These famous words, which according to tradition are from the epitaph of the poet Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BCE) and were personally dictated by him, have been echoing inside my head for years. I had nevertheless never realised how well they summarise the life of the poet. Vergilius (or Virgil) was born in the village of Andes, not far from Mantua, modern Mantova. Mantua was a city with Etruscan roots, one of the best known Etruscan settlements in the Po valley. Vergilius himself was of Etruscan descent as well, judging by his cognomen Maro. A maru was a minor magistrate in an Etruscan city state, possibly the Etruscan equivalent of a Roman quaestor. In part thanks to Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, advisor to the emperor Augustus and himself also of Etruscan stock, Vergilius was introduced to the imperial court. In 19 BCE he died in the city of Brundisium, now Brindisi in Puglia, where a monument to him was unveiled in 1986. In Antiquity this region was still called Calabria. In other words, back then Calabria was the heel of Italy, whereas nowadays it is the toe of the peninsula. The great poet found his final resting place in Parthenope, which is the ancient name of Naples. Or to be more precise: Parthenope was the predecessor of Naples. In the first half of the seventh century first Parthenope was founded from Cumae, and then in the sixth century Neapolis (‘new city’) was founded from Parthenope.
In the Parco Vergiliano a Piedigrotta in modern Naples we still find a tomb that is known as the tomb of Vergilius. There is no absolute certainty that this is really his final resting place, but the poet did own an estate near Naples and there is no reason to doubt that his body was taken from Brundisium to here. The epitaph on the tomb is clearly not from Antiquity. It was added in the seventeenth or eighteenth century by the then owners of the terrain, the D’Alessandro di Pescolanciano family. However, that does not mean that the text itself cannot be authentic. In fact, no one in the seventeenth or eighteenth century would still claim that Brindisi was in Calabria, or call Naples ‘Parthenope’. The pastures, fields and leaders that are mentioned refer to the three great works produced by Vergilius: his Eclogae (or Bucolica), Georgica and Aeneis, by far his most famous work. Unfortunately the poet was unable to complete this epic poem about pius Aeneas, the Trojan hero who came to Italy as a refugee and became the father of all the Romans. Vergilius first wrote this work in prose and then converted it into about 10,000 lines of poetry in dactylic hexameters. He was still busy doing just that when Calabria carried him off.
Vergilius was born in Andes, which has been identified as present-day Pietole. Pietole is part of the municipality of Borgo Virgilio, which is just south of Mantova. Although strictly speaking the poet was not born in Mantova, this city was in fact the place where at the end of the eighteenth century people began paying tribute to Vergilius. The man responsible for this was the French general Sextius Alexandre François de Miollis (1759-1828). He had served under Napoleon and had taken part in the siege of Mantova in 1796-1797. On that occasion the city was taken from the Austrians. De Miollis later served as city governor. Although his rather unusual first name Sextius might lead some to think that his parents had a profound love for Roman history, the much simpler explanation is that the general was from Aix-en-Provence, which had been founded in 123 BCE by the proconsul Gaius Sextius Calvinus as Aquae Sextiae. De Miollis knew the history of Mantova well enough though. In 1797 he commissioned the local architect Paolo Pozzo (1741-1803) to create the Piazza Virgiliana. In 1801 a column was erected here, topped by a bust of Vergilius, a work of the sculptor Giovanni Bellavite (1739-1821).
After Napoleon’s defeat, Mantova was placed under Austrian rule again. Because the Austrian troops wanted to use the Piazza Virgiliana for their exercises, the column with the bust was moved to the edge of the square. Ultimately, in 1821, the column was demolished and the bust transferred to the Palazzo Municipale. An imitation amphitheatre was then built on the Piazza Virgiliana, the Anfiteatro Virigiliano. This amphitheatre was in its turn demolished in 1919 and replaced with the current monument for Vergilius. The marble monument was designed by the architect Luca Beltrami (1854-1933), while the sculptor Emilio Quadrelli (1863-1925) was responsible for the bronze statue of the poet. Quadrelli managed to complete this statue just before his death in 1925. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to witness the inauguration of the monument on 21 April 1927.