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Art-Literature Analysis: Student Assignment

As an end of year project for my AP Latin students, I assign an art analysis paper based upon a scene from either Vergil’s Aeneid or Caesar’s de Bello Gallico.  The students are to choose a masterpiece that accurately depicts one such scene.  The opening paragraph should provide a little background information on the artist, the title of the piece, medium, style, date, etc.  The body of the essay should discuss how the art interprets the Latin literature with copious citing of the text. Then, the paper should discuss elements common to the anlaysis of art (lighting, lines, color, etc.). The students should conclude the paper by offering their opinion on how well or with what affect the artist interpeted the literature.  An excellent source for a suggested guideline of analysis can be found at the Department of Art and Design for the University of Arkansas (link provided below).  My expectations are 1-2 pages in length with primary focus given to the interpretation of Latin literature. I do not expect as much detail on the analysis of art as discussed in the link for UA’s Department of Art and Design, as my assignment is designed for high school Latin students and not collegiate art students.

This assignment is a student favorite as it causes the students to look back and call upon what they have learned of the story and the language from the vantage point of one who has completed a rigorous journey and now stands upon the mountain top, surveying the view of the road from whence they came. The remainder of this post is written by one of my Latin students. This is her piece of art-literature analysis based on a scene from Aeneid VI.  When I asked her how she had enjoyed the project a broad smile spread upon her face as she responded. “I was amazed at how much I recognized in the art,” she said. “I just kept wanting to write more and more about all I could see. It just poured out of me.”  Latin is more than a course in an old language. It is a course in world knowledge. One facet of that study is the great depth of appreciation in the beauty of literature and art.

Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx  

by Pietro Testa 

Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx by Pietro Testa

This piece of art, by Pietro Testa, is called Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx. Testa was born in 1612 and began his career in Rome early in his life. He is best known for being a draftsman and printmaker, especially enjoying the printing and drawing of history. This particular painting was created between 1648 and 1649, just before Testa’s alleged suicide, with oil on a canvas in the Baroque style of Testa’s period. It is 64” by 81” and was painted while Testa was living in Rome. Through the years, this painting has been owned by many different collectors and museums, and it currently resides in a private collection.

This painting portrays many details of the Aeneid from Book VI, lines 187-407, where Aeneas and the Sibyl meet the boatman of the Styx, Charon. The characters of Aeneas, the Sibyl, Charon, and a forlorn soul dominate the foreground, although Aeneas in his fine armor is the most dominant figure. Cerberus and a few saddened, wailing souls can be seen in the background. At the specific moment portrayed in this piece, the Sibyl has just revealed the golden branch that Aeneas searched out in order to be granted passage into the underworld. Charon is shocked at the sight of this branch, knowing that he must now allow the living Aeneas into the underworld.

Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx accurately represents the ancient Latin of Virgil’s Aeneid in many ways, although it also differs from the original Latin in some subtle ways. First, the way that Testa painted Charon aligns with the Latin in every way except one. Charon’s duty is to “has aquas et flumina servat terribili squalor” [guard these waters and floods with terrible filth.] Charon’s duty is well shown in this painting through his defensive stance in his boat on the dirty river, clearly guarding the way into the underworld. Next, Charon is described with “cui plurima mento caniteis inculta iacet” [whose many wild grey hair lie on the chin] and “stant lumina flamma” [his fixed gaze is lit with fire.] Both of these two things are represented in this painting. Charon’s eyes are orange and glowing with fire, and his face has a full beard. However, Charon is also said to have “sordidus ex umeris nodo dependet amictus” [a dirty cloak hanging from his shoulders with a knot.] This aspect is missing from this painting, which may have simply been Testa’s artistic idea of how Charon should look. Charon’s nudity without the cloak also aligns him more with the others dead souls in the underworld, and places him in greater contrast to the living Aeneas’ fine clothing, further separating the dead from the living. Charon is also said to “ratem conto subigit” [force the boat with a pole] and that he looks like “iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus” [an old man now, but for the god old age is bloody and fresh.] This is displayed in Charon’s pole in his hands and through his wrinkled face, but young and muscular body. He looks to be old in some ways, but truly he is physically fit and not old in the eyes of the gods.

