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As in Ovid, so in Renaissance art.

The story of Italian renaissance art abounds in images inspired by the fables of Ovid's Metamorphoses, pictorial "poems" by Pollaiuolo, Botticelli, Correggio, and Titian, among others. More profoundly, the very theory of Renaissance art, grounded in the concept of imitation, was often seen or described in terms of a central Ovidian fable, specifically the story of Pygmalion. Our understanding of the ways in which Ovid pervades the visual culture of the Renaissance is woefully inadequate, however. Whereas there are by now broad studies of Plato and Aristotle in relation to Renaissance art, there is, perhaps surprisingly, no such general understanding of Ovid's place in the visual culture of the period.(1) This essay, by no means comprehensive, points toward a fuller understanding of Ovid and Renaissance art by showing how the classical author's work - primarily the Metamorphoses and, to a lesser degree, his Fasti - played an extensive and deep role in the "poetry" of Renaissance painting and sculpture.

When Baldassare Castiglione began his famous discussion of sprezzatura, by speaking of the way in which a disciple can "transform himself" (trasformarsi) into his mentor, he used the word "transform," which is a translation of "metamorphosis" - the same words used by Pico della Mirandola, who spoke of man as a type of Proteus with the capacity to transform himself.(2) Castiglione, in fact, metamorphosed his own self when he adapted the persona of his wife in a poem about Raphael's portrait of him, in which she spoke of her husband's image as if Castiglione were alive in it, as if Raphael were the very type of Ovid's Pygmalion in bringing him to life?

Poets or artists are forever transformed or transforming themselves, as when, in their poetry, Dante or Petrarch are turned to stone by their beloved, as if they were petrified by the Ovidian Medusa.(4) Artists can also metamorphose others, as when Brunelleschi, in the fable of the Fat Carpenter, transforms the plump artisan into somebody other than himself or, rather, deceives the fat fellow into believing he is no longer himself. The author of this delightful tale, Antonio Manetti, in fact suggests that Brunelleschi's metamorphosis is Ovidian, when he compares the transformation of the fat carpenter to the metamorphosis of Acteon.(5)

Nowhere does the Ovidian capacity of the artist to transform define itself more fully than in the biographical proverb "every painter paints himself." This proverb participates in the very myth of Narcissus, who, seeing his reflection in the pool was, as Alberti said, the first painter. Narcissus, in effect, painted himself when he saw his reflected image in the water.(6) The principle underlying the proverbial saying informed Vasari's Lives of the artists - for example, the "life" of Piero di Cosimo, who, painting a primordial humanity, is said to have been himself a "savage" person.(7) No matter that Piero, whose work was highly cultivated and saturated with sophisticated Ovidian subjects, could pun in Latin, as he did in his Mars and Venus, where he played on the cuniculus (rabbit) near Venus's cunnus (pudendum). Piero was scarcely savage but was, in fact, perfectly urbane.(8) We nevertheless see his depictions of rustic primordial subjects as if, like Narcissus, he had painted in them the reflection of his own primitive self.

If Narcissus is the first painter and every painter (painting himself) is a type of Narcissus, then Narcissus's identity is closely related to Pygmalion's. Although their stories end differently, with Narcissus's love unrequited and Pygmalion's realized, this difference should not obscure our understanding that both fables are tales of how the artist falls in love with his own creation, as Ovid metamorphoses one tale into the other.

The myth of Pygmalion saturates the art and theory of the Renaissance. Donatello's Zuccone is so alive that the artist, a type of Pygmalion, urges his statue to speak, threatening it with a curse if it does not.(9) We miss the wit of this fable if we fail to observe the inversion of Ovid's myth, the contrast between the enraged curse of the artist and the tender love of Ovid's artist, whose work is blessed by Venus. Whereas Pygmalion's statue comes alive, Zuccone remains eternally silent and unresponsive, like Narcissus's beloved self-image.

When Vasari, praising the naturalism of the Mona Lisa, says we see the very "pulses" of the figure, he evokes Pygmalion, who feels the throbbing of the "veins" as his beloved statue comes alive.(10) Vasari's Ovidian description of the life-like portrait is a clue to the meaning of Bronzino's painting of Pygmalion, kneeling in prayer to the gods before his statue (fig. 1). Bronzino's Ovidian picture, Vasari tells us, was the cover for a portrait of Francesco Guardi by Pontormo.(11) As Pygmalion's subject comes to life, so does the subject of the portrait beneath it, painted by the modern Pygmalion - or, so the portrait-cover suggests.

