Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Location: Borghese Gallery, Rome
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 220 cm
In keeping with the dual theme of Love and War, this sculpture is one that simultaneously exemplifies the essence of both. In a sculptural interpretation of The Aeneid, Baroque sculptor Bernini used realism to capture Aeneas’ flight from Troy, while he carried his father Anchises on his back and was followed closely by his son Ascanius.
The famous Trojan War provides the historical context for the sculpture. The war had been ongoing for years until the Greeks finally devised a plan of invasion: they disguised a wooden horse, secretly filled with warriors, as a “peace offering.” The Trojans reluctantly obliged to accept the gift, much against the wise Laocoon’s fervent warning. As the Trojans were sleeping, the Greek warriors came out of hiding and ransacked the city, ultimately bringing Troy to her fall.
As is the case with many works of Bernini, this sculpture is fashioned to tell a narrative. The narrative of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius starts at the base with Ascanius and works in an upward spiral towards Anchises. This quote from The Aeneid sets the stage for the narrative that the sculpture intends to evoke:
“’So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders!
I will carry you on my back. This labor of love
will never wear me down. Whatever falls to us now,
we both will share one peril, one path to safety.
Little Iulus [Ascanius], walk beside me…
And you, my father, carry
our hearth-gods now, our fathers’ sacred vessels.
I, just back from the war and fresh from slaughter,
I must not handle the holy things—it’s wrong—
not till I cleanse myself in running springs.’”
In rescuing Anchises and Ascanius during his flight from Troy, Aeneas demonstrated filial love for both his father and son. Despite spears flying in his path, Aeneas continued on to the path of safety. Aeneas’ facial expression portrays a determination with a twinge of worry, and it was duty that drove him forward. His devotion to his father and to the gods represented his respect for traditional Roman values and displayed a sense of pietas. In the sculpture Ascanius is carrying the eternal flame of Troy. Anchises is carrying the household gods. Each of these are symbolic: the eternal flame represents the future of Rome which Aeneas would later found, and the household gods represent the traditions of their forefathers. It is only appropriate that the younger Ascanius holds the foretelling symbol of Rome while the older Anchises holds the symbol of antiquity.
Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius is the first masterpiece that Bernini completed under the patronage of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Gian Lorenzo completed this specific sculpture at the age of 21. Bernini’s father Pietro Bernini, also a sculptor, helped tremendously in earning Gian Lorenzo commissions for art; whenever Pietro received a commission, he usually took his son to work alongside him. After becoming more skilled and the subject of attention and recognition, Gian Lorenzo received commissions and started making affiliations of his own. Since Gian Lorenzo learned at the hand of his father, much of his work (especially earlier works) is influenced by Pietro.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2006.