A statue of Virgil, truly worthy of this incomparable poet, commands supreme taste and a sense of all the decencies of inspiration and art. It is fitting that the portrait of the man should recall the work, and Virgil's work has remained through the ages as one of those types of perfection beyond which one dares not suspect or dream. Virgil is the Raphael of poetry, Raphael is the Virgil of painting. Both have understood, each in his own way, but to the same degree, the harmonies of superior beauty, and they have endeavoured to translate, the one by the ineffable purity of lines and contours where the ranges of tones and colours mingle and blend; the other by the mysterious harmony of beautiful words and the sonorous rhythm where they group together while singing, while at the same time awakening, in the attentive mind, a thousand perspectives and a thousand pictures.
Well! M. Gabriel Thomas has exhibited a statue of Virgil which, in my opinion, answers victoriously to all that a severe critic had the right to ask and to expect from an artist who dares to touch such a subject. It is decent, sober and true; it is ingenious and charming.
Virgil, as understood and expressed by the sculptor, is a handsome, beardless young man who gives us, at first glance, the memory of that divine Raphael, his brother in genius. One historian said of Virgil that he had the head of a virgin or a young girl. Here, the face is elongated, yet without anything effeminate, but with a delicacy and elegance that take nothing away from the proud and gentle character of the mouth and the eyes.
The hair, cut short in front and pulled back over the forehead and temples, is surrounded by a laurel wreath which suits it like a natural ornament. The poet is pensive, not sad, and slightly turned away from a manuscript that he holds half-unrolled in his left hand, he seems to be listening, perhaps searching.
The right hand, which has not put down the chisel it was using earlier, lifts and holds the folds of the garment which, from shoulder to foot, fall with real grace, without pretension or effort. It is no small merit to have been able to drape so simply and so gracefully a statue of a man and a Roman. The feet with their fine attachments are shod with the ancient cothurn.
A ray of Virgilian genius, probably the artist's inspiration, animates and in a way makes this beautiful statue speak. The Muse has passed through here.
What a happy and fruitful idea to apply his talent, as M. Gabriel Thomas wanted to do, to find in the few details that have been handed down to us by the contemporaries of the great century of Augustus, and to restore the features of an admirable poet, whose destiny, full of happiness and glory, was certainly unique here below.
Gifted with a genius full of seduction, the golden chains fell from his lips, as from the lips of the god, and he too charmed, enveloped and captivated minds and hearts. There was no rivalry that he did not disarm; no envy, no hatred. Horace acclaimed him with tender emotion and said: "He is half my life. "He was honoured by his verses and his friendly praise, and Augustus himself, so familiar with Horace, seems to us to have felt a feeling of respectful and sympathetic deference for Virgil from a distance. He felt that there was undoubtedly, in this harmonious young man, a secret and unusual power, something heavenly and royal which imposed itself not only on him, but on the City and the Empire, but on the present and the future.
Virgil, it has been said over and over again, was the Homer of Rome, a Homer less lofty perhaps than the first, of a less independent and less proud eloquence, but more human, - the exquisite fruit of the ancient civilisation which was coming to an end and the immortal flower of a new civilisation which was about to begin for the world. It has often been remarked, indeed, as a morning twilight, as the forerunner of the light of Christianity, certain passages of Virgil in which the sight of that ideal which Olympus and its gods were henceforth powerless to realise is pierced. It seems that these verses have the whiteness and the melodies of a spring dawn. In short, if we were to rely on an opinion which we shall not even take the trouble to discuss, there would have been at least half a prophet in this correct and chaste poet, and hence Dante, who never knew or practised the Virgilian sweetness of soul, must naturally have been led to take the author of the Aeneid as his teacher, his guide and his initiator into the mysteries of another life.
Virgil is the friend of peace, calm and easy joy. He loves the meadows, the shady trees, the shepherds and the flocks; he enjoys the industrious farms and walks as a studious contemplator along the buzzing hives. Theocritus and Moschus have taught him all the songs of the Sicilian Muses. He also knows the art of digging the furrows and making the blooming, joyous harvests sprout. All the spectacles of the earth and the sky, all the gifts of nature animate him, awaken him, make him sing, and never has a purer voice celebrated the herdsmen, the ploughmen and the shepherds.
But Virgil is also the poet of his homeland, whose legends, traditions, memories, heroic stories and naive tales he has collected. He takes all these stories from the past, subjects them to the bonds of a learned unity and gives them an imperishable form; the rustic lip which yesterday spoke of Amaryllis or Galatea, will today speak with a strong and vigorous accent of the fatigues of the struggle and the intoxicating effects of victory, of Pergamon destroyed and Rome founded. However, the moving and compassionate note, always dear and present to this sensitive and tender heart, returns at times and does not fail to slip into the most warlike and epic song.
This is one of the most delightful originalities of Virgil's genius, his most vivid poetic and human charm.
I have often thought that the work and the genius of a great man designate in advance the very material from which his statue or his monument will be drawn. One can only conceive of a statue of Dante cast in bronze. It is likewise impossible to imagine the statue of Virgil other than carved with a skilful and careful chisel in a block of that Pausilippe marble which he once sang, or at least in a marble which resembles him in its spotless purity and immutable brilliance.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée