This impressive canvas shows a scene from Virgil's Aeneid, in which Aeneas's mother, Venus, descends on a soft cloud, bringing medicinal herbs to heal the wound in her son’s leg. It was certainly originally paired with a canvas depicting Priam, King of Troy, begging Achilles for the Body of Hector, and possibly commissioned to decorate either side of a great Neapolitan salone (or hall) of a wealthy patron. Although the pendant painting is unknown, sketches for both these monumental canvases are in Compton Verney’s collection.
Following the story, Solimena bathes Aeneas in a bright golden light coming from the left, while the truce battle fought against Latinus, King of the Rutuli, an ancient Italic tribe, is sketched in muted tones of brown and grey in the upper right-hand corner. The kneeling grey bearded Iapyx is the Trojans' physician. After dislodging the arrow stuck in Aeneas’s leg he was unable to cure the wound without the help of the Trojan hero’s mother, Venus, who, floating on a cloud, passes medicinal herbs brought from Mount Olympus to a basin up held by one of the soldiers. This heavenly potion proved successful, and Aeneas, assisted by his son Ascanius, was able to return to battle.
A soft, ephemeral light illuminates the reclining figure of Venus, creating a division between her divine world and the solid, defined forms of the mortal realm. Unlike the semi-nude male, whose muscular back is strongly modelled with the brown shadows created by the harsh directional light, Venus is softly contoured. The painting has an overall sculptural and monumental quality typical of Neapolitan painting. This emerges in the folded draperies, especially in Aeneas’ ochre robe, modelled by brown tones to create crisp shadows, and by bright yellow brushstrokes to define the points of light.
Solimena's variety of textures and materials within the painting also recall the work of Flemish artists like Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), who was renowned for portraying dynamic narrative scenes, strongly muscled bodies and sumptuous draperies. Solimena would have been able to study Flemish artists like Rubens in the collections of wealthy Neapolitans, such as the gallery owned by the Flemish merchant and patron Gaspar Roomer (1596/1606-1674).
Although the composition of this large-scale canvas is very similar in composition to its sketch, there are some differences, such as the young man holding the shield on the lower left, who here no longer wears the red cloth tied around his head. The footwear of the soldier on his back has also now disappeared.
Francesco Solimena Venus with Iapyx Tending the Wounded Aeneas 1690–1692 © Compton Verney