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The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Italian: Mythologia

Authority: Cartari

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Like the Greek words ‘logos’ and ‘epos’, ‘mythos’ had an early meaning of ‘word’ illustrating the obvious importance of language to the transmission and perpetuation of culture. By the time of Aristotle it had come to mean plot or storyline, one of the six elements of poetry.

     Some of the characters of the Greek myths, particularly the Olympian Gods, had been preserved throughout the Middle Ages through the medium of the zodiacal figures which were the stuff of magic and astrology but the rediscovery of classical texts brought about an explosion of enthusiasm for the ancient stories. Apart from the innumerable editions and translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the most popular mythological resource of the age, the archetype of the Renaissance collections was Boccaccio’s Genealogia de gli Dei, the Genealogy of the Gods, and there were many other contemporary encyclopaedias of the myths. One of the first of these was the Theologica Mythologica, Theological Mythology, by Wilhelm Pictor in which Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, teaches his disciples in dialog form about the allegorical meaning of the Gods.

     The Mascherata della Geneologia degl’Iddei de’ Gentile of Baccio Baldini was a description and interpretation of the twenty-one main gods and goddesses of ancient Rome and another popular handbook on ancient mythology, published in 17 editions from 1556 onwards, was that of Vincenzo Cartari, Le Imagini degli Dei Antichi, Images of the Gods of the Ancients. Its popularity was due to the fact that it was much more than a catelogue of stories but an extended exposition of Platonic dogma. The book was divided into three parts: the first depicted the gods who represented eternal heavenly concepts, the second gods with changeable material and earthly characteristics and the third the gods of love and the Graces. The introduction and commentary uses these gods as illustration of the theme that life on Earth is an interlude where the soul is imprisoned in the material body and subject to the vagaries of Fate beyond human control. Only through the medium of Love can the soul expect to rejoin the heavenly mysteries to which it aspires.

     The success of these Renaissance mythologies attests to the realization by contemporaries of the importance of the myths in the cultural history of the West and in particular of the part that they played in the origin and development of the symbolic vocabulary of medieval Europe.

See also: Allegories, Metamorphoses