Carl August Ehrensvärd (1745-1800), The Eagle Ashamed (Jupiter and Danaë), detail.

Urbino, 1570-tal, Perseus and Andromeda.

Ovid's Metamorphosis, Explanations for Behaviors of Gods and Man

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), The Island Tiberina with St. Bartolommeo in the Foreground.

Antonio Tempesta (ca. 1555-1630), The Murder of Julius Caesar, etching.

Antonio Tempesta (c. 1555-1630), Hercules Fighting with Achelous, Etching.

Antonio Tempesta (ca. 1555-1630), The Rebirth of Mankind, Etching.

Antonio Tempesta (c. 1555-1630), Atalanta and Meleager Killing the Wild Calydonian Boar, Etching.

Antonio Tempesta (ca. 1555-1630), The Creation of the World, Etching.


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The Art of Transformation.
Ovid's Metamorphoses in Art

May 24, 2007-January 6, 2008

The Art of Transformation. Ovid's Metamorphoses in Art — an exhibition in celebration of a work that has been influential in European art ever since the Renaissance is an introduction to mythological subjects in art as described by the Roman poet in Ovid’s Metamorphoses written around the years 2-8 AD. The work deals with Greek and Roman mythology, the Gods and their amorous adventures, and how they are able to transform their own appearance and that of others. The stories reveal burlesque elements but are also replete with psychological insights and pathos. Drastic verbal expression and plays on words lend spice to the narratives that have provided an inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists. A familiarity with these stories is essential to understanding art created in Europe since the Renaissance.

Artists like Annibale Carracci with his frescoes in the Farnese Gallery or Titian and Poussin in their paintings of mythological subjects caught the spirit of Metamorphoses though adaptating or paraphrasing Ovid’s poems. Or they took their materials from handbooks of mythology. Ovid’s Metamorphoses were also an important source for the pictorial programme devised by Nicodemus Tessin the Younger for the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

The Art of Transformation. Ovid's Metamorphoses in Art uses materials from the museum’s collections to demonstrate how Ovid’s narratives have given artists and patrons materials for book illustrations, easel paintings, monumental ceilings, garden sculptures, and more. The Nationalmuseum yearbook, published in conjunction with the exhibition, presents Ovid and his work.

The exhibition comprises 65 items. Visitors will, view etchings by Antonio Tempesta, risqué drawings by Carl August Ehrensvärd, etchings by Carlo Cesio and Pietro Aquila based on Carracci’s trendsetting frescoes, as well as plates from Urbino. The first translation into Swedish of the Metamorphoses, dating from the 18th century, as well as an early French edition, have been borrowed from Kungl. Biblioteket, the National Library of Sweden.

The Metamorphoses of Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC-ca.17 AD) are probably the most popular and widely read work from Antiquity. They consist of 15 books comprising 11,995 verses of hexameters. The narrative starts with the creation at the beginning of time and stretches up until the poet’s own period. Ovid also wrote several erotic works, including the Ars Amatoria, which is a handbook on the art of love. The poet was sent into exile in 8 AD for, it is reported, transgressing the edict on public morals introduced by the Emperor Augustus. But whether this reason is the correct one is the subject of controversy.

Ovid wrote on love, abandoned women and mythological transformations. Ranked alongside Virgil and Horace as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature, Ovid was considered the greatest master of the elegiac couplet. His poetry, much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, had a decisive influence on European art and literature for centuries.

Ovid wrote in elegiac couplets, with two exceptions: his lost Medea, whose two fragments are in iambic trimeter and anapests, respectively, and Metamorphoses, which he wrote in dactylic hexameter, the meter of Virgil's Aeneid and of Homer's epics. Ovid offers an epic unlike his predecessors, a chronological account of the cosmos from creation to his own day, incorporating myths and legends of supernatural transformations from Greek and Roman traditions.

Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern Sulmona), which lies in a valley within the Apennines, east of Rome. He was born a boy into an equestrian ranked family and was educated in Rome. His father wished him to study rhetoric with the ultimate goal of practicing law. As stated by Pliny the Elder, Ovid leaned toward the emotional side of rhetoric as opposed to the argumentative. After the death of his father, Ovid renounced law and began his travels. He traveled to Athens, Asia Minor and Sicily. He also held some minor public posts, but quickly gave them up to pursue his poetry. He was part of the circle centered around the patron Messalla. He was married three times and, from these marriages, had one daughter.

