Roman Daughter 5



The Roman Daughter

(or Roman Charity, Carita Romana)

In period frame
Unsigned, ca. 1810-15
Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
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The Roman Daughter, also known as Roman Charity (or Carità Romana) is the exemplary story of a daughter, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. She is found out by a jailer, but her act of selflessness impresses officials and wins her father's release.

The story is recorded in Nine Books of Memorable Acts and Sayings of the Ancient Romans (De Factis Dictisque Memorabilibus Libri IX) by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of filial piety and Roman honor. A painting in the Temple of Pietas depicted the scene.  Among Romans, the theme had mythological echoes in Juno's breastfeeding of the adult Hercules, an Etruscan myth.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many famous European artists depicted the scene.  Most outstandingly, Peter Paul Rubens painted several versions. Baroque artist Caravaggio also featured the deed (among others) in his work from 1606, The Seven Works of Mercy. Neoclassical depictions tended to be more subdued.

The work displayed here was painted in the early 19th Century, about 1810-15, probably in Italy.  It is know to have been brought to Kentucky in 1872 by a wealthy couple on a European “grand tour.”  In the 1920s, it passed into the hands of relatives then living in Chapel Hill, NC, where it remains.

Our painting is a rare surviving example of the style and subject of painting that characterized the early 19th century, and the dark, rich tones serve to enhance the ancient story particularly well.  The excerpts from Lord Byron’s poem about this subject, printed below, make the reader feel as if he were gazing at this particular painting when he composed the lines.

(For a 20th century fictional account of Roman Charity, see John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).   At the end of the novel, Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon) nurses a sick and starving man in the corner of a barn.)

The stanzas below allude to the story of the Roman Daughter, which is recalled to the traveler by the site, or pretended site, of that adventure, now shown at the church of St. Nicholas in Carcere.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: A Romaunt., Canto IV. by 

Lord George Gordon Byron

There is a dungeon, in whose dim drear light 
What do I gaze on? Nothing: Look again! 
Two forms are slowly shadow'd on my sight -- 
Two insulated phantoms of the brain: 
It is not so; I see them full and plain -- 
An old man, and a female young and fair, 
Fresh as a nursing mother, in whose vein 
The blood is nectar: -- but what doth she there, 
With her unmantled neck, and bosom white and bare? 

Full swells the deep pure fountain of young life, 
Where on the heart and from the heart we took 
Our first and sweetest nurture, when the wife, 
Blest into mother, in the innocent look, 
Or even the piping cry of lips that brook 
No pain and small suspense, a joy perceives 
Man knows not, when from out its cradled nook 
She sees her little bud put forth its leaves -- 
What may the fruit be yet? I know not -- Cain was Eve's. 

But here youth offers to old age the food, 
The milk of his own gift: it is her sire 
To whom she renders back the debt of blood 
Born with her birth. No; he shall not expire 
While in those warm and lovely veins the fire 
Of health and holy feeling can provide 
Great Nature's Nile, whose deep stream rises higher 
Than Egypt's river: from that gentle side 
Drink, drink and live, old man! Heaven's realm holds no such tide. 

Roman Daughter 5