Ovid in Cheap Prints: Re-writing Mythological Tales in Renaissance Rome

Marta Balzi (Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20) provides insights on her research recently conducted at the BSR.

One of the many perks of residing at the BSR is the opportunity to enjoy the quiet, greenery and panoramic views of the Villa Borghese Gardens, which lie just a few minutes away from the BSR. A walk to the Temple of Asclepius, a run around the oval track in Piazza di Siena and a coffee at Casina del Lago became a cherished distraction from a day of study in the library. Further within the park there is also the Borghese Gallery, which is an unmissable reference point for Renaissance scholars. It is precisely with the Borghese Gallery, or better with a painting housed in this art gallery, that I would like to introduce this brief account of the research I conducted during my residency at the BSR.

Rutilio Manetti’s Andromeda: Ovidian myths and their translations

marta balzi image 1

Figure 1. Rutilio Manetti, Andromeda, c. 1612, oil on canvas, 177 × 20, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

The painting Andromeda by Rutilio Manetti (c. 1612) illustrates an Ovidian myth from the Metamorphoses that was particularly dear to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists: the myth of Andromeda and Perseus.

According to the classical myth, Andromeda was offered in sacrifice to a sea monster in order to appease the gods. Just before the slaughter, the hero Perseus happened upon Andromeda, naked and chained to a rock. Inflamed by her beauty, Perseus engaged in a battle with the monster and rescued her from the monster’s assault.

This painting conveys the rich eroticism and wittiness of Ovid’s narration, but a closer look reveals that the Latin Metamorphoses was not Manetti’s primary source of inspiration. Ovid had Perseus fly in winged sandals, and not on a winged horse:

pennis ligat ille resumptis

parte ab utraque pedes teloque accingitur unco

et liquidum motis talaribus aera findit.

(Ovid, Met., iv. 665–7)

[Then Perseus bound on both his feet the wings he had laid by, girt on his hooked sword, and soon in swift flight was cleaving the thin air.]

In Manetti’s painting we see an overlapping of Perseus and another mythical figure: the winged horse Pegasus. The link between these two characters was not new to Renaissance art and literature, but it gained currency in the late medieval treatment of Andromeda’s rescue (Javitch 1978).

By the time Manetti composed his painting, the popularity of this version was also intensified thanks to the work of Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (1519–69), the author of the sixteenth-century best-seller translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This Italian translation offered the same combination of Perseus and Pegasus:

Quando su‘l pegaseo veloce ascese

Perseo, e per l’Etiopia il volo prese.

(Anguillara 1563, iv. 411. 7–8)

[Perseus mounted the fast Pegasus, and took off towards Ethiopia.]

The example of Manetti’s Andromeda in the Borghese Gallery testifies to the importance of intermediary sources in the reception of the Ovidian myths in the Italian Renaissance. The Metamorphoses surely constituted the most important repertoire of myths, an encyclopaedic work plundered by writers, musicians and painters. This work, however, was often read through vernacular translations.

Ovid translated in cheap prints

Despite increasing scholarly interest in vernacular translations of the ‘full text’ of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, little attention has been paid to the production and dissemination of vernacular re-writings of the Ovidian myths in cheap prints. The purpose of my research at the BSR was precisely to give visibility to these translations in cheap print and shed further light on the reception of mythological tales in Renaissance Rome.

The term ‘cheap print’ has been employed in recent publications to refer to printed matter more affordable than ‘proper books’ (Watt 1991; Salzberg 2014). These publications could be loosely bound pamphlets printed on a single sheet of paper, which was then folded into an octavo, quarto or even sextadecimo. Alternatively, they could be printed on a single flier or broadsheet. Either way, they were often accompanied by woodcut illustrations that were rarely produced specifically for the text (Rothstein 1990; Salzberg 2014: 21; Niccoli 2017: 188). Despite their affordability, these publications were not definable in relation to a single social group, but were characterised by a high ‘consumability’ that went beyond social boundaries (Braida and Infelise 2010).

One of the fascinating examples of cheap print that I studied in Rome is the Historia di Perseo. This is a loosely bound pamphlet printed in Florence around 1530. Here, the adventures of Perseus are translated in ottava rima, a metre that since the Middle Ages was used by storytellers and also street singers to sing chivalric tales. The woodcuts in the pamphlet suffer from reprinting. They seem not directly related to this publication and were likely rehashed from previous publications.

 

Marta Balzi image2

Figure 2 La historia di Perseo (Florence: n.p., [c. 1530]), held at The British Library in London (shelfmark: 1071.m.17.(13.))

During my residency, I also had the possibility to study other cheap prints held in the Vatican Library, such as:

  • Lettere amorose, et Sonetti familiari in diversi propositi; Confrontati alle lettere per poter scriver a casi occorrenti, di nuovo posti in luce (Venice: In frezzeria al segno della regina, 1580). (Shelfmark: V681(34));
  • Nuova inventione et poetica fantasia; nella quale si disputa fra Marte, et Nettuno della bellezza di Roma, et di Venetia; Et quale di esse merita preceder, facendone Giudice Paride. Con Un sonetto vago e piacevole dove si va scherzando in metafora sopra alcune cose antiche, e belle. (Venice: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(104);
  • Opera nuova alla ciciliana. De un gentil’huomo, che per amor’ andò a l’inferno, per accusar la sua innamorata dinanzi a Plutone. Con la risposta del Demonio cosa molto dilettevole: aggiontovi alcune ottave alla ciciliana ritrovate da Alfonso Cortese alias trastullo di succio muccio di Castrocucco ([n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]). (Shelfmark: V681(50)).

