Ovid before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses

Ovid before Exile: Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses

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by Patricia Johnson

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The epic Metamorphoses, Ovid’s most renowned work, has regained its stature among the masterpieces of great poets such as Vergil, Horace, and Tibullus. Yet its irreverent tone and bold defiance of generic boundaries set the Metamorphoses apart from its contemporaries. Ovid before Exile provides a compelling new reading of the epic,

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The epic Metamorphoses, Ovid’s most renowned work, has regained its stature among the masterpieces of great poets such as Vergil, Horace, and Tibullus. Yet its irreverent tone and bold defiance of generic boundaries set the Metamorphoses apart from its contemporaries. Ovid before Exile provides a compelling new reading of the epic, examining the text in light of circumstances surrounding the final years of Augustus’ reign, a time when a culture of poets and patrons was in sharp decline, discouraging and even endangering artistic freedom of expression.
    Patricia J. Johnson demonstrates how the production of art—specifically poetry—changed dramatically during the reign of Augustus. By Ovid’s final decade in Rome, the atmosphere for artistic work had transformed, leading to a drop in poetic production of quality. Johnson shows how Ovid, in the episodes of artistic creation that anchor his Metamorphoses, responded to his audience and commented on artistic circumstances in Rome.

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Editorial Reviews

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“A new and stimulating reading of three central episodes of Ovid’s brilliant Metamorphoses: the artistic contests between the Muses and their challengers, and Minerva and her challenger Arachne, and the more extended tale of Orpheus singing his lays of boy-love and forbidden female passions. All three narratives are set in the full dimensions of Ovid’s own literary and political context. Johnson’s scholarship is up-to-date, and her subtle interpretation is supported by translation of all passages discussed. It is at the center of current Latin literary studies, and should provoke lively and positive reactions.”—Elaine Fantham, Princeton University

“A very readable close analysis of the key episodes about artists and their relationship to their audiences and those in power. Johnson shows that the sense of foreboding about artistic freedom of expression that pervades Ovid’s exile-poetry had set in even when he was writing the earlier Metamorphoses.”—Martin Helzle, Case Western Reserve University

"Johnson offer[s] useful interpretive observations, especially on Ovid's use of his Greek and Latin influences."—Choice

“[A]n engagingly-written and well-constructed book which should be of interest to students and scholars of Ovid alike.”—Rebecca Armstrong, Journal of Roman Studies

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University of Wisconsin Press
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Wisconsin Studies in Classics Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Ovid before Exile

Art and Punishment in the Metamorphoses

By Patricia J. Johnson
Copyright © 2008

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-22400-4

Chapter One Ovid's Artists

Artists at Work

in nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illa) adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

[I am moved to tell about forms changed into new bodies; Gods, inspire the beginnings of my work, for you have changed even these, and lead down/spin out a continuous song from the first beginning of the universe to my own time.] Met. 1.1-4

Artists and their artworks have always been the colorful fellow-travelers of Greek and Roman epic and epyllion. Well before Ovid's Metamorphoses, Daedalus, Hephaestus, and other craftsmen, named and anonymous, delighted the epic heroes in their company with sculptures, paintings, and shields and cups of metal, while Demodocus, the Sirens, Orpheus, and Iopas enchanted them with cosmogonic and martial lays; Helen, Penelope, Minerva, and the anonymous artist behind the extraordinary ekphrasis of Catullus 64 created narratives for and about the heroes in woven and embroidered cloth. The depth and detail of such representations of artworks and artists in ancient epic vary considerably; examples range from the briefest of allusions to an artist to full-scale ekphrastic descriptions of works of art.

With transformation as the Metamorphoses' central theme, it is not surprising that displays of creative activity of one sort or another, in which material is transformed or translated into another medium, are a regular feature of the action of the poem. It opens, as promised in its third line, with the original metaphor of artistry from the natural world, the creation of the universe. The world's first artist, the pointedly unnamed mundi fabricator, 'craftsman of the universe,' is styled at various points in the opening narrative as a sculptor, a weaver, and even a Vulcan-like metallurgist, whose universe, shaped out of chaos, shares many features with the world as depicted on the shield of Achilles in Iliad 18. With such a creative and transformative opening, the epic certainly can be and has been read, by Barkan most notably, as expressing an "art of continuous changes, radiant with multiplicity but confounding clear definition," reflecting "a reality in the universe that is similarly fluid."