The myth of Pygmalion is sometimes so deeply embedded in the description of art that it can easily escape notice. Such is the case in Vasari's account of Michelangelo's first Pieta (fig. 2).(12) Here, in an appreciation of the artist's imitation of nature, Vasari dwells on the exact description of Christ's muscles, veins, and very pulses. Suggesting the human likeness of Christ, who appears as if in the flesh, Vasari thus invokes the theology of the incarnation, just as his focus on the veins also brings out the Eucharistic implications of the work. The theology of the statue and its liturgical connotations are wed to its mythic character, for the powerful life-likeness of Christ, whose veins are so precisely described, as Vasari observes, also evoke the pulsing veins of Pygmalion's statue as it comes alive.

In Vasari's appreciation of the Pieta, pagan poetry is effortlessly wed to theology, and this unison of the Hebraic and the Hellenic is part of the statue's complex paradoxical character. As the poet, Giovanbattista Strozzi, wrote in a poem quoted by Vasari, the figure of Christ is "alive in the dead stone" ("vivo in marino morte"). "Alive" in one sense, for Christ is in fact dead, though the poet alludes to his resurrection, or the moment when he will come alive and "awaken." Strozzi's poem is deeply theological, to be sure, but it is also Ovidian in its weaving together the dead stone's coming alive with the eventual resurrection of its subject.

The poetic treatment of the Pieta recalls the similar writing on Michelangelo's Night in the Medici Chapel. The myth of Pygmalion informs a poem, quoted by Vasari, in which the author writes, "wake her, if you do not believe, and she will speak to you." Responding to the poem, Michelangelo says in his own poetical lines, also reported by Vasari, that in a world filled with troubles it is best "to be of stone."(13) Assuming the persona of Night, Michelangelo is thus petrified or petrifies himself, recalling the myth in Ovid (as well as in Dante and Petrarch) of the Medusa, who transforms those who gaze upon her into statues. As in Ovid, so in Renaissance art and art theory. The myths of Pygmalion and Medusa exist in dialectical relation to each other. This association emerges in Antonfrancesco Doni's Marmi, in which the allegorical figures of the Medici Chapel begin to move and the visitors to the chapel, as if themselves petrified, are amazed by the effect.(14)

The dialectic between Pygmalion and the Medusa is played upon widely in art and literature. Vasari tells us that Iacopo Sansovino's model Pippo, who posed for the artist, gradually came to think of himself as a statue, posing in different statuesque positions on the Florentine rooftops, as if he had become a sculpture, until he went mad.(15) Not only does poor Pippo live and die as a statue, he also is a type of Narcissus. Whereas the mythic boy transforms his reflected self into that of another, his fictive beloved, Pippo metamorphoses the subjects of the sculptures for which he poses into his own statuesque self. We see this play between stone and flesh in Pontormo's masterfully artful Joseph in Egypt, where we behold lively statues of a man and a woman, played off against a putto in the flesh, posing Pippo-fashion, like a statue on a column.(16) Are Pontormo's statues persons petrified, as if by the Medusa, or coming alive, as if fashioned by Pygmalion?

If the myth of Pygmalion is an inversion of that of the Medusa and a variation on the myth of Narcissus, it is no less a type of Ovid's fable of Deucalion and Pyrrha.(17) After the flood, as Ovid tells, the only human beings to survive were Deucalion and Pyrrha, who, praying to the goddess Themis, were told to toss behind them the stones of the earth, which would then be metamorphosed into human beings. Ovid relates this metamorphosis to sculpture in a version of the story of Pygmalion avant la lettre, saying that as the human beings began to take form in the stone, they looked like sculptures that were only roughed out in the block, still unfinished. In the Italian translation of Ovid's words, the sculptural figures are described as abbozzati and non finiti.(18) The sculptural metaphor here, of subsequent consequence in the Renaissance, is rooted in Deucalion's ancestry, for, as Ovid says, he was descended from Prometheus, the primigenial sculptor. The myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha and many other fables from Ovid were of great importance for one of the finest Ovidian poets of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de' Medici. One cannot but wonder whether Pollaiuolo's small picture of Apollo and Daphne in London - the story of the origins of the lauro or laurel - was not painted for the great Lauro, as he was called, who was worthy of such laurels as an ambitious poet in the tradition of Petrarch.(19) Evoking Lorenzo's or Lauro's mythic origins, the picture might have been a cover for a portrait of the worthy poet, who was metamorphosed, like Petrarch in the Rime sparse, into laurel.(20)