Lettere amorose e sonetti familiari is a collection of love letters and sonnets involving mythological characters. Nuova invenzione e poetica fantasia re-writes the ancient myth of the judgment of Paris, who, in this new version, was appointed to select the most beautiful city between Venice and Rome. Opera nuova alla ciciliana is a parody of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

The place I will miss the most: the BSR library

In the BSR library, I found a vast secondary literature that proved essential to expand my knowledge of Renaissance popular culture in Rome. The beautiful spaces, the quiet and the professional help of expert librarians made the library my favourite room in the BSR. A safe space where I focused on my new research and also worked on my forthcoming publications.

Bibliography:

Braida, L., and M. Infelise (eds), Libri per tutti. I generi editoriali di larga circolazione tra antico regime e età contemporanea (Turin: Utet, 2010)

Bucchi, Gabriele, “Meraviglioso diletto”: la traduzione poetica del Cinquecento e le Metamorfosi d’Ovidio di Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2011)

Burke, Peter, ‘Oral Culture and Print Culture in Renaissance Italy’, ARV: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 1998, 7–18

Carnelos, Laura, ‘Words on the Street: Selling Small Printed “Things ” in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Venice’, in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Raymond Joad and Noah Moxham (Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 739–55

D’Ancona, A., La poesia popolare italiana, 2nd edn. (Leghorn: Giusti, 1906)

Daniels, Rhiannon, Boccaccio and the Book: Production and Reading in Italy 1340–1520 (London: Legenda, 2009)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Brian Richardson and Chiara Sbordoni (eds.), Interactions between Orality and Writing in Early Modern Italian Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016)

Degl’Innocenti, Luca, and Massimo Rospocher and Rosa Salzberg, ‘The Cantastorie in Renaissance Italy: Street singers between Oral and Literate Cultures’, Special Issue of Italian Studies, 71.2 (2016)

Di Mauro, Alberto, Bibliografia delle stampe popolari profane dal Fondo Capponi della Biblioteca Vaticana (Florence: Olschki, 1981)

Guthmüller, Bodo, ‘Cantari cinquecenteschi di argomento mitologico’, in Mito, poesia, arte: Saggi sulla tradizione ovidiana nel Rinascimento (Rome: Bulzoni, 1997), pp. 187–212

‘La Historia de Orpheo: modelli e tecniche narrative’, in Il cantare italiano fra folklore e letteratura, ed. by Michelangelo Picone and Luisa Rubini (Florence: Olschki, 2007), pp. 301–37

Ovidio metamorphoseos vulgare, trans. by Paola Picchioni (Fiesole: Cadmo, 2008)

Infelise, Mario, Prima dei Giornali. Alle origini della pubblica informazione (secoli XVI e XVII (Rome and Bari: Laterza, 2002)

Ivaldi, C., ‘Cantari e poemetti bellici in ottava rima: la parabola produttiva di un sottogenere del romanzo cavalleresco’, in Ritterepik der Renaissance, ed. by K. W. Hempfer (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1989), pp. 35–46

Javitch, Daniel. 1978. ‘Rescuing Ovid from the Allegorizers’, in Comparative Literature, 30: 97–107

Masetti Zannini, G. L., Stampatori e librai a Roma nella seconda metà del Cinquecento: documenti inediti (Rome: Palombi, 1980)

Milner, Stephen, ‘“…Fanno bandire, notificare, et expressamente comandare…”. Town Criers and the information economy of Renaissance Florence’, I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, 16.1/2 (2013), 107–51

Niccoli, Ottavia, Profeti e popolo nell’Italia del Rinascimento (Bari: Laterza, 1987)

Niccoli, Ottavia, ‘Italy’, in The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, ed. by Joad Raymond (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 187–95

Novati, F., Scritti sull’editoria popolare nell’Italia di antico regime, ed. by E. Barbieri and A. Brambilla (Rome: Archivio Guido Izzi, 2004)

Petrucci, Armando, Scrittura e popolo nella Roma barocca 1585–1721 (Rome: Quasar, 1982)

Rothstein, M, ‘Disjunctive images in Renaissance books’, Renaissance and Reformaiton, 14:2 (1990), 101–20

Rozzo, Ugo, La Strage Ignorata. I Fogli Volanti a Stampa Nell’Italia Dei Secoli XV e XVI (Udine: Forum, 2008)

Salzberg, Rosa, Ephemeral City: Cheap Print and Urban Culture in Renaissance Venice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Segarizzi, A., (ed.), Bibliografia delle stampe popolari italiane nella R. Biblioteca nazionale di San Marco di Venezia (Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, 1913)

Ugolini, Francesco A., I cantari d’argomento Classico (Geneva and Florence: Olschki, 1933)

Ugolini, Francesco A., ‘I cantari di Piramo e Tisbe’, in Studj Romanzi, 24 (1934), 19–208

Watt, T., Cheap Print and Popular Piety 1550–1640 (New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, 2005)

Marta Balzi, Ralegh Radford Rome Awardee 2019–20.

 

 

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