Research Portrait: Re-writing Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the Italian Renaissance

Today’s Research Portrait comes from one of our postgraduate members, Marta Balzi, who recently organised the Ovid Across Europe conference here at Bristol. Marta works on how Ovid’s Metamorphoses were translated, published and re-imagined in Renaissance Italy. In this post, she introduces some of her work focused on paratexts and presentation.

metamorphoses 1

Fig. 1 Fabio Marretti, Le Metamorfosi d’Ovidio (Venitiis: apud Bologninum Zalterium et Guerreos fratres, 1570), fol. *2r. Digitized copy held at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.

The Metamorphoses is a Latin poem written by the Roman poet Ovid, and it tells the story of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar through a series of over 250 myths. This poem has exerted an enduring influence on Western culture, and today, two thousand years after the death of its author, it is still an object of study and reflection among academics and non-academics. The capacity of this poem to be constantly present in our world has been attributed to its innate transformative ability. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Metamorphoses was often read as a philosophical text in which to find advice on Christian morality and ethics. In the early modern period, it constituted the most important repertoire of myths, an encyclopaedic work plundered by writers, musicians, and painters. My research sheds further light on the power of Ovid’s poem to ‘metamorphose’ itself. The object of my investigation are three Italian translations of the Latin poem written and printed in the sixteenth century, the Trasformationi by Lodovico Dolce (1553), the Metamorfosi by Giovanni Andrea dell’Anguillara (1561), and the Metamorfosi by Fabio Marretti (1570). Analysing the text, the paratext, and the physical structure and presentation (support material, script or type, size, layout and decoration) of these three translations, the aim of my research project is to unveil the ways in which Ovid was repurposed and received in Renaissance Italy.

metamorphoses 2

Fig. 2 Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses libri XV. (Venice: Giovanni I Griffio, 1574), fol. Ar. Digitised copy held at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

On a paratextual level, at the beginning of all the editions of the Italian Metamorphoses, for example, there is an epistle that dedicates the translation to a political authority. Dolce dedicated his translation to Charles V, Anguillara to Henry II, and Marretti to Alfonso d’Este (Fig. 1). This dedication epistle conceals Ovid’s dedicatee, the Roman Emperor Augustus. This change of dedicatee repurposes the translation for a new audience, while also giving prestige to the translator by associating his work with a famous contemporary authority. Furthermore, the epistle foregrounds the translator and his work, concealing the primary author (Ovid) and the aims of his literary endeavour. The visibility of the translator is another object of investigation of my research project, which unveils the strategies of authorial construction in the Italian Metamorphoses, and the influence of print culture on the medieval conception of authorship.

metamorhposes 3

Fig. 3 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (Venice, Gabriele Giolito dei Ferrari: 1543), fols. (Avii)v-(Aviii)r. Digitized copy held at the Bibliotheque Municipal de Lyon

The transformation of the Latin Metamorphoses in the Italian Renaissance is also implemented  through the layout, or mise-en-page, of the Italian translations of Ovid’s poem. In the edition of Latin Metamorphoses printed in 1492/1493 together with the commentary of the humanist scholar Raphael Regius, the pages are arranged as a mirror to each other. The Latin text is placed on the right of the verso and on the left of the recto, while the commentary frames the Latin text. A later edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with the commentary of Raphael Regius, printed in 1574, still maintains a similar layout (Fig. 2). The Latin text is central to the page, framed on all sides by the Latin commentary. This well-structured disposition of Latin text and commentary is completely lost in the Italian translations of the Metamorphoses, which show striking similarities with the mise-en-page of the editions of the Orlando furioso, the Italian epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. In the 1543 edition of the Furioso printed by Giolito, on the verso, at the beginning of each canto, there are an illustration, a decorated initial, and two columns of three ottave (Fig. 3). On the recto, there are two columns of five ottave. A similar layout is maintained in all the following editions of the Italian Metamorphoses (Fig. 4; Fig. 5). The intention to imitate this layout is particularly evident in the bilingual edition of the Metamorfosi by Marretti, in which the Latin hexameters on the right-hand column are split and arranged on the page to fit in the square space of the ottava (Fig. 5). The transformation of the layout of the Latin text lends support to the view that the Italian Metamorphoses are the result of a collaborative effort of printer and translator. My research aims to shed light on the competences of these two agents in the re-fashioning of Ovid’s text, unveiling the influence of print culture on the making of the Italian Ovid.


Combining the analysis of the textual and non-textual elements of the Italian Metamorphoses, my projects charts the changing face of Ovid in Renaissance Italy while also addressing wider questions concerning the culture of the Renaissance. As emerges from these examples, this project has a multidisciplinary character: it stands at the crossroads between the history of translation, classical reception, and history of the book. It is this multidisciplinary approach that allows this research to explore the Italian Ovid under a completely different light.

About Katie Brown

Katie Brown is a Teaching Fellow in Hispanic Studies at University of Bristol, book-lover and translator.
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