Measureless Caverns: Joseph Wright and Virgil's Tomb

Joseph Wright's Virgil's Tomb is a key early Romantic painting. Yet Wright visited Naples in 1776, a full generation before the emergence of a distinct Romantic movement in literature and art. In what sense then can this work be called Romantic? The link comes, I believe, from the way that in Wright's work the eighteenth-century concern with the classical heritage and the picturesque fused with a new fascination with the story of the earth itself. Wright's interest in the mysteries of geology and science - seen in his interest in strata and caves, and in his preoccupation with light - are here applied to evoke the deep, underground powers of the poetic imagination.

As Barton Thurber has shown, in his time in Italy from 1773-75 Wright followed the traditional Grand Tour itinerary. He was thrilled by the pure and clear Italian atmosphere, and by the scenery and the antiquities. Recovering from illness in 1774, he told his sister Nancy: 'The climate is certainly very salutary, and would, I think, perfectly restore me, was not my attention and application continually engaged with the amazing and stupendous remains of antiquity'. When he looked at the buildings and monuments all around him, he added, 'I cannot help reflecting how trifling and insignificant are the present operations of mankind; we are no better than infants, and ought to wear dandling strings.' In the month that he spent around Naples that autumn he sketched constantly. But while he was impressed by the great excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, he was equally enthralled by the volcano that had destroyed them. In November, he asked his brother Richard 'when you see Whitehurst, tell him I wished for his company, when on Mount Vesuvius. His thoughts would have centr'd in the bowels of the mountain, mine skimmed over the surface only; there was a very considerable eruption at the time, of which I am going to make a picture.'Tis the most wonderful sight in nature. He kept his word: on his return he painted around thirty versions of the explosion, flaming against dark skies, reddening the clouds and the sea.

William Whitehurst, his Derby neighbour and friend, a clockmaker and pioneering geologist, had been studying the strata of Derbyshire for years. His findings of basalt outcrops suggested that at one time the cool northern moors of the Peak District had also been a volcanic region, leading him to speculate that the whole globe had been formed by subterraneous fire, a process of constant, tumultuous change. Wright's Derbyshire paintings often depict the 'surfaces' that Whitehurst presented in sectional form, while his drawings of rock formations, caves and waterfalls combine careful observation with a personal, dramatic vision, as in his extraordinary Rocks with Waterfall of 1772, where, as Benedict Nicolson put it 'there is no attempt to tidy up the barbarity of nature, but the vision is rushed down on to canvas in all its incoherence, and yet makes a coherent picture'. In the Appendix to his Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth, in 1778, for example, Whitehurst drew the strata at Matlock as interleaved sections sliding into the chasm of the river Derwent: a 'scientific' view. By contrast, Wright's painting of Matlock Tor by Moonlight, 1777-80, with its vertiginous cliffs, wooded slopes and shining river was deliberately Picturesque, confirming William Gilpin's breathless observation that the vale was 'a romantic and most delightful scene in which the ideas of sublimity and beauty are blended in a high degree', and that 'it is impossible to view such scenes without the imagination taking fire.' With the moon shining through the clouds, the dark, magisterial folds of earth acquire new mystery.

Wright's letter about Vesuvius is marked by its casual use of the familiar phrase, 'the bowels of the earth'. Five years earlier, in 1767, the doctor, inventor and poet Erasmus Darwin – Whitehurst's friend and Wright's neighbour and doctor in later years – had used the same phrase to describe his exploration of the Blue John Cavern in the Peak District. 'I have lately travell'd two days journey into the bowels of the earth', he told Wedgwood, 'and have seen the Goddess of Minerals naked, as she lay in her inmost bowers'. Repeating this to the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, Darwin varied his words 'I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth, and seen Wonders and learnt much curious knowledge in the regions of Darkness...' The scientific interest in rocks and minerals fused with legend and folk-lore: it was the stuff of inspiration. As Gilpin said, it made the imagination 'take fire'. In the Naples region, old Mother Earth, the Goddess of Minerals, was at her most fiery and 'Sublime', in the Burkean sense of inspiring awe and terror: watching the eruption was like touching the divine.

