A History of Rome in Paintings: 1 Trojan Origins

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Aeneas and Turnus (date not known), oil on canvas, 176 × 236 cm, Palazzo Corsini al Parione, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

When Claude Lorrain was setting out to be one of Europe’s greatest landscape painters, he was fortunate enough to be employed as a servant by Agostino Tassi, who in turn had been a pupil of Paul Bril. The similarity between some of Bril’s paintings of Rome and those of Claude from more than thirty years later is uncanny, or maybe very canny indeed.

Paul Bril (c 1553/4–1626), View of the Roman Forum (1600), dimensions not known, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Bril’s View of the Roman Forum shows an extraordinary scene. Among the ruins of the former hub of the great empire are flocks of sheep and bars. When Claude came to paint a similar scene more than thirty years later, in his Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum from about 1634 (below), little seems to have changed.

Claude Lorrain (1604/5–1682), Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum (c 1634), oil on canvas, 79.7 x 118.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Visit the city of Rome today and you’ll see its classical remains cheek-by-jowl with fast food takeaways and modern apartments. In this series of articles, I’m going to look at how paintings have depicted the history of Rome, from its origins to the parlous state it reached in the nineteenth century.

Roman myth tells us that the Roman Empire originated in Troy, but there are several alternative explanations. One of the most fascinating archaeological finds in this respect is a vase from 800 BCE or earlier excavated about twenty kilometres (12 miles) to the east of Rome, which has five Greek letters scratched on it. Its date coincides with the estimates of Herodotos for the origin of Greek mythology, and those of Ennius for the origins of Rome. Maybe the original founders of Rome were really Greek after all?

For the Romans, though, their origins were in a refugee from the sack of Troy, celebrated in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01), oil on copper, 36 x 50 cm, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Elsheimer’s painting of The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01) shows in the left foreground Aeneas carrying his aged father Anchises piggyback, with his young son Ascanius and his wife Creusa to the right. Elsheimer’s backdrop of the burning city includes the Trojan Horse, to the left of the upper centre, and hints with subtlety at the scale of the tragedy taking place.

After abandoning his wife in Troy and his father’s death on the west coast of Sicily, Aeneas’s wanderings across the Mediterranean finally brought him to the western coast of central Italy, then the kingdom of the Latins. Latinus, their king, welcomed Aeneas and his band of refugees, who settled down there in Latium. The king was given a prophecy that his daughter, Lavinia, would be betrothed to someone from overseas, obviously meaning Aeneas. She had already been promised to Turnus, king of the Rutuli, and when Latinus changed his mind to go along with the prophecy, Turnus declared war on Aeneas.

Luca Giordano (1634–1705), Aeneas and Turnus (date not known), oil on canvas, 176 × 236 cm, Palazzo Corsini al Parione, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Luca Giordano’s Aeneas and Turnus from the late 1600s is one of the few paintings showing the battle between Aeneas and Turnus. The Trojan hero here has Turnus on the ground, under his right foot. At the lower left is one of Aeneas’s ships. Venus, Aeneas’s mother, and Cupid, his half-brother, are at the upper left, and the goddess at the upper right is either Minerva (with her owl), or Juno – as losers in the Judgement of Paris, both bore a grudge against the Trojans.

Turnus was defeated and killed, and Aeneas got his second wife, after whom he named the city which he founded, Lavinium. But that wasn’t Rome, and as Aeneas grew old it was time for him to be elevated to the gods, in his apotheosis.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), The Apotheosis of Aeneas (sketch) (c 1765), oil on canvas, 72.2 x 51.1 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Allston Burr Bequest Fund), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Tiepolo’s sketch for a fresco ceiling in the Royal Palace in Madrid, The Apotheosis of Aeneas from about 1765, is impressive. The artist combines the apotheosis with the presentation of arms to Aeneas by his mother Venus.

Aeneas is to the left of centre, dressed in prominent and earthly red. Above and to the right of him is his mother, Venus, dressed in white, ready to present the arms which have been forged for him by Vulcan, her partner, who is shown below supervising their fabrication. Aeneas’s destination is the Temple of Immortality, glimpsed above and to the left of him, through a break in the divine clouds.

Legend claims that even Aeneas’s son Ascanius didn’t found Rome, but he built another precursor city, Alba Longa, in the Alban Hills, from which the Romans eventually emerged.

That Roman account has rivals. Among them is an un-Homeric tradition that Odysseus didn’t remain with his wife Penelope on Ithaka, as claimed in Homer’s Odyssey, but that he journeyed on into Italy, and died near Lake Trasimene. One of his military colleagues, Diomedes, who fought Aeneas at one stage, is claimed in some legends to have ended up in Latium and among the Rutuli, making him a potential forefather of Rome.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, 149 x 92 cm, Gallery Oldham, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

One mysterious figure who could have been involved in that alternative account is the sorceress Circe. Odysseus encountered her during his Odyssey: John William Waterhouse’s Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus shows her offering Odysseus her enchanted cup containing wine laced with magical potion. As with others in his crew, Odysseus is transformed into a pig. The ingenious use of a mirror to show Odysseus ensures that Circe’s invitation is extended to the viewer too, who cannot escape her alluring gaze.

My last possible explanation for the origin of the Romans and their city is that they were, in the main, Etruscans. I’ll consider them in the next article in this series.