The Royal Hunt of Dido and Aeneas
(Francesco Solimena (called l'Abbate Ciccio))


It may seem surprising that this painting, one of the artist’s supreme masterpieces, was painted for a provincial nobleman in the small Marchigian town of Macerata, far from the artist’s home in Naples. Next to nothing is known of the life of Conte Raimondo Buonaccorsi (or Bonaccorsi) (1669-1743), other than that in 1699 he married a certain Francesca Bussi, who by 1726 had borne him eighteen children, one of whom was to become a cardinal. His artistic commissions, however, set him apart as one of the most interesting patrons of his day. The Aeneid Gallery, for which this painting was executed, was one of the most exceptional Italian decorative cycles of the early eighteenth century, remarkable for its iconographic homogeneity but extreme stylistic diversity, as Professor Francis Haskell has pointed out. [1]

Much new information on the palace and its decoration has recently been published by Costanza Barbieri and Cecilia Prete from documents in the Buonaccorsi family archive, since 1989 in the Archivio di Stato at Macerata. These show that the Palazzo Buonaccorsi, designed by the Roman architect Giovanni Battista Contini, was well on the way to completion when Raimondo Buonaccorsi inherited the project on his father’s death in January 1708. The building of the Gallery was not finished, however, until 1711, when the fresco decoration of its barrel vault, showing The Marriage of Ariadne and Dionysus, was begun.[2] This was until recently thought to be by the Bolognese painters Carlo Antonio Rambaldi and Antonio Dardani, but is now known to be by the Roman artists Michelangelo and Nicolò Ricciolini.[3] Each of the nineteen canvases which covered every available space on the walls shows a scene from the Aeneid. These were executed in dramatically contrasting styles by artists from different parts of Italy, predominantly Naples, Venice and Bologna. Although some of the participants in the scheme remain unidentified, they included Solimena’s fellow Neapolitans Paolo de Matteis (for whose Venus giving Arms to Aeneas see Spinosa, op. cit., 1986, fig.156), Giacomo del Po (an overdoor of The God of the Tiber) and Matteo Fera, the Venetian Gregorio Lazzarini (Dido on the Funeral Pyre and The Combat of Aeneas and Mezentius) and the Veronese Antonio Balestra. Bologna was represented by Marcantonio Franceschini (Mercury awaking Aeneas), Giuseppe Gambarini (Aeneas with the Dove of Venus and Aeneas and Anchises), Gian Gioseffo Dal Sole (Andromache weeping before Aeneas), Francesco Mancini (The Cumaean Sibyl) and Giovanni Torelli (Aeneas and Anchises fleeing from Troy), and Rome by Luigi Garzi (Venus at the Forge of Vulcan). The whereabouts of many components of the series is currently unknown, the paintings and furnishings having been dispersed in the 1960s by the last of the Buonaccorsi, who sold the palace to the Comune in 1967. Works by more ‘progressive’ painters which helped to decorate some of the smaller rooms in the palace, such as Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Leto turning the Shepherds into Frogs, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, originally part of a set of four representations of fables, would seem to demonstrate still further the surprising range of the patron’s taste.

The documents show that paintings for the Gallery were still being delivered in 1717. The present picture, which is much the largest and must have been very much the focal point of the Gallery, may have been one of the first to be commissioned and to arrive. A series of letters from Raimondo Buonaccorsi to his agent Sebastiano Ferri requesting its early completion begins as early as 14 October 1712. The correspondence with Ferri is broken off after 26 May 1713 and the next mention of the painting after that date is in a letter of 6 July 1714 to another agent, Antonio Salamandra. In this the Count records that ‘…si è ricevuto il quadro ben conditionato, et è quà riuscito di somma lode’ and is eager to hear the verdict of those who had seen it in Rome: ‘per mia curiosità desidero saper, se costì sia stato veduto, e che applauso habbia riportato’. Possibly it was the competitive nature of the commission which inspired Solimena to reveal himself at the height of his powers. Haskell describes the painting as follows: “the tremendous implications of the theme –‘Ille dies primus leti primusque malorum/Causa fuit’ – were realised by the artist in a picture of the utmost romantic splendour. Dark clouds lower over the landscape and, on the instructions of Juno, the winds prepare to pound the earth with driving rain as the young Trojan hero, oblivious of Cupid’s arrow aimed at his breast, hurries forward to accept the guiding hand of Dido, who looks back at him with eyes full of tender passion.”