The scientific study of volcanoes was integral to the contemporary hunt for the origins of the earth. In a different, yet parallel, way the contemplation of Virgil's Tomb also displayed the eighteenth-century's obsessions with origins: looking back Virgil's place in the history of poetry, particularly the epic; to the Aeneid's story of the founding of Rome; and to the mystery of poetic inspiration itself. This was a descent into a different kind of underworld, metaphorical rather than physical. Just to the north of Naples was Cumae, where the Sibyl had presided over the Apollonian oracle, singing the fates and writing her prophecies on the oak leaves within her cave. The Sybil also guided those who sought the entrance to the underworld at the nearby crater of Avernus. Here Aeneas descends to find his father Anchises, not heeding her warning:

....Trojan, Anchises' son,
The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis's door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to Heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there the toil.

Caves and fissures were the entry into a world of subterranean force. Wright drew and painted many caverns, always endowing them with some sense of a mystery beyond the natural. Seen from within, they are both a refuge and an exile from the brightly lit world. The concentration on the lonely figure in the cave, and the suggestion of the cavern as a holy site, was a familiar setting, long used in the paintings of St Jerome and other saints in the wilderness, and adopted by artists like David Teniers the Younger in the mid seventeenth century, in his Hermits in a Cave and Mary Magdalen in Penitence. Wight follows Teniers in rendering the human protagonists small, almost insignificant, in contrast to the gaping caverns. On the coast near Naples he made detailed studies in black chalk, paying careful attention to the overhanging rocks and the angles of light reflected upwards by the sea. Two of the works based on these sketches, painted on his return to England, Cavern, Morning and Cavern, Evening, show the cave empty, emphasising the mysterious, luminous quality of the rocky interior, but two others combine this geological sublime with theatrical compositions and historical reference. In Grotto by the Sea-side in the Kingdom of Naples, with Banditti of 1778, the fugitives and soldiers seem involved in some desperate, unexplained conflict or conspiracy, and in Grotto in the Gulf of Salerno, with the figure of Julia banished from Rome, exhibited in 1780, Julia, the daughter of Augustus , raises her arms in terrified appeal, as the tide within the cave rises.

The pattern was similar with Virgil's Tomb, where the cave-like tomb is seen from outside. O f the six known versions four show the tomb empty, but in two – the subject of this catalogue, painted in 1779, and a copy painted around five years later - the tomb holds a solitary figure ,like a priest in a temple. This is Silius Italicus, the first-century consul who had bought the land on which the tomb stood. According to the younger Pliny, Silius - whose own epic about the Second Punic War was inspired by the Aeneid - tended the monument, visited regularly and declaimed the poet's verses on Virgil's birthday. Classical sources did not identify the site , but it was accepted that Virgil had died at Brindisi in 19 B.C. and that his remains were carried to Naples; St Paul was alleged to have visited his tomb, and wept that he had not met the poet alive and crowned him as a saint, and since pilgrims flocked there since Virgil was also associated with magic and miraculous powers. From the twelfth century, successive commentators, with scanty evidence, fixed the site as being on a hillside above the Grotto of Posilippo, the old Roman tunnel through the hill that gave a shortcut from Naples to Pozzuoli and Cumae ( so miraculous a feat of engineering that it was attributed by medieval writers to Virgil himself). There was indeed a Roman tomb here and in the sixteenth century an epitaph was attached to the rock outside.

By the time of Wright's visit the swarms of cultured tourists and eager guides somewhat diminished any feeling of spiritual mystery. Over the centuries the tomb had been depicted in countless prints, from the woodcut in the first illustrated edition of Virgil in 1502 to new engravings, with explanatory text, in Paoli's Antichita di Possulo: Puteolanae Antiquitates, published in 1768, which J.B. Trapp suggested persuasively was by Wright's side as he worked: as he points out 'Those who painted or drew the tomb also drew freely on one another'. Like Silius Italicus, whom he shows as a poet reading a greater poet's verse, Wright is reading a forerunner's print, although - unlike Silius - he turns it into something fresh, imbued with layers of meaning.

The engravings, and idealised paintings, like that by Hubert Robert in 1778, almost contemporaneous with Wright's work , often showed a bay-tree on top of the tomb. Such a tree was said to have grown there when Virgil's died; legend had it that it died at Dante's death and that Petrarch replanted it. Since it was the custom for all who stopped there to take a sprig, later bay-trees barely survived and in the 1770s there was only a struggling shoot. A scandal arose, as Thomas Jefferson explained , when travellers confirmed that ' attempting to pluck off a branch of the laurel it followed their hand, being in fact nothing more than a plant or bough recently cut and stuck in the ground for the occasion'. While some visitors recorded their feelings of awe others were disappointed at finding only a ruinous mound, covered with carved names, with a dead tree on top. It might have been with tongue in cheek that Samuel Rogers wrote in The Pleasures of Memory (1792), of ' the charm historic scenes impart':

As now at Virgil's Tomb
We bless the shade and bid the verdure bloom.

