Bernini's sculpture: Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius

“ [Bernini] works miracles, he makes marble speak” [1]

Figure 1: Statue Aeneas, Anchises and

Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, Galleria Borghese has offered its visitors a view of the statue of Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius made by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (Naples, 7 December 1598 – Rome, 28 November 1680). The sculpture was made from the second half of 1618 until October 1619[2] by Bernini (see figure 2a) who had been commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (see figure 2b) to make an art collection for the Borghese family that was never seen before. Bernini's sculpture is 220 cm high and stands on a base of 113 cm[3] to tower over the visitors passing by (see figure 1).

The statue depicts a moment in the story of the Trojan War. Aeneas is carrying his father Anchises from the burning Troy and flees from the Greek invaders with both his father and his son Julius Ascanius. After their flight from Troy, Aeneas travels via Carthage towards the area where Rome was founded. The Latin poem Aeneid written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC tells this legendary story and unfolds that Aeneas is the ancestor of the Romans [4].

“So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders! I will carry you on my back. This labor of love will never wear me down. Whatever falls us now, we both will share one peril, one path to safety. Little Iulus [Ascanius], walk beside me... And you, my father, carry our hearth-gods now, our fathers’ sacred vessels. I, just back from war and fresh from slaughter, I must not handle the holy things - it’s wrong - not till I cleanse myself in running springs.” Virgil’s Aeneid: Book II, lines 880-895[5].

The sculpture itself and, more importantly, the story behind the sculpture is discussed. Why did Borghese want a statue depicting the Aeneas family? What were the reasons to grant Bernini unlimited powers to sculpture for the Borghese family? This sort of questions lead towards the most important one: what did the statue solve for the Borghese family?

1. The meaning of the sculpture
2. Location of statue
3. Villa Borghese and the public
4. Scipione Borghese and his intentions with the Villa
5. The statue and its relation to Scipione Borghese
6. Solving the problem
7. Literature/References

The meaning of the sculpture

The statue was made by the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini (and it is often thought that he had help from his father, Pietro Bernini [2]) when he was twenty years old. Through his father Pietro, Giancarlo Bernini was becoming renown in the higher circles of Rome. Pietros’ famous Mannerist sculptures were even commissioned by the Pope (see figure 2c). Through some minor commissions for Pope Paul V, he was being able to get recognized as a very promising sculptor. The Pope couldn’t believe that a young boy could actually sculpt this kind of art works. Those sculptures, especially the antique ones caught eventually Scipione Borghese’s attention. Cardinal Scipione Borghese was next to the Pope, the most powerful man in Rome.

Fortunately for Bernini, Scipione loved also arts, money and male physical beauty. [6]

Figure 2a: Gianlorenzo
Figure 2b: Scipione
Figure 2c: Pope Paul V

It is also thought that the sculpture is influenced by earlier works of other artists. The figure of Christ (Santa Maria sopra Minerva), made by Michelangelo, has served as example for the figure of Aeneas. Also, the head of Aeneas corresponds with Pietro Bernini's John the Baptist (Cappella Barberini in Sant’A ndrea della Valle). It is generally thought, that it has also elements derived from Raphaels Fire at the Borgo (Vatican Museum, Stanze di Borgo) and Barocci’s own interpretation of the Flight of Aeneas (Villa Borghese)[2]. Also, the stance of the Bernini sculpture looks a lot like a work that his father created, th e Saint Matthew with Angel. Aeneas left foot and Ascanius right foot are standing forward, whereas in Pietros sculpture of Saint Matthew the stance is the same, but mirrored[2].

The life-sized group shows three generations of the Aeneas family. The young man holding an older man on his shoulder is Aeneas (see figure 3a). He gazes down to the side with a strong determination. Aeneas lineage from the gods, his mother is Aphrodite, is emphasized through the lion skin draped around his body. A lion skin stands commonly for power and is often related to Hercules, a descendant from Zeus[2].

Figure 3a: Close-up AeneasFigure 3b: Close-up Anchises

The man on the shoulder of Aeneas is his father Anchises (see figure 3b), who has an older looking skin and face. Both men look mournful as well, because they fled from the burning Troy. Anchises sits on top and leans with his right arm on Aeneas’ shoulder, as though he has to use all of his power to hold on to his son. With his left arm he holds the statue of the Penates, the household gods (see figure 3c). Those Penates are on top of a ‘Keramos Troikos’ (the cylindrical vase), which contains pulverized bones of their ancestors. Anchises wears a Phrygian hat, which shows that Romans have ancestry in Asia Minor.

Figure 3c: PenatesFigure 3d: Close-up Ascanius

The boy, who grasps Aeneas leg, is Julius Ascanius (see figure 3d). He is naked (innocence) and looks unsure and afraid. He holds the Eternal Flame of Vesta, which is a direct relationship to the goddess Vesta. Vesta is the goddess of family and homes in Roman religion and was very important in Ancient Rome, because it shows the prominence of the priesthood and the Vestal Virgins.