Lorenzo's finest Ovidian poem is Ambra, which celebrates the nymph so named after the original farm house at Poggio a Caiano, where Lorenzo would build his great villa.(21) The beloved of Lauro (Lorenzo), Ambra was pursued by the river-god, Ombrone, but before he could have his way with her, she was metamorphosed into rock, the very stone upon which Lorenzo's villa elegiacally rises, a memorial to this lost love. Lorenzo's poem is a variation on the fable of Apollo and Daphne (and also on the related story of Pan and Syrinx), but it is also rooted in the myth of Arethusa who, pursued by a river-god, was metamorphosed into a stream. Whereas Ovid's nymph was changed into a body of water with which the river god was united as their waters now flowed together, in Lorenzo's poem the waters of Ombrone flow against the rock of Ambra. His poem is Ovidian in an even deeper sense, for as he describes Ambra being metamorphosed into stone, he likens her to a statue bozzata and non finita. He alludes to the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, only now the Ovidian fable is inverted because Ambra, like a sculpture, is eventually turned into the stone out of which Ovid's unfinished sculptural beings emerged. Ovidian in its multiple metamorphoses of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Lorenzo's poem mirrors the ancient poet's capacity to metamorphose one myth into another, as Ovid did when he transformed the story of Narcissus into that of Pygmalion, reversing the latter fable in the tale of the Medusa, to cite just a few among many such examples in Ovid.

Not many years after Lorenzo wrote Ambra, the young Michelangelo, working in the circle of Lorenzo and under the spell of the Ovidian Poliziano, began a sculpture of the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, an Ovidian subject said to have been suggested to him by Poliziano [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. Referred to as non finito in the sixteenth century, the relief is, we might well say, non finito and abbozzato in the very terms of Lorenzo's fable of Ambra and Ovid's of Deucalion and Pyrrha. From the roughly worked stone, the figures of Michelangelo's relief emerge as if themselves petrified, as if they are still figures in stone. Their very stoniness is brought out by the pronounced chisel marks on their surfaces, by the rock-like shapes of their heads (which resemble the stones being hurled by the Lapiths) and by the manner in which they are still one with the stone from which they emerge [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED].

Do the stones used as the Lapiths's weapons in Michelangelo's relief tell us something about Poliziano's or Michelangelo's meditation on stone? In Ovid's telling of the story, the warring parties employ a wide variety of objects - spears, clubs, stones, flasks, utensils, tree trunks, and the like - whereas the only obvious weapons in Michelangelo's battle scene are rocks. Might Poliziano, in the kind of witty etymology that the humanists fancied, have imagined in a translingual pun that the Lapithae were lapicidae or stone-cutters, explaining the very stones now employed by them in battle? If so, he was thinking of the origins of sculpture, of the primordial tradition from which Michelangelo descended. Abbozzati and non finiti, Michelangelo's relief figures, emerging from stone as if petrified, reflect the poesis of figures out of stone, the metamorphosis of stone into human form.

When Michelangelo carved his first Pieta in Rome only a few years after he began the battle relief, he evoked the non finito in this fully finished and highly polished work by signing it with the new form, faciebat, which modestly means (despite appearances) that the artist who was making the work had not brought it to a state of "perfection," in the root sense of the word, meaning completion or finish. In other words, the imperfect form of the verb is an equivalence of the idea of the nonfinito. Michelangelo may again have been referring to Poliziano, who only a few years before invoked Pliny's account of this form of signature, which began to be widely adapted towards 1500.(22) Observing that facere is a translation of the Greek verb from which the word "poetry" is derived, he heightens our sense that the making or poesis of a statue is, not mere manual labor but itself poetry.

The revived Ovidian sense of the non finito that we find in Lorenzo de' Medici and Michelangelo and which has its analogue in the new signature in the imperfect form is part of a broad concern with the "poetry" of art as metamorphosis. We find it in Titian's late paintings, seemingly non finite, in drawings as "sketches," appreciated as such, and in the experimental calligraphy of etching. In literature we encounter it in Ariosto's open-ended narratives, where stories seemingly never end as the author teasingly leaves the action incomplete in one canto only to move on to another tale; we similarly discover it in Montaigne's essais - steeped in Ovid by the way - for essais are at best "attempts" or experiments, which by definition remain provisional, lacking finesse or finish. Michelangelo's own poetry has everything to do with the non finito, for in the language of Pico, he speaks of his own incompleteness, forever aspiring to an unattained spiritual perfection. He brings us back to sculpture, to its dimension of spiritual meaning, implicitly likening his own imperfection to unfinished statuary, conceived but not fully realized.