The fate of the tragic Queen of Carthage who committed suicide and was burnt on a vast funeral pyre in the heart of the city, was bound up with the rivalry between Venus on the side of the Trojans and Juno, protectress of the Carthaginians. Aeneas, the man of destiny who was to found the Italian race, alas was not to be allowed to dally in the arms of the African beauty. Although a deal was struck between the goddesses, and it was agreed that the lovers should marry and that Venus and Juno should jointly rule the nation, Venus realised that Juno did not intend to keep her part of the bargain and that her real intention was to divert Aeneas from his Destiny. However, Juno persevered with the plot and set out the way in which the lovers were to consummate their passion:

‘As soon as tomorrow’s sun rises at the dawning to unveil the earth with his rays, Aeneas and the hapless Dido mean to go hunting in a forest together. While the beaters are hurrying to stretch their encircling cordons across the mountain tracks, I shall set over them a black cloud charged with mingled rain and hail, release a downpour on the royal pair, and awake all the sky with thunder. Their retinue will scatter and vanish in a darkness as of night, and Dido and Troy’s chieftain will take shelter in the same cave.'[4]

Virgil goes on at some length to describe the rising of Aurora and the assembly of the hunt. Dido lingers in her chamber:

‘At last she came, stepping forth with a numerous suite around her, clad in a Sidonian mantle with an embroidered hem. Gold was her quiver and the clasp which knotted her hair’.

The hunt begins:

‘When the hunters had reached a pathless tract high in the hills, they startled a flock of wild goats which came galloping down the slopes from a rocky crest straight in front of them, and farther round a herd of stags massed their ranks in a cloud of dust and fled away from the hill country and across the open moors…

Then Juno intervenes:

‘Soon a confused rumbling sound started in the sky. Then came the rain clouds and showers mixed with hail. The hunters all scattered in alarm about the fields searching for shelter’.

Virgil describes Aeneas as being equipped with ‘a sword starred with golden-brown jasper and wearing a cloak of bright Tyrian purple draped from his shoulders, a present from a wealthy giver, Dido herself, who had made it picking out the warp-thread with a line of gold’. Solimena’s version of the story follows Virgil very closely, picking the very moment when the storm begins and Dido beckons Aeneas to follow her into the refuge of the cave. Juno, with peacock and attendant putti, orders the rain and hail, and the hunting party scatters.

Virgil’s poem, celebrating as it does the origins of the Italian people, was evidently chosen as the theme of the Gallery in order to allude to the ancient origins of the Buonaccorsi family, while the selection of artists from different regional Italian schools would seem to have been intended to demonstrate the patrons’ renown throughout the Italian states. Solimena was an obvious choice of participant. Very much the most prominent painter in Naples, he had frescoed the sacristy vault of San Domenico Maggiore with The Triumph of the Dominican Order in 1709 and was to receive in 1713-14 the commission for the great fresco of The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple on the inner side of the façade of the Gesù Nuovo (not completed until 1725). The death of Carlo Maratti in 1713 was to leave him the most famous artist in Europe. At this state in his career Solimena was progressively diluting the influence of Mattia Preti, so dominant on his work of the previous century, in favour of a radical classicism. This change of direction is evident by 1700, when Solimena expressed his deep admiration for Maratti by travelling to Rome to visit him. It is in connection with another work of the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century that De Dominici describes Solimena as the ‘Cavalier Calabrese nobilitato’, by this date the nobility and theatricality of the artist’s style having made it a visual equivalent of the literary and philosophical movement of the Arcadia. This is demonstrated with particular clarity by this painting, whose appearance is probably influenced by operatic and theatrical adaptations of the classical text. The similarly bright colour and theatrical poses of Solimena’s illustration of another scene from the Aeneid, Dido greeting Aeneas and Cupid disguised as Ascanius in the National Gallery, London, generally dated slightly before this picture, are often presumed to reflect presentations of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Dido delirante of 1696.

The painting was immediately celebrated, Gian Gioseffo Dal Sole temporarily putting aside his own canvas for the series to travel from Bologna to see it.[5] The composition was disseminated by engravings by Giuseppe Zocchi,[6] after a preparatory drawing [7] (see Fig. 1.) which recently re-emerged on the London market,[8] and by Francesco La Marra,[9] after a lost preparatory study. The existence of a copy of another lost drawing in a private collection at Aversa[10] provides further evidence of the circulation of the image. Solimena’s pride in his own creation long after the event is shown by a small replica, generally dated around 1740, which was the only painting of the composition known to Ferdinando Bologna at the time that he wrote his standard monograph on the artist;[11] once in the Scholz-Forni Collection, Hamburg, this has made regular appearances on the market in recent years.[12] Another small version at the Castle of Opocno, near Náchod (see Fig. 2.), was published by Oreste Ferrari as a bozzetto rather than a ricordo, a view which Nicola Spinosa is inclined to share.[13] The patron was clearly pleased with the result of his commission, acquiring from Solimena three more paintings recorded by De Dominici, a Diana bathing, The Madonna and Child with the Guardian Angel and Saint Francis of Paola, and a Saint Francis. This last, showing Saint Francis in Ecstacy with Angels, has recently been identified in the Convento di San Giacomo at Cingoli, near Macerata.[14]


[1] Loc. cit.

[2] Valazzi, op.cit., fig. 529, with incorrect identification of subject and artists; for a photograph of the room, see Haskell, op. cit., pl. 33b.

[3] Thus Roman painters were not deliberately given a minimal part in the scheme as had previously been thought.

[4] Virgil, Aeneid, 4:160-172, translated by W. F. Jackson Knight, London, 1956.

[5] G. P. Zanotti, Storia dell’Accademia Clementina, Bologna, 1739, I, p. 305.

