Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem of gods and men, is one of the most seductive and influential works ever written. First published 2,000 years ago, it has inspired poets and artists through the ages. In the 16th century, the Italian master Titian created a series of sublime paintings based on scenes from Metamorphoses. In this Folio Society limited edition, all of these paintings are published with the poem for the first time.
Metamorphoses is a mythological epic containing around 250 tales of gods and maidens, monsters and heroes, comedy and tragedy. For centuries, it was the only written source of stories such as Persephone in the underworld, Echo and Narcissus, Theseus and the Minotaur and others. Its influence on Western culture cannot be overstated.
Ovid’s theme is the transforming power of passion over gods and mortals. These transformations, or metamorphoses, are not sweetly romantic; they are dramatic, terrible and irrevocable. They can represent divine punishment, as when Diana turns Actaeon into a stag; they can provide escape, as when Daphne turns into a laurel tree to flee Apollo’s advances. Through these bodily transformations, the universe is portrayed as a place of continual turbulence. Yet the ultimate shape-shifter is the poem itself. In Ovid’s sinuous and witty narrative, each story flows seamlessly into the next, in a structure that still feels revolutionary.
Tiziano Vecellio (1488/90–1576), better known as Titian, was born in the Cadore region of northern Italy, and became the most celebrated painter in Venice. He painted scenes from Metamorphoses throughout his life, immersing himself in a poetic world filled with symbolism, passion and drama. The sensuality of these paintings reached its height in the Poesie, six scenes from Ovid’s poem he produced for Philip II of Spain.
Titian opened the Poesie with Danaë, showing her receiving her lover Jupiter in a shower of gold. Danaë’s reclining figure made Titian’s own Venus of Urbino seem, in the words of one contemporary commentator, ‘like a Theatine nun’. With its rich variety, his sensual and daring series proved that, if Michelangelo was the master of sculpture and the male form, Titian was the master of painting and the female nude.
Titian’s homages to Ovid continued throughout his career, from the joyful dynamism of his early Bacchus and Ariadne to later, more sombre paintings like The Death of Actaeon and The Flaying of Marsyas. The range of style and emotion in these paintings, from poetic delight to dark tragedy, reflect the genius of both the artist and the poet who inspired him.
This edition, with tipped-in colour plates and gatefolds, is the first ever to show these extraordinary paintings in their true context.
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Metamorphoses also had a major influence on English literature of the 16th century, thanks to the translation by Arthur Golding published in 1567. To translate Ovid was almost as great a milestone as translating the Bible, and Golding’s translation put classical mythology within the reach of those without Latin or Greek. It expressed a new confidence in English as a suitable language for epic poetry. Shakespeare himself drew on Golding’s Ovid in plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
The union of this translation and Titian’s Renaissance paintings creates a perfect marriage of word and image. To maintain this harmony, great care has been given to the typesetting in Centaur, the font first brought into use by Nicolas Jensen of Venice in 1470.
This limited edition includes an introduction to Golding’s translation by Madeleine Forey and a new essay on Ovid and Titian by Michael Prodger, as well as a complete index of all the figures and myths included in the poem, with spelling variants.