Abandoned by her lover, the Trojan hero Aeneas, the devastated Dido, Queen of Carthage, stands on a pyre composed of his armour and his gifts to her. She is about to plunge a knife into her breast, watched from the arcades and balconies around the square by her subjects.
This panel’s dimensions suggest that it came from a spalliere, a painting set into the panelling of a room, rather than a cassone (a large chest) as has long been thought. Both often showed tales from classical poetry or history, many illustrating the consequences of good and bad behaviour for husbands and wives. Dido was seen as a warning against uncontrolled female sexuality: in Dante’s Inferno, she was condemned to hell for her consuming passion for Aeneas.
Abandoned by her lover, the Trojan hero Aeneas, the devastated Dido, Queen of Carthage, stands on a pyre composed of his armour and his gifts to her. On the left, outside the palace walls, we can see a rocky coastline and the sea over which Aeneas has sailed away; on the right, two foot soldiers with spears watch a group of riders hunting. In the centre, in a carefully painted complex of Renaissance buildings, Dido stands on top of a tall platform, flames already licking the lower level – she is about to plunge a knife into her breast. Her subjects watch from the arcades and balconies around the square.
The details in the painting do not follow exactly the story as told in Virgil’s Aeneid. Some of the figures are copied from prints, a widespread practice among Renaissance artists. The two soldiers on the extreme right, for example, are derived from Albrecht Dürer’s Five Footsoldiers and a mounted Turk of about 1495; the small figures in the background to the left of the pyre are from the same print, but are inverted. The soldier in red in the foreground on the left is from The Senators, a print by Andrea Mantegna that seems to have been planned, but not used, as part of his Triumphs of Caesar. Some of the objects on the pyre are also taken from a preliminary version of the sixth scene in the Triumphs, which was engraved on the same plate as The Senators.
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