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Art as a Poetic Interpretation

Latin poetry is without a doubt my favorite genre of writing to read with students.  The writing of poets such as Vergil, Ovid, and Horace is pure art.  I often tell students that these poets are literary artists.  The page is their canvas, the stylus is their paintbrush, the words are hues of color, and the literary devices are their brush strokes.  It is the choice and implementation of the latter two that set all artists apart as masters.

Many artists must share this view as they allowed the literary artwork of these great poets to inspire their own graphic compositions.  In fact, the Metamorphoses inspired so many paintings in the 12th century that it was called the Aetas Ovidiana [Ovidian Age].  I explain to students that the artists of this time period would have been well versed in Latin and quite possibly Greek.  They would not have read the Metamorphoses in English or Spanish or French, but would have read Ovid in Latin.  The diction, syntax, and style used by Ovid would have created images and impressions in the mind of the artist who then interpret those images upon a canvas.  I challenge students to read a piece of Latin poetry and then study a piece of art in light of that poetry.  Consider the words and arrangement of the poet.  Then seek to discover those elements within the poem.  Where does the artist interpret the poet? What lines/phrases do you see interpreted? How?  Where does the artist take license? Why?

 

Consider the following two pieces inspired by the myth of Pyramus & Thisbe in Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

Pyramus and Thisbe by Gregorio Pagani

  • Where are we in the story?  What has happened thus far?
  • What scenery here is described by Ovid? mulberry tree – arbor,  fountain – gelido contermina fonti (Metamorphoses IV.90), Thisbe’s tattered cloak – vestem quoque sanguine tinctam (Metamorphoses IV.107)
  • What elements are different than perhaps what Ovid may have described? Why?  The clothing is not entirely Greco-Roman, but has been influenced by fashion in the time period of the author.  The statue on the fountain is a small cupid. No such statue is mentioned, but this statue adds an element of personification to the fountain as witness to the deed.
  • How does the author use color?  Very little actual blood appears in the painting, but there are copious amounts of red.  The red appears most notably on the cloak/garment on which Pyramus is lying. Is it a red pattern? Is it blood? Does it give the appearance (with respect to color and folds) of blood pouring from Pyramus?
  • How does the author use lighting?  The light falls most notably on Thisbe who must be the center of the piece due to her position and her depicted action (clearly her death scene), but also falls greatly upon Pyramus the cause of her death.  The fountain statue (witness) also receives some light.
  • ALWAYS introduce or conclude discussion with the author, time period, and location of the work.  If possible gather information online also for any additional elements about the art that may be of interest to students or help further their appreciation of the piece. This piece is an oil on canvas painted in Florence, Italy (c. 1558-1605).  It is now on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

 

It is always nice to juxtapose two pieces to see how authors interpret the same scene differently.

Pyramus and Thisbe by Pierre Gautherot

  •  This too is an oil on canvas.  This is a more recent painting, created in 1799 by a French artist.
  • Repeat discussion questions from above noting both similarities and differences.
  • The fountain is represented in a different way (which do you think is truer to Ovid’s description)?
  • The tomb and city are present this time – cumque domo exierint, urbis quoque tecta relinquant (Metamorphoses IV.86) . . . conveniant ad busta Nini (Metamorphoses IV.88).
  • How is the clothing different?   Note that the artists both use red fabric in a similar manner.
  • How is the mulberry tree different (foliage and fruit)? – madefactaque sanguine radix/
    purpureo tinguit pendentia mora colore (Metamorphoses IV.126-127)
  • The sword in Thisbe’s hand is more directly tied to Pyramus and his empty scabbard. – Quae postquam vestemque suam cognovit et ense/vidit ebur vacuum (Metamorphoses IV.147-148)
  • Particularly note the difference in style: lighting, human form, use of color, etc.
  • Discuss how these differences reflect the genre of art and the time period.
  • HINT:  Pull in an art teacher to either give you guidance in leading the discussion, or integrate lessons by discussing in his/her class, or act as a guest instructor in your Latin class.

 

 

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is included in the Latin Alive Reader: Latin Literature from Cicero to Newton.

In the next post titled “Poetic Art Assignment” I share a student assignment related to interpreting poetry through art using this same story.

AP Latin Tip:

For a similar art study using Caesar’s work visit the previous post: Romans Under the Yoke – an Art Study for Caesar.

For an art study on Vergil’s Aeneid visit the posts:

Low Ham Mosaic

Art-Literature Analysis: Student Assignment

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