Onorate l’altissimo poeta. Dante’s injunction, in Inferno IV, to honour Virgil did not go disregarded in his bimillennial year. Virgil, if not the greatest poet of the West, has certainly had the most influence on its history, one that extends beyond literature to many areas of cultural activity, including politics. His poetry has a capacity for connecting with later preoccupations in a way that does not do violence to its essential character. As a result, for example, Christians in every age have seen the child of Eclogue IV their promised saviour, while Dryden could use Golden Age language derived from Virgil to celebrate the Restoration; Helen Waddell turned to Aeneid II and the fall of Troy as spiritual succour during the Blitz, and David Jones in one of his ‘inscriptions’ links the same episode with the destruction of the Welsh Kingdom in 1282. In Ronald Knox’s words ‘Virgil – he has the gift, has he not, of summing up in a phrase used at random the aspiration and the tragedy of minds he could never have understood.'
The exhibition organisers pay the poet a worthy tribute; the material is clearly arranged and helpfully annotated (there is a useful free catalogue) though one could demur at some of the literary judgments. The exhibition shows the cultural currency of Virgil throughout the Western Europe during 2,000 years, his works constantly adapted to changing interests, and it also illustrates the history of books and of Virgil’s text – indeed, perhaps inevitably, it says more about these things than Virgil himself.