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Recalling Ovid 2,000 years later between lights and shadows: memory and rework of a Latin poet in the Italian literature of the 20th century

Francesca Boldrer. University of Macerata. Italy.

Recalling Ovid 2,000 years later between lights and shadows: memory and rework of a Latin poet in the Italian literature of the 20th century

Francesca Boldrer. University of Macerata. Italy.

In 2017, the two-thousandth anniversary of Ovid's death (Sulmo 43 BC – Tomis 17 AD) is being celebrated between lights and shadows relating to his life as well as the relationship between poetry and power. It is a well-known fact that the poet, one of the most brilliant personalities of the Augustan Age, after reaching the highest reputation as a fine love poet and after composing his masterpiece, the “Metamorphoses”, was suddenly exiled in 8 AD to an isolated town on the Black Sea, where he died far away from Rome.

This exil (relegatio), decided by the Emperor Augustus because of a poem (probably the Ars Amatoria) and an obscure mistake of the poet (carmen et error), completely changed but did not interrupt Ovid's poetic activity, and Augustus' verdict did not condemn Ovidian works to a damnatio memoriae (even if they were excluded from his Palatine Library). Indeed Ovid has been one of the most popular Latin authors, emulated for centuries in literatures and arts.

His success until today is shown by the many admirers for each of his poems: some love him for playful “Amores” or for the painful Letters (“Heroides”) addressed by heroines to their lovers; others appreciate the fascinating “Metamorphoses”, an encyclopedia of myths about transformations and contacts between man and nature, or prefers to read the melancholic verses from exile that makes this poet's humanitas known (“Tristia, “Epistulae ex Ponto”).

Recent examples of Ovid's success through time are offered by the Italian literature of the 20th century, where the variety of forms of imitation, rework and empathy is remarkable. Ovid was emulated by poets and prose writers belonging to different and almost opposite literary movements, such as the decadent Gabriele D'Annunzio, the hermetic Giuseppe Ungaretti and the writer of short stories and novels Italo Calvino.

D'annnuzio (1863-1938) shows a close affinity towards Ovid, both in life, that was similarly dedicated to love and beauty, and in poetry related to myths of the “Metamorphoses”, e.g. to that of Apollo and Dafne (Met. 1.450-567) in the poem “La pioggia nel pineto” (Rain in the pinewood), composed in 1903 in the collection “Alcyone”, in which the beloved woman and the poet identify with nature and almost melt in it ("immersi/ noi siam nello spirto/ silvestre").

On the other hand, Ungaretti (1888-1970) seems to follow the example of Ovid's style in using a language characterized by original rhetorical figures and arrangement of words with new expressive effects. Moreover, he shares a painful feeling of exile and an ironic vision of life with the Latin poet, defining himself, in the poem “Italia”, as a “frutto/ d'innumerevoli contrasti d'innesti” (the fruit from innumerable contrasts of grafts), suggesting the Ovidian image of a transformed tree.

Finally Calvino (1923-1985), who praised the “Metamorphoses” as an universal representation of life, is close to Ovid for common interests and skills: the collection of folk tales (see “Fiabe italiane”, Italian Folktales) that resembles Ovidian collection of myths, and the vivid imagination in the trilogy “I nostri antenati” (Our Ancestors), as well as the passion of telling and weaving togheter stories in the novel “Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore” (If on a winter's night a traveler).

For these and many other writers Ovid has been and is still a master, he is an 'evergreen' poet, representative of his time but also close to modern human condition and feeeling, unbalanced between good and bad fate, and an exemplum of a resourceful artist and tenacious man. In fact, the misfortune did not discourage him even on the outer edge of the Empire and his geographical isolation didn't overshadow him, thanks to the efforts of contemporaries and posterity: against official vetoes, readers courageously kept his memory alive, handed over his work and mediated it to our days.

This heritage shouldn't be lost: its preservation is not an easy task, but we need to continue, like ancient and recent readers, 'lighting up' Ovd's poetry (as well as others) in the current 21th century, preventing 'shadows' of amnesia about Classical Antiquity.


1) Select General Studies

Bettini M., I classici nell'età dell'indiscrezione, Torino (Einaudi) 1995

Calvino I., Perché leggere i classici, Milano (Mondadori) 1991 (published after dead)

Conte G.B., Memoria dei poeti e sistema letterario. Catullo, Virgilio, Ovidio, Lucano, Torino (Einaudi) 19852

Fo A., Ancora sulla presenza dei classici nella poesia italiana contemporanea, in “Semicerchio. Rivista di poesia comparata”, n. 26-27, 2002, pp. 24-52

Kermode F., The classic. Literary images of permanence and change, New York 1975 (trad. it. Roma 1980)

Martindale C., Redeeming the Text: The Validity of Comparisons of Classical and Postclassical Literature (A View from Britain), “Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics”, vol. 1.3, 1991, pp. 45-75

Settis S., Futuro del 'classico', Torino (Einaudi) 2004

2)About G. D'Annunzio

Alvino L., Il poema della leggerezza. Gnoseologia della metamorfosi nell'Alcyone di Gabriele d'Annunzio, Roma (Bulzoni) 1998

Balducci M.A., Il sorriso di Ermes. Studi sul metamorfismo dannunziano, Firenze (Vallecchi), 1989

3) About G. Ungaretti

Baronicini D., Ungaretti e il sentimento del classico, Bologna (Il Mulino) 1999

Bruscia M. (a cura di), Ungaretti e i classici, Roma (Studium) 1993

4) About I. Calvino

Bertone G., Italo Calvino, il castello della scrittura, Torino (Einaudi) 1994.

Lacirignola C., Italo Calvino e i cavalieri fantastici, Bari (Stilo Editrice) 2010.

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