In this dramatic cityscape, crowds of civilians flee as soldiers charge buildings and fires illuminate the night sky. Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid, appears in the foreground right carrying his father to safety as women and children run from soldiers at the left. A grand city square is the setting for this chaotic scene and the buildings that surround it are as important to the composition as the figures that enact the narrative. The baroque palace at the right, complete with composite columns, broken pediments and life-sized sculptures atop a balustrade, serves as a refuge for the invading Greek soldiers while an arched passageway offers the viewer a secondary vista. The domed buildings and spires in the background, white with heat, emphasize the intensity of the flames.
Visible pentimenti record significant changes that have been made to the composition at some point in the painting's history. The Trojan horse has been added at the left to reinforce the iconography and a larger domed building beyond the arched passageway has been painted out, a change that emphasizes the fire against the night sky. This fictional view belongs to the popular genre of fantasy cityscapes, which was inspired by architectural treatises and design books by artists such as Hans Vredeman de Vries. Daniel van Heil's numerous versions of the Sack of Troy (another is in the Restelli Collection, Como) also reflect his broader interest in painting burning cityscapes. His Fire at Brussels (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and Imaginary Fire at Antwerp (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau) combine recognizable city views with the drama of a fire burning out of control and the artist's virtuosity in capturing it.
Daniel van Heil was born in Brussels around 1604 to a family of painters. He studied in his father's studio and in 1627 became a member of the Brussels St. Luke's Guild. In addition to burning cityscapes, van Heil also painted winter landscapes and views with ancient ruins. A Landscape with the flight into Egypt by van Heil hangs in Brussels in the Cathedral of St. Michel. Six students including his son, Theodore, are documented in his studio between 1643 and 1660.
A painting of the same subject and of comparable size was sold Christie's, New York, 26 January 2005, lot 214, $72,000.