Human creativity is similarly one of the epic's most persistent motifs, a mortal complement to its physical and psychological metamorphoses motivated by a host of cosmic, divine, and other mysterious forces. Arange of arts and skill-levels are represented, from the folkloric and mythographic narratives of Ovid's countless storytellers, epitomized by the bored and restless Minyeides in book 4, to the most sublime forms of artistry. In book 6, the imprisoned Philomela so subtly weaves her tragic story into a web that it is decipherable only to its recipient, her sister. The craftsman Daedalus, already well-known to Roman epic audiences from Vergil's description in Aeneid 6 of the elaborate gates he decorated for the Temple of Apollo, leaves Crete behind in Metamorphoses 8 on a machinery of wings he designed and constructed for himself and his son. In book 10, Pygmalion sculpts an ideal female companion, whom Venus animates at his request. Polyphemus's long travesty of a pastoral lament in book 13 throws Ovid's mini-Aeneid off its already-tottering heroic balance. Even the famously warlike Perseus is figured artistically in the epic; as he petrifies his enemies with the Gorgon Medusa's head, he creates an impromptu sculpture garden of their marble imagines in book 5. Such episodes document Ovid's fascination with the potential (both positive and negative) inherent in human creativity and expression, and highlight the aetiological role (usually unintentional) of human behavior in the great coming-into-being of his metamorphic universe.

It is indicative of Ovid's special interest in artists, their products, and particularly the conditions under which those artworks are created that he dedicates four lengthy episodes in the Metamorphoses to the stories of five literary and fabric artists, or groups of artists, in the process of creating six different artworks. Metamorphoses 5 and 6 are bridged by a pair of competitions, the first in song, the second in weaving. At the outset of book 5, Minerva has come to Mt. Helicon to see the new Hippocrene spring, and hears an account of a recent singing contest between the Muses and a group of mortal singers called the Emathides. One of the Muses briefly summarizes the challenge and song of the Emathides, then offers a verbatim narration of Calliope's responding contest entry. When the nymphs of Helicon vote in favor of the Muses' song, the Emathides protest insolently and are transformed by the Muses into magpies. At the opening of book 6, the story of the contest between Minerva and the mortal weaver Arachne follows directly on, and from, the poetic contest. Minerva visits Arachne in disguise to incite a competition in weaving; the organization, themes and aesthetic qualities of the competing tapestries are described by Ovid in detail. Although (or perhaps because) Arachne's tapestry wins the day, Minerva destroys it, and then thwarts Arachne's ensuing suicide attempt by transforming her into a spider.

In book 10 the two best-known performances of the legendary Orpheus, in the underworld and in Thrace, are presented by Ovid in full. In the first, he sings to the gods of the underworld to persuade them to release his dead wife, Eurydice. He succeeds, but loses Eurydice a second time when he turns to gaze at her on the way out of the underworld. After this disappointment, Orpheus, in self-imposed isolation from humanity in general and women in particular, addresses a second song on a variety of erotic subjects to an audience of animated trees, beasts, and birds. While his audience is enthralled by the performance, an unseen group of Thracian women is less so, and in anger at his rejection of heterosexual love they attack and dismember him, scattering the audience.

