On hearing our In Medias Res editor lament the lack of a marble monument of Ovid, or a general recognition of the poet in Rome, any current Roman resident, myself included, would have immediately pointed to the numerous purple posters that have popped up all over the city with a statue of Venus and the words OVIDIO boldly printed at her knees. Her hips are replaced with saturated pink lettering, “felice chi si consuma nelle battaglie di Venere,” happy is one who is consumed by the battles of Love. Happy, also, is one who consumes an entire day at this art exhibit so enticingly advertised, running from October 17 to January 20. As In Medias Res is celebrating the bimillennial of the death of Publius Ovidius Naso, Rome is doing the same at the Scuderie del Quirinale with Ovidio: Amori, Miti e Altre Storie (Ovid: Loves, Myths, and Other Stories). Allow me to take you on a tour.
The curator, Elena Francesca Ghedini, makes evident why Ovid is worthy of such attention. He is an innovative poet, a crooner of universal sentiments, an interpreter of his contemporary politics, and a transmitter of myths that have shaped our modern cultural psyche, of stories passed down with cupidinous enthusiasm.
Yet, how can a visual exhibit be rooted in the works of a poet? Ghedini shows that it is possible through words and images: the words that disclose the images, and the images that are inspired from the words. Around 250 works from Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern art are wonderfully arranged to explore the beauty and eroticism of love, the moral and religious conflict between Ovid and Augustus, and the tradition and innovation of myth through Ovid and his artistic successors. Eighty-two museum lendings from Palermo, Turin, Naples, Florence, Padova, Bologna, and Paris, to name a few, have graciously deprived their own visitors from many works that would have made them blush, do double takes, and ride some swelling tides of emotions.
The exhibit starts with a spiral staircase, a drumroll anticipating a threshold that radiates a warm purple-pink glow splashed with bright neon lights in the distance. There is some sort of circular temple in the middle, but, like flies, we visitors are drawn into a circumambulation to marvel at the pretty blue, yellow, purple, and pink neon words on the walls. This is the work of Joseph Kosuth, titled Maxima Proposito (Ovidio), a selection of quotes in Latin and English. I’ll share my favorites below, in which Ovid seems to comment on this very manifestation of his works.
The showcase starts with an emphasis on words and continues with quotes translated in Italian on the perimeter of the upper walls of every room. Each ticket also comes with a free audio guide in English or Italian, which includes didactics as well as recitations of Ovid in translation. When the neon stupor is eventually broken, inside the circular enclosure, we find a portrait of Ovid, didactics on his life, and a display of beautiful medieval codices. There are thirty medieval manuscripts dispersed throughout the exhibit, but this cluster in the beginning emphasizes a gratitude for the monks who diligently copied the poems and aided the survival and propagation of these stories — even with some of the naughty bits. The oldest manuscript to date comes from Bari, late 11th or early 12th century, where strangely enough, the images drawn in the margins are rarely relevant to the story on the page. The 16th century portrait by l’Ortolano, a.k.a. Giovanni Battista Benvenuti, depicts the poet in eastern garb and the background seems to be the port of Tomis, the place of Ovid’s heart-wrenching exile.
We part from the purple wonderland to come face to face with the figure from the posters, though, more accurately, face to butt. Venus Callipyge, Greek for “of the beautiful booty,” 2 c. CE, stands in the middle of the room that is oozing with erotic love. She herself seems to admire the reason for her epithet, while, next to her, Cupid pulls a bow against his knee as he does before striking Hades with an arrow in the Metamorphoses (oppositoque genu curvavit flexile cornum, Met. 5, 383–4). On the right of these statues is everything that may make us blush: phallic pendants and lamps, a tintinnabulum, erotic scenes of Cupid and Psyche on bronze, silver, and amber mirror cases, frescoes from Pompeii of a passionate Polyphemus and Galatea, along with the Satyr and Maenad in embrace. It is as if Naples’ Secret Cabinet was raided and put on display here.
On the left, we are less scandalized by objects from daily life: hygienic spatulas, perfume bottles, rings, a mirror, 100 decorative gold flies, necklaces, all a visual illustration of the necessary tools for a woman’s act of seduction, as Ovid sets out in Ars Amatoria, the poem which was probably one of the causes of his exile.
