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Willem Schellinks, Dutch, 1627-1678: The Grotto of Virgil” at Posillipo near Naples, c. 1664 

Willem Schellinks was one of the most well-trav­eled Dutch artists of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, and drew numer­ous views in France, Switzer­land, Italy, and Ger­many as part of an epic jour­ney spon­sored by an afflu­ent Dutch ship-owner. This long per­spec­ti­val view of a rock-hewn pas­sage­way illus­trates the Grot­ta di Posil­lipo, also called the Grot­to of Vir­gil due to the ancient poet­’s sup­posed rest­ing place in a tomb above the tun­nel. Con­struct­ed around the first cen­tu­ry BCE, it con­nect­ed Naples to the com­mu­ni­ty of Posil­lipo and was used daily until 1885 when mod­ern roads replaced it. Many artists depict­ed the tun­nel from this dra­mat­ic van­tage point to show the pin­point of light at the oppo­site end, con­firm­ing its tremen­dous length and impres­sive formation.

Willem Schellinks was one of the most trav­eled Dutch artists of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, a lega­cy that began with his voy­age to France in 1646 in the com­pa­ny of Lam­bert Doomer (1624 – 1700).1

In 1661, around the age of thir­ty-eight, he embarked on his most sub­stan­tial jour­ney, one that took him across much of Europe over the course of four years, from Eng­land (where he spent the first two years), through France, Switzer­land, Italy, Malta, and Sici­ly, before return­ing to Ams­ter­dam through Ger­many.2

The trip was made pos­si­ble through the financ­ing of an afflu­ent shipown­er named Jacques Thier­ry, who wished Schellinks to accom­pa­ny his son on a tour of Europe. This was just at the begin­ning of the era when the Grand Tour became cus­tom­ary for young men from wealthy fam­i­lies, though in this case the fam­i­ly also had busi­ness con­cerns in sev­er­al of the coastal ports.3

Schellinks kept an exten­sive jour­nal of his trav­els, the orig­i­nal man­u­script of which sur­vives in Det Kon­gelige Bib­liotek in Copen­hagen.4

Many of the numer­ous views Schellinks drew dur­ing this epic jour­ney ended up in the famous Atlas Blaeu-Van der Hem, com­pris­ing fifty vol­umes formed by the Ams­ter­dam col­lec­tor Lau­rens van der Hem (1621 – 1678), and now a UNESCO Mem­o­ry of the World object in the Öster­re­ichis­che Nation­al­bib­lio­thek, Vien­na.5

Van der Hem took as his start­ing point an edi­tion of the Atlas Maior, the exten­sive car­to­graph­ic mas­ter­work of Joan Blaeu (1596 – 1673), which he then sup­ple­ment­ed by inter­leav­ing hun­dreds of orig­i­nal draw­ings by var­i­ous artists relat­ed to the loca­tions there­in. Schellinks con­tributed around 120 draw­ings to the Atlas, more than any other artist, though it is unclear if Van der Hem com­mis­sioned him in advance of his voy­age (there­by pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al financ­ing) or request­ed copies of his views after he returned. This view in the Peck Col­lec­tion is one of the few draw­ings by Schellinks relat­ed to the voy­age that did not actu­al­ly make its way into the Atlas. This could be due to the fact that Blaeu’s Atlas Maior already con­tained a relat­ed view show­ing Vesu­vius from Posil­lipo, which shows the entrance to the tun­nel at the lower left Fig. 55.1.6

After Joris Hoefnagel, View of Naples and Vesuvius from Posillipo
Fig. 55.1

After Joris Hoef­nagel, View of Naples and Vesu­vius from Posil­lipo, 1663. Etch­ing with color and height­ened with gold, bound into the Atlas Blaeu-Van der Hem, 425 × 535 mm. Vien­na, Öster­re­ichis­che Nation­al­bib­lio­thek, inv. no. 389.030-F.K 1-46, I-IV.

While far more pro­sa­ic than Schellinks’s dra­mat­ic per­spec­ti­val view into the grot­to, it does appear that Van der Hem was con­scious about avoid­ing over­lap. Rome, for exam­ple, is not well rep­re­sent­ed in the Atlas, but the city would have already been quite famil­iar to Van der Hem through other sources in his exten­sive col­lec­tion and library.

