The Aeneid, an epic poem by the Roman writer Virgil, tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and son of the goddess Venus. In Book I, Aeneas comes to the city of Carthage. Worried for his safety, Venus devises a plot to protect him: she sends Cupid to the city disguised as Aeneas' son Ascanius, to make Dido, Queen of Carthage, fall in love with the hero.
Solimena’s monumental picture shows the disguised Cupid approaching Dido – only we can see the wings and arrows that identify him. Aeneas, wearing a green leather breastplate, holds out a hand to greet the queen. She appears to be interested only in Cupid, ignoring the precious gifts being offered to her. Bright light illuminates the sumptuous draperies and gleaming armour of the foreground figures, as well as Cupid’s chubby body; other attendants look on from the shadows. The stage-like composition was probably inspired by contemporary operatic performances.
The Aeneid, an epic poem by the Roman writer Virgil, tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and son of the goddess Venus. In Book I, Aeneas comes to the city of Carthage. Worried for his safety, Venus devises a plot to protect him: she sends Cupid to the city disguised as Aeneas‘ son Ascanius, to make Dido, Queen of Carthage, fall in love with the hero.
Solimena’s painting shows Cupid approaching Dido’s throne. His pudgy fingers clasp her elegant white hand, while Aeneas, standing behind Cupid and wearing a green leather breastplate, holds out his own hand in greeting. The Queen only has eyes for Cupid: gazing down at him, she is completely oblivious to the tray of golden treasures – including a crown and sceptre – being offered up to her by a servant at lower left, or to the casket, presumably laden with jewels, that is being hauled by the muscular figure in the foreground, or the swathes of golden fabric being proffered by the kneeling figure in blue. We, of course, can see Cupid’s wings and his quiver of arrows – his traditional attributes – but contemporary viewers would have understood that both Dido and Aeneas believe him to be Ascanius.
The story of Dido and Aeneas would have been familiar to eighteenth-century audiences through published editions of Virgil’s poem and contemporary operatic and theatrical performances. Given the theatricality of this composition, it seems very likely that Solimena was influenced by just such a performance – indeed, one of his friends, Alessandro Scarlatti, had written an opera about Dido in 1696. Solimena has placed his figures in a frieze-like arrangement, as if they are standing on a stage: almost all of them are shown in profile, facing towards Queen Dido. The picture’s perspective forces us to look up at the action, as if up at a stage. Brilliant light illuminates the scene, emphasising the figures’ luxurious draperies, the gleaming armour and the Queen’s ravishing jewels. With its brilliant luminosity, rich colours and elegant composition, Dido receiving Aeneas and Cupid disguised as Ascanius has long been described as one of Solimena’s masterpieces.
A recently discovered letter, written by Solimena in 1711, confirms that he was commissioned to paint this picture by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani (1652 or 1655–1710), who had moved to Naples in July 1708 to serve as Viceroy on behalf of the Habsburgs, the ruling family of the Holy Roman Empire. The painting was probably intended to hang in Grimani’s palace in the city. The story of Dido and Aeneas was likely chosen for its links to the foundation of the Roman Empire (and, by extension, that of the Habsburgs). The composition may have been particularly pleasing for Grimani, who was passionate about opera; in his youth, he had run two theatres belonging to his family. However, he died before making final payment for the picture, so Solimena sold it to Count Pellegrino Ferri in Padua.
Grimani must have commissioned the work following his move to Naples. Solimena painted it at the height of his career: he was the leading painter in Naples and one of the most influential artists in Europe. During these years he produced some of his most ambitious mythological pictures, many of which were inspired by well-known stories taken from the Aeneid.
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