The calmness of the poet Ovid, the third of the great Latin poets, was abruptly interrupted in the year 8 A.D. after receiving the news of his exile. He was 50 years old, and was to leave Rome at any moment to travel to the edge of the imperial territory, today Constanza, Romania. In that wild end of the Augustan domain, away from any magnificent architecture, on the edge of the Black Sea, among bare hills and wild horses, the then last major poet of the West would find himself without any interlocutor, among Thracians and Scythians, unfamiliar with the Latin language, and fearful of the continuous invasions of the barbarian tribes. The scene had such an impact on the history of art that great masters of painting such as Turner and Delacroix addressed the theme of exile. Turner in 1838, from an extremely tragic perspective, and Delacroix in 1862, by contrast, represented the poet in a peaceful state in the middle of a pastoral atmosphere.
The cause of Ovid’s banishment is unknown, and much has been speculated about it. One of the most widely accepted hypotheses is that part of his ” mistake” came from a literary work, the “Ars Amandi” (“The Art of Loving”), that manual of advice intended to guide men and women in the art of love. This sudden punishment was clearly an act of authoritarianism on the part of Emperor Augustus, with no judicial basis or opportunity for defense. Fortunately for the poet, it was not a “deportatio”, which meant the loss of citizenship and patrimony, but a “relegatio”, in which he was allowed to keep his property, although he could not return to his homeland. Whatever the crime committed by Ovid, and if it existed, he was never forgiven, and in the year 18 A.D. he died in exile. Before being forced to leave the city, he had finished his “Metamorphoses”; although, during the first two years of exile, he reviewed the work and then sent a final copy from afar.
It was hard to imagine then the huge influence that the “Metamorphoses” would exert on the Fine Arts during the following millennium. The operatic genre alone has seen the birth of about a hundred Orpheus and Eurydice, a hundred Medeas, several Pygmalions and Galateas, Daphnes, several Hercules, Alcyones and Proserpinas, to mention a few characters, all of which have captured the creative energy of great composers and writers.
In the case of Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, for example, disappointed with women, he decides to sculpt Galatea, his companion, and implores the goddess Venus that the sculpture may leave the stone and come to life, which is granted. In 1748, Jean-Phillipe Rameu (Dijon, 1683-Paris, 1764) composed “Pygmalion”, “opera in a ballet scene”, and in 1779, George Benda (Bohemia, 1722-1795), did the same with his “Pygmalion”, “monodrama in one act”. Luigi Boccherini (Luca, 1743-Madrid, 1805), wrote his “Pimmalione” in 1809, and Gaetano Donizetti (Bergamo, 1797-Idem, 1848), his “Il Pigmalione” in 1816, with a script of an unknown author, based on the “Pygmalion” by Jean Jacques Rousseau (Geneva, 1712-Ermenonville, 1778), and in turn based on the tenth book of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
In 1852, Victor Massé (Lorient, 1822-Paris, 1884) wrote a comic opera in two acts under the name “Galatheé”, and in 1863 Franz von Suppé (Split, 1819-Vienna, 1895) premiered his two-act operetta “Die schöne Galathée”. Here, Galatea, the statue, comes to life but turns out to have a shallow behavior: she is unfaithful to Pygmalion with his servant Ganymede, and unashamedly accepts the gallant gifts of Midas, an artistic benefactor, whereupon Pygmalion begs Venus to undo the spell and return her to her stony form. Incidentally, Halévy, von Suppé’s teacher, had composed his “Pygmalion” about 40 years earlier, although it was never performed. The ballet “Coppélia” (1870), with music by Léo Delibes and libretto by Nuitter, echoes Pygmalion in the story of a human-scale doll and its inventor. In the art of dance, it was preceded by the ballet Pygmalion, ou La Statue de Chypre, which had been born in 1883, with choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Prince Nikita Trubetskoi. In 2018, the Wonderbound Ballet Company of Denver reinterpreted Pygmalion in “Patterns,” though here Aphrodite falls in love with Galatea.
By 1912, George Bernard Shaw premiered his play “Pygmalion”, which was brought to the movies in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and the leading actor of the film, Leslie Howard. In 1856 the musical “My Fair Lady” was premiered, with music by Frederick Loewe and libretto by Alan Jay Lerner, musical made into a film by George Cukor in 1964. In this case, the transformation of the female character -Eliza Doolittle- does not consist in the transition from marble to flesh and blood, but in turning a poorly educated flower seller into a worthy representative of high society.
Once again, the different kinds of transformations drawn by Ovid provide an artistic homage to the ancient argument between Heraclitus and Parmenides. The universe is in constant change, but something in it always remains, everything is in motion, but there is something that endures. In the domain of the imagination, gods and humans are potentially fantastic beings, or birds, reptiles, fish or some insect; trees or flowers; or even stones. In some other cases, the impossible happens when non-living beings, such as Galatea, come to life; others rejuvenate or come back from the dead. In the work, the case of Emperor Augustus is unique, as he ascends to heaven. However, despite the literary tribute that would immortalize him, he became the author of the subsequent exile of the poet.