‘The Trojan chief, whose lineage is from Jove,
Much fam’d for arms, and more for filial love,
Is sent to seek his sire in your Elysian grove.
If neither piety, nor Heav’n’s command,
Can gain his passage to the Stygian strand,
This fatal present shall prevail at least’.
Then shew’d the shining bough, conceal’d within her vest.
No more was needful: for the gloomy god
Stood mute with awe, to see the golden rod;
Admir’d the destin’d off’ring to his queen –
A venerable gift, so rarely seen.'
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI, translated by Dryden, 1697.
The subject is drawn from Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid. The hero Aeneas, having escaped the Sack of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, seeks entry to the Underworld in order to speak to the ghost of his father, Anchises. He obtains the help of the Cumaean Sibyl, a 700-year-old prophetess abiding in the South of Italy, who recognises Aeneas as the forefather of the Roman nation.
Testa depicts the moment when the hero and the Sybil reach the River Styx, beyond which lies the kingdom of Hades. Charon, the eerie boatman who ferries the souls of the deceased across the Styx to the Underworld, appears in his bark to deny the unwelcome, living visitors access to the realm of the dead. Cerberus, the monstrous, three-headed dog that guards the Gates of Hell can be glimpsed beyond him. Virgil describes the ‘surly boatman…infam’d with wrath’, challenging Aeneas and the Sibyl with the words ‘Know this, the realm of night – the Stygian shore / My boat conveys no living bodies o’er’.
Anticipating the boatman’s response, the Sibyl has instructed Aeneas to obtain a miraculous bough that grows from a tree in a grove sacred to the goddess Diana, which is to be presented to Proserpina, the goddess of Spring who spends half the year in the dreary company of her kidnapper and husband, Hades, King of the Underworld. The quest for the Golden Bough is an important component of the Aeneid, and mirrors the achievements of earlier mythological heroes, especially the eleventh of the Twelve Labours of Hercules, the theft of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. Testa’s monumental composition reflects a close reading of Virgil’s masterpiece, focusing on the very instant in which the Sibyl produces the Golden Bough on ‘the Stygian shore’, to the astonishment of the supernatural boatman.
Aeneas dominates the foreground, his helmet reaching up to the tree branches. Just behind him, her left hand on his shoulder, is the Sibyl. To the right of Aeneas is the pleading, naked figure of Palinarus, his pilot, who cannot enter the Underworld because he died at sea. Horrified to encounter the soul of a former comrade-in-arms in such plight, Aeneas vows to build a memorial to Palinarus in a place that will forever bear his name. The large foreground figures are selectively lit and set against a darkened background. Testa’s spirited study for the head of Charon, executed in black chalk on greyish-brown paper, is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see fig. 1).
Born in Lucca in 1612 and recorded in Rome by the mid-1620s, Testa’s first success was as a draughtsman, particularly of antiquities. While in Rome he worked for Joachim Sandrart, the painter and biographer, providing drawings for the Galleria Giustiniani, an etched compendium of Vincenzo Giustiniani’s collection of classical sculpture. By 1630 he was employed by Cassiano dal Pozzo to provide drawings of antiquities for the Museo cartaceo (dal Pozzo’s celebrated ‘Paper Museum’), and it is through this connection that Testa met Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet, François Duquesnoy and, most notably, Poussin, the driving force in bringing classical principles to the art of the day. Testa, while well respected as a printmaker and draughtsman, strove to make a name for himself as a history painter. He joined the studio of Domenichino, and then, when the latter moved to Naples in 1631, that of Pietro da Cortona. Testa’s paintings of the 1630s were conceived in a poetic, lyrical style, clearly reflecting the influence of Poussin, and moving in the 1640s toward an even greater monumentalism, which is expressed in the present work.
Virgilian subject matter appears in at least two other works of the same period, a Death of Dido of even larger proportions (236 x 368 cm.; Florence, Galleria degli Uffzi), and an untraced Venus presenting Aeneas with divine armour, both of which were engraved. Painted in the same decade but concerned with a different ancient hero, Alexander the Great rescued from the River Cydnus (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) bears a close stylistic resemblance to Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl presenting the Golden Bough to Charon, while also indicating the clear influence of Salvator Rosa.