A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid (Extrait/Excerpt)

The bella scola of Dante’s Limbo
We first meet an ancient poet in Dante’s Divine Comedy in the first canto of the
Inferno, as Dante finds himself in a dark wood on a mountain whose summit is
just illuminated by the light of dawn. He is driven down from the mountain by
three beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. Then Dante encounters a human. He
describes this apparition as a “man who seemed hoarse from a long silence” (Inf.
1.63), meaning, I think, that Virgil had been long silent in the Middle Ages until
Dante restored his voice. This figure identifies himself as a poet and the author of
the Aeneid. Dante responds by adapting Dido’s words when she recognized Aeneas
in Carthage: “Are you then Virgil?” (Inf. 1.79 “Or se’ tu quel Virgilio … ”; Aen. 1.617
tune ille Aeneas … ). There are more ancient poets Virgil and Dante will encounter,
until Virgil vanishes with the advent of Beatrice on the summit of the Mount
of Purgatory. Virgil and Dante reach the first group of poets in the faint light of
Limbo beyond the Acheron and the gate of Hell. Dante’s Limbo must be the most
agreeable place in the entire Commedia. Only pagans dwell there. As Virgil and
Dante enter Limbo a voice commands: “honor the highest poet whose shade that
departed has returned” (Inf. 4.80–81). The voice is that of Homer, commanding his
fellow poets in Limbo to honor Virgil as “the highest poet.” Virgil then introduces
Dante to Homer, who is gripping a sword in his hand—identifying him as the poet
of the Iliad. Homer and the other poets make up the bella scola— the “fair school,”
words which presumably mean that they instruct other poets as Virgil instructed
Dante (Inf. 1.82–87). The poets of this “school” are, after Homer and Virgil,
Horace of the Satires, Ovid, and Lucan last. Homer seems to have instructed them
all, for he is described as “the master of the most lofty song” (Inf. 4.95). After a
brief conversation with Virgil, this distinguished group invites Dante to join them
A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid, First Edition. Edited by John F. Miller and Carole E. Newlands.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Metamorphosis of Ovid in Dante’s Divine Comedy 175
as “sixth in a group of such great wisdom” (Inf. 4.100–2). The words Onorate
l’altissimo poeta are inscribed on Dante’s cenotaph in the church of Santa Croce
in Florence. Here they are hollow. He was never to return to Florence. Dante,
however, could not have known Homer directly, even in Latin translation—he
once quotes him from the Latin translation of Aristotle (who quotes Il. 24.258–59
in NE 7.1; VN 2.8)—and he seems to have known Horace only from his Ars Poetica
(which he quotes at VE 2.4.4 and in his Letter to Can Grande, 10.30 Toynbee).
This count is significant. The sequence of six great poets is meant to be historical, and in the fullness of time it will reach its fulfillment in Dante’s Christian Divine
Comedy. It is significant for Dante’s concept of history and his concept of “Latin”
(by which he means both Latin and Italian) poetry that his “fair school” makes him
“sixth among poets of such great wisdom” (“sesto tra cotanto senno,” Inf. 4.102).
The count and sequence becomes more complex as Dante and Virgil encounter
Statius on the terrace of the Mount of Purgatory where Avarice and Prodigality
are punished. Virgil is amazed that Statius is a Christian, as he must have been to
reach the Mount of Purgatory. By the divine dispensation that allows the poets
in Limbo knowledge of poetry written after their death, Virgil, whose Messianic
eclogue turned Statius to Christianity (Ecl. 4.1–13; Purg. 22.64–93), knows Statius’
epic of the Seven against Thebes (the Thebaid), but he can detect no sign of Christianity in it (Purg. 22.55–63). The reason that Dante does not count as seventh in the
bella scola of the poets of the Commedia is explained by Virgil in his words to Statius,
who has just been released from the fifth terrace: “I have led him as far as my school
can take him” (Purg. 21.33). That is, all the Latin poets named in Limbo, save Lucan,
were born before the birth of Christ; they are Virgil’s scola. Statius lived during the
reign of Domitian (AD 81–96), whose persecutions of the Christians Dante’s Statius
emphasizes. They coincide with the time “when the world was pregnant with the
true faith sown by the messengers of the eternal realm” (Purg. 22.76–78).