Even in works essentially finished, Michelangelo will leave traces of the unfinished stone, the rude rock from which he has carved his figures. In the Mask of the highly polished Night of the Medici Chapel [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED], we see the "metamorphosis" of marble - the "poetry" of stone - from the rough-hewn passages above the Mask to the relatively more finished, but still coarse stuffs above the head, to the more polished face and, finally, to the refined, highly finished, and indeed plumose, beard.(23)

In one important instance, however, Michelangelo's work was doubly non finito. I am speaking of the Prisoners for the tomb of Pope Julius II, which were never fully finished but which were employed later in a different context when they were placed by the Medici in a grotto of the Boboli gardens [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED]. The Medici grotto, made artificially natural by stalactites and other natural materials, was filled with figures made of chipped stones.(24) The unfinished Prisoners, emerging from marble, were linked to the stone beings on the grotto walls, when they were placed within the same space. Writing in his Bellezze di Firenze, Francesco Bocchi explained that the people of stone in the grotto alluded to the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, which takes us back to Michelangelo's Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, Lorenzo's Ambra and ultimately to Ovid's primordial myth of beings who, nascent in stone, looked like unfinished statues. Here, we might say, in a paradoxical way, that the unfinished Prisoners were finished. Michelangelo's unfinished Prisoners, which seem as if they were being metamorphosed into flesh from stone, participate in the deep Ovidian tradition to which he was heir.

The use to which Michelangelo's Prisoners were put results in a significant revision in our understanding of their meaning [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED]. Traditionally, the statues have been justly interpreted in terms of Michelangelo's Neoplatonic or Neo-Aristotelian philosophy, expressed in his poetry, where he speaks of liberating the figure from the stone, which already contains its form or concerto. The struggle to free the figure from the marble is implicitly tied to the aspiration of the soul to escape from the "earthly prison" of the body. By itself this philosophical and theological interpretation is sound, but it is also incomplete, for such philosophy and theology are conjoined with Michelangelo's sense of sculptural poesis, with his Ovidian sense of carving as itself the poetic "metamorphosis" of stone - an idea found in Michelangelo's earliest work and ultimately in Metamorphoses. Our previously incomplete view of Michelangelo's aesthetics is an instance of how a philosophical view can dominate and obscure the apprehension of the "poetry" of art, in this case the Ovidian poetry of stone.

When placed in the Boboli grotto, Michelangelo's Prisoners participated in a pastoral, for the figures on the walls are crude shepherds in stone tending their sheep or playing bagpipes. This rustic scene is embellished by the painting of satyrs and wildlife in the illusionistic vault above. The roughness or rozzezza of Michelangelo's figures - to use the very word the artist employs to describe his rozzo martello or rough hammer - is appropriate to a rustic scene. Rozzo is derived from rudis, whence our word "rude." It is antithetical in meaning to pulito, "polished" or "highly finished," from politus, whence our word "polite." In other words, rudeness is, in terms of manners, appropriate to a rustic subject - the humble scene of shepherds.

Rozzezza is found in rusticated architecture, another kind of non finito, which evokes metamorphosis. In the mannered courtyard of Giulio Romano's Palazzo del Te, for example, the architect plays on the contrast between the stone work on the rusticated facade (rozzo, non finito) and the adjacent stone, polished or finished.(25) Does the architect not also play on the theme of the nonfinito by leaving the niches empty or in a sense unfinished? The jocosity of Giulio's architecture is a manifestation of urbanitas or urbanity, which is always the point of view from which the antithetical rustic world is approached, whether here, in the Medici grotto (another work for a sophisticated court) or in Titian's Pastorale, where a courtly musician enters the world of shepherds and nymphs.(26)

An urbane approach to the bucolic is found in many Renaissance paintings of Ovidian subjects, as in the writing of Ovid himself. Such is the case in Piero di Cosimo's Discovery of Honey, based on the Fasti. In the background behind Bacchus (god of the vineyard) and his consort, we see Silenus attended by an entourage of satyrs, in which a lady satyr places her hand on her hip in a refined courtly manner, no less ridiculous in such a rude creature than the finery of the bow in her hair.(27) The words "refined" and "finery" are rooted in finire, whence "finish" or finito, but there is nothing truly finished about this bestial creature, whose pretensions are risible. Such is the kind of ironic teasing Ovid would himself have enjoyed in Piero's jest on false finesse - a kind of non finito.

