The boldness of the sun forced me out of bed. Spring was finally here and the air was so tart it pinched me into action. Today was the day of pulizie di primavera (spring cleaning) and I decided to start with my cluttered desk. A folded piece of drawing paper with the phrase “lacrimae rerum” written on it caught my attention. Unfolded, there she was, Nanna. It was the drawing I’d made of her last year after seeing her begging on the street.
A jaded beauty. Nanna’s hair was lifeless, her skin was cracked, and her brown eyes were two deep pools filled to the brim with sorrow. The phrase “lacrimae rerum” was from Virgil’s “The Aeneid”. Aeneas, fleeing prince of Troy, is in Carthage inside Juno’s Temple looking at a mural narrating the Trojan War. In front of the images depicting so many battles in which he participated, Aeneas is overwhelmed thinking of all the people he’d loved and known who’d been killed because of these battles. He says “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangent.” Simply put, it means “we live in a world of tears”. Nanna’s parting words to me had been “we live to cry” thus “lacrimae rerum”.
Thanks to our Wednesday Morning Reading Club, I’d read “The Aeneid” and realized that had it not been for the Trojan War, Rome probably wouldn’t even exist and I wouldn’t be here writing about it. One morning Harriet took us to Galleria Borghese to see Bernini’s statue of Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius. The statue shows Aeneas, fleeing Troy, carrying his father on his shoulders who in turn carries a vessel with his ancestors’ ashes. And clutching Aeneas is his son, Ascanius.
The Roman poet Virgil had greatly appropriated from Homer when Emperor Augustus commissioned him to write an epic poem about Rome. However, the Aeneas represented by Homer is totally different than that of Virgil’s as one was written by a Greek and the other by a Roman.
One night Virgil’s Aeneas has a dream where Hector, deceased Trojan prince and brave warrior, appears to Aeneas telling him that he must flee Troy and take his family with him. The dream disturbs Aeneas but he realizes that, with so many Trojan warriors dead, it was impossible to defend Troy alone. So he flees with his father, Anchises, on his shoulders and his son, Ascanius, tightly holding on. The only person missing from this family portrait is Creusa, Aeneas’ wife. Eventually Aeneas goes back to Troy for his wife but she’s now dead and Aeneas can only speak with her ghost. The ghost tells Aeneas to establish a new city, that which one day will be known as Rome.
Aeneas then builds a fleet for himself and other war survivors. And a new odyssey begins—that of the exiled Trojans looking for a new home.
Creusa was Aeneas’ wife. When it was obvious that the Greeks were seizing control of Troy, Aeneas worries about his family and goes home to get them. But his father, Anchises, refuses to leave saying he would rather die in battle. Creusa grabs him and begs him to consider not just his honor, but the lives of his son and grandson as well. The elderly Anchises plays the role of a macho saying he’s going to stay to fight until a huge flame from nowhere settles on Ascanius and he starts to burn. Anchises takes it as an omen and finally agrees to flee Troy. Aeneas puts his father on his shoulders to transport him and holds Ascanius’ hand. For some reason, Creusa is told to follow some distance behind but she disappears in the confusion. After putting his father down in a safe place, Aeneas goes back to look for his wife. But she’s been killed so he’s forced to speak with her ghost who tells him he will be the founder of a new empire and will marry a woman named Lavinia. Aeneas tries to hold on to her but, as she tells him, no one can hold on to a ghost.
Like many goddesses, Juno was vindictive. She had participated in a beauty contest along with Hera and Athena. The judge, Paris from Troy, awarded the prize to Venus. In exchange, Venus would give him Helen of Troy. Juno felt humiliated and sought revenge on all Trojans. So when Aeneas began his journey, Juno sent Aeolus, the god of wind, to destroy Aeneas’ ships. Neptune drives off the winds and Aeneas arrives at Carthage.
At Carthage Aeneas meets Queen Dido. The two quickly become lovers but Dido makes the mistake of falling deeply in love. She even suggests that he and the other surviving Trojans settle in Carthage permitting Dido and Aeneas to reign together. But, thanks to a scheme by Venus, it doesn’t happen and Aeneas sneaks away in the middle of the night. Dido, emotionally destroyed by the abandonment, commits suicide using Aeneas’ sword. She then throws herself on a funeral pyre after predicting eternal conflict between her people and those of Aeneas. From his fleeing ship, Aeneas can see the smoke coming from his ex-lover’s burning body.
Venus obviously liked sex as she had many lovers and children as well. Her children included Cupid and Aeneas. Fearing that the latter will not continue his journey, she has Cupid disguise himself as Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, and piercing Dido with one of his love potion arrows, cause Dido to fall in love with Aeneas. Even though she is ashamed of this love thinking it an offense to her dead husband, Dido nevertheless goes with Aeneas to a cave where they begin their affair.
Disguise and Revelation: Venus disguises herself as Diana, the virgin huntress, and meets with Aeneas. She tells him about Dido and turns to leave but not before revealing herself as a goddess and his sexy mother.
A priest tells Aeneas to seek info from the Cumaean Sibyl. The sibyl tells him that his future is in Italy and that his descendents will be the founders of Rome. The sibyl then takes Aeneas to the underworld to visit his father. Anchises tells his son that his descendents will include Romulus, founder of Rome, as well as August, the first Roman emperor.
The Cumaen Sibyl was a favorite theme in paintings such as those by Domenichino, Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel), Raphael (frescoes in Santa Maria della Pace), and Elihu Vedder.
Cumaea is often portrayed carrying the Sibylline books to the last king of Rome before telling Aeneas his future is in Italy. Sometimes she looks old as Cumae rejects Apollo who retaliates by aging her.
Lavinia is the only child of King Latinus. Obviously she has many suitors who hope to someday become the king of Latium. The favorite suitor is a local hero by the name of Turnus. So Aeneas and Turnus fight it out and The Aeneid ends with Aeneas killing his rival.
Aeneas finally arrives in Latium (Italy) where he sires the Roman race with Lavinia.
Related: Nanna is Nanna Risi, ex-model, read more here: The Burden of Beauty + Harriet is Harriet Hosmer, American artist living in Rome late 1850s