These four scenes stand out from Ovid's ongoing preoccupation with mortal creativity in several ways that recommend their separate consideration. They are prominently placed at the one- and two-thirds points of the fifteen books of the poem, a symmetry particularly striking in a work whose fundamental structure has proven so elusive. It is a demonstration of the poem's rejection of a traditionally tidy epic narrative framework that the division of the Metamorphoses into pentads, or even into books, has been hotly contested, and a variety of intricate structures within the work have been proposed by various critics. In favor of a triple-pentad structure for the poem is the fact that Ovid was very fond of multiples of three in his pre-exilic works (after exile, Ovid's poetry books were shaped by other considerations): three books of Amores, at least two of which contain fifteen poems; very likely fifteen Heroides; three books of the Ars Amatoria; six books of Fasti; and fifteen books of the Metamorphoses. Contemporary examples of universal or annalistic history, such as Cornelius Nepos's Chronica and Livy's history (the former divided into thirds, and the latter into pentads) are particularly relevant to the Metamorphoses, since the poem is arranged in a roughly chronological sequence like a universal history, 'from the first beginning of the universe to my own day.' Within that vast expanse of time the poem moves forward fluidly through its chosen narratives (if we imagine a swift, meandering brook rather than a broad and slow-moving river) making ample use of such standard epic narrative devices as flashback and recollection, and loosely joined by one or another of Ovid's enterprising collection of linkage devices deployed in accordance with the poet's sometimes inscrutable logic.

However we might choose to divide the poem, the poetic and weaving contests and the performances of Orpheus anchor the epic at two important narrative moments. Before the contests of books 5 and 6, the poem's temporal frame is the creation of the world and its original divine and mortal inhabitants. In Ovid's universe this era includes numerous sexual assaults upon mortal women by the Olympians, and the exploits of their resulting offspring, the earliest generation of Greek heroes: the Theban house of Cadmus, the new worship of Dionysus, and the adventures of the Argive Perseus, from whose side Minerva has just departed at the outset of the account of the poetic contest. Between the contests (framed by the rise and final fall of Cadmean Thebes) and the songs of Orpheus in book 10, Ovid proceeds to the next generation of Greek heroes and the adventures of Tereus (the Thracian savior of Athens), Erectheus, Jason, Theseus, and Hercules; Orpheus, to ancient poets, is arguably the most important hero of this generation, and his adventures close the second pentad. After Orpheus, Ovid turns immediately from Greek mythical history to the origins of Rome with the Trojan cycle, and the consequent founding and rise of Rome under the Julian descendants of Aeneas, with whom he concludes the poem. The four scenes of artists-in-performance preside, Janus-like, over the transitions from each of these broadly conceived universal eras to the next.

These episodes are also exemplary and provide particularly fertile ground for analysis in the overall creative atmosphere of the poem, because they are full portraits of working artists in performance, whose status as such assumes thematic priority. There are other candidates for this role in the epic, and critics cast the net of artistry in the Metamorphoses more widely or more narrowly according to various criteria. Leach includes among Ovid's artistic performances the stories of the daughters of Minyas in book 4, for example. But despite their imaginative and exotic tales, the Minyeides are characterized above all as semicomic Ovidian housewives, whistling while they work. Their final transformation has nothing to do with their storytelling, but rather with their refusal to observe the festival of Bacchus. Another performer in the epic is Polyphemus, who serenades the nymph Galatea with a travesty of a pastoral love song (13.789-869). But he is clearly cast as an untalented novice. Several well-known artists of Greek myth make appearances in the epic, including Philomela, Pan, Marsyas and Daedalus. Each provides an interesting angle on the question of artistic freedom. The creations of Philomela and Daedalus are both direct responses to tyrannical power. Philomela has been imprisoned and sexually assaulted by her sister's husband, who then cuts out her tongue to silence her. Philomela's weaving secretly and successfully communicates her circumstances to her sister (6.571-86). Daedalus, more in his role as craftsman than as artist, constructs wings for himself and his son to escape from the tyranny of King Minos of Crete (8.189-95). Unfortunately Ovid only provides the barest of descriptions of their products (Philomela's web is purple and white, and Daedalus's wings are like panpipes). Pan and Marsyas both undertake musical competitions with Apollo. Ovid limits himself to a graphic record of the flaying of Marsyas (6.385-91). Pan's competition with Apollo is an abbreviated version of a music contest along the lines of the weaving contest, incited by Pan's slight of Apollo. Unfortunately, his song is only briefly characterized as 'barbaric' (11.162-63), while Apollo's is even more succinctly described as possessing 'sweetness' (11.170). By contrast, the episodes discussed in this book are conspicuous for their presentation of the performances and artworks, in full for the first time in extant ancient literature, of legendary artists of greater (Muses, Orpheus, Minerva) or lesser (Emathides, Arachne) renown in Greek and Roman myth. The performers are portrayed as celebrities who are proud of their far-reaching artistic reputations, often to their own, or their opponents', misfortune, and the circumstances in which they sing and weave bear all the marks of professional performance.

