A French embroidered waistcoat dated between 1785-1795 shows Dido and Aeneas in a scene from Didon, a 1783 opera by the Italian composer Niccolò Piccini (1728-1800). The opera’s librettos were composed by Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), a highly-respected French historian and writer. Derived from Virgil’s Aeneid, the opera tells a fictional version of the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who went on to found the Roman race. The opera had its public premiere in Paris in December 1783 and was an instant success, enjoying more than 200 performances.

Dido, now a widowed queen, falls in love with Aeneas, who has escaped the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War and is shipwrecked at Carthage. As the relationship between Dido and Aeneas intensifies, forces in the form of meddling gods conspire to drive the couple apart. Venus, mother of Aeneas, fears that Dido’s hospitality is deceitful and charges Cupid to fill Dido’s heart with an uncontrollable passion that she hopes will drive Aeneas away. Juno, Dido’s protector, is spurred by jealously of Venus and hatred of the Trojans. She forms a complicated plot to thwart Aeneas from leaving Carthage to fulfill his destiny as the founder of the Roman race. With Mercury's encouragement, Aeneas finally decides he must depart.

Detail of waistcoat showing Dido.

The scene depicted on the waistcoat is the moment when Aeneas is preparing to leave Dido to sail for Rome. Aeneas is dressed as a soldier while Dido wears a costume of elaborate drapery and a crown that signifies her status as queen. A line of buttons on the center-front of the waistcoat splits the couple apart and renders their separation complete in a physical and narrative sense. In the role of Dido, the great operatic actress Antoinette Cécile de Saint-Huberty (1756-1812) gave one of the finest performances of her career. The costume worn by Saint-Huberty was based on a drawing of Dido by Jean-Michel Moreau-le-Jeune (1741-1814), a French painter and printmaker who was also a royal designer and engraver.

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