Giambattista Tiepolo - The Death of Dido

by Alexandra Tuschka


The figure of Dido is closely connected with the founding myth of Carthage. According to primary sources, there are different ways of death and motives for her suicide, however, in the visual arts from the Renaissance onwards, the dramatic love story between Dido and Aenaes, described in Virgil, has prevailed.

There is a lot going on here after the Trojan War, the gods are fighting each other on both sides. So it also happens that Juno sends a wild storm across the sea to capsize Aenaes, the son of Venus. Their enmity is already established in the "Judgement of Paris", where a young shepherd chose Venus (and not Juno) as the most beautiful of all women. After Neptune, the sea god overhears the skillful storm, he puts an end to the wild goings-on, so that Aenaes and his comrades land on the coast of North Africa. There Dido, a beautiful princess and widow of the deceased Sychaeus, is building Carthage and warmly welcomes the men. Venus, however, casts a spell on Dido, thus ensuring Aenae's safety: Dido is to fall madly in love with Aenae. The latter, however, still has his mission in mind and continues his journey. She watches his departure from her fortress. Driven by pain, she has a funeral pyre built, on which she also collects his weapons, clothes and gifts, and there she throws herself on her sword. Finally, her body burns in the flames.


The tragic combination of love and death was particularly popular in the 18th century and thus a popular subject of the Baroque . This motif was extremely common, one could show the dying Dido in the foreground, and in the background the still unsuspecting Aenaes sailing away. He should still recognize the rising flames from afar. Dido is a victim of the gods and experiences an apotheosis by her love-death itself. Here Dido lies on the left completely surrendered to fate on the funeral pyre. Anna, Dido's sister, leads the lamentation in the background. Tiepolo refrains from presenting a wound or plunging into the sword of the beloved, which would have made the scene even more dramatic.


In this picture, the scene is heightened to the most dramatic level. Completely surrendered in pain, Dido lies, not unerotically, on the funeral pyre and presents herself to the viewer. Her open mouth and into her posture have an explicitly inviting character. The neck, an erotic and very vulnerable part of the body, she shows us clearly. Together with her sister Anna above her, these bodies form a triangular composition.


While most artists chose as a motif the dramatic juxtaposition between the dying Dido and the Aenaes sailing away, in Tiepolo's work unusual moments coincide. Here, Aeneas and his rival Iarbas stand to the right of the painting, observing the scene. His hands are clasped together in a gesture of mourning, and yet this man seems somewhat impassive. He is very identifiable by his cloak, the paludamentum, and the warrior helmet. Behind him, without face or identity, another person seems to be bringing up his shield; a foot and an arm are clearly visible.


Giambattista Tiepolo - The Death of Dido

Oil on canvas, between 1757 and 1770, 40 x 63 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow

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