In addition to the accuracy of this painting regarding the Aeneid’s description of Charon, Testa also followed many other small details of the Aeneid’s story in the rest of his painting. The area around the river is the place where “huc omnis turba ad ripas effusa ruebat” [the whole crowd was rushing having been poured out toward the shores.] These people “stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore” [ (those) first begging to cross the course were standing and were stretching hands because of love of a further shore.] These two details are shown in the man in the foreground, looking bewildered that Aeneas is granted passage before him, as well as the other men in the background looking anguished in their ill fortune. These are the souls of the unburied who cannot be granted passage into the underworld. Next, the golden branch held by the Sibyl aligns directly with the story in latin, “Si nunc se nobis ille aureus arbore ramusostendat nemore in tanto, quando omnia vere heu nimium de te vates, Misene, locuta est.” [0, that the Golden Bough from this vast grove might over me shine! For, 0 Aeolides, the oracle foretold thy fate, too well!] This is the branch Aeneas found earlier in the story, and is special because of its relevance to the gods, its promise of passage into the underworld, and its golden properties, as Testa portrays excellently. The grove surrounding Aeneas and his companions is also directly from the Latin, “quos per tacit nemus ire” [them to go through the silent grove.] The putrid looking waters of the river near the shore (under the boat) are also a direct representation of the latin “glauca ulva,” meaning grey marsh. Lastly, in the left side of the picture in the background, one can see the cave of Cerberus, Cerberus’s head, and a body about to run in fear. This also comes from the Latin “licet ingens janitor antro aeternum latrans exsangues terreat umbras” [it is allowed that the huge doorkeeper, barking eternally from the cave, terrifies the bloodless shades.] Even the fear shown in the shade’s flailing arms is from the original Latin. From all of these examples, it is very clear that Pietro Testa referenced the original text of the Aeneid for the details and ideas in his work of art, Aeneas on the Bank of the River Styx.

Alongside the accuracy of this painting when compared to the Latin, there are also several other ways that Testa’s art stands bright with details and ideas that make this painting even more complex. One of the most prominent details is the lighting in the painting. The main focus of the light in the painting seems to be on Aeneas, as well as on the Sibyl because she is standing close by. Testa, however, focuses most of the light on Aeneas to highlight his power and splendid attire and armor. The light is then reflected onto Charon, the Sibyl, and the man on the ground next to Aeneas, as the next most important figures.

The colors in this painting are also meaningful and expressive. The colors red, brown, and black are used in the background of the painting. These darker and red, fiery colors are often associated with hell and anguish, adding to the setting as well as the emotion of the painting. Even the green foliage of the leaves is tinged with brown, indicating death that looms even in the trees.

As well as ideas conveyed through the colors and light, there are other less obvious concepts and ideas that Testa wove into his art. The first is Aeneas’ armor. His armor is beautiful and shining, with a great plume on his helmet. While this style of armor is very similar to what some Roman soldiers wore, it is also thought that the ancient Trojan warriors may have worn such protection. Thus, Testa is attempting to tie together Aeneas’ past in Troy as well as his future in founding the ancient Romans in Aeneas’ attire. Here, Testa strays from the direct Latin in order to add more historical meaning to his piece. Another tasteful element that Testa added to his art is the separation between those of the Underworld and those who belong in the world of the living. This distinction is made through the clothing of the individuals in the painting. Those who are dead, or permanently reside in the Underworld, wear no clothing at all, while those who are alive and live in the regular world, wear full attire. This is simply an interpretation of the differences between the dead and the living that Testa makes that clearly helps the viewer see Aeneas as truly distinguished for entering the underworld while still alive.

Overall, this painting accurately interprets the Latin and has many hidden details and ideas that Testa added to make the painting his own. The colors reflect the tones we in the post-classical era associate with hell. The lighting that Testa uses highlights Aeneas’ glory, both past and future. Testa also differentiates between the living and the dead with their attire, his own method of highlighting different characters and their respective lots in the story. Testa’s ability to align his painting with the original Latin Aeneid is truly spectacular. He adds his own elements and ideas into his art, without losing much of the original story, nor details explained by Virgil. For all these reasons, as well as Pietro Testa’s impressive artistry, this painting of Aeneas and the beginning of his journey to the Underworld is truly insightful and beautiful.

Art-Literature Analysis Resources

Guidelines for Analysis of Art, Department of Design University of Arkansas

Previous posts on Latin Alive on the use of art analysis for Latin students:

Art as a Poetic Interpretation

Art Study for Caesar


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