The Metamorphosis of Ovid in the Commedia
Ovid (43 BC–AD 17), who comes third and in the middle of Dante’s count, is, indeed,
an intermediary. He lived on into the Christian era. When, in canto 25 of the Inferno
(94–99), we encounter the incredible transformation of thieves into serpents and
serpents into thieves, Dante commands Lucan and Ovid to remain silent: “Taccia
Lucano… Taccia di Cadmo e d’Aretusa Ovidio / ché se quello in serpente e quella
in fonte / converte poetando io non lo ’nvidi” (“Let Lucan fall silent … Let Ovid
fall silent, / if in his poetry he transforms Cadmus into a serpent and Arethusa into
a spring, I do not envy him”). Indeed, Ovid is essential to an understanding of the
pagan poetry of Dante’s Commedia. Ovid’s Arethusa will become essential to an
appreciation of the densest allusion of the Commedia as the “dead poetry” of the
Inferno begins to “rise somewhat” when Dante invokes the tale of Proserpina sung
by Calliope (Purg. 1.1–12; Ovid, Met. 5.341–678). Lucan and Statius we will leave
176 Diskin Clay
aside to pursue the metamorphosis of Ovid in the Commedia and take the poet high
into heaven “above the stars,” as he would have wished (Met. 15.871–79).
Ovid comes third after Homer and Virgil. He is only a figure in Limbo and a text
visible in the poem. He is not an actor in the poem, as are Dante and Virgil, and
he cannot be expected to play an important role in the action of the Commedia. But
the text of the Ovidio Maggiore, that is, Ovid of the Metamorphoses (the term of
Con. 3.3.7, Brunetto Latini, and the author of the Ottimo Commento), does play that
role. Tabulations of Dante’s allusions to the poetry of Ovid— that is, the poetry
of the Metamorphoses (and perhaps also the Heroides)—have long been compiled
(Moore 1896: 206–28; Toynbee 1968: 483). Although many of these allusions have
been seen as ornamenta or borrowings, they are not, for they connect the pagan past
with the Christian present of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hollander 1993: 230–31). No
poet before Dante had made this bridge. The Milvian bridge effected the transition
from paganism to Christianity with the defeat there of Maxentius by Constantine in
AD 312; the bridge Dante constructed was strengthened by his architect’s eye to the
intimations of Christian truth to be discovered in Ovid. In some ways, Dante read
Ovid as the church fathers recommended reading the Old Testament, as casting
shadowy intimations (figurae) of the New Testament. Dante would call them “umbriferi prefazi” (Par. 30.78). For instance, Ovid’s version of the creation of the world
with its creator (opifex rerum, Met. 1.79; Gen. 1:1), the Golden Age (Met. 1.89–112,
15.260), and the Eden on the banks of the Pergus (Met. 5.384–95) were open to a
Christian reading. For the later Christian poet the pomegranate eaten by Proserpina (Met. 5. 536 puniceum… pomum) must have seemed to be the pagan figura of
the fruit eaten by Eve and Adam in Eden (Gen. 3:6); the flood of Deucalion and
Pyrrha (Met. 1.260–347) is the pagan equivalent of the flood survived by Noah and
his family (Gen. 6:9–22). The apotheoses of Glaucus (Met. 13.898–968) and Aeneas
(14.583–608) might have seemed a pagan dream of how the Christian becomes
immortal with life everlasting. It was a dream only Dante of the canonical six poets
was privileged to experience. One could add that Ovid’s conception of the three
realms of this universe— that of Jupiter in the heavens, that of Ceres on earth, and
that of Pluto (or Dis) in the Underworld (Met. 5.368, 372, 15.859; cf. Inf. 8.85, Purg.
1.4, Par. 1.23)— reinforced Dante’s view that Ovid had an intimation of the Christian world (as did Statius in Theb. 4.516). Ceres’ earth would perish on the Last Day,
but not the realms of Heaven and Hell.
Ovid describes the underworld in three passages in the Metamorphoses: the City
of Dis, which Juno enters to summon a fury to drive Athamas insane (4.432–80);
in his long treatment of the rape of Proserpina (5.294–678, a passage recalled in
Purg. 1.1–12); and in his treatment of Orpheus’ descent into Hades to recover Eurydice (10.1–63). Ovid spends a good deal of time in Hell, but Ovid’s Hell, which his
Pythagoras mocks as the stock matter of poets (15.153–55), did not impress Dante
as much as the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Metamorphosis of Ovid in Dante’s Divine Comedy 177
In 1945 Hermann Fränkel wrote a book with the suggestive title Ovid: A Poet
between Two Worlds. The meaning of the title is only suggested on the last page
of the book (163): Ovid’s life spanned the pagan and the Christian eras. Ovid,
however, would not have agreed that he was situated between these two worlds
(see Fielding in this volume). During his relegation to the Black Sea and Tomis
(modern Constanta, AD 8–17), and in his imagination, Ovid dwelt nostalgically
in pagan Rome, a Rome he had lost forever because of what he called a carmen
and an error. Ovid was like Actaeon viewing Diana and her nymphs bathing nude.