Wright's painting restored the 'charm' , the magic of this ancient place with its rich associations. He achieved this, as with Matlock Tor, through the effect of moonlight ( interestingly, his painting of the tomb by daylight failed to sell), making the warm, enclosed heart of the tomb glow against the dark stone. The small hill – like a miniature volcano with fire within - stands out against the moonlit clouds, with just enough light to guide the traveller stumbling down the steps to the right. The tomb is like a candle-lit stage, glimpsed through the proscenium arch, with the inset scene of Silius Italicus with his book, arm upraised, declaiming Virgil's poetry. Nicolson noted the theatricality of the painting , where the lighting of the tomb from within looks 'as though it were being manipulated by some experienced stage designer'. Taking this further, Lance Bertelsen derived Wright's composition from prints of Benjamin Wilson's painting of Garrick and Mrs Bellamy as Romeo and Juliet, 1751-2, where Romeo discovers Juliet in the 'Gothic gloom' of the Capulet tomb, with the moon breaking through the clouds outside. (Wright certainly knew this print, mentioning it to his friend the poet William Hayley in 1786 when he was painting a parallel scene, of Juliet awakening in the tomb.) The drama of Virgil's tomb, however, was not inspired by romantic love, but by literary creation and its transmission through the ages. The cave suggests the world where shadows stand in place of ideal forms, as in Plato's allegory in The Republic, but it also suggests the human ability to conjure those forms and make them 'real'. It is the dwelling place of the imagination, the soul within the skull. At Virgil's tomb pilgrims remember the poet's death while simultaneously celebrating his immortal verse. It is, as Robert Rosenblum puts it, an instance of ' the power of symbolic stones to conjure up Romantic ruminations on irretrievable greatness'.

Virgil's Tomb also takes a significant place in the long line of paintings by Joseph Wright that celebrate invention and 'making' in all its forms, often suggesting access – sometimes dangerous - to the secrets of nature, endowing men with power. Several of these paintings contrast figures in an lamp-lit interior to the cool light of the moon outside, intensifying the apprehension of light and life by setting them against the threat of darkness. In 1769 Wright had painted the A Philosopher by Lamplight ( also known as Hermit Studying Anatomy) , perhaps a holy man, stumbled upon by awed pilgrims as he broods over bones in a dark grotto, meditating on transience while the flickering lamp contrasts to the moonlight outside. Before Wright left for Italy, however, he painted several cave -like interiors where the emphasis is not on death but on creation, including his scenes of iron forges and blacksmiths' shops, where the men's work is illuminated by the blazing glow of the molten metal that they themselves are creating. It is, as Rosenblum remarked , ' a most extraordinary light source, the blinding white glow of a newly forged iron-bar'. In two versions of The Blacksmith's Shop of 1771, the workshop resembles an abandoned church, with arches and columns and angels carved above the doorway. And if this setting reminded viewers of the classical ruins introduced into Renaissance Nativity scenes, the heroic stance of the iron founder reminded them equally of classical divinities like Apollo and Hercules. In another painting, The Iron Forge Viewed from without, Wright removes the front wall so that the spectator can see both the work within and the mood scudding between the clouds without, just as he does with the grotto at Posilippo in its moonlit setting.

The men in these scenes of blacksmiths and iron-forgers are labourers developing new technologies for the industrial age, yet they are also artists practising an ancient craft. The iron and coal they work with come from deep within the earth, and their labour is a demonstration of men's attempted mastery of the powers of nature – the heat of the forge, the gravity that drags down the thundering hammers. The balance of potential chaos against the control of long-learned skill, is ever present. This tension looks back to Wright's famous paintings of the mid-1760s, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun, and Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump. In both as in the scenes of the forges, and in Virgil's Tomb - their reasoning powers of men, their experimental drive and technical skill – are lit by lamps, while the untamed moon floats on outside. But while A Philosopher conveys the harmony of Newtonian physics, with the planets spinning in their courses, the Experiment is a vision of potential terror. Here the children do not smile but hide their faces in fear, as the air is sucked out of the pump and the cockatoo flutters in the vacuum: this is a demonstration not of the laws of nature but of the delicate physical balance of life and death, a study of physical force.

