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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Authorities: Gracian, Menestrier

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Metamorphosis is from the two Greek words meta and morphe meaning change of form.

     Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written about the time of the birth of Christ, was a principal source of the Greek myths for the late Middle Ages and Renaissance and one of the most influential texts of the age. There were dozens of translations, glosses, prose versions and adaptations of the Metamorphoses during the period. Albert von Halberstadt’s German translation in the 13th Century is possibly the first vernacular translation of any classical text. The Italian poets Ariosto and Boccaccio relied on it and Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton used it for source material. The Ovide Moralisé, an allegorical adaptation of the poem is a central example of the attempts by medieval writers to syncretize the classical and Christian literary traditions. This too was widely circulated in different versions. The printer and translator Colard Mansion was so carried away with his own French edition of 1484 that the book’s publication bankrupted him. He fled to Italy to escape his creditors. An edition by Raffaello Regio published in 1503 is said to have been reprinted twelve times in seven years and the second edition of 1510 sold more than 50,000 copies.

     Ovid’s poem relates some two hundred and fifty different stories involving hundreds of different characters from the myths set in a history of the world from the creation up to his own time. But apart from its appeal as an epic story in its own right and as source material for the writers of the Renaissance, the poem and its popularity illustrated the continuing concern with a fundamental philosophical problem: the nature and reality of change both on a physical and a semantic level. According to the Metamorphoses (in the translation of Sandys) the myths describe:

The World’s originall, past humane thought:
What Nature was, what God; the cause of things,
From whence the Snow, from whence the lightning springs:
Whether Jove thunder, or the winds, that rake
The breaking Clouds: what caus’d the earth to quake;
What course the Starres observed, what e’er lay hid
from vulgar sense.

     This extract is taken from Book XV, the last book of the Metamorphoses in which Ovid, in the voice of Pythagoras, sums up his theme that change is the one certainty for earthly things. The nature of transformation and change, metamorphosis, how material things could change and simultaneously retain their identity, was an ubiquitous concern of Greek philosophy. Plato’s elegant solution to this paradox was that material and earthly objects were mere reflections or symbols of his Divine Forms, which latter were, in the words of Cornelius Agrippa, ‘one, simple, pure, immutable, indivisible, incorporeal and eternal’. This insight of Plato as to the nature of material change was the origin of the obsession with symbol and allegory during the whole period from classical times to the Renaissance (Raybould Ch. 1).