Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Michael Von Albrecht, Ovids Metamorphosen: Texte, Themen, Illustrationen. Heidelberger Studienhefte zur Altertumswissenschaft. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014. Pp. 262. ISBN 9783825363208. €28.00.

Reviewed by Jo-Marie Claassen, Stellenbosch University (jmc@adept.co.za)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The fifteen chapters of von Albrecht's compact volume of an exemplary series of close readings seemingly represent a lifetime of cogitation on Ovid's Metamorphoses. The articles were originally published from 1958 to 2010 (on average two papers from each decade), some originally in German, while others have been translated from English, Latin, French or Italian. After an initial foreword on the importance of Ovid for a modern readership (Chapter 1, pp.7-10), chapters are arranged within five unnumbered thematic parts: 'Autor und Werk' (pp. 11-80), 'Längsschnitte' (pp. 81-102), 'Gestalten und Themen' (pp. 103-138), 'Poetische Technik' (pp. 139-166) and 'Tradition und Fortwirken' (pp. 167-220).1

First, a brief overview. The first part, 'Autor und Werk', comprising two chapters, represents more than a third of the book. A brief introductory chapter (Chapter 2, pp. 11-13) succinctly places the poet "in seiner Zeit" Then follows a virtual monograph in miniature, on which more below. The second part, 'Längsschnitte' (roughly translatable as 'longitudinal sections'), comprises one chapter (4) on the gods of the Metamorphoses (especially Venus and Bacchus) and another (5) on travel and journeying. Next, in 'Gestalten und Themen' ('figures and themes'), three chapters (6 to 8) in turn consider Ovid's presentation of Actaeon, Arachne and Orpheus. The next three chapters (9 to 11) cover 'Poetische Technik'. Von Albrecht treats, in turn, the proeemium of the Metamorphoses (9), Ovid's use of similes (10) and the relationship of the Metamorphoses with the ancient novel (11).

The last thematic section, 'Tradition und Fortwirken' (pp.167-220), concentrates on aspects of reception in four chapters. Chapter 12 deals with tradition and originality. Chapter 13, a philosophical rumination on Ovid as 'poet of memory', offers an overview of the earlier chapters, covering all aspects of reception: Ovid as both receiver and received. The last two chapters represent an excursus lying outside the main thrust of the book. Chapter 14 analyses the handling of the topic of tree- felling, demonstrating contrasts in the reception of a mythic topos by Ovid and three other authors, particularly in the use of the 'sub-topos' of trees as 'sacred'. In the final chapter (15), Ovidian influence on Dante, von Albrecht displays equal sensitivity to both authors.

This review will concentrate on Chapter 3, which apparently represents new, previously unpublished research. Lack of space precludes individual discussion of the remaining chapters. I shall rather consider aspects of von Albrecht's combination of narratological theory with his technique of close reading.

First, Chapter 3, 'Bücher als Leseeinheiten: Gesamtdarstellung mit Abbildungen' (Books as Reading Units: Representation Combined with Pictures). Von Albrecht discusses plates illustrating an eighteenth-century edition of the Metamorphoses, giving a close literary reading of a close visual reading of the work. He meticulously analyses the fifteen engraved plates that illustrate the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses in a melange of translations published in Amsterdam in 1717, titled Ovid's Metamorphoses. Translated by the Most Eminent Hands. Adorn'd with Sculptures.

The individual pictures on the plates (termed 'sculptures' in the title) closely resemble similar types of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ovidian illustrations, such as those by Giacomo Franco (1550-1620) or Leonard Gaultier (1561-c.1635). 2 Von Albrecht shows how the unknown artist, while following this graphic tradition, gave his own interpretation to the narrative sweep of each book, through the arrangement into different patterns of representations of its key figures. All the major myths within a particular book are represented. These patterns are carefully analysed by von Albrecht. The narrative line of different books is conveyed in various ways: In Plate 1 a clockwise spiral starting at the top of the page guides the reader's interpretation of Ovid's tales of creation and deluge, the gods as lovers, various 'beloveds' as goddesses and the creator-god as demiurge. Representatives of pietas look toward the left, the impious look right. Architectural features such as temples indicate the embedding of a tale within a tale, but also highlight the political aspects of the work. Other book plates arrange the illustrations of various myths in a variant series of patterns. Horizontal, vertical or diagonal groupings are combined to represent the themes of each book. For von Albrecht (p.73), the illustrations together contribute toward our understanding of the poem in its complex entirety.