Ascanius grasps the tunic with the other arm (see figure 3e). This element had to be inserted in the statue, because otherwise it would have collapsed[1]. Altogether, the statues of the three generations are depicting Pietas, which means filial love. This is one of the great virtues for Romans. [2]

Figure 3e: Statue from behind

Location of statue

Bernini originally placed the statues in the Villa Borghese next to the walls (according to the first archival source, 1625), but nowadays all statues are centrally located in three different rooms [8]. This is misleading, because today the visitor can see the sculptures from all sides and it permits one to see what Bernini probably never intended to show. Because the statues stood next to the wall the visitors in the seventeenth century could have grasped the statue’s meaning in one single dramatic moment and have viewed the statues from one ideal frontal standpoint. If Bernini had a purpose with placing the statues next to the wall, what purpose could it be?

There are three theories for viewing a statue [8]:

  • Single point of view theory is typical Baroque and it is one sudden and dramatic view of the sculpture. The sculptures are described as 'picture-like' and based on paintings. Bernini's sculptures were always described like this, but what is then the dominant view in Bernini’s sculptures? Does it really exist?
  • Another view is typical Mannerist, this is the multiple or kinetic view of a sculpture. You have to walk around the sculpture to see the whole story. It offers an infinite variety of views and send the viewer all the way around, in an unending search of meaning. This is not the case for Bernini's sculptures, because it was discovered that his sculptures were standing next to the walls, so it is not possible to walk entirely around the sculptures.
  • The third theory is possibly used by Bernini: a multiple view limited to an arc of 180 degrees, because the statues of Bernini were placed next to the walls. This is a novel application of a mix between a typical baroque and mannerist view. It is possible to walk around the sculpture to see different point of views, but it is limited to a half circle around the sculpture, so it still have a sort of 'frontal view.' [8]
Figure 4: Apollo and Daphne

Because the sculptures nowadays are placed in the middle of the rooms, you have to apply the typical mannerist theory of view to the sculpture. This is probably not what the intention of Bernini was, because he placed the statues next to the wall, instead of in the middle of the room.

There is still one remaining question to ask. Was it mainly Bernini or Scipione who decided were the statues had to stand? It was Scipione who plotted out the choreography of his visitors understanding of the statues, but it was probably Bernini who decided what he wanted to achieve with his sculpture and how visitors should see the statue in its greatest position.

The statue of Apollo and Daphne (which is in the same room; see figure 4) is a substitute for Pluto and Persephone, because Borghese had given it away to Cardinal Ludovisi. So what happened to the statue of Aeneas if it was in the same room as a masterpiece such as Apollo and Daphne? It was said that in that time everyone wanted to have a glimpse of the statue of the ‘Metamorphosis’. Even the room was called ‘Stanza di Dafne’. Did visitors even look at the Aeneas statue?

To answer this question, we have to look at the plan of the villa itself. It was common to enter through the Portico (colonnade) into the important entrance hall (D at figure 5) and the big garden room behind (E). These rooms were important to give visitors a welcome feeling, to give a first impression of the grandeur of the Villa Borghese and it gave direct access to the gardens behind. From the garden room, the chapel could be entered (next to E, on the right). The chapel was also a very important aspect of the Villa, because of the faith in the Catholic Church. When visitors did so, they often entered the ‘Stanza di Dafne’ and thereby immediately faced the Aeneas statue, instead of the ‘Metamorphosis’! So, the attention was drawn towards the Aeneas statue [2].

Figure 5: Plan of the Villa Borghese

Villa Borghese and the public

Figure 6: Galleria Borghese

The villa Borghese Pinciana was built by the architect Flaminio Ponzio and was finished after his death by Giovanni Vasanzio (see figure 6). It was built for Scipione and he used it as a party villa and to house his art collection. It also served as a stage set for entertainments hosted by Scipione and there were many famous banquets. [7]

The role of the villa was to attract an educated international audience and to show how wealthy and powerful the family was at that time. The villa Borghese was open to everyone: foreign visitors who visited the papal city and cultural tourists. In the Villa Borghese the visitors could view, respond and discuss the collection. In 1650 a special guidebook was made by the Borghese family especially for 'foreigners those from across the Alps,' to underline the importance of the main purpose of the Villa Borghese to be a museum of international repute [7].

Debate between ancients and modern played an important role in shaping Scipione's collection at the Villa Borghese. The ancients theme is everywhere in the Villa and is shown in the extensive use of porphyry columns, urns, amphorae, mosaics and the reliefs and busts on the façade. The modern theme is shown in the restoration of antiquities by modern sculptors and the many sculptures made by Bernini (who is viewed as a modern sculptor). Especially the statue of Aeneas is an example of the debate between ancient and modern, because this is the ancient story of Rome's origin told by a modern sculptor. [7]

Scipione Borghese and his intentions with the Villa

Scipione and Paul V did not use the villa as a residence, but rather as a place to escape the heat of Rome in the summer and for leisure such as hunt and relaxation.[9] They also used the park as a place to host guests festivities for the elite.

Scipione's intention was not only to use the villa for the pleasure and status of the villegiatura, but he also wanted to use the properties potential of turning it into a site for exhibiting his statuary. Quite a large proportion was displayed througout the park, which made it a kind of very early version of an outdoor museum.