The so-called Grot­to of Vir­gil, bet­ter known today as the Grot­ta di Posil­lipo or Cryp­ta Neapoli­tana, was for many cen­turies a func­tion­al tun­nel con­nect­ing Naples to the com­mu­ni­ty of Posil­lipo.7

Though closed to the pub­lic today, it lies on the old road to Poz­zuoli along the Bay of Naples, and saved trav­el­ers the trou­ble of going the long way up and over the sur­round­ing hills. Around 750 meters long, it was cer­tain­ly a feat of engi­neer­ing for the ancient era. When, exact­ly, it was hewn out of the rock is a mat­ter of debate, but it was prob­a­bly cre­at­ed some­time in the first cen­tu­ry BCE, or per­haps first cen­tu­ry CE. It remained in use for every­day traf­fic until 1885 when mod­ern roads replaced it. In Schellinks’s day, there was a chapel carved out in the cen­ter of the tun­nel in which lamps remained per­pet­u­al­ly lit. Sev­er­al accounts of the tun­nel sur­vive, both ancient and mod­ern, near­ly all of which com­plain about the dark­ness and exces­sive dust.8

In 1455, the King of Naples, Alfon­so I (1396 – 1458) tried to ame­lio­rate the sit­u­a­tion by low­er­ing the cav­ern floor and adding air shafts.9

Its des­ig­na­tion as the Grot­to of Vir­gil orig­i­nat­ed with the long-stand­ing tra­di­tion that the tomb of the great Augus­tan-era poet Pub­lius Vergilius Maro (70 – 19 bce) stood next to the tun­nel.10

Ancient sources con­firm that his tomb indeed rest­ed on the road between Poz­zuoli and Naples, with a famous but now-miss­ing epi­taph com­posed by the poet him­self: Man­tua gave birth to me, the Cal­abri­ans snatched me away, Parthenope now holds me; I sang of pas­tures, plow­lands, and lead­ers.“11

The pre­sumed tomb of Vir­gil, of the colum­bar­i­um type, still sur­vives above the tun­nel (not vis­i­ble in the draw­ing), but it is now thought to have once belonged to an anony­mous Roman fam­i­ly. As the rest­ing place of the great­ly admired poet, whose impact and fame over the cen­turies can hard­ly be over­stat­ed, it was no doubt a site of rev­er­ence for innu­mer­able trav­el­ers. The same is per­haps dou­bly true for Schellinks, an ama­teur poet him­self who had seen some of his vers­es pub­lished in antholo­gies in the 1650s.12

Schellinks’s hand­writ­ten descrip­tion of the site in which he specif­i­cal­ly calls it the Grot­to of Vir­gil accom­pa­nies this draw­ing on a sep­a­rate mount. It appears to be an extract from pas­sages in his jour­nal that he copied out, per­haps at the request of a patron, or because Schellinks was par­tic­u­lar­ly inspired by this view. In it, he states the usual facts and leg­ends about the tun­nel and Vir­gil’s tomb as they were under­stood at the time, much of which prob­a­bly came from con­tem­po­rary guidebooks.

It has been noted that this draw­ing bears a strong com­po­si­tion­al cor­re­spon­dence to an ear­li­er draw­ing of the tun­nel attrib­uted to Willem van Nieu­landt II (1584 – 1635) Fig. 55.2.13

Attributed to Willem van Nieulandt II, The Grotto of Posillipo near Naples
Fig. 55.2

Attrib­uted to Willem van Nieu­landt II, The Grot­to of Posil­lipo near Naples. Pen in brown ink with brown wash, 404 × 280 mm. Darm­stadt, Hes­sis­ches Lan­desmu­se­um, inv. no. HZ 8742.

Anoth­er ver­sion, weak­er in exe­cu­tion and cat­a­logued as Cir­cle of Paul Bril, can be found in the British Royal Col­lec­tion in Wind­sor.14

Both seem to copy a now-lost pro­to­type, like­ly made by a Dutch or Flem­ish artist active in Rome around 1600 or short­ly there­after. Whether or not Schellinks was aware of one of these ear­li­er ver­sions is dif­fi­cult to say, though it does seem like­ly. One can observe sim­i­lar­i­ties in per­spec­tive, wall treat­ment, foliage, and staffage fig­ures, and each notably con­tains a sketch­ing artist perched on the knoll. The dif­fer­ences are nev­er­the­less enough to cast doubt on the sup­po­si­tion that Schellinks large­ly copied anoth­er draw­ing rather than worked from life.15

