Thursday, March 26, 2015


Paul Barolsky, Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Botticelli to Picasso. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 250. ISBN 9780300196696. $45.00.

Reviewed by Rosemary Barrow, University of Roehampton (

Version at BMCR home site

Barolsky makes clear at the start of his book that this is not a traditional academic study but rather a meditation on art works inspired by the writings of Ovid. His aim, as he states it, is to aspire to a 'lightness' or 'leggerezza' that Italo Calvino ascribed to the Latin poet in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (p.230). Instead of writing within familiar conventions of scholarly discourse, Barolsky has endeavoured to reproduce something of the playful Ovidian tone into his discussion of art works themselves based on Ovid's texts.

The structure initially follows the Metamorphoses, but then (as Barolsky admits), the sequence becomes more capricious. Part I begins with a personal reflection of the author's own discovery of Ovid in art, and is followed by a general introduction to the Roman Ovid himself. Part II concentrates on two major works – Titian's Diana and Actaeon and Bernini's Apollo and Daphne– in order to explore metamorphosis from poetry to painting and from marble to flesh. Less coherent in theme, part III includes notes on a number of works concerning pursuit, seduction, and revenge. Part IV is devoted largely to pictorial receptions of Pygmalion, especially prevalent in the nineteenth century. It also includes a discussion of Narcissus where Caravaggio's painting, in particular, points to large questions surrounding the relationship between art and desire as found in Ovid's retelling of the myth. Part V begins with Bruegel's Fall of Icarus in which a ploughman continues his work unaware of the tragedy unfolding around him, and the chapter continues the theme of Ovidian stoicism as explored in Poussin's eternal cycle of nature paintings. The same chapter mentions natural and artificial architecture and touches upon metamorphosis and the grotesque with the transformation of the Lycians turning into frogs by Giuseppe Chiari and Lucas Cranach's Actaeon, in which the stag still wears human hunting boots.

The myth of Arachne begins part VI with weaving and interweaving as its theme. In Velásquez' The Spinners, Arachne's tapestry of the myth of Europa takes on a life-like appearance, as indicated by Ovid, so that the cupids hovering in the sky seem as if they are flying before the image rather than being part of it. Velásquez also looks back to Titian's painting and perhaps also Rubens' copy of it., thus suggesting an intertexuality characteristic of the way that artists look back to other artists as well as to the classical texts that inspire their works when dealing with mythological subjects. The chapter goes on to look at Venus, Mars and Adonis. The subjects of part VII are Bacchus, Apollo and Orpheus. Here Ovidian landscape is also touched upon with the example of Domenichino's Hercules and Achelous in which natural surrounding overwhelms Ovidian characters. Fewer images in the visual repertoire as a whole derive from the last five books of the Metamorphoses, and Barolsky lights upon two paintings by Poussin from book 13 of the Metamorphoses showing Achilles hiding among the daughters of king Lycomedes as comparatively rare examples of Ovidian Trojan war subjects.

In keeping with Ovid's Metamorphoses as the main source of inspiration transformation is a major theme. Another important theme that emerges is the exploration of what can and cannot be depicted. The representation of the 'seen' and 'unseen' is illustrated in Bernini's sculpture Apollo and Daphne, with its suggestion of the'unseen' wind and the 'seen' effect of wind on the fluttering drapery of Apollo. In a similar vein, in Correggio's Jupiter and Io, where we see Jupiter in the form of a cloud embracing an ecstatic Io, vapour is shown as if it were corporeal. Barolsky also ponders the 'limits of art' (p.194): the whispering reeds that relate that King Midas has the ears of an ass cannot be visualized; nor can the head of Argus, decapitated by Mercury, and spilling onto the rocks; nor Philomela's tongue, which, continues to twitch and quiver after Tereus has cut it out of her mouth.