The exile is the overhanging gloomy drapery of this gorgeous exhibition. As we stroll past the seemingly innocent household objects, we reach a decoration of a trabeated colonnade showing Apollo and Hercules in contest over a tripod. This is part of the peristyle of the House of the Princeps of Propaganda in Art — Augustus. Statues of him as Pontifex Maximus and his wife Livia guard the next threshold which begins Ovid’s battle against Augustus’ gods. On the side, new characters are also introduced with rare busts of Julia the Elder (exiled in 2 BCE for her immodesty) and Julia the Younger (also exiled in 8 CE for her immodesty), as well as Agrippa (quasi-exiled in 23 BCE?), Marcellus, and Tiberius.
Here we see a series of contrasts between Augustus’ use of the gods in politics and his social reforms, and Ovid’s frequently unfavorable depictions of them. In most areas, the written didactics illustrate Augustus’ views while the art depicts the rebellion of Ovid, yet the image above has a nice juxtaposition of Augustus’ modestly clothed Venus as the grand-mama and protector of Rome, whereas in the distance, past the threshold, is Venus in the nude, just as Ovid describes her in Ars Amatoria (Ipsa Venus pubem, quotiens velamina ponit/ Protegitur laeva semireducta manu, “Venus, whenever she takes off her clothes, covers herself with half drawn away hand,” Ars 2, 613–4).
Augustus uses the progenitor gods, Venus and Mars, mother of Aeneas and father of Romulus, to nicely tie together the origin stories of Rome in his commissions. Ovid, meanwhile, turns that on its head in his poetry by reiterating the scandalous affair between the two gods, in Venus and Vulcan’s marriage bed, no less.
When I first saw Giovanni Battista Carlone’s Marte e Venere sorpresi da Vulcano, Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan (c. 1650), in the context of the room, it certainly looked like it could be illustrating the error of Ovid’s carmen et error that led to his exile. Ovid’s friendship with both Julia the Elder and the Younger is what helped him network in the early days of his career, but his meetings with Julia the Younger may have been a bit too friendly for Augustus’ liking.
Augustus’ stern policies are reflected in Ovid’s descriptions of Apollo and Daphne. While the princeps’ Temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill was a sanctuary for Apollo, Diana, and their mother Leto to stand guard over the city, Ovid illustrates the siblings’ merciless cruelty in the massacre of Niobe’s fourteen children, the deaths of Actaeon and Marsyas, and the assault of Daphne. In this room, the sculptural cycle of Niobe’s children found in Villa of the Valerii Messallae only around ten years ago are frozen in slow motion around various other victims of the sibling slaughterers. Since the owner of that villa was a patron of Ovid, Ghedini speculates that Ovid looked on these very sculptures and recited his poetry in front of them.
If Ovid’s own words flowed onto these artworks, many of these pieces have the courtesy to sing his lyrics right back. Two depictions of the Niobe massacres both have the children on horseback, which is a detail distinctly from the Metamorphoses. The wall-painting from Pompeii has a victim already struck in the chest, slipping off his horse little by little (Met. 6.225–9), one is lying on the ground covered in his own blood (Ille, ut erat pronus, per crura admissa iubasque/ volvitur et calido tellurem sanguine foedat, 237–8), while others are extending their hands to the sky, begging the gods to be spared (261–4).
Andrea Camassei’ The Massacre of Niobe’s Children (1638) zooms in on a later scene, in which Niobe begs for her last surviving child, her youngest daughter, to be spared, to no avail (… “Unam minimamque relinque!/ De multis minimam posco,” clamavit, “et unam!”/ Dumque rogat, pro qua rogat, occidit… Met. 6.299–301).
To top off the contest of the gods, we come to Jupiter, Augustus’ king of the gods and protector of the cosmic order… and Ovid’s insatiable seducer and serial rapist. The most noticeable figure in this area, however, is Leda in an unabashed embrace with a “swan,” a 2nd century copy from a 50 BCE Hellenistic original. The mother of Castor and Pollux, whose statues are guarding the obelisk on the Piazza del Quirinale right outside the exhibit, as well as mother of Helen and Clytemnestra, has a knowing expression and seems to be a consenting lover. Nearby is a similarly flirtatious Leda possibly painted by Leonardo da Vinci, but more likely, his students. Other lovers of Jupiter illustrated in this room include Io, Callisto, and Danae, but the representations of Europa piqued my interest most.
