credence, about the twin brothers.

Although Romulus doesn’t seem to have engendered the same cult following as Theseus, mythical founder of Athens, he was revered by the Romans, and well into more modern times. The three Carraccis, Ludovico (cousin), Annibale and Agostino (brothers), told his story in a magnificent series of frescoes which they painted on the walls of the Palazzo Magnani in Bologna, Italy, between 1589 and 1592, one section of which I show below.

Aeneas, survivor of the fall of Troy, became king of the Latins and went on to found the city of Alba; his descendants ruled in their turn, until it came to the brothers Numitor and Amulius. They divided their inheritance, with Amulius taking the treasure which had been brought by Aeneas from Troy, and Numitor ruling Alba. Amulius then used his wealth to wrest the throne from his brother; to ensure that Numitor’s daughter couldn’t produce any male heirs, Amulius made her a priestess of Vesta, so she was sworn to remain a virgin.

Soon after that, Numitor’s daughter was discovered to be pregnant. Although this traditionally would have led to the death of any Vestal Virgin, Amulius’ daughter interceded, and she was merely kept in solitary confinement. She gave birth to twin boys, who were superhuman in their size and beauty. Amulius ordered one of his servants to take the twins away and drown them in the river, but they were put first into a trough which functioned as a boat. As a result they were washed ashore downstream still alive.

A she-wolf then fed the babies, and a woodpecker watched over them; both were later considered to be sacred to the god Mars.

Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619) and/or Annibale Carracci (1560–1609), She-Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus (1589-92), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Magnani, Bologna, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the frescoes in the Palazzo Magnani, probably painted by Ludovico Carracci and/or Annibale Carracci, shows the She-Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus (1589-92). The twins are still inside the trough in which they had survived their trip down the river, and on the opposite bank a woodpecker is keeping a close watch.

At the far right, a now rather diaphanous figure may be Faustulus, one of Amulius’ swineherds who discovered the twins, and took them to his wife.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Romulus and Remus (1615-16), oil on canvas, 213 x 212 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens shows Romulus and Remus being discovered by Faustulus, in his painting of 1615-16. Not only is the she-wolf taking care of the twins, but a family of woodpeckers are bringing worms and grubs to feed them, and there are empty shells and a little crab on the small beach as additional tasty tidbits. Rubens also provides a river god and water nymph as guardians.

Carlo Maratta (1625–1713), The Finding of Romulus and Remus (1680-92), oil on canvas, 263 x 394 cm, Bildergalerie (Sanssouci), Brandenburger Vorstadt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Carlo Maratta advances the story slightly, and elaborates it with a large group of figures in The Finding of Romulus and Remus from 1680-92. Faustulus, his shepherd’s crook at his feet, is now presenting his wife with the first of the twins. This foreground group is still on the riverbank, in the company of the river god, and under the direction of another figure who is holding his horse (possibly the servant of Amulius).

This is multiplex narrative, though: in the distance is Faustulus’ quite substantial farmhouse, outside which the family is shown a second time, to indicate their destination. Maratta also retains the she-wolf from the earlier part of the story, as she leaves the scene to the right, although I can’t see any woodpeckers.

Pietro da Cortona (1596–1669), Romulus and Remus Sheltered by Faustulus (c 1643), oil on canvas, 251 x 266 cm , Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro da Cortona depicts the closing scene of this story in his Romulus and Remus Sheltered by Faustulus from about 1643. Faustulus has brought the first of the twins up from the riverbank, where the flock is now grazing, and is about to present the infant to his wife at their cottage. In the distance at the right the other baby is still suckling from the she-wolf, beside which are two additional figures apparently in dispute.

Nicolas Mignard (1606–1668), The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife (1654), oil on canvas, 148.5 × 145.1 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Mignard shows a very similar scene in The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife from 1654, in which Faustulus has brought both of the twins up from the river, and his extended family appears most welcoming.

Romulus and Remus, as they were now named, were brought up without Amulius’ knowledge. Although both remained large and fine specimens of humans, Plutarch tells us that it was Romulus who appeared to have the better judgement, and behaved in a more commanding way. As they grew older, the brothers became renowned for their hard work and good deeds.

Whilst the great city of Rome may have been founded by two foundling children, as later cities in Europe grew, their foundlings became an increasing problem. In the Middle Ages, religious houses such as monasteries and convents had become places of refuge for unwanted infants, and at times they were heavily used for that purpose. These steadily became more formalised, with the development of dedicated institutions as ‘foundling homes’.

The eighteenth century saw the foundation of foundling homes by secular organisations too. They increased in number as demand rose: in the early nineteenth century, it’s estimated that as many as one in twenty of all live births in France were abandoned. The problem grew in the USA during the latter half of that century and into the twentieth: foundlings were often put together with other orphans and shipped west by railway train to work as farmhands and servants in the households which agreed to foster them. That seens little better than the lot of the foundling in imperial Rome.

William Hogarth (1697–1764), Moses Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), oil on canvas, 178 x 213 cm, The Foundling Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

William Hogarth’s painting of Moses Before Pharaoh’s Daughter from 1746 is unusual for depicting not his discovery as an abandoned baby, but his later presentation to the princess. This is one of the paintings in the Foundling Museum in London, formed from the collection of one of the foremost charitable institutions which cared for abandoned infants and children.

London’s Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by Thomas Coram, a successful master mariner from Dorset, England, who lived for a decade in Massachusetts, where he established a shipyard. His philanthropy started there, in giving a large plot of land for a school. When he returned to England, he grew prosperous by importing tar, and continued in charitable works. He was distressed by the sight of abandoned infants in the streets of London, and started to campaign for the foundation of an institution to care for these ‘foundlings’. After years of fundraising and hard work, the new Foundling Hospital opened in temporary premises in 1741, and four years later the first wing of its new purpose-built premises started to admit the foundlings of London. William Hogarth and Thomas Coram were good friends.

Foundling Girls in the Chapel
Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Foundling Girls in the Chapel (date not known), oil on canvas, 68 x 54.8 cm, The Foundling Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Coram and the Foundling Hospital attracted the support of artists of all disciplines: the composer Handel gave performances there in 1749 and 1750, for example. Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s undated painting of Foundling Girls in the Chapel shows these girls at prayers in the Hospital’s chapel in the late nineteenth century.

The Foundling, by Emma Brownlow
Emma Brownlow (1832-1905), The Foundling Restored To Its Mother (1858), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, The Foundling Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

More than a century after it opening, Emma Brownlow, the daughter of one of the Hospital’s foundlings, painted a series of works depicting its work, including The Foundling Restored To Its Mother from 1858. John Brownlow, her father, is shown in his role as the Director of the Hospital, and is here engaged in the unusual task of reuniting one of the foundling children with their natural mother. In the background is Hogarth’s painting The March to Finchley, which he painted in 1750 to depict the Guards Division of the army setting out five years earlier to protect the city of London from the threat of the Jacobite Rebellion.

I find it surprising that, of all the social ills shown in paintings, particularly by Naturalists during the nineteenth century, the problem of the abandonment of babies never seems to have had significant presence. Perhaps we’re still too ashamed to admit it.