This was Actaeon’s crimen (Met. 3.3.141–42), but the carmen (the Ars Amatoria) was
Ovid’s other crimen (Tr. 2.207). Dante could not have known this Ovidian Rome
or Ovid’s poems of exile or the poem that helped prompt his exile decreed by
Augustus, the Ars Amatoria (but see Chapter 10 in this volume).
To return to the passage in the Inferno describing the metamorphosis of a thief
into a serpent and serpent into a thief—and to focus now on its language—Dante
boasts: “Taccia di Cadmo e d’Aretusa Ovidio, / ché se quello in serpente e quella in
fonte / converte poetando, io non lo ‘nvidio” (“Let Ovid fall silent about Cadmus
and Arethusa / if in his poetry he transforms Cadmus into a serpent and Arethusa
into a spring, I do not envy him,” Inf. 25.97–99; Met. 4. 571–89, 487–508). Converteis
a significant word, for it is the root of the word conversion, and points to the central
theme of Ovid’s epic. Poetando (“in his poetry”) is also significant since Dante will
use it at the end of the Purgatorio to describe the pagan dream of Paradise, a dream
Dante found reflected in Ovid’s description of the Golden Age (Met. 1.89–112; Purg.
28.139–44) and detected in the beginning of the song of Calliope (Met. 5.385–95).
In theMetamorphosesthere are other transformations of women into water—Ino
either into a Nereid of the sea or a fountain (4.543–603); Byblis (9.656–65) and
Egeria, the wife of Numa, into springs (15.547–51); and, perhaps, even the ships of
Aeneas (14.527–65). The passage that Dante has in mind when he says taccia Ovidio
is the long episode of the rape of Proserpina in Metamorphosis 5 in which Arethusa
of Elis plays a significant role (5.487–508). Her joy in returning to the light of the
stars after swimming underwater and surfacing in Sicily as a fountain (Arethusa,
5.501–3) is like that of both Proserpina returned to earth from the Underworld
and Dante returned to the light of day on the shores of the Mount of Purgatory
(Inf. 34.136–39; Clay 1999).
Dante did not read Ovid as did Petrarch’s friend, Pierre Bersuire (Petrus Bechorius, 1290–1362), whose Ovidius Moralizatus (in its many versions) could not be
more antithetical to Dante’s reading of Ovid. Dante saw in Ovid anticipations of
his own Christian truth, but he did not waste his energies in the cumbersome allegoresis of the pagan gods in terms of Christian doctrine that we find in Bersuire. An
example of this tedious Christian interpretation of the pagan comes in his account
of Pluto and the Underworld in the De Formis Figurisque Deorum—Book XV of
his Ovidius Moralizatus (Robson 1965; Engels 1966: 44–53). Paradoxically perhaps,
178 Diskin Clay
since it is Ovid and not Virgil who inspires the higher rhetoric of the Purgatorio, I will
now, in the second part of this study of the metamorphosis of Ovid in the Commedia, begin with the exordium to the now elevated style of the Purgatorio (1.1–12),
continue into the first canto of the Paradiso with Dante’s evocations of the fates
of Ovid’s Marsyas and Glaucus (Par. 1.19–21, 64–72) and, last, his description of
Jupiter and Semele in Paradiso 21.1–12 (Met. 3.287–315; dispersed in Par. 21–23
and analyzed by Brownlee 1991: 224–32). But first, I want to dispose of the very
notion of Dante’s “borrowings.”
Attempts have been made to discover and catalogue Dante’s “borrowings” from
Ovid and even to claim that Dante wrote of the madness of Athamas “with Ovid
before his eyes” (Met. 4.511–24; Purg. 23.22–27; Moore 1896: 212). Dante was no
copyist or borrower from his pagan poets. By far his allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses are concentrated in the Inferno and Purgatorio— the realms of damnation
and purgation—but Ovid is an important presence in the Paradiso, as will become
apparent. After his exile from Florence (formally declared in March 1302), Dante
might have had access to the libraries of the Conti Guidi in the Casentino, Can
Grande della Scala in Verona, and Guido Novello in Ravenna, but there were periods of enforced travel when his eyes were closed to texts of Virgil and Ovid. He also
was endowed with a good memory, as Virgil reminds us in the circle of the diviners. Virgil does not need to remind Dante of the passage in the Aeneid where he
speaks of Manto (Aen. 10.198–200; Inf. 20.52–99) or the Greek prophet Eurypylus
(Aen. 2.118–19). Most readers of the Aeneid will have forgotten these lines by the
time they come to the death of Turnus, but Dante did not. Like Calchas, Eurypylus
was a prophet who understood why the Greek fleet was becalmed at Aulis, across
the Aegean and its destination in Troy. He occupies two lines of the Inferno. As he
mentions Eurypylus “in a certain passage,” he adds: “as you are well aware who
know my poem entire” (“ben lo sai tu che la sai tutta quanta,” Inf. 20.112–14).