Barolsky has selected more paintings than sculptures for discussion, the majority of which belong to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most are well known but occasional unexpected examples such as Honoré Daumier's nineteenth- century caricature of the Pygmalion myth and Kiki Smith's late twentieth-century brutal plaster sculpture of Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree, offer contrasts with the Old Masters. Particularly noteworthy is Recumbent Venus with Cupidby a sixteenth-century Flemish follower of Titian, Lambert Sustris. A nude Venus awaits her lover Mars who is shown arriving in full armour in the background. Before the goddess two doves copulate as she gently strokes the male's feathers in an episode of 'displaced foreplay' (p.157).

Particularly effective is Barolsky's description of Piero di Cosimo's A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, in which an intense feeling of sorrow matches Ovid's descriptions of death of Procris and Adonis. He similarly compares yearning in Ovid's Cephalus myth with Poussin's Cephalus and Aurora, where the young man held captive by the lovelorn goddess of dawn looks at the portrait of his beloved wife. An entirely different mood is captured in Guido Reni's Atalanta and Hippomenes. Barolsky describes the foot race depicted as a dance of the two figures who move across the canvas in opposite directions. For a recollection of the tensions between stone and flesh found throughout the Metamorphoses, Barolsky cites Bernini's Pluto and Persephone, where the god grasps his victim so tightly that his fingers press into her thigh as if it were not hard marble but soft flesh.

As well as suggesting connections with Ovid's text, Barolsky makes a number of perceptive observations on individual paintings. In Titian's Europa Jupiter in the guise of a bull has 'big dewy eyes' (p.137) that look out of the canvas. This is an irony echoed in the putto on the back of sea creature that imitates Europa on the bull's back. Both parodic details are at odds with the violence of the central image of the powerful bull charging through the water. The same myth depicted by Veronese has a very different (and arguably less successful) effect. In a literal visualization of Ovid's description of the bull kissing Europa's hand, Veronese shows his bull licking her foot. What Ovid imagines anthropomorphically becomes ridiculous when depicted literally.

Alongside interesting observations and connections, the book touches upon some important issues that would have benefited from further discussion. Although art historians are familiar with the application of linguistic and semiotic theories to the study of visual material, 1 Barolsky makes the bold claim that the concept of 'reading' is applicable to words and not images (p.23). His example of the difference between seeing and reading is Titian's Diana and Actaeon. The picture presents only one active moment when Actaeon stumbles upon Diana bathing, and it is the painting's symbolism – a stag's skull and animal skins hanging in the trees – that prompts the viewer's memory of Ovid's narrative. The complex relationship between text and image, a subject well-discussed in art historical research, does merit elaboration. So also does the concept of the gaze, another well-researched art historical topic and highlighted in Rubens'Orpheus Leading Eurydice from Hades, a painting about the dangers of looking, in which, as Barolsky points out, most of the figures look at one another. This is an interesting observation that would have profited from elaboration.

Barolsky has written extensively on the connection between Ovid and post-classical art,2 but his previous articles are not cited nor their arguments noted. He points out that Botticelli's Primavera is too rich in symbolism to be treated fully in this book (p.74), but he does not provide any hints as to further reading, not even his own writings.3 The book has no footnotes and only a brief bibliographical note; the absence of both is noticeable. If the reader is expecting an academic book that expands on themes already explored by the author, then s/he will be disappointed, but if s/he is looking for a journey through the pleasures of the history of art, then this engaging and beautifully illustrated volume will be more than satisfying.


1.   For an overview of the topic, see, for example, M. Bal, 'Reading Art?' in G. Pollock, ed., Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts (London, 1996), 25-41.
2.   See, for example, 'As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art', Renaissance Quarterly, 51. 2, 1998, 451-474; 'Ovid, Bernini, and the Art of Petrification', Arion 13. 2, 2005, 149-162; 'Ovid's Protean Epic of Art', Arion14. 3, 2007, 107-120.
3.   'Florentine Metamorphoses of Ovid', Arion 6.1, 1998, 9-31.

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