Wright depicts a site that had long been a popular destination for visitors to Naples. Indeed he could reasonably expect that Londoners who viewed this painting at the Royal Academy in 1779 would recognize the tomb of Virgil (70–19 B.C.), author of the Aeneid. Perhaps more obscure is the figure, Silius Italicus, the Roman orator who commemorated the anniversary of the great poet’s death each year by reading his verses aloud within the tomb. As a meditation on mortality, Wright fittingly contrasts the flickering glow of the lantern and the silvery moonlight spreading over the landscape.
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Fig. 1. In frame
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Title:Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight, with Silius Italicus Declaiming
Artist:Joseph Wright (Wright of Derby) (British, Derby 1734–1797 Derby)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, Gifts of Mrs. William M. Haupt, Josephine Bay Paul, and Estate of George Quackenbush, in his memory, by exchange, The Morris and Alma Schapiro Fund Gift, and funds from various donors, 2013
Joseph Wright was unusual among English artists in that, although trained in London, he spent the greater part of his life in the Midlands. The son of an attorney, he was interested in astronomy and geology, and he was also aware of the new technologies arising from industrialization. Wright earned his living painting portraits. His experiments with genre subjects and light effects suggest that he studied not only the old masters but the followers of Caravaggio. Neither a student nor a Grand Tourist when he visited Italy in 1773–75, Wright was a mature painter seeking wider exposure, not only to the figural arts of the past but to a different landscape scenery. He was in Naples in October and November 1774. Most of his important paintings with Italian subjects date after his return to England.
The narrative necessary to an understanding of this picture is as follows. The Roman poet Virgil, author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, died on September 21, 19 B.C. at Brindisi and his remains were returned to Naples for burial in accordance with his wishes. A century later, Silius Italicus, consul of Nero, bought the land upon which Virgil’s tomb stood and every year thereafter declaimed the great poet’s verses in the tomb on the anniversary of his death. Biographies written in antiquity state that Virgil was buried beside via Puteolana about two Roman miles outside Naples, and that he wrote an epitaph, which was later translated by the poet Dryden: "I sing Flocks, Tillage, Heroes; Mantua gave / Me life; Brundisium death; Naples a grave."
An ancient grotto, or tunnel, at Posillipo lies the appropriate distance to the west of Naples and for some seven hundred meters forms part of via Puteolana. In the thirteenth century Petrarch and Bocaccio were among the tourists who visited the tunnel, which because of its location was associated with the great poet and known as the Grotta Virgiliana. Above the entrance on the Naples side stands a small domed Roman columbarium containing interior niches for ashes. The identification of this columbarium with the tomb gained currency by the fourteenth century and at the end of the eighteenth, it was still an essential stop for English visitors in Naples on the Grand Tour.
An iconography of the tomb had developed by the eighteenth century and Wright’s composition may reflect that of a print by Paolo Antonio Paoli published in 1768 in Antichità di Pozzuoli. Grand Tourists loved subjects of the kind. Perhaps Wright sent Virgil’s Tomb by Moonlight to the Royal Academy in 1779 in hope of future commissions and these were evidently forthcoming. Another canvas showing the tomb by moonlight and dating to 1784 belongs to the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, while a fine daylight view from 1785 is in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. There may have been six versions in all. Here Wright meditates on the passage of time, survivals from antiquity, moods of nature, and mortality. The canvas is a brilliant exploration of the contrast between the warm glow of the lantern in an enclosed space and the silvery moonlight trickling delicately over the monument and the landscape.
Katharine Baetjer 2013
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right): I.W. 1779
probably by descent to Charles Evelyn Arkwright, Holbrook Hall, Holbrook, Derbyshire (until d. 1931); Mrs. Charles Evelyn (Isabella Emma Crompton) Arkwright, Holbrook Hall (by 1934–d. 1939); by descent to Colonel Sir John Frederick Crompton-Inglefield, Parwich Hall, Parwich, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire (1939?–at least 1972); by descent to a private collection (until 2011; sale, Sotheby's, London, December 7, 2011, no. 37, to Matthiesen); [Matthiesen Gallery, London, 2011–13; sold to The Met]
London. Royal Academy. April 24–May 29, 1779, no. 359 (as "Virgil's tomb, with the figure of Scilius Italicus, who bought an estate enriched with this very tomb. He was frequent in his visitation to this monument of his master.").
London. Mr. Robins's Rooms. "Pictures, Painted by J. Wright, of Derby," 1785, no. V (as "Virgil's Tomb by moon-light," possibly this picture).
Derby. Corporation Art Gallery. "Wright of Derby," September 3–November 18, 1934, no. 37 (as "Virgil's Tomb by Moonlight," lent by Mrs. C. E. Arkwright).
London. Tate Gallery. "Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797," April 11–May 18, 1958, no. 17 (lent by Col. Crompton-Inglefield).
Liverpool. Walker Art Gallery. "Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797," May 31–June 21, 1958, no. 17.
London. Tate Gallery. "The Romantic Movement," July 10–September 27, 1959, no. 378 (lent by Colonel Crompton-Inglefield).
