April 24, 2024


I Fall For Art

Sebastian Brandt, the Master of the Gruninger Workshop and Virgil’s “Opera”

Virgil (70-19 BC) is regarded as one of greatest Poets of ancient Rome. Arguably, his most known work is the “Aeneid” – the epic tale of Aenaes’ search for a new homeland – that follows a model similar to Homer’s epic poems “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. At the time of Virgil’s death, however, the “Aeneid” remained unfinished.

Despite being an unfinished work, “Aeneid” is among one of the most important poems in the history of Western Literature and is widely considered to be the poet’s finest work. Reputedly, when Virgil recited extracts from the work before Emperor Augustus, the impact was such that it caused the Emperor’s sister, Octavia, to faint.

“Aeneid” consists of 12 books describing the journey of Aeneas – the mythical ancestor of Romulus and Remus (founders of the city of Rome) – as he flees to Italy from Troy, battles with the local prince Turnus and founds a city upon which Rome would be built. The work was reputedly commissioned by Augustus and may have modeled the work of Homer – with the “Odyssey” being similar stylistically to the first 6 books of the “Aeneid” and the “Iliad” holding the same relationship with the final 6 books of Virgil’s great work. Throughout the course of the tale, Virgil recounts mythical events including: Aeneas’ escape from Troy and Juno’s attempts to interfere in Aeneas’ fate by driving his fleet ashore in Africa; the favour bestowed on Aeneas by Dido, the Queen of Carthage; the story of Greek treachery at Troy involving a giant wooden horse, the death of Laocoon, the escape of Aeneas and members of his family and the journey of his fleet until it was driven ashore in Carthage; Aeneas’ abandonment of Dido and her subsequent suicide; the death of Anchises (Aeneas’ father); Aeneas’ journey to the underworld; the Trojan settlement in Latium; and the epic battled between Aeneas and Turnus.

Virgil’s “Eclogues” (also know as the “Bucolics”) is a collection of 10 poems on rustic subjects in the style of the Greek poet, Theocritus. Following the publication of these works, they became popular performance pieces on the Roman stage. Featuring a combination of political commentary and eroticism, they contributed to Virgil’s fame. Eclogues 1 and 9 deal with issues related to frequent land confiscations that occurred in the Empire and the consequential effects on the countryside. Eclogues 2 and 3 are based very much in the farming milieu and deal with homosexual and panerotic themes. Eclogue 4 – known as the ‘Messianic Eclogue’ – links the birth of a child with heralding a Golden Age. Eclogues 5 and 8 deal with the myth of Daphnis – the mythical shepherd, flutist and inventor of pastoral poetry – in a singing contest. Eclogue 6 describes the mythological song of Silenus – the companion and tutor to Dionysus. Eclogue 7 deals with a heated contest among poets. Eclogue 10 describes the life of one of Virgil’s contemporaries, the poet Cornelius Gallus – a man who is thought to have been instrumental in the repatriation of the land confiscated from Virgil formerly.

The “Georgics” includes four books dealing with farming matters – the title “Georgics” is derived from the Greek term for ‘working the land’. The Books respectively deal with raising crops (Book 1), growing trees (Book 2), raising livestock and horses (Book 3) and beekeeping (Book 4). Tradition holds that Virgil was convinced to dedicate time to the “Georgics” by Maecenas – a political adviser and confidant of Octavian (later Emperor Augustus).

In addition to “Eclogues”, “Georgics” and “Aeneid”, a collection of small poetic works survived to the Renaissance. So, too, there were numerous surviving examples of attempts to finalize the “Aeneid”, including that of Maffeo Vegio from 1428. It was that collection of works that caught the attention of Sebastian Brandt (1457-1521) – the German Renaissance Humanist and Satirist – at the beginning of the 16th Century when he was commissioned by Johannes Gruninger to edit the collected work of Virgil for the first illustrated Edition.

Brandt had studied at Basel and became a doctor of law in 1489. In the intellectual maelstrom of the Renaissance, Brandt found himself drawn to Humanist circles and gained a degree of popularity with his Latin poetry. His literary endeavors continued apace and in 1494, his “Das Narrenschiff” (“The Ship of Fools”) was published – it was a work that received widespread popular acclaim and has been identified as a significant precursor to the Protestant Reformation.

It was from the workshops associated with the Gruninger printing works that the artwork for the 1502 Edition was prepared and it was that reference that leaves us with the title the “Late Master of the Gruninger Workshops” for the artist who is responsible. The honorific, “Master” indicating the import of the illustrations accompanying the 1502 Edition of “Opera”. The suite is a positive tour de force – incorporating many two-page and full-page illustrations, in addition to woodcuts integrated into the text. In sheer number, with more than 210 woodcuts included in the suite, it is deserves to be a significant work, but it is also the utterly sympathetic depiction of Virgil’s text that marks the suite as a masterwork.