In 10 BC, the Amores were published. Book 1 of this collection of love elegy contains 15 poems, which look at the different areas of love poetry. Perhaps the most notable poem of this collection is Poem 6, written in the genre of paraclausithyron, in which Ovid plays the role of exclusus amator asking the door-keeper to let him enter the house of his beloved. Much of the Amores is tongue-in-cheek, and while Ovid appears to be taking the normal route of a love poem, he often uses this as a ploy before going against the norm and to a certain extent mocking the other love poets who he felt were not as good as himself. Ovid's next poem, the Ars Amatoria, or the Art of Love, was an extremely sexual poem that mocked the values promoted by Augustus Ceasar. This work is the "carmen", or song, that was one of the causes of Ovid's banishment. Supposedly, Augustus believed that this work led to the moral corruption of Julia the Younger. By AD 8, Ovid had completed his most famous work, a compilation of Roman and Greek mythology called the Metamorphoses. The book discusses the myths of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Medea, the love affairs of Zeus, and many other celebrated Roman myths. For literary scholars today the book is very valuable, as it offers an explanation to many alluded myths in other works. It is also a valuable source for those attempting to piece together Roman religion, as many of the characters in the book are Olympian gods or their offspring.

Augustus banished Ovid in AD 8 to Tomis on the Black Sea for reasons that remain mysterious, though it is largely speculated that something in the Art of Love offended him. Ovid himself wrote that it was because of carmen et error — "a poem and a mistake" (Tr. 2.207). The error Ovid made is believed to be political in nature — possibly he had knowledge of a plot against Augustus, or stumbled into some senstive state secret. As Julia the Younger (the granddaughter of Augustus) and Ovid were exiled in the same year, some suspect that he was somehow involved in her affair with Decimus Silanus Still, Ovid only moved on the perimeter of Julia's circle, suggesting that reports he seduced Julia or facilitated her affiars is likely romantic hearsay. The carmen is his Art of Love. The Julian Marriage Laws of 18 BC were still fresh in the minds of Romans; these laws had promoted monogamus, marital sexual relations in Rome in order to promote population growth, but Ovid's works concerned adultery, which was punishable by severe penalties, including banishment.

It was during this period of exile — more properly known as a relegation — that Ovid wrote two more collections of poems, called Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto that illustrate his sadness and desolation. Being far away from Rome, Ovid had no chance to research in libraries and thus was forced to abandon his work Fasti. Even though he was friendly with the natives of Tomis and even wrote poems in their language, he still pined for Rome and his beloved third wife. Many of the poems are addressed to her, but also to Augustus, whom he calls Caesar and sometimes God, to himself, and even sometimes to the poems themselves, expressing his heartfelt solitude. The famous first two lines of the Tristia demonstrate the poet's misery from the start:

Parve – nec invideo – sine me,     liber, ibis in urbem:
    ei mihi, quod domino non     licet ire tuo!

Little book – and I won't
    hinder you –
    go on to the city without me:
    Alas for me, becaus
    your master is not
    allowed to go!

Ovid died at Tomis after nearly ten years of banishment. He is commemorated today by a statue in the Romanian city of Constanta (modern name of Tomis). The Latin text on the statue says (Tr. 3.3.73-76):

Hic ego qui iaceo
    tenerorum lusor
    amorum Ingenio perii,     
    Naso poeta, meo.
At tibi qui transis, ne sit     grave, quisquis amasti, Dicere:
    Nasonis molliter ossa     cubent.

Here I lie, who played
    with tender loves,
    Naso the poet, killed
    by my own talent.
O passerby, if you've
    ever been in love, let it
    not be too much for
    you to say: May the
    bones of Naso lie

Carlo Cesio (1626-1686) efter Annibale Carracci, Perseus and Andromeda, detail, Etching.

Antonio Tempesta (ca. 1555-1630), Proserpina Turning Ascalaphus into an Owl.