[6] In Seventy-three prints engraved by F. Bartolozzi & c. from the original pictures and drawings of Michael Angelo, Domenichino … in the Collection of His Majesty, London, 1764; reproduced in A. Tosi, Inventare la Realtà: Giuseppe Zocchi e la Toscana del Settecento, Florence, 1997, p. 250.

[7] Reproduced by courtesy of Colnaghi by whom recently sold.

[8] See Fig. 1. Sold at Christie’s, London, 4 July 1995, lot 113, and subsequently exhibited by Colnaghi, Master Drawings, New York and London, 1996, no. 34. In this, the huntsman at lower left holds a stag rather than blows a horn, Dido’s right hand is turned palm upward, and Juno, whose face is quite different, holds a wand in her right hand.

[9] In Raccolta di 50 disegni originali degli eccelenti pittori napoletani il Cav. Luca Giordano e Signor Francesco Solimena, incisi in rame … dal Cav. Francesco La Marra, Naples, 1792.

[10] Bologna, loc. cit.

[11] F. Bologna, Francesco Solimena, Naples, 1958, pp. 118 and 248, fig. 209.

[12] Sold at Christie’s , London, 9 July 1982, lot 66; exhibited at Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., The Settecento: Italian Rococo and Early Neo-Classical Paintings 1700-1800, 1987, no. 36, colour pl. 30; sold at Christie’s, London, 7 July 1995, lot 107.

[13] Ferrari, loc. cit., fig. 7; Spinosa, op. cit., 1986, p. 111, fig. 41. In this the composition is extended to the right to include another airborne putto.

[14] Valazzi, op. cit., fig. 530.

119 ¼ x 126 3/8 in. 303 x 321 cm
Oil on canvas

PROVENANCE: Painted for Count Raimondo Buonaccorsi (1669-1743) in 1712-14 for the Aeneid Gallery in the Palazzo Buonaccorsi at Macerata, and by descent there until dispersed between 1960 and 1962; Enrico Petricione, Saõ Paolo, by whose estate sold in 1982; Art Advisory S. A.; With Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London, from whom acquired by the present owner in 1983.


LlTERATURE: B. De Dominici, Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti napoletani, III, Naples, 1745, p. 594; G. Ceci, ‘Francesco Solimena’ in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler, ed. U. Thieme and F. Becker, XXXI, Leipzig, 1937, p. 244; D. C. Miller, ‘The Gallery of Aeneid in the Palazzo Bonaccorsi at Macerata’, Arte Antica e Moderna, 22, 1963, pp. 154 and 158, note 6; O. Ferrari in the catalogue of the exhibition Fourteen Important Neapolitan Paintings, Heim Gallery, London, 1971, under no.12; M. Levey, ‘Solimena’s Dido receiving Aeneas and Cupid disguised as Ascanius’, The Burlington Magazine, CXV, no. 843, June 1973, pp.385 and 386, note 2; F. Bologna, ‘Solimena al Palazzo Reale di Napoli per le nozze di Carlo di Borbone’, Prospettiva, 16, 1979, p.65, note 21; O. Ferrari, ‘Considerazioni sulle vicende artistiche a Napoli durante il viceregno austriaco (1707-1734)’, Storia dell’Arte, 35, 1979, p.17; F. Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, ed. New Haven and London, 1980, pp. 224-5, pl. 33a; N. Spinosa, Pittura napoletana del Settecento dal Barocco al Rococò, Naples, 1986, pp.97 and 111, no.36, and p.200, fig. 40; N. Spinosa, Pittura napoletana del Settecento dal Rococò al Classicismo, Naples, 1987, p.448; P. Torriti, ‘Galleria dell’Eneide’, in Restauri nelle Marche, p. 529; M. R. Valazzi, ‘La pittura del Settecento nelle Marche’ in La pittura in Italia: Il Settecento, ed. G. Briganti, Milan, 1990, I, p. 375; N. Spinosa in the catalogue of the exhibition Settecento napoletano: Sulle ali dell’aquila imperiale 1707-1734, Kunstforum der Bank Austria, Vienna, and Castel Sant’Elmo, Naples, 1993-4, p. 234; M. A. Pavone, ‘Francesco Solimena’ in The Dictionary of Art, ed. J. Turner, London, 1996, 29, p.40; C. Barbieri and C. Prete, La Galleria dell’Eneide di Palazzo Buonaccorsi a Macerata: documenti inediti, Macerata, 1996, pp. 17, 23, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31, 38 and 39; C. Barbieri and C. Prete, ‘La Galleria di Palazzo Bonaccorsi a Macerata: note documentarie sulla committenza e su Michelangelo e Nicolò Ricciolini’, Ricerche di Storia dell’Arte, 62, 1997, pp. 88, 89, 92, note 82 and 93, note 91, fig. 6.


Matthiesen Gallery, London, ‘The settecento’, 1999

Where is It?
Acquired through the Matthiesen Gallery by the Houston Museum of Fine Art
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Italian - Neapolitan
1999-Collectanea 1700-1800.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in London and New York, 220 pages fully illustrated with 46 colour plates. £30 or $40 inc. p.& p.

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