Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.47

Peter Mack, John North (ed.), The Afterlife of Ovid. BICS supplement, 130.   London:  Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2015.  Pp. xi, 237.  ISBN 9781905670604.  £45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, University of Stellenbosch (

This collection of essays is the tangible fruit of a conference held jointly by the London Institute of Classical Studies and the Warburg Institute, funded by the Dean’s Development Fund of the School of Advanced Studies, University of London. As the title indicates, it treats of Ovid’s Nachlebung, ranging in subject matter from his influence on authors such as Dante and Milton and other English poets, to his influence on the visual arts as represented by Renaissance book illustrations and the painters Correggio and Rubens. A set of conference papers cannot be expected to be representative of every facet of Ovidian reception, a sort of “Compleat Ovid” in the style of the various available Companions. Yet the range of papers gives a very good impression of the pervasiveness during the Renaissance of Ovid’s influence throughout the arts.

The editors set the scene in a thorough introduction, predictably commencing with Ovid’s assertion of his own lasting fame from Metamorphoses 15 (877–9). They explain that emphasis will be on the “central period” of Ovid’s output, with most attention being concentrated on his multi-faceted epic of transformations. Ovid’s treatment of his store of myths offered writers “many rich ways of thinking about time, change, and love” (p.viii). A rapid review of individual papers gives a quick guide to potential “dipping,” but the book as a whole rewards being read as an entity, with one important caveat: it is a pity that the editors did not display a firmer hand in more careful text editing, as errata abound in the first two thirds of the volume (see below).

In the first paper Ingo Gildenhard explores the complex relationships among Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Bible, and Dante’s Divina Commedia (pp.1–21). Even if Dante in the end rejected “literary glory” in favour of “true immortality,” still “Ovid remains an intertextual presence as well in Dante’s transfiguration” (p.20).

Caroline Starke next reflects on aspects of Ovid’s tale of Narcissus as both an example of his narrative art and as symbolic of the transfigurative power of the visual arts (pp.23–41). Starke quotes from Met. 3 (418–24) to support her interpretation of Narcissus’ fixation on his own image as a form of appreciation of a painting, with its power both to capture “perfect beauty” and to “simulat[e] reality” (p.27). Dante, Ariosto, and Tasso feature as “insightful readers of the Metamorphoses” (30) who use the story of Narcissus ‘to explore both the power and the danger of art’ by reminding readers to reject sensory pleasure (41). I was perhaps not fully convinced by Starke’s thesis, but this is no doubt the result of a lack of insight on my part. Starke quotes fairly copiously from the Italians but provides suitable translations, mostly based on work by other scholars.1

In the third paper Frank T. Coulson for the first time publishes his interesting discovery that a commentary on the Ibis, now to be found in the Vatican Library, was composed by the fifteenth century rhetorician Bernardo Moretti of Bologna. The paper (pp.43–58) is rounded off with a one-page appendage, Moretti’s Life of Ovid in Latin verse. After a rapid survey of Moretti’s career and his three biographies of Ovid (two in prose), Coulson concentrates on the stuff of the commentary. Here, unfortunately, more rigorous typographical editing would have enhanced the value of this important paper.2

Next Hélène Casanova-Robin, in a paper titled “From Ovid to Pontano” (61–79), considers myth as a forma mentis, which a further subtitle explains as “[e]laborating humanitas through mythological inventio.” The paper deals with the fifteenth century humanist Pontano’s multifaceted use of Ovid in his poetry, in particular his use of myth to interpret all aspects of life and letters. A striking apothegm serves to wrap up the argument: “In his verses, Pontano repairs the disjunctions Ovid had wrought.” This is followed by a brief recapitulation of the examples Casanova-Robin has discussed (78). Again, some puzzling inconsistencies obtrude.3

John F. Miller next discusses “Ovid’s Janus and the start of the year in Renaissance Fasti sacri” (81–93). The introduction briefly recounts the major players in the history of Renaissance reception of Ovid’s work on the Roman calendar, after which various poetic calendars are considered. Some took the first day of Advent as the start of the Christian year. For Lazarelli, St. Peter is the Ovidian Janus-figure; for Mantuan Janus was Noah; Ambroglio Fracco adopted the name Novidius (New Ovid) and was predictably the most indebted to Ovid’s Fasti, which his version appears to attempt “to trump” (85). This paper has only two misprints.4

Gesine Manuwald’s learned discussion of the vast topic of Ovid’s impact on neo-Latin verse epistles (95–114) is thorough and wide-ranging, ending with detailed discussion of two very different kinds of “Ovidian” heroines’ letters, one a letter-pair by the German Hessus (featuring “Emmanuel”—Jesus—and his mother Mary), the other a single poetic letter by the Scot Boyd (featuring Augustus’ daughter Julia). Again, however, I fear that the appearance of the paper invites quibbling.5 The editors’ preference for the (to this reviewer) old-fashioned approach to citation, with full bibliographical details of each work cited in a footnote, instead of the shorter (Harvard) method, with a centralized bibliography at the end of the volume and brief reference by surname and date of each author in footnotes, leads to the first few pages of Manuwald’s fine article having the appearance of the proverbial ‘thin trickle of text’ above a vast mountain of footnotes.

