A Soldier's Tale


First, a detail:

Amidst ruined arches and fallen columns a soldier back from the wars holds two women captive with his tale. He still wears his battle helmet, still can't let go of a huge flag and its pole draped over his shoulder.

The women listen intently, and may have come up to this spot from below, where another group of women sit on a cleared space beneath the ruined temple's roof. They may (like other women in other scenes by Pannini) have come to do laundry. A small stream appears to be at their feet; they also have a pitcher that might hold water. They may have wandered over from the little town in the far distance, a town of humble buildings with no need for Corinthian capitals and three-story high ceilings. Perhaps the town has no memory of what the ruins once were, or who built them. And yet the ruins seem to house a graveyard: the ruined remnants may once have been part of a majestic mausoleum. If so, who is buried here? Has the town forgotten?

Perhaps these ruins housed the remains of the town's conquerers. The graves seem graves of rulers or the rich---foreign or local? One grave to the right of the picture has its container for the casket magnificently carved, with an ornate head and laurel wreaths; it's also raised as if on four short legs from the common slabs beneath. To the left is an impressive urn. Its carving shows a timeless scene, women holding hands and dancing around the urn. But plants everywhere overgrow the marble and birds circle about in the sky above, watching for rodents moving in the rubble.

Is the old soldier telling a tale of defending the empire that once was here? Could his life have been spent on the frontiers of the empire, only to return home in old age to find the empire had decayed from the center outwards? What is it that makes him unable to put aside his armor, that drives his need to tell his story? And what do his listeners make of it?

Here's the full picture:

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