After von Albrecht's minutely detailed analysis of each plate (pp.17-72), showing each book as a reading unit (Leseeinheit), he next considers how individual units 'work'. The books, as von Albrecht points out, are seldom discussed as cohesive units, citing as an example the antiquary Voss (1751-1826), who split each book into separate myths, ignoring all connective passages. For von Albrecht, consideration of the plates gives reception-oriented access to the books as units, indicates the structure of the books and shows thematic relationships, with details such as gesticulation representing feeling and ideas. Spatial arrangement of the main figures, juxtaposed or contrasted, illustrates the inventio of the book (so, for instance, Minerva's central position on Plate 5 shows her protecting Perseus but speaking to the Muses, thereby indicating her relationship with the worlds of both men and women). Von Albrecht displays consistent narratological interest. Ovid's embedded narrators are portrayed so as to show their relationship with the tales they tell, indicating a visible relationship between primary and secondary narrative. Similar positioning of characters on different plates shows relationships between books. For von Albrecht, it is clear that the unknown artist clearly understood the structure and intention of Ovid's text and aimed to guide readers to see each book as an articulated whole.

The artist occasionally deviated from the text to combine different aspects of stories, or left out gruesome aspects of myths that had been included by other illustrators. Sometimes additions were made: an Eros on Plate 1 serves to point to Book 2; the judgment of Paris is added as 'background information'. Use of anachronism clarifies themes: the creator-god on Plate 1 and the 'demonic' god of the underworld on Plate 10 emulate contemporary Christian illustrations; Orpheus on Plate 11 plays a violin.

The chapter closes with a discussion of the 'mnemotechnical' and didactic use of the illustrations. The plates serve as aids to remembering the contents of books and together promote interpretation of the whole. These illustrations represent a type of reception of Ovid that contrasts with all other Ovidian research. Such perspicacious recognition of an unusual type of reception is a fitting tribute to that most 'visual' of poets. Yet von Albrecht's punctilious literary criticism is predominant. His acute awareness of matters stylistic (termed 'poetological technique') stands out in his close reading of Ovid's introductory passage in Book 1, showing his careful attention to the implications of every word (pp.140ff). Examples abound throughout, as in his comment on the portrayal of Actaeon's alienation between his body and his consciousness by means of anaphora, alliteration and contrast (p.110); comment on the metrical indication of change of tense of the verb venit (věnit, to vēnit,) in Metamorphoses 6.42 (p.113); on the changing colour-spectrum of vowels to convey Orpheus' wailing when Eurydice dies in Metamorphoses 10.10-11 (p.234, n.84); discussion of the jauntiness of Orpheus' dactylic speech before Hades (p.129); detailed argument regarding the stylistic probabilities of variant readings illis / illas in Metamorphoses 1.2, with judicious opting for the latter (p.143).

Chapter 10 (pp.157-66), on Ovid's similes, is a stylistic comment in its entirety. Yet analysis of Ovid's similes goes further, also considering narratological aspects. The value of similes lies in their simultaneous retardation of action and provision of inner movement in so-called 'dead' passages (p.147ff). A simile works as 'Kunstpause' with different functions, depending on its position within a tale (p.149). Similes tying together present and past work in three distinctly different ways: toward the beginning of a tale, a simile sets the tone; in the middle, it enlivens a static passage or changes the pace of the narrative; toward the end, apparently mundane 'Homeric' similes make realistic and believable aspects of fantasy within a tale (in the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe (pp.155-6), blood spouting 'like a fountain' provides a rational explanation for why mulberries are red). Conversely, Ovid is not averse to humour and even bathos in frequent contrasts between epic simile and 'unepic' main action.