Tintoretto’s 16th century depiction positions Europa on the “bull” straight out of Ovid, with her right hand on a horn and her left on the back while her wavering clothes fluttered in the wind (et dextra cornum tenet, altera dorso/inposita est; tremulae sinantur flamine vestes, Met. 2.874–5). A manuscript print shows this exact position of Europa in the background of a scene. A relief from 1st century BCE/CE does the same, but directly on the right, it looks like Antonio Carracci in the early 17th century did not read his Ovid carefully.
We can take a quick break in a small lounge. Asides from comfy chairs, it contains a useful timeline of Ovid’s life, as well as a recorded performance on loop — a dramatic reenactment of a bold, bald, crooked-nosed Ovid (actor Sebastiano Lo Monaco) in exile in Tomis in 8 CE, bemoaning and reciting from his second book of the Tristia. He walks through the sand, stares longingly at the waves, and, my favorite part, leans against a wooden lifeguard post while reading from his work.
Once we recuperate and are ready to feast on more beauty, we ascend a second spiral staircase, moving to the floor dedicated entirely to the Metamorphoses. Here, desire, obsession, unrequited love, and unbelievable transformations are portrayed through stories of Venus and Adonis, Ariadne and Bacchus, the rape of Proserpina, Narcissus and Echo, and Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. The passionate story of Pyramus and Thisbe a.k.a. ancient Romeo and Juliet (we should really talk about just how much Shakespeare borrowed from Ovid) is depicted in very similar veins side by side in a painted wall plaster from Pompeii and in an oil on canvas from the early 18th century.
These are not the most cheerful of myths, and it gets darker with the unfortunate flying/falling youths Icarus and Phaethon, and hunter-heroes Hippolytus and Meleager. However, even in these somber scenes, it is incredible to see what details from Ovid’s text the artists choose to reveal. A finely detailed mosaic from the 2nd/1st century BCE illustrates Meleager’s hunt for the boar, with one of the hunters, King Nestor of Pylos, keeping a safe distance up on a tree, a distinctly Ovidian detail:
forsitan et Pylius citra Troiana perisset
tempora, sed sumpto posita conamine ab hasta
arboris insiluit, quae stabat proxima, ramis
despexitque, loco tutus, quem fugerat, hostem
perhaps even the Pylian would have perished on this side of the Trojan times, but he leapt from the struggle using a spear and assumed a place in a tree which was nearby, and he looked down from the branches, safe in his place from the enemy which he had fled. (8.365–8
The last room of the exhibit somehow alleviates the unpredictable tensions and pulls of our heartstrings with a proud Ganymede standing next to the “eagle,” Jupiter. This youth’s rise into heaven is a fitting image for Ovid’s own apotheosis, especially with Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Triumph of Ovid (1625), hanging right by the final threshold. Throughout all the moving transmutations and transfigurations, there is a constancy of Ovid’s words more or less being faithfully depicted by well-read, inspired artists. Two thousand years since his death, the man of playful words and stories still basks in his deserved glory. Although I am usually peeved by arrogance or self-promotion, Ovid had it right at the end of the Metamorphoses:
Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
Nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
Cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis
astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum.
Quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris,
ore legar populi perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.
And now I’ve finished the work which neither the anger of Jupiter nor fire nor iron nor greedy old age will be able to abolish. Whenever it wants, let that day, which has no power except over my body, end my term of uncertain age. Regardless, I, everlasting, with my best part will be received above the lofty stars, and my name will never perish. And wherever Roman power extends through conquered lands, I will be recited from people’s lips, and with fame throughout all the ages, if the divinations of the poets hold any truth, I shall live. (15.871–9)
And may he live on for two thousand years more!
Ovidio: Amori, Miti, e Altre Storie runs at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome until January 20. For those unable to make it to Rome before January 20th, we suggest getting a copy of the beautiful guide to the exhibit, featuring the same Venus from the posters on the streets, this time, with the end in sight.
[This is part of a series of essays about Ovid at his bimillennial. For more information about the series, and for other essays, click on the link below.]
Reading Ovid at his Bimillennial
In Medias Res explores the work of the Most Roman of Rome’s Ancient Poets.
The Voice of the Heartbroken
“Ovid’s Feminine Voice” in the Heroides is Really the Universal Voice of Heartbreak
Luby Kiriakidi is a 2018–19 Paideia Rome Fellow.