Ovid's artists therefore stand apart from other creative individuals in the Metamorphoses as professionals like himself, whose difficult position in the face of power or violence is regrettably constant over the course of the universal history he constructs. Ovid shapes their stories to provide a remarkably clear line of sight, from the point of view of a late Augustan artist, into the entire artistic process as it was then conceived: the motivation or compulsion to create, the development of theme and structure of a composition, and the moment of presentation of the artwork, including its audience and their response. It can fairly be said that the artistic condition receives such careful consideration nowhere else in all of ancient poetry. In Ovid's mythical world, the circumstances and protagonists of these public performances are cosmic in scale and power: the most famous artists, the most dangerous gods and patrons, and the most legendary performances, settings, and artworks to be found in Greek mythology are his subjects. Each episode eloquently explores the difficult and often dangerous relationship between power and art, the powerful and the artist, and the occasion that conventionally joins them, the artistic performance. The effect of the reception of the artworks on the artists themselves forms the climax of each episode and provides a sharp commentary upon the relationship between art, artists, and audiences in Ovid's own time.

Performative Ekphrasis

I coin the term performative ekphrasis to describe these episodes, in which a detailed representation of the conditions of artistic performance is combined with descriptions of the art produced under those conditions. It will refer in this study not only to the tapestries of Minerva and Arachne in book 6, the fullest examples of conventional ekphrasis in the Metamorphoses, but also, more controversially, to the songs of the Emathides and Calliope in the preceding poetic contest, which complement and mirror the tapestries, and the pair of songs of Orpheus in book 10, which structurally balance and allude to the pair of songs in book 5. Each of these 'performative ekphrases' is in essence a double narrative, comprising an ekphrastically described artwork and a narrative of the moment and circumstances of its creation.

The ekphrasis occupies a privileged place in epic poetry; next to the catalog, it is the king of epic literary devices, and Ovid's deployment of an innovative form of it in these episodes signals their importance. Michael Putnam provides an elegant working definition of a conventional Vergilian ekphrasis:

Ekphrasis, the topos of "speaking out" in order to describe a person or animal or landscape or, most usually, a work of art, inevitably generates a pause in the narrative when art looks at and continues art, and when the artisan of words, who works on our imaginations by his own verbal constructions, manufactures artifacts within his text for us to see with our mind's eye. As art describes art, we linger, not to escape the story's flow but to deepen our understanding of its meaning, to watch metaphor operating on a grand scale where epic text and one of its grandest synecdoches work as didactic complements to each other.

While this description captures much of the effect of Ovid's performative ekphrases, the device plays a rather different role in the Metamorphoses than Putnam has described for the Aeneid. Ovid's emphasis upon the artists themselves and his visualizations of the way they work, for example, is fairly unusual in ekphrasis, in which objects are typically either unattributed, like the coverlet in Catullus 64 or the temple of Juno in Aeneid 1, or completed long before the time of the narrative, like Daedalus's temple of Apollo at Cumae in Aeneid 6. This lack of attribution frees the artistic object from its context and allows it to be contemplated in isolation, enhancing its more abstract, metaphoric qualities, and opening the ekphrasis to a broader range of interpretations by the reader. By contrast, Ovid contextualizes these ekphrases by embedding them within the circumstances of performance. This has the effect of 'directing' the reader's interpretation of the Ovidian ekphrasis to a greater degree than does the conventional form.


Excerpted from Ovid before Exile by Patricia J. Johnson Copyright © 2008 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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