Association for Art History Annual Conference

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The fall of Priam and the death of Troy: embodied architecture in Virgil's Aeneid and its afterlife

Panel: 'Body as architecture / architecture as body'

This paper explores the symbolic power of the relationship between architecture and the body in a reading of Virgil’s account of the fall of Troy and the death of king Priam in his epic poem, the Aeneid. While the symbolic connection between Priam and Troy is often noted, more rarely discussed is Virgil’s use of architectural imagery to express the unity of city and king. Virgil depicts the fall of Troy and the death of Priam in a profoundly architectural vision that creates a consubstantial relationship between the pair. As Troy is demolished, the city takes on a kind of animated humanity that mimics the aged, violated body of Priam, who in the moment of his death becomes an architectural monolith with a sublime symbolic function. In Virgil’s monumental pair, we are reminded of contemporary architectural theory (exemplified in Vitruvius’ On architecture) and read the influence of earlier poetic/scientific uses of architectural metaphor (Lucretius’ On the nature of things) to describe the human body suffering deprivation and disease. This paper explores the resonance of Virgil’s embodied architecture, before turning to trace its legacy in the literary and artistic afterlife of the Aeneid. Pausing first to examine tragic articulations of the Troy-Priam architectural symbiosis by Shakespeare (Hamlet; Troilus and Cressida) and Marlowe (Dido, Queen of Carthage), the paper concludes with some later visual representations of the death of Priam (e.g., Antoine Rivalz, Jean-Baptiste Regnault) in which Virgilian architecture helps to render the emotional and symbolic significance of the scene.
Period5 Apr 2018
Event typeConference