Piero's painting of the discovery of honey is about the origins of apiculture, or the "arts." As such, it is related to Virgil's Georgics, where the cultivation of bees is also discussed. Piero's painting, as in the Fasti, also features Bacchus the god of the grape. In this respect, it has much in common with a number of seemingly disparate pictures, all of which have deep agricultural roots and are rooted in Ovid's Fasti: Bellini's Feast of the Gods, in which Priapus, the tutelary divinity of gardens, is seen attempting to priapize the sleeping Lotis; Pontormo's fresco of Vertumnus (another god of the gardens) painted at Poggio a Caiano; and Botticelli's Primavera, where Flora (goddess of flowers and also a deity of gardens) presides. Bacchus, Priapus, Vertumnus, and Flora - all gods celebrated by Ovid in the Fasti, and by Piero di Cosimo, Bellini, Pontormo, and Botticelli - are all divinities of fertility whose cults were revived in the Renaissance.

No less than he contributed to the celebration of the gods presiding over the "arts" of agriculture did Ovid play a decisive role in another classical revival, that of the elegy. This literary genre, which descended from ancient Greece and Rome, from Theocritus and Virgil, as well as from Ovid, pervades those bittersweet love stories of Renaissance art saturated with Ovid's poetry. In Signorelli's painting of Pan, another god of fertility now appears in a rustic court pervaded by a melancholic mood, which bespeaks its elegiac connotations.(28) For the pipes that Pan holds and those that his courtiers play evoke his lost love Syrinx, who was memorialized by reeds fashioned into the musical instrument, which, as Ovid says, was the origin of music. The picture does not so much tell the story of Pan's sad loss of Syrinx as it whispers its meaning. Signorelli's painting was probably painted for Lorenzo de' Medici, who identified with Pan, writing poetry about the god. Pan's "court" was a rustic mirror image of Lorenzo's own. Its elegiac spirit echoed Lorenzo's own elegies.

The elegiac meaning of painting is more obvious in Piero di Cosimo's Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, which graphically records Ovid's detailed mock-epic description of the melee.(29) In the central foreground, the centauress Hylonome gently cradles her dead beloved, Cyllarus, eliciting the sympathy of the viewer, who is made to feel the deep pathos of her loss and grief. Such an elegy is the subject of Piero's painting of a faun mourning a dead nymph.(30) Although traditionally misidentified as the illustration of Ovid's Cephalus and Procris, the picture is still possibly a metamorphosis of Ovid's story, in which Cephalus is now transformed into a faun. Ovid is also evoked by the dog who, appearing to mourn the nymph's death, recalls the faithful hound given by Procris to Cephalus.

The transformation of one story into another, the metamorphosis of one fable into another, is as central to Ovid's Metamorphoses as it is to Renaissance Ovidian art. Ovid rewrites the fable of Apollo's pursuit of Daphne as the myth of Pan's chase of Syrinx, while the myths of Deucalion and Pyrrha and Narcissus are, as we have already observed, in different ways metamorphosed into that of Pygmalion. Such Ovidian metamorphosis occurs in Botticelli's Primavera, where the painter describes the transformation of Chloris into Flora [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED]. Because Ovid does not actually describe the transformation in the Fasti, Botticelli visualizes it by referring to the myth of Apollo and Daphne, thus metamorphosing one Ovidian myth into another as Zephyr plays Apollo to Chloris's Daphne. In Ovid, poetry that describes metamorphosis is itself metamorphosis, and the same is true in Botticelli's picture, where the metamorphosis is a display of the artist's own poetic virtuosity.(31)

Metamorphoses are everywhere in Botticelli's art. One of the three Graces in the Primavera wears a brooch that is apparently supported by the braids of her hair, as if the hair were metamorphosed into a necklace [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 9 OMITTED]. In the delightful Mars and Venus, the golden braids of Venus descend to a brooch, and from there the golden form continues downward on the border of her dress, as if her hair were metamorphosed into silken stuffs spun into gold - a gold like that of the hair with which it is seemingly one.(32)

This kind of metamorphosis is also evident in the Minerva and the Centaur [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 10 OMITTED], where the horizontal elements at the top of the rock formation in the left background evoke architecture, as if the stone had been turned into a building in yet another example of rusticated architecture, rendered ever so urbanely and, indeed, wittily.

