Sebastiano Conca    Italian    1680-1764
SN 168    Oil on Canvas    1735-40

by Robert Anderson

    This Italian painter was one of the most important decorative painters in Rome during the first half of the 18th century. Out of the High Baroque tradition he developed a distinctly Roman Rococo style which thru its polished elegance gives the impression of superficiality despite the grandeur of its conception. Conca painted altarpieces and frescos, creating an accomplished style and his smaller easel pieces were eagerly sought after by collectors throughout Europe. He was also an able draughtsman, working in a free and fluent style.

    While in Rome in his 20's he was inspired by the works of Michelangelo and the Carracci and developed a greater classicism in his work. The 1730's marked the climax of a long and successful career.His output was prodigious and his altarpieces were sent to cities all over Italy. His mythological easel paintings in particular(e.g. Aeneas Desending to the Underworld) were sought after by private collectors. These are lyrical Rococo works, distinguished by their spontaneous brushwork and liquid colors.

    The subject of the painting is from the Roman poet Virgil. His Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero and son of Venus, meeting his father, Anchises, in the underworld Elysian Fields. There he is told of his future destiny as the founder of Rome and about its dynasty of leaders.
    Elysium was, as Virgil described it, a part of Hades, but also a residence for the spirits of the blessed ( heros, statesmen etc.). Aeneas saw the founders of the Trojan state who had lived in happier times as well as those spirits whose destinies and worthy deeds were to be achieved in coming times.
    Elysium was perceived as a beautiful valley with trees gently waving, a tranquil landscape thru which the river Lethe flowed. Along the bank of the stream wandered a multitude who were the souls which were to be given bodies in due time after the impurities and memories of their past lives were washed away.
    Aeneas was told of the events that remained to him to be accomplished before the complete establishment of himself and his followers in Italy. Wars were to be waged, a bride to be won, and a Trojan state founded from which would rise the Roman power, to be in time the sovereign of the world.

    Aeneas is led by his father, Anchises, and followed by the Sibyl and the Seer Musaeus, gazes at the groves where the blissful reside. The goddess Roma in a chariot drawn by lions approaches him while a genius of light holds a flaming torch over her head. Among her followers can be recognized Numa Pompilius, the lawgiver, with Augustus and Marcellus on horseback: a prophecy of the future grandeur of Rome. Floating above Aeneas is his mother Venus with Cupid and Mercury, in a chariot drawn by doves with a red ribbon. At the left is the poet Virgil with a lyre, surrounded by philosophers and astrologers, shepherds and maidens who sing his bucholic poems.   

    Virgil born in 70 B.C. was active during the time of Octavian's rule over Rome. He was spnsored by a politician / statesman named Maecenas who introduced him and his poetry to Octavian. His first major efforts were poems glorifying rural life which coincided with the aims of Octavian who wanted to settle his former soldiers on farm land. Later he wrote the epic poem, The Aeneid, which came to include by preview through prophecy, the expansion of Rome into the Augustan empire and peace. Virgil flatters his Emperor and his country in an epic that was never finished but which was enthusiastically accepted by Augustus. Its real religion is patriotism and its greatest god is Rome.