Ovid, Titian, and the Depiction of Violence Against Women

How do we take a nuanced approach to the sexual violence so prevalent in the great works of poets and artists like Ovid and Titian? Classicist Mary Beard examines the contradictions of male violence and feminism present in both men’s works.

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The ancient Roman poet Ovid has always been controversial. Like most “classic” authors of any period, he became a classic because he was edgy, difficult, and hard to pin down, not because he was simple, clear, and toed the party line. Living in the age of the first emperor Augustus around the turn of the first centuries BCE and CE, Ovid did not hold back: he wrote steamy sex poems, the Amores (in this case, “sex poems” is a better description than the usual “love poems”); a series of verses voicing the complaints of abandoned women of classical myth from Dido to Medea; a six-book poem on the Roman calendar; and most famously of all, the Metamorphoses (or Transformations).

A narrative poem detailing the history of the world from the creation to Julius Caesar, the Metamorphoses focused largely on a series of mythical changes of shape and form—Daphne turned into a tree, Callisto into a bear, and so on. And why was Julius Caesar included, one may ask? After his assassination in 44 BCE, the infamous politician was turned into a god. Ovid was, in the end, exiled from Rome, for (as he mysteriously describes it) “a poem and a mistake.” People now point the finger at his satiric poem, the Ars Amatoria, or Art of Sex, which claimed to teach young men and women how to get a partner into bed.

Diana and Callisto by Titian.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), Diana and Callisto, 1556–1559. Oil on canvas, 187 x 204.5 cm (73 5/8 x 80 1/2 in.)
The National Gallery, London and National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (NG6616/NG2844). See it in the special exhibition “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” through January 2, 2022.

The poet remains controversial today, especially because of the sexual violence that is as dominant a theme in the Metamorphoses as shape shifting. College students now commonly call it a “handbook of rape” and occasionally refuse to read it. To me, there is something refreshing about this realism. When I was a student, we were taught to talk about the “ravishings” in the poem, but the word glosses over the sexual violence unfolding in many of the stories. The poem does consist of one rape after the next, but that doesn’t mean that we should leave it on the library shelves. One of the big questions about Ovid is whether he is celebrating sexual violence or exposing it. Is he showing us the seedy sexual violence that lurks only just under the surface of the great stories of classical myth? Or is he revealing the gods as rapists writ large?

Danaë by Titian.

Titian (Italian, about 1488–1576), Danaë, 1551–1553. Oil on canvas, 187 x 204.5 cm (73 5/8 x 80 1/2 in.) The Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London
© Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

Titian’s six great poesie, which are currently on view in the exhibition Titian: Women, Myth & Power, draw their inspiration and subjects from Ovid’s text and raise much the same problem. Are these paintings, made for a largely male audience, intended to celebrate (what is for us) the worst side of male sexual power? Or are they revealing the exploitations and sometimes squalid violence on which that power rests? More often than we now notice, Titian picks up the ambiguities and satire of Ovid’s poem.

The Women, Myth and Power exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

“Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum through January 2, 2022
Photo: Julia Featheringill

One of my favourite examples of this is the Gardner’s Rape of Europa, showing Jupiter disguised as a bull “ravishing” (as I was taught to say) the young princess. Here Titian uses Ovid to interrogate, as much as to celebrate, divine sexual power. Part of Ovid’s judgment on this incident is in these few Latin words from the Metamorphoses: “Non bene conveniunt . . . maiestas et amor.”—literally, “Majesty and sex don’t go well together.” Or, to put it another way, the dignity you expect from a god (“majesty”) is entirely undermined by the fact that Jupiter turns himself into an animal, just to have sex with a girl. It is the very opposite of “majesty” that we see in that cute or smirking or naïve face of Titian’s bull (it’s hard to choose which). Whatever we are to make of the violence involved, Jupiter certainly demeaned himself here. (I confess that when I saw the painting in real life, I fell for the “cuteness” and made a detail of the bull’s face a screen saver for my iPhone. I’m not sure if that was well judged!)

Rape of Europa by Titian.

Titian (Italian, 1488–1576), The Rape of Europa, 1559–1562. Oil on canvas, 178 x 205 cm (70 1/16 x 80 11/16 in.)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. See it in the special exhibition “Titian: Women, Myth & Power” through January 2, 2022 or in the Titian Room.

Another striking case comes in Titian’s painting of Perseus rescuing the Ethiopian princess, Andromeda. It was not a rape this time. The story was that Andromeda had been chained to a rock at the mercy of a sea monster—as punishment for her mother who had boastfully compared herself to a sea nymph—and she would have died, had not Perseus, flying past by with his winged sandals, freed (and later married)her. One obvious thing to us about Titian’s painting is that it is a classic case of “whitewashing.” Ovid is explicit that Andromeda is an Ethiopian, but here (as, to be fair, in every ancient Roman painting of the scene that I know) she is clearly white. However, modern art historians have often been more puzzled by the strange, plunging pose of Perseus, as if he was sure to end up in the sea. But this is another Ovidian touch, for the poet says that Perseus was so struck by the woman’s beauty that he almost forgot how to hover in the air, just as we see him forgetting here. The hero makes a fool of himself by his desire.

Perseus and Andromeda by Titian.

Titian (Italian, 1488–1576), Perseus and Andromeda, about 1554–1556. Oil on canvas, 230 x 243 cm (90 9/16 x 95 11/16 in.)
The Wallace Collection, London (P11). Photo: Wallace Collection, London, UK/Bridgeman Images. See it in the special exhibition “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” through January 2, 2022.

I don’t think that we can enlist Ovid or Titian on the side of feminism. But, I don’t think either of them are straightforwardly celebrating male violence against women. These nuances and hard questions are, perhaps, what makes the art of both artists so interesting today, many centuries after their deaths.

Check out the recording of Mary Beard’s conversation with William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, Nathaniel Silver on October 15, 2021.

As this article suggests, this exhibition explores themes of sexual assault, violence, and misogyny. Visit here for resources for survivors of sexual violence, their supporters, and those who want to take action.

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