(b. 1613, Taverna Calabria, d. 1699, La Valletta)
Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius Fleeing Troy1630s
Oil on canvas, 86 x 153 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
The nineteenth-century inventories list this painting with an attribution to Vouet, while later inventories reflect a modification of the attribution to Alessandro Turchi. Assigned in 1916 to Mattia Preti, the canvas is considered one of the best of the Calabrian painter's youthful works. The painting, dated to the fourth decade of the century, represents Preti's first ambitious attempt to distance himself from the Manfredian models of his youth. At the same time, the Roman neo-Venetian experience, which would prove fundamental to his development as a painter, is just beginning to manifest itself.
This painting is a key work for the study of Preti, as it shows him in a delicate moment of stylistic passage. Abandoning his earlier predilection for genre scenes set in a closed room with artificial light, Preti is for the first time attempting a forceful history picture in an open, outdoor setting. The brilliant chromatic range, all based on primary colours, was revealed by a recent restoration. The vibrant blue of Aeneas' mantle, the yellow of his tunic and the resplendent white of the drapery that covers Ascanius remind us that Preti had already encountered the art of Poussin and the neo-Venetian ambient in Rome.
The epic subject, taken from the Aeneid, depicts the flight of Aeneas from Troy after the defeat and sack of the city by the Greeks. With his son Ascanius at his side, he carries his old and infirm father Anchises on his shoulders. Anchises clutches the penates, the household gods. In the narrative Aeneas' wife Creusa here set in the margin of the composition, would be lost and killed in the confusion of the flight.
This subject found a new popularity at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, notably through the enthusiasm of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The connections, emphasized by Virgil and Ovid, between the flight of Aeneas and the founding of Rome had obvious appeal to the modern Romans. Ascanius, according to legend, would grow up to found the city of Albalonga, where Rome's own founders Romulus and Remus were born.