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26 June, 2013
Letters On Literature
Appendix II : Portraits of Virgil and Lucretius.
by Lang, Andrew


In the Letter on Virgil some remarks are made on a bust of the poet. It is wholly fanciful. Our only vestiges of a portrait of Virgil are in two MSS.; the better of the two is in the Vatican. The design represents a youth, with dark hair and a pleasant face, seated reading. A desk is beside him, and a case for manuscript, in shape like a band-box. (See Visconti, "Icon. Rom." i. 179, plate 13.) Martial tells us that portraits of Virgil were illuminated on copies of his "AEneid." The Vatican MS. is of the twelfth century. But every one who has followed the fortunes of books knows that a kind of tradition often preserves the illustrations, which are copied and recopied without material change. (See Mr. Jacobs's "Fables of Bidpai," Nutt, 1888.) Thus the Vatican MS. may preserve at least a shadow of Virgil.

If there be any portrait of Lucretius, it is a profile on a sard, published by Mr. Munro in his famous edition of the poet. The letters LVCR are inscribed on the stone, and appear to be contemporary with the gem. This, at least, is the opinion of Mr. A. S. Murray, of the late Mr. C. W. King, Braun, and Muller. On the other hand, Bernouilli ("Rom. Icon." i. 247) regards this, and apparently most other Roman gems with inscriptions, as "apocryphal." The ring, which was in the Nott collection, is now in my possession. If Lucretius were the rather pedantic and sharp-nosed Roman of the gem, his wife had little reason for the jealousy which took so deplorable a form. Cold this Lucretius may have been, volatile-- never! {1}

{1} Mr. Munro calls the stone "a black agate," and does not mention its provenance. The engraving in his book does no justice to the portrait. There is another gem representing Lucretius in the Vatican: of old it belonged to Leo X. The two gems are in all respects similar. A seal with this head, or one very like it, belonged to Evelyn, the friend of Mr. Pepys.

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