In Virgil's Tomb that force is the poetic genius, burning from within, bursting through the crust of history , like the glowing lava in Wright's paintings of Vesuvius. The tomb is a tribute to the power of inspiration from the past. Seen in these terms, Wright's painting takes its place with later works in which he commemorates the origins of particular arts. In 1783 Josiah Wedgwood commissioned a painting to symbolise the history of his own craft of potter, asking for an idealised, feminised allegory that would please his high-born patrons. In two companion pieces, The Corinthian Maid and Penelope Unravelling her Web by Lamplight (spinning being another great Midlands industry), Wright linked making with myth. Both are stories of fidelity, showing a woman as artist and maker. While Penelope was familiar from Homer's Odyssey and Ovid, the legend of the Corinthian Maid came from Pliny, via Hayley's 1778 Poetical Epistle, which told how the maid, lamenting her lover's imminent departure, outlined his shadow on the wall as he slept under the lamplight. Both these paintings, however, are cool and elegant, neo-classical rather than Romantic. Beautiful as they are, they lack the energy that emanates from Virgil's Tomb.

Oddly, Wright's romantic tribute to Virgil was slightly out of temper with the time. In the late eighteenth-century European intellectuals and writers generally condemned Virgil as tame in comparison to Homer. In the early years of the century, particularly in Britain, Republican Rome had been taken as a model of civic virtue, and its writers, regarded as the supreme literary models, were widely imitated, particularly Virgil, Horace and Ovid. The stated aim was to recreate a new Augustan Age, epitomised by Dryden's translations of the Aeneid and Pope's adaptations of the Eclogues. But while Virgil remained a staple of school education, the vogue in 1770s was for all things Greek. In t Britain, in the 1750s The Society of Dilettanti had sponsored the expedition to Athens by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, whose resulting four volume work The Antiquities of Athens was enormously influential, particularly on British architecture. In Germany, the high priest of Hellenism, Johann Joachim Winckelman, published his History of Ancient Art among the Greeks in 1763, making bold claims for the superiority of Greek art and for Hellenic political and spiritual freedom, casting an enduring spell on the new German literature linked to Lessing, Goethe and Schiller. ( While Goethe's father wrote of Virgil's tomb in 1740, Goethe himself was markedly incurious about the poet's grave.)

In this climate of Hellenism, where Virgil was almost eclipsed, despite the appearance of fine scholarly editions, and was damned as derivative, artificial and second rate, Wright's painting might seem representative of an outmoded aesthetic. 'If you take from Virgil his language and metre, what do you leave him?', Coleridge asked. This question, often taken to imply that Virgil lacked deep feeling, was prompted by Wordsworth's translation of the first volume of the Aeneid in 1823, the very act of translation necessarily depriving Virgil of 'language and metre. In Coleridge's view, Virgil was not worth translating anyway, being 'a stiff mare mortuum [dead sea] of dullness'. But Wordsworth's translation was a significant act of rediscovery, typical of the new Romantic age. Late eighteenth -century poets of rural life had rejected Virgil's pastoral as lazy and idealised: George Crabbe, for example, had asked in The Village, in 1783, ' From Truth and Nature shall we widely stray/ Where Fancy leads, or Virgil led the way?' But the younger poets turned to him again. The Eclogues and Georgics can be felt behind Wordsworth's contributions to the Lyrical Ballads and some sections of the Prelude. Writing to Lord Lonsdale about his Aeneid in 1824, Wordsworth said that he hoped to produce a translation that 'should be to a certain degree affecting, which Dryden's is not to me in the least'. Dr Johnson has justly remarked that Dryden had little talent for the Pathetic, and the tenderness of Virgil seems to me to escape him. Virgil's style is an inimitable mixture of the elaborately ornate, and the majestically plain and touching'.