There is a modern mode of reading that is more focused on Dante’s pagan
authors than the Christian truth hidden under the integumenta (coverings or
cloaks) of Ovid’s myths. This mode of reading is more congenial to our literary
sensibilities; it is best known by the Italian term l’arte allusiva, used by Giorgio
Pasquali as the title of an essay he wrote in 1942 in which he distinguishes between
reminiscences and allusions. An author can be unconscious of reminiscences,
but when he makes an allusion both he and his reader must be aware of the text
alluded to for the art of allusion to have its effect (Pasquali 1968: 275–82; Picone
1994: 173–205). “Intertextuality” is now the term in vogue for this art. But it is
not enough to recognize the text Dante is alluding to. Dante’s reader must also
discover what Dante read into it. In the case of Ovid and Virgil of the “Messianic”
eclogue (4.1–13; cf. Purg. 22.64–73), it is not an allusion to another text that the
reader should be alert to, but the truth which Dante’s penetrating eye discovered
in pagan poetry. Ovid is like the Virgil who directed Statius to Christianity; he
carries a lantern behind him and illuminates the path of another who follows
(Purg. 22.67–69).

Spenser’s “Letter of the Authors” to Sir Walter Raleigh, “expounding his whole
intention” in the The Faerie Queene, places the poem within a tradition stretching
back to antiquity of an exemplary and allegorical reading of the epics of Homer
and Virgil for moral lessons. Spenser was also aware of the allegorical and moralizing tradition of reading Ovid, which developed in the Middle Ages with the
large-scale interpretations of Pierre Bersuire and the Ovide moralisé, and continued
A Handbook to the Reception of Ovid, First Edition. Edited by John F. Miller and Carole E. Newlands.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2014 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
292 Philip Hardie
through the Renaissance, in English notably in Golding’s interpretative paratexts
to his translation of the Metamorphoses (on Spenser’s use of Golding see Stapleton
2009: ch. 3). But the fact that a reading of Spenser’s Ovidianism responds easily
to modern critical approaches to Ovid should caution against the assumption that
Spenser was in any way blinkered by this medieval tradition. For one thing, moralizing is already fully at home within Ovidian narratives of metamorphosis, particularly in the mouths of internal narrators out to make a point. Metamorphosis slides
into moral and psychological metaphor. Anaxarete’s petrifaction (Met. 14.753–58)
is the material realization of her unyielding, stony heart, a condign punishment in
the eyes of the narrator, Vertumnus, who is trying to make a point to the reluctant
Pomona. The fountain that will not wash off the blood on the hands of Ruddymane
is the water that flows from the stone into which Diana transformed one of her
nymphs to save her from the pursuit of Faunus, in a typically Spenserian variation
on Ovidian themes (cf. also Daphne and Arethusa): “The goddesse heard, and suddeine where she sate, / Welling out streames of teares, and quite dismayd / With
stony feare of that rude rustic mate, / Transformd her to a stone from stedfast
virgins state” (FQ II. ii. 8.6–9).
The first metamorphosis of a human in the Metamorphoses, told by an indignantly censorious Jupiter, is that of the tyrant Lycaon into the wolf that he was all
along, both metaphorically and by name (Greek lukos) (1.209–39). This metamorphosis may not be as paradigmatic and programmatic for the future history of the
Ovidian world as Jupiter might like it to be, but it represents one possibility for
the meaning of metamorphosis. At the end of a narrative sequence in the Legend
of Justice that alludes to a plethora of episodes in the Metamorphoses (FQ V. viii),
Adicia, the wife of the wicked tyrant Soudan, flies into a vengeful rage and runs
into the wild wood. After, her husband, a figure for Elizabeth’s enemy Philip II
of Spain, loses control of his chariot (like Phaethon) and is torn to pieces (like
Hippolytus): “There they doe say, that she transformed was / Into a Tygre, and
that Tygres scath / In crueltie and outrage she did pas, / To proue her surname
true, that she imposed has” (V. viii. 49.6–9). By her name Adicia is a personification of injustice (Greek adikia), and she further proves her essential nature through
metamorphosis into an animal which typifies “crueltie and outrage,” just as Lycaon
proves his “wolfishness” by turning into a wolf. If she ceases thereby to be a personification in human form, the slippage from human to animal type of a vice or
passion is eased by the close connections that already exist in the Metamorphoses
between the dynamic process of metamorphosis and the fixed figure of a personification (Hardie 2002: 231–36). Ovidian personifications transform the characters
and landscapes on which they work. There is a general point to be made about
the importance of the Metamorphoses as a foundational text for the later history of
European personification allegory, of which The Faerie Queene is one of the major
monuments, although Spenser’s allegories bear the weight of the whole of the
intervening tradition rather than, in most cases, drawing directly on the Ovidian
Spenser and Ovid 293
Adicia’s metamorphosis is not directly narrated, and indeed has only the
authority of report (“they say”). And the cruel woman Adicia is not transformed
into a tiger without residue; report adds that she surpassed even a tiger’s cruelty.