Scipione turned the villa into one of Rome’s main showplaces. During the period of Scipione’s control over villa Borghese, it used to be called ‘ la delizia di Roma’. Both Romans and tourists were welcome to view the grounds. The park was publicly accessible. This is proclaimed by a Latin inscription at the parks wall, located near the entrance from the second enclosure:

I, custodian of the villa Borghese on the Pincio, proclaim the following: Whoever you are, if you are free, do not fear here the fetters of the law. Go where you wish, pluck what you wish, leave when you wish. These things are provided more for strangers than for the owner. As in the Golden Age when freedom from the cares of time made everything golden, the owner refuses to impose iron laws on the well-behaved guest. Let proper pleasure be here as a law to a friend, but if anyone with deceit and intent should transgress the laws of hospitality, beware lest the angry steward break his token of friendship.

Public hospitality was a Roman tradition which reached back as far as the antiquity. Similar inscriptions in Latin could also be found at Renaissance estates. But these inscriptions did not mean that these public areas were always open for visitors. When the owner and his guests were present at the villa, more privacy could be required. For this purpose, doors in the walls allowed them to be closed off.

The statue and its relation to Scipione Borghese

The theme of the sculpture clearly refers to tradition and family.[10] Aeneas is pictured as a hero, saving his father from the destruction of Troy. This is shown by the lion skin, which is an object originally worn by Hercules, a half-god in Greek mythology. From his name the word ‘hero’ is derived. The trinity of the three generations of the father, the son and the grandson shows the importance of tradition, family and heritage. Mostly, love for the father and the son is expressed. The worship of family ties and transfer of tradition is shown as a great virtue. The statement of transferring tradition is emphasized by the statue of the household gods that Anchises is carrying. But here is also another motive coming in: the importance of religion.

As cardinal Scipione was the nephew of Pope Paul V, he belongs to the most powerful family of Rome regarding the aspect of religion. The rescue of the statue of the household gods portrays the devotion of the Aeneas and Anchises to the gods. Such statues like Aeneas were of utmost importance to let people know that the papacy was in the right hands. The Catholic Church would remain a Church of traditions if Pope Paul V and Scipione Borghese remained the most powerful people of Rome and beyond. Would it be a strange train of thought to suspect that cardinal Scipione would want to recommend this attitude towards religion to his visitors? These clues may lead to the generation of a theory that cardinal Scipione intended to use these values of family, tradition and religion as an argument for the power of his own position as the nephew of the pope.

Solving the problem

Bernini’s sculpture of Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius is a small piece in Scipione Borghese’s collection, yet its message might be of considerable extent.

The Borghese Villa demonstrates the power of the Borghese family. Since the papacy in Rome already had a long history of nepotism, nothing was different in the case of pope Paul V and his nephew Scipione Borghese. Pope Paul V strongly favoured his nephew in means of wealth and power. But the problem arose that the pope, as the public figure of the Catholic church, had the duty to care for all of the Catholic citizens instead of just his own family. The statue of Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius can be viewed as an attempt to legitimate this problem, because this statue praises the value of family and Roman tradition. Nevertheless, the solution that the statue offers to the problem itself is problematic. The statue shows that family is very important and thus power is heritable. But it is problematic, because that does not change the duties of the Pope towards the Catholic people. Therefore, the solution that the statue may offer has a foul taste to it.

The Borghese family had to retain their power through a theatre as Villa Borghese. They needed to show that the Borghese’s were the family to lead on Rome and the Catholic Church, because they had strong family ties, had real Roman traditions, cared for religion and wanted to show their ancestry over Rome, through the depiction of the founding father of Rome, Aeneas. The statue of Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius tells all those stories.


  1. Lelio Guidiccioni, 1633: Cod. Barb. lat. 2958, cc. 202–207v, in a letter of June 1633. Cited by C. D’Onofrio, Roma vista da Roma, Rome, 1967, 381–8.
  2. Kessler, H.U. (2005). Pietro Bernini (1562-1629). Hirmer Verlag GmbH, Munchen.
  3. Coliva A., et al. (1998). Bernini scultore: La nascita del barocco in casa Borghese. Edizioni De Luca, Roma.
  4. Schleiner, W. (1975). Aeneas’ flight from Troy. Comparative Literature, vol. 27 (2), pp. 97-112.
  5. Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robery Fagles. New York: Penguin Group Inc., 2006.
  6. Mormando, F. (2011). Bernini: his life and his Rome. University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London.
  7. Warwick, G. (2004). Speaking Statues: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne at the Villa Borghese. Art History, vol. 27 (3), pp. 353-381.
  8. Kenseth, J. (1981). Bernini’s Borghese sculpture’ s: Another view. Art Bulletin, vol. 63(2), pp. 191-210.
  9. Paul, C. (2008). The Borghese collections and the display of art in the age of the Grand Tour, pp. 113-118. Ashgate Publishing Ltd., Hampshire.
  10. Information folder at the Galleria Borghese, two pages were written about Bernini’s sculpture of Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius.