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My paper takes as its point of departure the reception and transmission of Vergil’s Georgics. Over the last two decades, critical discussions of the georgic have been concerned to give an ever more nuanced account of the way the genre articulates a complex set of relations, not only between city and country but also among the aristocratic, mercantile, and yeoman classes, in both a national and imperial context. To this discussion my study incorporates the weight of visual evidence, hitherto neglected. Examining illustrated editions of the Georgics from the earliest extant illuminated manuscripts (c.370-430) to the present, I engage the illustrations as visual forms of interpretation and translation and investigate what these pictures tell us about the transmission and reception of Vergil’s second poem.

As a didactic poem about agriculture, the Georgics invite an iconographic approach to illustration in a way that Vergil’s narrative poems do not. The Aeneid is almost always illustrated using specific scenes from the original poem (e.g., the flight from Troy, the Trojan horse, the death of Dido); so too in illustrations for the Eclogues. The Georgics, however, permits greater flexibility in subjects and variation in artistic approach. Illustrations range from close renditions of the poem to thematic pictures corresponding in a general way to the poem’s main agrarian themes. In her landmark survey of illustrated print editions of Vergil published in France and Italy, Bernadette Pasquier concludes that for the artist the Georgics illustrations were easier, as they were pictures drawn from everyday scenes (Virgile Illustré, 215). This is to say that images of the general agrarian subject matter of the Georgics were familiar and close at hand, as opposed to, for example, an episode involving a wooden horse or a sea-snake. Yet the artist of the Georgics is still confronted with how best to “visually translate” the poem, and from this perspective illustrating the Georgics is no less complex. Constrained by an ordinary and familiar subject, artists struggle to reproduce an image that conveys the aesthetic genius of the poem, and, as a result, a close, detailed illustration of Vergil’s poem often looks to be merely an artistic motif or a naturalistic rendition of an agrarian scene.

In this paper I look closely at four illustrations for Book III of the Georgics (two manuscript and two Early Modern print illustrations), showing how artists negotiate these complexities. The explicit visualization which illustration requires, for example, forces the artist to resolve ambiguities in the poem: is the agricola a yeoman, peasant, or aristocrat? Examining these artistic choices provides insight into interpretation and reception and explores the limits of visual imagination—for in the poem the farmer is all of these, and sometimes even the poet too. I consider how inherent constraints of the visual imagination relate also to questions of genre: e.g., the slippage from georgic to pastoral that is interspersed in the poem is magnified in the illustrations to Book III, and, again, the (likely deliberate) ambiguities in the poem force the artist’s hand. Finally, artists who stray too far from realistic depiction risk dissociation from the poem: an image of farmers supplicating to the Goddess Ceres by the celebrated engraver Hendrick Goltzius maintains a tentative hold on the poem; his image of the Roman goddess Pales rendered as a Dutch shepherdess, the frontispiece, no less, for Book III, leaves the poem behind.

Excellent analyses of individual Georgics illustrations has been provided by scholars such as David H. Wright (Roman Vergil, 2001; Vatican Vergil, 1993) and J.J. Alexander (“A Virgil Illustrated”, 1969; Painted Page, 1994), whose discussions focused on specific manuscripts or artists. And though much work has been done on the illustrative tradition of the Aeneid— most notably by Craig Kallendorf (“The Aeneid Transformed”, 2001) and Eleanor Windsor Leach (“Illustration as Interpretation”, 1982)—a similarly diachronic study of the Georgics, as I will show, leaves fertile ground for tilling.


  • Alexander, J. J. G. "A Virgil Illustrated by Marco Zoppo." The Burlington Magazine 111.797 (1969): 512-17.
  • ________. The Painted Page: Italian Renaissance Book Illumination, 1450-1550. New York: Prestel, 1994.
  • Kallendorf, Craig. “The Aeneid Transformed: Illustration as Interpretation from the Renaissance to the Present.” In Poets and Critics Read Vergil, ed. Sarah Spence, 121-148. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Leach, Eleanor Windsor. “Illustration as Interpretation in Brant’s and Dryden’s Editions of Vergil.” In The Early Illustrated Book, ed. Sandra Hindman, 175-210. Washington: Library of Congress, 1982.
  • Pasquier, Bernadette. Virgile Illustré: de la Renaissance à nos jours en France et en Italie. Paris: Jean Touzot Libraire-Éditeur, 1992.
  • Wright, David H. The Roman Vergil and the Origin of Medieval Book Design. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.
  • ________. The Vatican Vergil: A Masterpiece of Late Antique Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

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