Ovidius Naso, Publius, 43 a.C.-17/18 d.C.
The verses of the Metamorphoses composed by the poet of Sulmona have been conserved in over four hundred manuscripts, and only eight of these present a narrative cycle for the myths described in the text (Rabel, Ovidio, pp. 38-41). The manuscript tradition of Ovid’s illuminated works is an extremely interesting case in the book-making context, because, although his work constitutes a pivotal text for Latin culture, the graphic representation of the narrated stories, besides being small, is difficult to codify and subject to many variations and interpretations. Several Ovidian works are housed in the Vatican Apostolic Library: two of the eight examples of the Metamorphoses (mss. Vat. lat. 1596, Vat. lat. 2780), which are accompanied by drawings in the margins, a miscellaneous codex that contains the text of the Ars amatoria and the Epistulae ex Ponto (ms. Vat. lat. 1600), the Heroides, enriched by twenty-one drawings in the margins (ms. Ross. 893) and Letter 15 by Saffo to Faone, passed down separately from the manuscript tradition of the Heroides and extant in a precious codex with the text of the Syluae of Statius (ms. Vat. lat. 3595, ff. 76r-79r). Nevertheless, the iconographic history of the works of Ovid substantially coincides with the verses of the Metamorphoses, while the other Ovidian texts remain completely devoid of possible comparison (Buonocore, Aetas Ovidiana; Id., I codici di Ovidio).
The illustrative typology from one codex to another of the Metamorphoses can vary widely: from the illustrations inserted in the margins as explanatory glosses of the narrated fabulae to the simple figurative initials (Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, S.XXV.6; Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 36.8); or, in the humanistic period, decorated frontispieces and ornamentation that bear no relation to the content of the work (mss. Vat. lat. 1594; Urb. lat. 347). The specific format of the images also varies: codices intended for study tend to be more compact and manageable, while those made for prestigious commissions are monumental and precious. Therefore it is not possible to distinguish an entirely consistent illustrative tradition.
The first illuminated manuscript of the Metamorphosis known to us today was made between the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries in southern Italy, in Bari. About sixty-five miniatures embellished the margins of its folios, which correspond to the Ovidian text faithfully (Napoli, Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele III”, Neap.IV.F.3). The miniaturist does not seem to follow a precise model of reference but is guided by the story, and copies the imagery that surrounds it, elaborating new representations according to the text (Orofino, L’illustrazione delle ‘Metamorfosi’; Id., Ovidio nel Medioevo). Another codex from the twelfth or thirteenth century, Vat. lat. 1596, follows this illustrative typology without appearing as an exact copy of it. It presents miniatures in the margins that relate only to the first three books, all of which are dedicated to transformations such as the myth of Actaeon: first the hunter is shown with the body and horns of the deer and his human head still intact, later he is depicted after having become a deer, torn apart by dogs (ff. 24v, 25r; Buonocore, Forme e tipologie, pp. 137-143). After some time, a completely different style appears, as exemplified in the series of images featured in the margins of the paper folios of Vat. lat. 2780, a codex dated to 1415 and probably intended for study. The codex demonstrates, once again, an attention to the contents of the Ovidian work, and faithfully respects the dictates of the text through the pictures drawn in the margins (Buonocore, Forme e tipologie, pp. 143-147; Toniolo, Immagini in trasformazione). Although an iconographic standardization was not achieved with regard to the Latin tradition of the illustration of the Metamorphoses, the story shifts in the fourteenth century with the Christian moral and allegorical interpretations of the work. An authentic iconographic organization can be recognized in the French versions of the Ovide moraliseé in verse (composed between 1316 and 1318), and in the Ovidius moralizatus, text in prose written by Pierre Bersuire in Avignon around 1340. There is also a third group of codices that contain the text of Ovide moraliseé but which show the iconographic subjects of the Ovidius moralizatus with mythical images of the pagan gods, as is the case for the manuscript Reg. lat. 1480 (Buonocore, Tra i codici miniati di Ovidio; Manzari, Scheda nr. 58, pp. 289-294). Although it is not possible to trace an illustrative tradition of Ovid's works, it is clear that priority was given, at least until the beginning of the fifteenth century, to forging a close relation between the text and the images; the latter, for the most part, are included in the margins as a mnemonic device and to function as a figurative gloss.
Reg. lat. 1480, f. 5r