Not Ovidian in the narrow sense, these transformations in Botticelli nevertheless recall Ovid's own metamorphoses, which play on the relations of art and nature. They are closely related to Renaissance grotesques in which human forms are metamorphosed into plants that are themselves transformed into animals. Grotesques have a wide variety of sources, both literary and visual, and although they are not inspired directly by Ovid, it is hard not to suppose that Ovid's poetry, which saturates Renaissance culture, plays a role, however unmeasurable, in the taste for the visual metamorphoses of grotesques.

Metamorphosis is poetic invention, poetic invention metamorphosis; Botticelli's invention of Flora is such a metamorphosis, his metamorphosis of Flora such an invention. Similarly, Correggio's invention of Jupiter and Io is also a metamorphosis [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 11 OMITTED]. In Ovid's story, Io is metamorphosed into a heifer, whereas, it has been said, Correggio metamorphoses Jupiter into a cloud.(33) This is not quite correct, for Jupiter can be seen in the flesh within the cloud where his face and hands are visible. The metamorphosis lies elsewhere. Ovid speaks of the cloud created by Jupiter to conceal his love-making from his understandably jealous wife, Juno, whereas Correggio transforms or metamorphoses this deceptive cloud into the agent of lovemaking - as if the vapors within which Jupiter appears were an extension of his body, ravishingly enveloping and caressing Io's body as they are absorbed by the very pores of her flesh. Metamorphosis here, as in Botticelli, is multiple; it is as subtle as it is complex. We realize this when we consider the context of Correggio's painting, the series of Ovidian Loves of Jupiter to which it belongs, and which includes the Danae, where Jupiter descends to the virgin in the tower as a golden shower. Correggio paints this shower as it rains down from a cloud - the very amatory cloud he metamorphoses into the sexual vapors of his picture of Io.

In the Baroque, which elaborates the conventions of Renaissance art, we can pursue the transformation of art in Ovidian terms. When Bernini carved his Apollo and Daphne, he not only told Ovid's story, he also metamorphosed the statue of the Apollo Belvedere (rediscovered during the Renaissance) into his own, transforming the god who steps forth gently into his own running hunter.(34) When Poussin rendered Pan's pursuit of Syrinx a short time later [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 12 OMITTED], his composition of these figures was a metamorphosis of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne. By metamorphosing the story of Apollo and Daphne into that of Pan and Syrinx, Poussin knowingly followed the very example of Ovid, who did just that in Book I of Metamorphoses, where he transformed the fable of one god's futile pursuit of a nymph into that of another.

Like Renaissance inventions rooted in Ovid, those of the Baroque can be remarkably subtle. Such is the case in Bernini's Rape of Persephone, which ostensibly shows Persephone's violent abduction by the god of the underworld, in conformity with Ovid's account. The Ovidian character of the work is, however, far deeper than its ostensible subject. In the detail of Pluto's hand sinking into the flesh of Persephone, we see the astonishing illusion of marble seemingly transformed into flesh.(35) What Ovid said of Pygmalion - "his art conceals his art" - is equally true of Bernini, for Bernini's statue, illustrating the myth of Persephone, also alludes to Pygmalion, whose fingers sink into the limbs of his statue when he touches it and it is metamorphosed into flesh.(36) Looking at Bernini's statue, we participate in the myth of Pygmalion so tactfully evoked by Bernini, wondering at the very manner in which he has made the hard marble so soft and yielding that it now yields to the pressure of the hand.

