User:Jahsonic/AHE/Renaissance/Ovid and The Painter's Bible
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Opening image: This fresco by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, painted in the twenties of the 16th century, shows Zeus with serpent legs while he approaches Olympias with a stout erection while she lightly spreads her legs (image).
The historiography of the Renaissance generally pays too little attention to Ovid, the man who in his Metamorphoses and Ars amatoria raised love to the level of art. Despite the fact that he shunned foul language and even refrained from using four letter words, he was banned in his own time and regarded with suspicion by the ecclesiastical authorities during the Middle Ages. The only transformation that Jerome and Augustine and other Church Fathers wanted to hear about was transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood of Christ. The only act of creation that they wanted to acknowledge was God's creation, not the fantastic recreations of the Metamorphoses.
We will never know what the handwriting of Ovid looks like, since the majority of Greek and Latin literature disappeared without a trace during the Middle Ages, and none of Ovid's original manuscripts survive. But that Ovid was held in high regard by many can be deduced from the abundance of manuscripts that copied his works during the Middle Ages. With the burgeoning print culture of the Renaissance, it becomes even clearer how popular Ovid has remained.
A revolution takes place in the middle of the 15th century. Even before Gutenberg invents movable type, an earlier technology to reproduce text is already used, the so-called block books. Text and images are carved in wood. These woodcuts are then manually printed in small, cheap booklets of about fifty pages. Often the picture takes centre stage and the text is merely incidental. Many of these early 'best-sellers' are religious in nature, but the 'top ten' of profane books is headed by Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the course of centuries, no secular book is so often reprinted, no other work is translated so many times and in so many different languages. The amount of sex and violence in his stories, can't have been a stranger to that.
Much to the regret of the Christian moralists block books of the Metamorphoses soon appear all over Europe. In some of these editions, the image is accompanied by a text that displayed a Christian moral gloss, though Ovid of course had nothing to do with Christianity. Painters and engravers make good use of the source for their visual fictions. It is far from a coincidence that the Metamorphoses are coined as the 'Painter's Bible'. No Renaissance painter escapes the influence of Ovid, the most sensual of them seem sleep with his work under their pillows.
In the 16th century two remarkable cycles of paintings based on the work of Ovid are produced in Italy for two European rulers who are - artistically speaking at least - a little more liberal than some of their colleagues: Federico II in Italy and Philip II of Spain. Federico gives the assignment to his Italian compatriot Correggio and Philip turns to Titian for a series of canvases based on Ovid.
Although the erotic fame of Titian is at that time well established with his Venus of Urbino, it is especially Antonio da Correggio (ca 1489-1534) who shows himself a master of Ovidian eroticism. His cycle includes these works: Jupiter and Io (c. 1530) (image), its sister piece Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532), Leda and the Swan (1532) (image), Danaë (1531-1532) (image) and Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (c. 1528) (image).
The most exciting painting from the collection is undoubtedly Jupiter and Io. Correggio seems to understand the power of hidden phallic symbolism four hundred years avant Freud. He shows the arm of Zeus, enveloped in a cloud of mist, in order to escape the jealous glances of his wife Hera, reaching between Io's arms and caressing her back, a cucumber-shaped penis that appears like a tentacle of an octopus, or an elephant's trunk. Zeus' lips are touching hers. The image is so vivid that the viewer almost personally experiences the sensual caress of the cloud that engulfs Io. Io's enjoyment can be read from her right toes, which are curled upwards. The subsequent history of the canvas is long and complex and would in itself deserve the attention of an entire book, but one of the most amusing episodes is set in the 18th century, when the work has fallen into French hands. One of its heirs, Louis IV of Orleans is mentally not very stable and is frequently plagued by crises of conscience. One day he picks up a knife and mercilessly cuts the head of Io out of the canvas. Moments later, he burns it. He just could not bear the sensuality of Io's ecstatic face. The head is later professionally replaced by the French painter Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. The unstable Louis IV apparently had a specific problem with Correggio's eroticism, he would also attack Leda and the Swan with a knife.
The story of Leda and the Swan, to which Ovid devotes only a few verses, makes its way via innumerable engravings to the print rooms of the burgeoning bourgeoisie. The theme owes its disproportionate popularity during the 16th century to the paradox that is apparently more acceptable to depict a woman making love to a swan than to a man. The first depictions of the scene are much more explicit than comparable paintings of love scenes between man and woman. The act of copulation itself remains a dangerous theme during the Renaissance. The fate that befell the I Modi album illustrates this. Despite the countless versions of Leda and the swan which see the light of day during the Renaissance, there is no single work that can convince the true erotomaniac, neither the versions of Leonardo and Michelangelo, nor Correggio. The defining version is one that is attributed to the French Baroque painter François Boucher. It is discussed later in this book.
In an increasingly codified world of images, where each story from Ovid is linked to an iconographic representation, certain patterns begin to emerge as a first visual lingua franca. For example, the book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, features a woodcut of a woman copulating with a swan on a chariot while the audience is watching. This is not necessarily an illustrated Ovidian tale, but rather refers to a language that every Renaissance man with some intellectual background will recognize. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the most remarkable books ever published, first appeared in 1499 under the Greek title that translates as 'Poliphilo's Struggles of Love in a Dream'.
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is also one of the most unreadable books ever. Like Rabelais, its writer - more than likely the Dominican priest Francesco Colonna - uses invented words. As if that were not enough, the author writes in an obscure Venetian dialect, interspersed with Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions and supplemented with imaginary hieroglyphs. Colonna often borrows from Ovid and shares his vocabulary - as he shares his sense of risqué eroticism. But where Ovid at his most audacious moments still limits himself to the love between man and animal, Colonna lets protagonist Poliphilo (literally "lover of many things") indulge in sex with buildings. Yes, you heard that right: buildings. The work contains a kind of hidden architectural essay - the reason why some people also think that it was written by the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti - and often one does not know if Poliphilo praises the love for woman or a building. Be that as it may, on no less than three occasions Poliphilo manages to find the appropriate opening in a building to have intercourse with it. And once Poliphilo's most remarkable sensual feelings appear to be mutual.