Deus ex machina: a royal witness to the court origin of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas
Early Music, 40, (2), . (doi:10.1093/em/cas047).
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Towards the end of his reign Charles II initiated an ambitious cultural propaganda programme celebrating final victory over his political opponents. In 1683 work began on a new royal palace at Winchester, supposedly on the site of King Arthur’s castle. At Windsor, meanwhile, a ten-year castle modernization scheme known as the ‘Great Works’ neared completion. The Windsor state apartments had been sumptuously remodelled. Antonio Verrio, the Neopolitan artist commissioned to paint every state apartment ceiling, brought his work to a triumphant conclusion in St George’s Hall, home to the Knights of the Garter (the neo-Arthurian chivalric order over which Charles II presided).
All but three of Verrio’s ceilings were destroyed in the 1820s. But guidebooks published prior to that describe them in detail. Portions appear in the engravings illustrating W.H. Pyne’s The History of the Royal Residences (vol. i, 1819). Pierre Vandrebanc produced engraved views of several in the 1680s. Verrio’s blatantly allegorical designs are recoverable therefore. The extent to which they influenced masques and operas also intended to honour Charles II can be demonstrated.
This paper argues that Purcell’s Dido librettist, Nahum Tate, gathered visual-allegorical material from two Windsor ceilings and used it to generate singable text. ‘Phœbus Rises in the Chariot’ at the start of the Dido prologue. Phoebus, riding the chariot of the sun in Verrio’s ceiling portrait (an allegory of the restoration, unequivocally) wore the ‘Sacred Head’ of Charles II, not that of James or any later monarch – an observation which future contributors to Dido dating debate may wish to take into account.
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