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“Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases.” So says Pythagoras toward the end of Ovid’s great poem Metamorphoses. In summarizing his philosophy, Pythagoras also summarizes the poem his speech concludes: a fluid epic of shifting stories exploring life’s myriad changes, from intimacies of love and desire to panoramas of catastrophe and renewal. While Metamorphoses is best known as a compendium of ancient myths, Ovid wrote his poem as nothing less than a history of the world from its original chaos to the time of its writing in Augustan Rome.
Given its extravagant sweep and color, it’s no surprise that, short of the Bible, Ovid’s work has inspired more art than any other single literary work. The history of modern Western arts through all their various stylistic transitions from the Renaissance to today can be traced through successive versions of just a few of Ovid’s many stories. So richly does Metamorphoses mirror our world’s protean nature that it has inspired painters and sculptors from Botticelli to Picasso, writers from Shakespeare to Auden, and composers from Handel to Samuel Barber.
We’ll begin this seminar by sampling the beauties of Ovid’s meditations on change in human and natural life. We’ll end with the poem as a guide to artistic play by looking at and listening to some of the great works it has inspired as we explore the human response to undying change in the making and interpretation of art.
Read more in my guest blog post The Truth of Myth.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“In our play, we reveal what kind of people we are.”
– Ovid, Amores