In this and in other respects the story of Adicia is typical of the ease with which
Spenser inhabits and adapts Ovid’s metamorphic idiom, and an example of
“Spenser’s manipulation of the intersections between simile, metaphor, and
metamorphosis” (Lyne 2001: 138). At the beginning of the stanza in which Adicia
is (said to be) metamorphosed into a tiger, she is compared in a simile to “a mad
bitch.” That is the creature into which the enraged and grief-stricken Hecuba
is transformed at Met. 13.567–71, after she has been compared in a simile to a
lioness raging at the loss of her cub. Both Ovidian and Spenserian similes are
examples of a “protometamorphosis” (Barkan 1986: 20–21), the anticipation in
figurative language of a physical transformation. This is the last in a series of
similes applied to Adicia before her fixation in the shape of a tigress. In the first
she is said to be “like an enraged cow, / That is berobbed of her youngling dere”
(V. viii. 46.1–2), possibly alluding to Ovid’s bereaved lioness. In the next stanza
Adicia is compared in a triple simile to infuriated mythological women who all
appear in the Metamorphoses, Ino, Medea and Agave, only for the reader to be told
that “Yet neither Ino, nor Medea stout, / Nor all the Maenades so furious were, /
As this bold woman, when she saw that Damzell there” (V. viii. 47.8–9). Adicia
exceeds her human sisters in ferocity as she will exceed the tiger. This correction
of the simile is itself an Ovidian trick, an example of the “approximative simile,”
the simile which explicitly calibrates the exact degree of similarity between tenor
and vehicle (Hardie 2004).
Another tour de force of metamorphic imagining is the conclusion to the story
of Malbecco, cuckolded by his nymphomaniac wife Hellenore, at FQ III. x. To
get closer to the goat-like satyrs whose sex-toy Hellenore has become, Malbecco,
whose name already includes the Italian word meaning both “he-goat” and
“cuckold,” becco, creeps in among the satyrs’ goats, going on all fours and made
more complete in his “counterfeit” “through the helpe of his faire hornes on
hight” (47.4). The figurative horns of the cuckold have now become visible, a first
stage of transformation. After seeing a satyr make love nine times to his wife (the
number of which Ovid boasts that he was once capable with Corinna at Amores
3.7.25–26), and after she has refused to come back to him, Malbecco escapes from
the satyrs. On finding that his treasure, the other object of his desire, has been
stolen, he goes mad and runs “As if the wind him his winges had borne,” until he
comes to a hill overhanging the sea. At this point Ovidian models (Daedalion, Met.
11.336–45, and Aesacus, Met. 11.783–95) might lead us to expect that he would
grow his own wings and turn into a bird. But there is no metamorphosis other
than the wasting away over time that has left him no more than “an aery Spright,”
and he falls on to the cliff without hurt. Crawling into a cave, he feeds on toads
and frogs, and “through priuy griefe, and horrour vaine, / Is woxen so deform’d,
that he has quight / Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight” (III. x. 60.7–9).
294 Philip Hardie
Colin Burrow correctly notes that “metamorphosis into an abstraction is not
something that ever happens in Ovid” (Burrow 1988: 115), but what happens to
Malbecco can be understood as an easy extension of the transformation by an
Ovidian personification of a human actor into a version of herself, for example
Envy’s (Invidia) infection of Aglauros (Met. 2.797–832).
Aglauros’ envy is itself a sexual jealousy, and Malbecco-Gealosie has some
similarities with Ovid’s Envy, but this is overlaid with other sources, for example
Ariosto’s Sospetto “Suspicion,” who lives on a cliff high above the sea (Cinque
Canti ii. 18). As often, Spenser combines imitation of Ovid and of the Ovidian
tradition; Ariosto’s Ovidianism in particular is a major presence in The Faerie
Queene (De Sa Wiggins 1991; on Ariosto and Ovid see Casali in this volume).

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