Paris. Petit Palais. "La Peinture romantique anglaise et les préraphaélites," January–April 1972, no. 342 (lent by Sir John Crompton-Inglefield).
London. Tate Gallery. "Wright of Derby," February 7–April 22, 1990, no. 61 (as "Virgil's Tomb, with the Figure of Silius Italicus," lent by a private collector).
Paris. Galeries nationales du Grand Palais. "Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797," May 17–July 23, 1990, no. 72.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wright of Derby," September 6–December 2, 1990, no. 61.
Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center. "The European Fine Art Fair," March 15–24, 2013, not in catalogue.
"Exhibition." St. James's Chronicle or the British Evening Post (April 29–May 1, 1779), calls it "admirably painted, and calculated to warm the Imagination of a Poet," but finds "some trifling Faults in the Figure of Silius Italicus".
"Royal Academic Exhibition." General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer (April 28, 1779).
Benedict Nicolson. Joseph Wright of Derby: Painter of Light. London, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 83–84, 258, 276, no. 287; vol. 2, pl. 232, as in the collection of Colonel Sir John Crompton-Inglefield; calls it the only certain version of this composition by Wright that includes the figure of Silius Italicus, thus identifying it as probably the picture shown at the Royal Academy in 1779.
Lance Bertelsen. "David Garrick and English Painting." Eighteenth-Century Studies 11 (Spring 1978), pp. 320–22, proposes that Wright based the composition on Benjamin Wilson's theatrical conversation piece "David Garrick and George Anne Bellamy in 'Romeo and Juliet'" (1753; Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), engraved by S. F. Ravenet.
Duncan Bull. Classic Ground: British Artists and the Landscape of Italy, 1740–1830. Exh. cat., Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. New Haven, 1981, p. 37, under no. 36, notes that the Yale version of "Virgil's Tomb" also comes from the Crompton-Inglefield collection and has been confused with the MMA work.
J. B. Trapp. "The Grave of Vergil." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 47 (1984), p. 26, believes that Wright must been familiar with the engraving of the tomb from Paolo Antonio Paoli's "Antichità di Pozzuoli: Puteolanae Antiquitates," published in 1768.
J. B. Trapp. "Virgil and the Monuments." Proceedings of the Virgil Society 18 (1986), p. 4.
Benedict Nicolson. "Wright of Derby: Addenda and Corrigenda." Burlington Magazine 130 (October 1988), p. 755, publishes the Yale version, which includes the figure of Silius Italicus, but still believes the MMA picture is more likely to be the one shown at the the Royal Academy in 1779.
Judy Egerton. Wright of Derby. Exh. cat., Tate Gallery. London, 1990, pp. 11, 120–22, no. 61, ill. (color) [French ed., "Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797," Paris, pp. 16, 120–22, 146, no. 72, ill. (color)], calls it "probably the earliest of all Wright's versions of the subject" and "almost certainly" the one exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779.
Jenny Uglow. "Measureless Caverns: Joseph Wright and Virgil's Tomb." Joseph Wright of Derby: Virgil's Tomb & the Grand Tour in Naples. Ed. Patrick Matthiesen. London, 2012, pp. 38, 42–43, 45–50, 54, ill. pp. 36–37, 44, 53 (color, overall and details), dates the Yale version about 1784; describes the composition as "a unique blend of the Classical and Romantic sensibility".
T. Barton Thurber. "'The Amazing and Stupendous Remains of Antiquity': Joseph Wright in Italy and Later Reflections on 'Virgil's Tomb'." Joseph Wright of Derby: Virgil's Tomb & the Grand Tour in Naples. Ed. Patrick Matthiesen. London, 2012, pp. 55, 64, 67–68, ill. pp. 63, 69 (color details), sees it as marking "a crucial transition between Wright's early subject pictures and his later landscapes".
Patrick Matthiesen inJoseph Wright of Derby: Virgil's Tomb & the Grand Tour in Naples. London, 2012, p. 16, ill. title pages and p. 5 (color details).
Katharine B. Baetjer in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2012–2014." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 72 (Fall 2014), p. 46, ill. (color).
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 422, no. 294, ill. pp. 309, 422 (color).
The frame is original (see fig. 1 above).
Wright's account book (National Portrait Gallery, London; MS 111) lists six pictures with this subject. This is the prime version, signed and dated 1779. A replica in the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven (B1973.1.68), is the only other version that includes the figure of Silius Italicus. A third version, the same size as the Met and Yale pictures, is in the Derby Art Gallery and is signed and dated 1782. A smaller version in the Ulster Museum, Belfast (BELUM.U2368), is the only known daylight scene and is signed and dated 1785. Another version is in a private collection, and one given by the artist to his friend the poet William Hayley is unidentified.
Silius Italicus (ca. A.D. 26–102) was a Roman consul under Nero (reigned 54–68) and author of the longest surviving poem in Latin: Punica, on the Second Punic War. He venerated Cicero and Virgil, purchasing not only the site of Virgil's tomb outside Naples, but also Cicero's estate at Tusculum. Pliny the Younger, in Book III, letter VII, notes Silius Italicus's recent death and gives biographical details (Pliny: Letters and Panegyricus, trans. Betty Radice, Cambridge, Mass, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 182–87).
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