This angle would have been one of the few pos­si­ble and most appeal­ing com­po­si­tion­al views from which to make such a draw­ing, one that shows the pin­point of light at the oppo­site end. Schellinks’s detailed obser­va­tions also sug­gest an artist study­ing the site direct­ly: his treat­ment of the stony tex­tures of the walls and the nuanced reflec­tions of the strong light from above using the white reserve of the paper. If he did encounter one of the pre­vi­ous­ly made draw­ings, which per­haps informed his approach, he may have done so in Rome just before or after he passed through Naples. He was in Rome long enough to be ini­ti­at­ed into the Bentvueghels, the asso­ci­a­tion of most­ly Dutch and Flem­ish artists there, where he was dubbed with the Bent-name Spits (peak or point).16

What­ev­er the case, this large and impres­sive view stands as one of the best sur­viv­ing tes­ti­monies of Schellinks’s abil­i­ties as a draftsman.

End Notes

  1. For the early trav­els through France by Schellinks and Doomer, see espe­cial­ly Alsteens & Buijs 2008, 70 – 189; as well as Paris & Ams­ter­dam 2006 – 07; and Van den Berg 1942. For the life and works of Schellinks gen­er­al­ly, see De Vries 1883; Ste­land 1986; P. F. M. Mens in Turn­er 1996; and Alsteens & Buijs 2008, 40 – 55.

  2. Por­tions of these later trav­els have been con­sid­ered in var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions; see, among oth­ers, Aike­ma 1983 (for trav­els in Italy); Exwood & Lehmann 1993 (Eng­land); P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 173 – 77 (Italy); and Dufour 2013 (specif­i­cal­ly Sicily).

  3. For the sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry ori­gins of the Grand Tour among the Dutch, see Frank-van Westrienen 1983.

  4. Inv. no. NKS 370 kvart. A pho­to­stat of the entire jour­nal can be accessed in the RKD, The Hague (archive no. NL-HARKD.0389). An early man­u­script copy of the jour­nal can also be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Cat­a­logue of West­ern MSS. 1743618).

  5. For a fac­sim­i­le and study of the Atlas Blaeu-Van der Hem, see De Groot & Van der Krogt 1996 – 2008; and for an impor­tant review of the pub­li­ca­tion, Alsteens 2010. See also Schilder et al. 2011; and Ams­ter­dam 1992.

  6. De Groot & Van der Krogt 1996 – 2008, vol. 2 (1999), 185, no. 11:29 (f. 172 – 173).

  7. For a his­to­ry of the tun­nel, with fur­ther ref­er­ences, see Trapp 1984, 6 – 7.

  8. Trapp 1984, 6. See, for exam­ple, the descrip­tion by the Eng­lish trav­el­er John Eve­lyn from 1645: The Way is pav’d under foote; but it dus not hin­der the dust, which rises so exces­sive­ly in this much fre­quent­ed pas­sage, that we were for­c’d at mid day, to make use of a Torch…”; De Beer 1955, 338.

  9. Trapp 1984, 6.

  10. Ziolkows­ki & Put­nam 2008, 404 – 20; and Trapp 1984.

  11. Man­tua me genu­it, Cal­abri rapuere, tenet nunc / Parthenope; ceni­ni pas­cua rura duces.” See Ziolkows­ki & Put­nam 2008, 406.

  12. For Schellinks’s poet­ry, which does not rank of great impor­tance for mod­ern crit­ics, see De Vries 1883; and the tran­scrip­tions online in the DBNL (Dig­i­tale Bib­lio­theek voor de Ned­er­landse Let­teren), under the name Willem Schellincx [sic]: https:// www​.dbnl​.org.

  13. Darm­stadt 1992, 140 – 41, no. 71.

  14. White & Craw­ley 1994, 215, no. 328.

  15. See P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 176, who sug­gests that the present work refers to” the draw­ing attrib­uted to Van Nieu­landt in Darm­stadt. Schellinks was in the habit of occa­sion­al­ly copy­ing draw­ings by other artists, espe­cial­ly those who had trav­eled to Italy before he made the trip him­self, such as Jan Asseli­jn and Thomas Wijck; for which see Ste­land-Stief 1964; Ste­land 1986; and P. Schat­born in Ams­ter­dam 2001, 174 – 76.

  16. Hoogew­erff 1952, 142.