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Recalling Ovid 2,000 years later between lights and shadows

Francesca Boldrer. University of Macerata. Italy


Recalling Ovid 2,000 years later between lights and shadows

Francesca Boldrer. University of Macerata. Italy.

In 2017 the two-thousandth anniversary of the death of Ovid (Sulmo 43 BC – AD Tomis 17) is being celebrated between his lights and shadows. It is a well-known fact that the poet, one of the most brilliant and creative personalities of the Augustan Age, died far away from Rome in a relegatio on the Black Sea. The reason of his removal, decided by Emperor Augustus, is still being investigated and concerns obscure carmen et error, probably referring to the irreverent Ars amatoria and to a scandal of the Augustan family. Even if his exil was relative mild, the poet has lived in vain hope to return home.

Ovid's 'two-sided' life, both successful and dramatic, and his poetry, full of chivalrous loves and bitterness, have fascinated and moved readers of all time, realizing his desire to become “indelible” in human memory, as he hopes concluding the Metamorphoses (15,875 s.): parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis/ alta ferar nomenque erit indelebile nostrum.

In fact, Augustus' political verdict did not condemn Ovidian works to a damnatio memoriae (even if they were excluded from Palatine Library), indeed Ovid became for centuries one of the most popular Latin authors, emulated in literatures and arts.

His success shows admirers for each of his poems until today: someone loves him for playful Amores or for the painful Letters of heroines of the myth; other appreciate the fascinating Metamorphoses, an encyclopedia of myths about transformations and contacts between man and nature, or the melancholic verses from exile that makes this poet's humanitas known (Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto).

            A recent example of Ovid's success in time is offered by the 20st century Italian literature, where the variety of his readers, even poets themselves, is quite evident: he was emulated in different ways by writers belonging to almost opposite literary currents, the decadent Gabriele D'Annunzio, the hermetic Giuseppe Ungaretti and the ingenious intellectual Italo Calvino.

D'annnuzio (1863-1938) shows a close affinity with Ovid, both in life, similarly dedicated to love and beauty, and in poetry, referring to myths of the Metamorphoses, e.g. to that of Apollo and Dafne (Ov. Met. 1.450-567) in the lyric “La pioggia nel pineto” (The rain in the pinewood), composed in 1903 (in the collection “Alcyone”), in which the beloved woman and the poet identify with nature and almost melt in it ("immersi/ noi siam nello spirto/ silvestre").

On the other hand, Ungaretti (1888-1970) seems to follow the example of Ovid' style in using a language characterized by original rhetorical figures and word links with new expressive effects. Moreover, he shares with the Latin poet pains of exile and an ironic vision of life, defining himself (in the poem “Italia”) as a “grumo di sogni” (a clot of dreams), il “frutto/ d'innumerevoli contrasti d'innesti” (the fruit of innumerable contrasts of grafts), suggesting the Ovidian image of a transformed tree.

          Finally Calvino (1923-1985), who praised the Metamorphoses among his favorite readings as an universal representation of life, is close to Ovid for many common interests and skills: the search of popular tales (see “Fiabe italiane”), the vivid imagination (as in the fanciful trilogy of “Ancestors”) and the taste of telling and weaving togheter stories (in the novel “Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore”).

            For these and many other writers Ovid has been and is still a master, he is an 'evergreen' poet, representative of his time but also close to modern human condition and feeelings, unbalanced between good and bad fate, and an exemplum of a resourceful artist and tenacious man, whose ingenium has been recognized and survives.

In effect, the misfortune did not discourage or overshadowed Ovid even on the outer edge of the Empire and his geographical isolation didn't make him really alone, thanks to contemporaries and posterity: against official vetoes or gossip, readers courageously kept his memory alive, handed over his work and mediated it to our days.

This effort and heritage shouldn't be lost: the safeguard is not an easy task, but we need to continue, like the ancient readers, 'lighting up' Ovid's poetry (as well as others) in the started 21st century, preventing shadows of amnesia about classical antiquity.


1) (selected ) General Studies

Bettini M., I classici nell'età dell'indiscrezione, Torino 1995

Calvino I., Perché leggere i classici, Milano (Mondadori) 1991 (published after dead)

Conte G.B., Memoria dei poeti e sistema letterario. Catullo, Virgilio, Ovidio, Lucano, Torino 19852

Fo A., Ancora sulla presenza dei classici nella poesia italiana contemporanea, “Semicerchio. Rivista di poesia comparata”, 26-27, 2002

Fortini F., Classico, in Enciclopedia Einaudi, vol. 3, Torino 1978, s.v. G. Steiner, Real presences, Chicago 1989 (trad. it. Milano 1992)

Kermode F., The classic. Literary images of permanence and change, New York 1975 (trad. it. Roma 1980)

Martindale C., Redeeming the Text: The Validity of Comparisons of Classical and Postclassical Literature (A View from Britain), “Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics”, vol. 1.3, 1991, pp. 45-75

Settis S., Futuro del 'classico', Torino (Einaudi) 2004

2) About G. D'Annunzio

Alvino L., Il poema della leggerezza. Gnoseologia della metamorfosi nell'Alcyone di Gabriele d'Annunzio, Roma (Bulzoni) 1998

Balducci M.A., Il sorriso di Ermes. Studi sul metamorfismo dannunziano, Firenze (Vallecchi), 1989

Gibellini P. Logos e Mythos. Studi su Gabriele d'Annunzio, Firenze (Olschki) 1985

3) About G. Ungaretti

Baronicini D., Ungaretti e il sentimento del classico, Bologna (Il Mulino) 1999

Bruscia M. (a cura di), Ungaretti e i classici, Roma (Studium) 1993

4) About I. Calvino

Bertone G., Italo Calvino, il castello della scrittura, Torino (Einaudi), 1994.

Calvino I., Perché leggere i classici, Milano (Mondadori) 1995

Lacirignola C., Italo Calvino e i cavalieri fantastici, Bari, Stilo Editrice, 2010.

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