I love naive art, and there is something magical about the sweetness and awkwardness of these pictures.
They are from a manuscript of the Aeneid, known as ‘The Roman Vergil’ – one of the earliest surviving illustrated books – when the codex was a recent invention – made in Rome around 400 AD just as the Empire was crumbling and city itself was about to fall.
Whoever commissioned the book wanted to celebrate the greatest poem of Rome, just as Classical culture was dying. It must have been a terrifying time. He probably saw the new Christian culture as crude and alien – and no doubt he could sense that the Dark Ages were coming and that the world would be plunged into centuries of chaos and destruction.
I feel sure there’s a good story behind the creation of this book – and why the pictures are so amateurish. It was evidently a hugely expensive project – the parchment is of the highest quality, the large page-size made it extra special, and the calligraphy is exceptionally good – but no one knows why the paintings are so bad! It’s a great mystery – as if he couldn’t find a decent artist anywhere.
This is what I think happened:
The book was commissioned by a rich old man, who was desperately sad to see his culture in its death throes, and he spared no expense – what was the point of saving money when most likely he’d soon be dead – and money itself would be worthless as society slipped into the chaos of a barter economy?
The book was assembled, stitched and bound, the calligrapher had finished his task, (the lettering is always done first, before the pictures) when Rome was attacked on all sides.
A renowned painter had been hired to finish off the book, to fill in each of the spaces left by the scribe, but as panic spread he was nowhere to be found.
Perhaps he had fled or been killed.
The old man went through the streets himself – trying to find an artist for his project – while everywhere families were fleeing for their lives – piling their possessions into ox carts, perhaps making for the coast. There were no craftsmen to be found – no one willing to do the work, no matter how much money was offered.
He himself had no desire to run – and besides he was too old – so he fought his way through the crowds, moving against the tide, going back to his house: he had decided to stay and die with his City.
Sitting at his desk, in an upper room of his house, he watched the City being looted and burned, the glorious architecture and treasures of Rome being trashed, knowing that his own house would soon be a target – a real-life disaster movie unfolding before his eyes. The great book was open in front of him – the most beautifully-lettered version of the greatest poem of Rome – and he looked at its blank spaces and decided to paint the pictures himself.
So, by the light of a little oil lamp, he drew as best he could, the reed pen awkward in his hands, lifting his face now and then to see the city in flames, tears in his eyes as with every stroke and line he ‘ruined’ his great book, knowing that his own clumsiness was a perfect metaphor for the death of the Classical world.