Great Books. The Top Ten, instalment 1. Ovid.

It is a weblog classic to do a top ten of the books that changed your life. And I like a good classic – as my list will show. Because I will of course make a list. I like lists. I love them. They are so wonderfully economic regarding words as they spare you the agony of linking things together in prose. And besides it is a great way of processing your thoughts. But hey I like a good mind map too.

I’ve decided to split the list into ten instalments. Just to stretch my unfortunately scarce material for this blog (damn you full-time work and generally rich and fulfilling life!)

So here’s number one in this chronological series.

Publius Ovidius Naso’s (43 BC–17 or 18 AD) Metamorphoses is a long array of stories about transformation. And we are talking quite literal transformations as when the weaver Arachne is turned into a spider because she dared to say that she was superior to the goddess Minerva in the art of weaving. A clear no-no in the presence of gods. Transformations happen as punishments, salvation or by will as when the superior god Jupiter turns himself into a white bull and carries off the beautiful Europa on his back.

The Metamorphoses has been a motif goodie bag for generations of artists – not least for the baroque painters and sculptors. A transformation is the perfect motif since it offers a progression in time – something that is hard to embed in the framework of the visual arts. Music has progression in time, poetry too but painting needs to awaken the sense of time in the viewer’s mind. Transformations are in other words da bomb and Ovid’s stories are the base for masterpieces such as Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25 and Tizian’s Danaë, 1554:

So how did this book change my life? Well for starters it is a great read. Funny, enlightening, shocking, and touching. I read it in its entirety when I was 22 and in Rome as and exchange student. I was pretty lonely in the first couple of months besides from the few friends I had managed to make so I studied quite hard and it still stands for me as one of the most productive periods of my life. As I had nothing particularly urgent on my reading list (or so I thought) I browsed the wonderful library of the Danish Academy by the Villa Borghese and set to read some of the classics. And lo and behold – Ovidius.

The Metamorphoses have since then acted as a constant in my basic knowledge of motifs, and as such invaluable for an iconographic analyses – the kind of analyses that you want to make instantly and without having to think much it. The Metamorphoses helped me build that bank of knowledge.

Go read it!


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