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Lake Avernus - I
Private Collection, England
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
Lake Avernus - I
Undated
Oil on canvas
43.1 x 53.4 cm
16 15/16 x 21 in.
Private Collection, England
P122J
A view across the lake towards a large ruined building with hills and mountains beyond. In the foreground, on the left, stand some trees. In the centre, there are three figures, two men, one seated on a log and one woman, or perhaps a monk, gesticulating. To the right are an open ancient sarcophagus, woodland and a hill topped by ancient buildings. Behind the group of figures a man bends down to his boat on the lake and further out another boat is is visible.
Unsigned; no inscription
The colours are notably more varied and more saturated than in many of the other versions and the water in particular is a lovely blue. The clouds and reflections are sensitively handled. A distinctive feature is the bubbliness of the trees' foliage, especially on the left. Taken together these features possibly indicate a late version.
Lake Avernus lies on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy, about a mile from Cumae. Filling the crater of an extinct volcano, mephitic vapours rise from its waters, precluding life on its banks, because of which it was believed to be the entrance to the Underworld by the Ancients. Thus in Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas sacrifices to the gods in the shadow of the forest surrounding Lake Avernus and then follows the Cumaean Sibyl into her cave and down into the Underworld.
E16 James Roberts after Wilson A View in Italy, The British Museum;
E16A James Roberts after Wilson, Lake Avernus (A View in Italy), National Museum Wales, Cardiff.
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The action of the figures in the centre foreground is clearly significant but hard to infer definitively. One interpretation is that the two male figures have just arrived on the scene by boat, whose owner is still bending within it on the foreshore of the lake, perhaps to anchor or to row it away. Meanwhile his erstwhile passengers engage the sibylline woman with the offering of a plate of food, or sacrifice and in response she directs them on the next stage in their journey with a sweep of her arm. Alternatively the narrative could be more quotidian, with fishermen negotiating a sale with the woman.
Possibly WGC p. 194, pl. 69a version 1 (Capt E.G.S. Churchill, Northwick Park)
Conserved 2015
01/12/2021