Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue and the Visual Arts
Luke Houghton discusses his article and explains how he conducted his research. This article is forthcoming in Papers of the British School at Rome, and will be published later this year.
I began working on material for this paper during my time as Hugh Last Fellow at the British School at Rome in late 2010. I have vivid memories of slipping into churches in between fashionable Roman weddings in order to photograph fresco cycles featuring quotations from the fourth Eclogue, and of feeding the light box in S. Maria sopra Minerva with a steady stream of small change until I could get a decent picture of Raffaellino del Garbo’s Cumaean Sibyl on the vault of the Carafa Chapel!
In keeping with the remarkable diffusion of Virgil’s poem in the visual arts (and other media) across Europe and beyond, the article ranges well beyond Italian material, featuring images from a royalist tract published shortly after the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, an early American political cartoon, ecclesiastical frescoes from France and the Netherlands, a carved choir stall from Ulm Minster in Germany, and illustrations from books published in Strasbourg, London and Utrecht. The range of media under consideration extends from medieval manuscripts to a postage stamp issued in Fascist Italy to commemorate the bimillenary of the Emperor Augustus, and includes the painted decorations of a late nineteenth-century Roman shopping mall, the Galleria Schiarra, kindly pointed out to me on my final day in Rome by Professor Bernie Frischer, after we had had lunch at the restaurant on the site of Canova’s workshop on the Via del Babuino.
The article forms part of a much wider project on the reception of the fourth Eclogue, on which I have been working for several years. A number of further publications on the extensive afterlife enjoyed by Virgil’s poem in so many different areas of western culture will appear during the course of this year. The material examined in these pieces complements the basic division established in this article between uses of the eclogue in political contexts and its appropriation in religious settings as an inspired prophecy of the coming of Christ. The earliest phases of the Christian reception of the poem have been very thoroughly surveyed in existing scholarship, but much remains to be done on later instances of this interpretative tendency. In early 2014 I held a visiting fellowship at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies in Innsbruck, where I was engaged in research on the substantial corpus of early modern Latin poems on the theme of the Nativity. Anyone working on this material could certainly be forgiven for thinking that all his or her Christmases have come at once!
In addition to my work on these aspects of the fortunes of the so-called Messianic Eclogue, I have so far managed to cover the uses made of the fourth Eclogue in Roman antiquity, Medici Florence, Renaissance Venice, the courts of early modern Italy, and Scotland under the later Stuarts. I have recently given talks on the reception of the poem in Tudor England (where Virgil’s proclamation of the return of the Virgin naturally led to its appearance in political propaganda under the Virgin Queen Elizabeth – but in fact this tendency in English court literature begins much earlier), and a chapter in a collection of essays which began life as papers at a conference I organised with Dr Marco Sgarbi at the Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana in Mantua in October 2012, due to be published next year, considers the part played by expressions taken from the fourth Eclogue in the formulation of the concept of a Renaissance. There is still plenty of ground left to explore, however – who would have thought that a single poem of 63 lines could have exercised so extensive and enduring an impact on so many branches of culture in so many places?
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