March 20: the sage of world history

2012/03/20 § Leave a comment

On this day in 43 BC Publius Ovidius Naso was born.

Known to the English-speaking world as Ovid (d. 17 AD), he was one of the greatest Roman poets, right up there with Virgil and Horace and, with them, the source of virtually everything later architects, artists (and you) knew (or know) about that time you vaguely call “antiquity.”  In particular, Ovid’s poem “The Metamorphoses” (written around 8 AD) is a lengthy narrative in fifteen books that is a history from the creation of the world to the assassination of Julius Caesar.  That makes it both ancient history and current events to Clio–then again, everything is modern to me!  You can reject its veracity and call it “mythology” if you must.  But you weren’t there, were you?

The book (which you can read in its entirety in this edition, which is pretty reasonable except for its author’s offensive use of the word “fables” to describe its content) includes the stories all kinds of people and divinities you know, even if you don’t know who is to credit for preserving their histories: Minerva, Daphne, Bacchus, Narcissus, Icarus, Perseus, the Scythian Women, Jupiter & Europa, Jupiter & Io, Mars & Venus, Jason & the Golden Fleece, Medea & Jason, Pluto & Proserpina, Hercules & his Labors, Adonis & Venus, Medusa & her hair.  Sound familiar?  Basically, “The Metamorphoses” explains everything that’s ever inspired Classical art, especially the kind that sculptors, mosaicists and fresco painters like to stick into buildings.

Among these dozens of options, one particular theme has been a consistent favorite among muses and humans–no doubt for the way it plays into messages from the top of the power structure downward–is the Gigantomachia, from Book I.  The basic moral is the smackdown doled out by the gods on the rebellious giants.  Early representations of it date back to vases I remember from my youth (here), famously at the Hellenistic Pergamum Altar (here), in the splendid sixteenth-century frescoes at the Palazzo del Te (above and here) and eighteenth-century ceiling at a palace in Liechtenstein (here).  Ovid’s stories were great, and have influenced all art forms, from architectural sculpture to literature–just review such classics as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Clio’s favorite dramatic program of all time–and indeed, that’s a lot of time.

Image: Sala di Gianti, Palazzo del Te, by Giulio Romano (from this source)

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