I was a teenager the last time I read (and adored) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the characters and stories still so feel so familiar. Walking around the Scuderie del Quirinale, at the exhibition of artworks inspired by Ovid (Ovidio. Amori, miti e altre storie), it was like bumping into old friends. “Ah, it’s Icarus again …Marsyas challenging Apollo to a competition on the lyre, we all know how that ends….a distressed woman and a cow, must be Zeus and Europa.”
(‘The Abduction of Europa’, Antonio Caracci)
I know Ovid because I’ve read Ovid, but I know him best through art. If you start looking, the myths of the Metamorphoses are everywhere – countless paintings, frescoes and sculptures in churches, museums and galleries, returning obsessively to certain moments.
Daphne turns into a tree to escape Apollo:
(‘Apollo and Daphne’, Bernini)
Zeus turns into an eagle to abduct Ganymede:
(‘The Rape of Ganymede’, Damiano Mazza)
The massacre of Niobe’s children by Apollo (and in some versions, Artemis):
(‘The Punishment of Niobe’ by Tobias Verhaect)
Most art inspired by mythology seems to be focused on a moment of suffering – death, mourning, rape, abduction. The crucial, dramatic moment of the story is almost always a terrible one, and yet generations of artists (and gallery-goers) delight in them.
There’s just something morbidly fascinating about these moments – often a fateful encounter between god and mortal. They’re turning points – the lives of Daphne, Ganymede, Niobe and Europa will never be the same again.
I like the amorality of these stories. There are a few exceptions, such as the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, or the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, which have a clear moral message – a warning against arrogance or hubris. But for the most part there’s no message, no lesson. What I love about mythology, and the Metamorphoses in particular, is the acceptance of things as they are, without judgement. Beautiful things happen. Terrible things happen. Life is random. People live and then transform. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (‘Everything changes. Nothing perishes.’)
One of my favourite myths is the story of Ariadne. After helping Theseus to defeat the Minotaur, she’s abandoned on the island of Naxos. There are lots of paintings and sculptures depicting either the sleeping Ariadne (unaware that she’s been abandoned), or showing the moment that she wakes up alone on the beach and weeps for Theseus.
(Head of sleeping Ariadne)
(‘Ariadne in Naxos’, Evelyn de Morgan)
I understand why these moments are popular artistic subjects – beautiful sleeping woman, beautiful sad woman.
But the best, most dramatic moment of the story is this:
(‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, Titian)
This is the moment when Ariadne meets Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of wine, and his entourage. The moment when she meets her future husband, and realises her life is about to be transformed:
Here’s an extract from one of my novels, where two characters look at a painting of the Annunciation during a visit to the Accademia in Venice and then discuss Bacchus and Ariadne:
“Look at this,” she said.
The angel Gabriel had swept into a palace of marble, an elegant building of columns and archways. To the right, the Virgin Mary regarded her visitor with an expression of mild curiosity.
“Mary always looks so serene, doesn’t she?” said Hyacinth. “But it must have been a frightful shock.”
“That’s what I always thought. When I was younger I was so enthralled by these Annunciation paintings, staring at them for ages in the Gallery. My sisters had to drag me away.”
“Because it’s the most dramatic, life-changing moment, and there’s always this space between the angel and Mary, as though there has to be this divine distance and he can’t come too close. I find it fascinating. I dreamt of the same thing happening to me.”
“You never struck me as the type that craved divine visitations.”
“Of course. It seems like the most strange and beautiful thing in the world, especially when you’re twelve years old and you think your life is going to stay the same forever. I wanted to be someone special, to have my life changed in an instant by an angel coming into my bedroom in a blaze of glory. I know it sounds absurd, so you can laugh if you like.”
“No, I think I understand what you mean.”
“I’ve always loved the paintings which show the second when someone’s life changes. Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ is another one – the moment when she’s rescued, and she sees her new life coming towards her, Bacchus leaping from his chariot beneath that perfect sky.”
The character’s feelings about Bacchus and Ariadne are my own. The painting, which I first discovered through an art book I had as a child, and then through repeated visits to the National Gallery in London, is also one of the sources of my fascination with Dionysus/Bacchus.
So many paintings focus on a divine encounter. Not just mythological art, but also all the scenes from the Bible. The moment when a mortal captures the attention of a god, for better or worse, or when an ordinary person finds themselves in the presence of Christ or a saint or an angel.
Which scene from my novel, In Exile, would I choose to be represented in a painting? The first moment that the teenage girl meets the melancholy, exiled god of wine in a backstreet of the Jewish Ghetto, and mistakes him for a homeless man? Dionysus’s unsettling appearance at a sleepover, and the first taste of divine wine? A scene from one of the later bacchanals near the Appian Way, when they realise there’s no going back? It’s a pity it’s too late to commission Titian…
As much as I love these freeze frames – the scenes that make me think of the beauty and frustration of stillness in Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – I always want to know what comes next. What about the rest of the story? I suppose that’s why I write novels instead of creating art (well, there’s also the fact that I can’t even draw a decent stick figure…). Maybe that’s also the reason why of all the mythological paintings, it’s Bacchus and Ariadne that captivates me the most. Somehow it feels like more than a moment, hinting at the rest of the story – leaving Naxos to begin a new life as a goddess, wife of Dionysus. In myth it’s considered the end of the story, but it’s actually a beginning. A life on the verge of transformation, and a glimpse of a new world.
I originally intended to write a proper review of the exhibition, but I got sidetracked…I do recommend Ovidio, which is at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January. I liked the way it was organised, beginning with an introduction to Ovid and his life and times (the age of Augustus), and then guiding you through the myths. Even if you choose not to use the audioguide, the myths are explained (in well-translated English, for once!) for each section, which has several artworks depicting a character or scene from the story. Some of the artworks are not the best or most famous interpretations of the myth, but there’s still a good selection of paintings and sculptures, including some beautiful frescoes from Pompeii and a striking, lesser-known Venus by Botticelli.
As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.