Metamorphosis in the Arts of Early Modernity and Beyond

This course will pursue the theme of metamorphosis in Renaissance art and decoration, in terms of narrative illustration but also as a ruling metaphor and as a figure of style, capable of embodying a wide variety of meanings. A starting point will be to understand the enduring appeal of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the various, overlapping ways in which it was received and understood during this period. While Ovid’s great epic poem was plumbed by a stream of painters and sculptors to explore the erotic and transformative nature of love, in the applied arts, where meaning tended to reside in allegory and figure, the drama, violence and enchantment of the lovers’ tales could act as poetic symbol and rhetorical gloss to more universal moral and philosophical ideas. Ovidian poetics were a means by which to understand the natural world, offering etiologies of individual species of plants and minerals, as well as explanations for larger principles of creation, generation, and change. In a related manner, the idea evolved that metamorphosis could have a symbolic value that was directed to the processes of artistic creation itself. Metamorphosis fitted easily alongside other contemporary concepts of inversion, transmutation and changeability within the arts and natural philosophy. The course will thus explore the place of Ovidian myth within the broader movement of classical revival and the ways it came to occupy a conceptual space within important areas of culture: from informal and suburban contexts of villa and garden, bedchamber and bathroom, to grander expressions of power in the halls of state; from literature and the stage to the craftsman’s workshop and alchemist’s laboratory and the abstruse worlds of the studiolo and Kunstkammer, and seek to understand how it endured so powerfully within western culture and society up to the present day. 3 credits.