Von Albrecht's awareness of the need for narratological analysis most clearly appears in the discussion of the structure and unity of the Metamorphoses (pp. 92-102;183ff.), from the initial cosmology of book 1 to Pythagoras' monologue in the fifteenth book. In an obiter 'Stand der Forschung' (pp. 184-5) and with reference to his own preceding chapters, von Albrecht discusses aspects such as thematic unity, Ovid's method of sliding from one tale to another and cliff hangers at the close of books, calling for further research on Ovid's technique of linkages (p. 187). Other narratological aspects occur: Various catalogues (as in the names of the hounds in the tale of Actaeon in Metamorphoses 205-25) create suspense by means of a long pause in the action (p. 108); the description of Eurydice's journey toward the light fluctuates in focalisation between Orpheus and Eurydice (p. 135).

Also on genre and intertextuality von Albrecht is profound: The Metamorphoses is an epic sui generis (p.164). In passing he offers an excursus on the fluidity of generic exchange among ancient authors: Herodotos and Homer; Thucydides and tragedy (p.165). Ovid throughout displays a rich awareness of genre and literary history, sometimes harking back to Homer, sometimes to Vergil (p. 160). Ovid's intertextuality reaches both backward to Callimachus and forward to Apuleius (p. 157). A note (195 on p.241) traces parallels between Ovid and Petronius. Ovid's playful approach is indebted to both epic as 'history' and the novel as 'fiction'. A short excursus on the origins of the novel indicates that recent discoveries trace it back to Hellenistic times. Common sources influenced Ovid's take on epic. Commonalities with the novel are: 'dramatic irony' in a character's lack of the knowledge shared by the author with his readership; a 'cinematic' narrative style, with the difference that there is no single 'hero' as with Apuleius. Von Albrecht also calls for research on Ovid's work as 'science fiction' (p. 166).

Intertextual awareness enabled Ovid constantly to fluctuate between elegiac feeling and epic objectivity, also combining epic, elegy, epigram and rhetoric (p.188). Particularly intriguing are von Albrecht's analysis of the rhetorical elements of Orpheus' suasoria, delivered before the gods of the underworld (Metamorphoses 10.16-39, pp. 130-2), and his subsequent analysis of its 'thematic' (structural) elements, showing thesis, antithesis and synthesis (pp.133-4).

Profound statements about the nature of the work, verging on aphorism, abound. I paraphrase a few. On Augustus: 'It was very Roman to strive for apotheosis' (p. 82); on Arachne: 'A human with many possibilities becomes an animal with only one' (p. 116); on the domain of Hades: 'Political or cosmic order brings tragedy' (p. 121); on Ovid's style: 'Ovid fills rhetorical categories with poetic life' (p. 137) and 'Where a monarchy dethroned rhetoric, it became a structural paradigm for poetic (and musical) inventio' (p. 138); on the poem as a whole: 'It is a collective poem of a new kind, comparable with Hesiodic catalogues or Hellenistic aetiology, but truly Roman and Ovidian' (p. 187) and 'it is surreal rather than baroque' (p.190).

It is difficult to convey appropriate appreciation for von Albrecht's dense argument, but also to have to quibble about small aspects of layout. Why a reference to endnote '66' on page 116 and note '44' on 117? The relevance in context of these two notes is not clear. Endnotes are numbered from 1 to 324, running consecutively throughout the book. Some chapters have only one or two notes, others are prolifically annotated. Notes relating to individual chapters are preceded by a first (unnumbered) endnote offering bibliographical details, starting with the source of the article (the journal or Festschrift in which it first appeared), followed by a run-on list of works consulted, alphabetical according to author. A consolidated final bibliography at the end of the volume would have facilitated quick reference, out of the context of a particular chapter. However, the very first unnumbered endnote (p.225, titled 'Zu Kapitel 1') gives a fairly comprehensive select bibliography, again in run-on lines. An index of passages cited would have been useful for consultation on matters of compositional style, as discussed above.

I have been enriched by the new insights provided on the Metamorphoses by von Albrecht's literary perspicacity and versatility.3


1.   Table of Contents
2.   See Sarah Schell, 'Checklist of the Exhibition The Transformation of Ovid's Metamorphoses,' 2013, Washington, National Gallery of Art.
3.   Sincere apologies to the author for my long delay in producing this review.

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