- Metamorphosis: The Changing Face of Ovid in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
A popular handbook on Ovid in the sixteenth century claimed that the Metamorphoses was written to substitute for the lost verses of Orpheus, whose song, [End Page 1000] "made manifest an ancient poetic doctrine on the whole course of time, the history of the world, and the mutation of things as it pertains to kingdoms" (Georgius Sabinus, Metamorphosis seu Fabulae Poeticae, 2r , my translation). This commonplace understanding of Ovid's epic, neatly summarized by Sabinus in one sentence and accrediting the poem with an ancient polysemantic wisdom, no doubt helps to account for the many redactions and commentaries that Ovid's masterpiece has inspired over the course of two millennia. The fifteen essays gathered together in this most useful book do an admirable job of exploring some of the ways in which Ovid's epic monument to poetry and Rome —and to himself —enjoyed multiple afterlives in medieval and Renaissance literature and art.
In their introduction, editors Keith and Rupp overview the reception of Ovid's poem in antiquity and the Middle Ages, showing how right from the start, the epic, despite Augustus's exiling of its poet, proved controversial, eliciting praise for an encyclopedic summation of myth as well as criticism for what Quintilian identified as its author's "frivolity" and self-infatuation (19). Helping to demonstrate the nature of what the editors call Ovid's "immense popularity" (28), Frank Coulson's essay on Ovid in medieval France adds to the important work that this scholar has already done on manuscripts of Ovid in the Middle Ages. Here, Coulson focuses on four texts: a philological commentary (ca. 1180) on the epic by Arnulf of Orléans; the "Vulgate" commentary, the most important Latin commentary on the poem from the High Middle Ages, extracts of which from a thirteenth-century manuscript Coulson previously introduced and edited (1991); a commentary previously placed in the Italian Renaissance period but now dated to the late twelfth century; and a previously uncatalogued manuscript from Copenhagen addressing all of Ovid's works. Coulson overviews the kind of commentary offered by these texts, usefully providing representative glosses from each.
The bulk of the essays go on to explore how Ovid's work was interpreted and/or appropriated by various authors writing in poetry or prose. The one exception is a fine art-historical essay by Julia Perlman that rises to the difficult task of probing how Michelangelo appears to have understood himself to rival Ovid on the basis of one of his masterly visual inventions, Venus and Cupid.
Medieval Ovid is amply represented. Marilynn Desmond probes the ethical reading of Ovid's Diana in the vast verse treatise known as the Ovide Moralisé. In it, Ovid's figures are notoriously baptized. Diana, for example, is blithely equated with the Trinity and Actaeon with Christ. On the other hand, Ovid's decidedly non-Christian sexual mores offer "no coherent moral system" (62), and Desmond shows instances when the commentary stutters before a very resistant text. Suzanne Akbari's and Patricia Zalamea's essays on Christine de Pizan's poems follow. Akbari, writing on the Mutacion de Fortune, finds Ovidian metamorphosis a "necessary precursor" (80) for Christine's poetics of metaphor. Christine, authorized by her Roman poet, and her own deepest inclinations, runs against the cultural mainstream to ask if the body is essentially male or female. Zalamea likewise finds Christine's quest for truth enabled by Ovid as her Livre du Chemin de Long Estude reinvents "the Ovidian pool as a locus for vision" (92). Kathryn [End Page 1001] McKinley also shows how Ovid emboldened another medieval poet, John Gower, in his Confessio Amantis, this time to attempt a moral transformation in his royal reader, Richard II, by using Ovid's tales of Tereus and Philomela and Jason and Medea to warn against perfidy. Gower's...