Three illustrated papers on visual aspects of Ovid’s heritage follow, by Fátima Díez-Platas on fifteenth and sixteenthcentury book illustrations of the Metamorphoses (115–35), by Hérica Valladares on the visual and Ovidian background to Correggio’s portrayal of Io from Metamorphoses 1 (with playful punning on the inclusion of the word ‘Io’ within the painter’s name, 137–58), and by Elizabeth McGrath on the artist Rubens and his debt to Ovid.6 The illustrative plates that accompany these three papers make purchase of this relatively expensive paperback worthwhile.

The last three papers show Ovid transported to the English countryside. Maggie Kilgour sets the tone with a wide-ranging overview (pp. 181–202) of Ovid’s influence, via Chaucer and English Petrarchism, on the Elizabethan poets Spenser, Thomas Churchyard and Lodge, where Lodge’s Scillaes metamorphosis influenced the “Englishing” of the epyllion as genre. This leads to detailed discussion of John Weever’s Faunus and Melliflora, or the original of our English satyrs, and ends with the Ovidian elements in John Milton’s Comus. Philip Hardie takes up where Kilgour leaves off, treating of Ovidian elements in Milton’s great Christian epic Paradise Lost (203–19), concentrating on Milton’s “combinatorial imitation” of various figures from the Metamorphoses to portray both Adam and Eve (p.204). Several of the better known myths feature as intertextual reverberations, from Apollo and Daphne to Echo and Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, even Hermaphroditus and Salmacis. Milton’s similes and “approximative similes” (214) are [often] “heavily Ovidian” (213), with Eve intertextually likened in turn to various nymphs, some originally Homeric or Vergilian, but mediated through Ovid’s appropriation of such. For Hardie, Ovidian influence is not restricted to the narratological, but reflects a “central theological and anthropological theme . . . the correct relationship between original and model” (215). Whereas Ovid refracted the Vergilian Dido through a “multiplicity of women” (219), Milton reassembles these into a unity, according to Hardie.

Victoria Moul ends the collection with discussion of Cowley’s transformation of Ovid in his Plantarum libri sex from 1668 (221-34). The first two books of this voluminous collection of poems in various meters comprise altogether 38 elegiacs celebrating the virtues of 31 different herbs. The book was apparently intended as a serious didactic work, celebrating the utility of these plants, particularly for medicinal purposes. The plants “speak” eruditely on their own usefulness. This feature Moul considers as both “very Ovidian…and very un-Ovidian.” As female victims of sexual violence, they have undergone metamorphosis, but, unlike Ovid’s heroines, they are both eloquent and knowledgeable. The second book, in particular, features herbal abortificants, useful for “girls who have been raped or foolish.” These plants are “banished” to Crete, for their “crime” (induction of abortion, 234), which, had they been known to the parents of various great men, would have rendered them unborn, as Cowley’s “president of the assembly” declares (232). For Moul, the importance of this generically and thematically Ovidian didactic collection is the challenge they offer Ovidian poetics: here female victims survive with their voices intact and “wield and express the power to prevent exactly the sorts of calamities from which they have suffered . . . Ovid’s heroines could have made use of Cowley’s Six Books of Plants” (234).

An Index of close on three pages completes the collection. A composite bibliography, as suggested above, would have been a useful addition to this interesting and thought-provoking volume.


1.   A few typographical errors obtrude: p.35, “gives into despair”; p.40, discrepant highlighting between sections of a quotation from Tasso and its English translation; p.41, “each of the heroes fall victim…..”
2.   Errors abound: p.51, rugbigo for, presumably, rubigo; p.55, inconsistency (at the translation of the comment on Ibis 43) in the use of italics); p.56, line 3, inconsistent use of double and single quotation marks, p.57, inconsistent indentation of Coulson’s comment on Moretti’s treatment of verse 177; passim, why is the perfectly normal English word ‘abstruse’ consistently italicised?
3.   The name “Phaethon” is consistently misspelled as “Phaeton” from p.63 onward and is printed as “Phateon” on p.77; p.75, par.3 “…dedicatee, whom appears…” (for “who”….); p.77, the translation for instabiles…vices is the rather odd: “most unstable skew.”
4.   Both are on p.83: “day’s first day” for “year’s….”; “celebrations of fixed date,” for “…dates.”
5.   Three misprints: p.106, “this” for “his”; p.110, par.2, ‘Quodq and par.4, adulterij.
6.   Unfamiliarity with (Renaissance) Dutch spelling conventions is sufficient excuse for the mangling of the title of Van Mander’s 1604 Uitlegghingh op den Metamorphosis, which became “Wtlegghingh . . . ,” and incorrect spacing in a quotation, which should probably read “…[dat] was omdat er…” (“this was because there was….”) but became “…om datter . . .” in n.1 on p.159.

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