Other poets also turned to Virgil. Keats translated the Aeneid at school, not as a task but in his own time, and continued after he left: his Endymion contains many echoes of Aeneas's quest, and of Virgilian bucolic settings, the Elysian fields and the descent into the Underworld. Shelley, too was an admirer. In December 1818, when the Shelleys were in Naples, Mary noted in her diary 'Tuesday 15th, Read Livy – Visit Virgil's Tomb & Posilippo'. They visited the tomb at least twice, and the spirit of Virgil hovers in the background of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and in Mary's later novels Valperga and The Last Man, which opens with the discovery of prophetic fragments in the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. Fittingly, Shelley's eloquent pastoral elegy for Keats, 'Adonais', was based in part on Virgil's Tenth Eclogue in praise of Cornelius Gallus. Its lines movingly suggest the contrast between frail mortal life and an immortal awakening - less, perhaps, a religious afterlife than a promise of enduring poetic influence, much as Joseph Wright evoked the lasting power of Virgil's work in his moonlit painting:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife...

The mood of Virgil's Tomb and the conjunction of ruins, nature and moonlight anticipate the tone of these British Romantic poets, and the devotion that led Tennyson to request that a spring of laurel from the tomb be placed in his grave. The painting hints at the deep, even turbulent sources of the imagination, like Coleridge's own image – despite his disdain for Virgil - of the buried flow of creative power, running like Alph the sacred river, 'Through caverns measureless to man'.

With regard to the Romantic movement in art, Virgil's Tomb looks beyond the later stages of Romantic Classicism – as represented by his own Corinthian Maid and Penelope – to the linking of poetic and spiritual inspiration to landscapes, a transmutation of the Sublime into the scenery of feeling. The mystery of the cavern, felt so strongly in Wright's paintings, is found , for example, in works by his contemporary, the highly individual Francis Towne, especially in his rapid, atmospheric evocation of the Grotto of Neptune, below the Temple of the Sybil at Tivoli - another required stop on the Grand Tour turned into a hymn to the force of nature. An equally suggestive work from a generation later, is Turner's 1826 painting of Peaks Hole , Derbyshire, Wright's home county. Here the cave is linked to the labour and lore of the people, and the hunt for 'origins' is suggested not in classical terms, but the legends of Britain itself, the ancient Albion.

The idea of poetry as being a fount of national identity, and of the native genius in a wild and ruined landscape, had already found potent expression in Wright's own day in Thomas Jones painting of The Bard of 1774, based on Gray's poem of the same name. In Jones's painting – a combination of early Romanticism with the emerging Celtic Revival - the Welsh bard, condemned to death by Edward III, curses the English invaders before hurling himself from the rocky cliffs. The same subject was treated even more sensationally by John Martin in 1817. In these works, the landscape itself, mountain or cave, is a source of awe equal to the poet's power. Perhaps the most iconic example of the solitary dreamer in such a landscape Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, of 1819, where the yearning for transcendence places the dreamer above the mountains and clouds, rather than below the earth. For Friedrich, as for Wright, the moon was both a source of mystery and an emblem of hope, used to great effect in many paintings, especially his haunting study of Two Men Contemplating the Moon, of 1819-20, where the moon offers a glimmer of promise behind the withered tree. In a quite different vein, Blake's woodcuts of 1820 for a school edition of Virgil's Eclogues showed how Virgil's 'tenderness', as Wordsworth put it, could be conveyed afresh in art. But perhaps the artist who shared Wright's respect for the ancients, combining it with love of the tumbling beauty of the landscape and of the double light of lamp and moon, is Samuel Palmer, an artist rarely considered as Wright's heir. Palmer was steeped in Virgil, and in his early twenties, responding to Blake's woodcuts, he produced his sepia Rustic Scene, showing the ploughman beneath the sickle moon of dawn, inscribed on the mount with lines from Georgics I, urging the men to plough at the equinox, divided 'luci com umbris':

When Libra makes the hours of daytime and sleep equal,
And divides the world between light and shadow,
Then work your oxen, men

The same lyrical, divided mood permeates Palmer's famous Valley Thick with Corn, with the harvest moon soaring above and the solitary reader reclining in his cornfield bower below, like a pastoral British version of Wright's ecstatic reader in the glowing cave. In his early sixties, in 1866, Palmer told his son Alfred Herbert that the Georgics ' teach the wisdom of all life and the mysteries of intellectual discipline under the veil of agriculture... so that the veil itself is glorious – the diamond is set in gold.' In his numinous painting of Virgil's Tomb Joseph Wright of Derby set the poet's memory in gold, lit by the double light of candle and moon, a unique blend of the Classical and Romantic sensibility.

(c) Jenny Uglow 2012


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