Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art

Article excerpt

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. …

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