The Death of Germanicus 1: Tacitus and Poussin

The Death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin 1627, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art

High Baroque is not my favourite style of painting, but Poussin is an intriguing artist, not to say strange,  and in this story painting he celebrates (if that is the word) one of the strangest episodes in Tacitus’ Annals, the death of Augustus’ designated heir Germanicus.  So today I am spending time with this painting.  I can’t get to Minneapolis, but there is a magnify button on the linked web page which we can all enjoy.

So we are in the French Baroque period – although Poussin mainly worked in Rome.  The Renaissance rediscovery of Classical art and literature has transformed art and architecture.  The Church remains a great artistic patron, but secular art is thriving, including portraiture and historical paintings.  As the educated elite define themselves by immersion in the culture and achievements of the Classical world, scenes from Roman literature are popular.  Where earlier artists set historical scenes in the dress of their own day, there is now a gesture towards historically accurate costumes and settings.  But this does not mean realism.  Baroque style is mostly concerned with creating a rich visual environment, full of Classical details heaped together with improbable draperies and exaggerated gesture.  The Classical past in Baroque art is more dramatic, more colourful, more grandiose than any real world could be.  It is, in Umberto Eco’s term, hyper-real.

We are in Syria in AD 19.  Germanicus is dying.  He was grandnephew of the Emperor Augustus and husband of his granddaughter Agrippina 1.  Before his death in 14 AD, Augustus had intended Germanicus to be his ultimate heir, but allowed power to pass first to Tiberius, Germanicus’ uncle.  Now Tiberius is Emperor.  Our source is Tacitus, Annals II 69-73.

The Baroque Classicism is worth looking at.  Germanicus has found a large architecturally Roman hall to die in.  Poussin has stripped out the painted plaster which usually adorned Roman palaces.  This is a convention of the style, and partially reflects Renaissance ignorance of Roman use of colour; ruins were stripped back to bare stone and marble, and it was not obvious that there had been paint and plaster.  But the bare stone floor adds to the generally grim effect, which is probably intentional.  This is not so much a room in a Roman palace as a bleak and empty corridor of power literally imagined.  A blue curtain is being rigged up (a figure on the left is still holding it) to make a corner for Germanicus’ bed, which is the only furniture, and which looks like a draped catafalque more than anything else.

Germanicus, apparently already wearing his shroud, is dying in maximum discomfort, in a bright spot created by the white bed linen, or grave linen, as it soon will be. The glitter of his eye gives a disturbing sense of his agonised awareness.  The left of the painting is dominated by a crowd of male figures, his military escort, in a combination of Roman armour and epic undress.  They hold spears, and in one case a legionary standard.  One brandishes a sword for no apparent reason, but probably to swear in oath of vengeance.  Some mourn, head on hands, others gesticulate, one points aloft, presumably to indicate where Germanicus is bound, unless he has seen something on the ceiling.  These are hardly ideal deathbed companions – or rather they are ‘ideal’ and not real.  They represent the emotions of Germanicus’ loyal army.

On the other side, clustered in a more naturalistic fashion are the grieving family.  Agrippina 1 is seated.  The other members of the family are less well defined.  The naked boy is the future Emperor Caligula.  Is that Germanicus’ seal by his foot?  This boy will inherit Germanicus’ place in the succession, after the killing of his brothers, and will be, according to Tacitus, one of Rome’s most murderous emperors, sadistic, controlling and probably insane.  This will be the child’s inheritance.  At the bedside his nakedness is not just part of the heroic style, but denotes his innocence.  Even so he holds a rich drape, prophesying his imperial future, across his shoulders.

The rest of the family is more vaguely outlined.  The woman with partially undraped breast is a nurse, and the baby, if anyone in particular, will be Agrippina’s youngest child Julia Livilla.  The older mourning boy is one of two other sons and two daughters are missing.  The family in grief is carefully stylised – Germanicus is mourned as a public figure on the left and as a husband and father on the right.

Deathbeds are not a cheerful subject.  This one is particularly rich in the imagery of shock, despair and impotent rage.  Here is why.

Tacitus takes the view that Tiberius saw Germanicus as a threat to his own unpopular rule and to the ambitions of his own son, whom Augustus excluded from the succession.  He reports the extraordinary stories of the circumstances of Germanicus’ death – and the general belief that he was the victim of an attack by a combination of witchcraft and poisoning – a usual combination at Rome.

 The cruel virulence of the disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.

Germanicus, it is said, believed as he died that he had been poisoned by his subordinate, Piso.  The idea is that the poison and the witchcraft have been carried out on his orders.  But behind Piso stands Tiberius.  We are invited to accept Piso as Tiberius’ agent.

Tacitus has Germanicus accuse Piso in his dying words.  And he commends his six children and wife to the people of Rome, reminding them that Agrippina is Augustus’ granddaughter.  Poussin’s Germanicus points to his family with his dying hand.  He goes on to relate that Germanicus was buried without proper imperial honours – the effect of a plague death in a hot climate or deliberate imperial neglect? Tacitus composed Germanicus’ speech with knowledge of the fate of Germanicus family.   Agrippina and Germanicus’ two elder sons would suffer lethal persecution by Tiberius.  All of the children in the end died violently, although they would be perpetrators as well as victims in the vicious struggle for imperial power.

As a murder painting, it is interesting to compare Poussin’s picture with Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici.  There is the same sense of untimeliness and expropriation, but in Poussin’s painting the emotions are heightened by Germanicus’ dying rage at his  betrayal and helplessness, reflected in the response of his soldiers, who have all the bravery in the world and no-one to fight.  Even without Tacitus’ text, the painting has a compelling character, but it is meant to be ‘read’ by viewers who cut their teeth on the text in the schoolroom.

Poussin has put the emotions of the text into visual form.  And he has refused to be distracted by the most sensational part of the story – the witchcraft allegations.  I can’t find a single reference to these in the painting.  For Poussin these would only detract from the true story of nobility tormented.  But even though Poussin is not prepared to be distracted by the sensational details, they will be the basis of a follow-up post here.

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