The story of Pygmalion, a central myth both in Ovid and in Renaissance art, poetry, and aesthetics, endured long after the Renaissance, nowhere more poignantly than in Winckelmann's celebrated hymn to the Apollo Belvedere in his History of Ancient Art.(37) It is not inappropriate to conclude this little survey of Ovid's place in Renaissance culture with Winckelmann because, as Walter Pater so judiciously observed, Winckelmann authenticated the classical tradition commemorated in Renaissance art. Winckelmann's celebration of the Apollo is suffused with powerfully platonic, erotic feelings. It is also deeply poetical, as in the description of the god's flowing locks, metamorphosed in words into tendrils blowing in the breeze - as if Winckelmann were transforming the statue into a pleasance, much as Shakespeare's Venus likened her own body to a deer park for the pleasure of Adonis. Winckelmann compares his loving efforts at bringing the Apollo to life to those of Pygmalion, but he adds that his efforts are only an outline, a sketch. In other words, his own word-sculpture, as vivid as it is, is ultimately nonfinito. The pathos of unrealized love is as elegiac as anything in Ovid's writing.

As one ponders Ovid's place in Renaissance culture and its aftermath, it becomes increasingly clear that our cultural picture of the poet's role in art history is itself non finito. This is so because Ovid's contribution to the Renaissance is far more than meets the eye, more than the sum of works that illustrate his themes, more than the poet's ideas as they informed Renaissance theories of imitation, and far more than the sentiments expressed in elegiac painting. What Ovid bequeathed to the Renaissance was, at bottom, a spirit of play, the very play of the imagination as it gave birth to the protean forms of art. It is difficult, if not impossible, to plumb fully the depths of what one might speak of as the Ovidian imagination, to measure its extent, but I hazard the guess that someday we may come to see more clearly than we now do that the poet's inventions are fundamental to the Renaissance idea of art, and to the very idea of art itself as metamorphosis.


1 Although there is a substantial body of writings that refer to specific borrowings from Ovid in works of Renaissance art, the classic writings on Renaissance iconology by Meiss, Panofsky, Chastel, Gombrich, and Wind, among others, do not provide a general view of Ovid in Renaissance art. For the beginnings of a broader approach, which includes a useful, basic bibliography, see Barkan, 1986, 175206 and 329-39. My essay assumes a familiarity with a number of works, many not illustrated below, but I provide references to books that illustrate these works.

2 Castiglione, 1987, 80; and Pico della Mirandola, 5.

3 Shearman, 112.

4 For Dante's petrification, see the first of the rime petrose, given in Durling and Martinez, 278-80; and for Petrarch's related status as petrus or stone, see, for example, poem 37 of the rime sparse in Petrarch's Lyric Poems, 96-103.

5 Manetti, Novelle italiane, 254.

6 Alberti, 61.

7 Vasari, 4:131-44. The modern view of Piero as a primitive is sustained by Panofsky, 33-68.

8 Piero's urbane joke is generally ignored in the literature, although it is noted in Barolsky, 1978, 45, where the picture is illustrated.

9 Vasari, 2:405.

10 Ibid., 4:40.

11 Ibid., 6:275.

12 Ibid., 7:151-2.

13 Ibid., 7:197.

14 For Doni's Marmi and related Ovidian texts, see Barolsky 1994, 151-60.

15 Vasari-Milanesi, 5:493.

16 Pontormo's picture in illustrated Hartt, 552.

17 Metamorphoses, 1:318ff.

18 Lazzaro, 315, n. 52.

19 Pollaiuolo's picture is illustrated by Hartt, 321, who comments on its presumed association to Lorenzo.

20 Petrarch's Lyric Poems, 60.

21 The English translation of Lorenzo's poem is now available in Lorenzo de' Medici, 127-40.

22 Juren, 27-30; see also Pon, 16-19.

23 Barolsky, 1994, 63-76.

24 Lazzaro, 201-06, including reference to Bocchi and further bibliography.

25 Giuilio's architecture is reproduced in Hartt, 580.

26 For the Pastorale, see Hartt, color plate 116.

27 For an illustration of Piero's picture and commentary on Piero's jests, see Barolsky, 1978, 46-48.

28 Metamorphoses, 1:689ff. For an illustration of Signorelli's painting with further commentary on its elegiac connotations, see Barolsky, 1994, 94-97.

29 Metamorphoses, 12:210ff. For a discussion of Piero's picture, see Fermor, 54-60.

30 Fermor, 49-54.

31 Barolsky, 1994, 23.

32 Botticelli's Mars and Venus is illustrated in Hartt, 334.

33 Metamorphoses, 1:588ff. Hartt, 562.

34 The Apollo and Daphne is illustrated by Hibbard, 51.

35 This detail of Bernini's statue is given by Hibbard, 49.

36 Metamorphoses, 10:243ff.

37 Given by Either, 18-19.


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Author:Barolsky, Paul
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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