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22.01.04 Van Peteghem, Italian Readers of Ovid from the Origins to Petrarch

22.01.04 Van Peteghem, Italian Readers of Ovid from the Origins to Petrarch

In Italian Readers of Ovid from the Origins to Petrarch: Responding to a Versatile Muse, Julie Van Peteghem sets out to fill in the literary history of Ovid’s reception in the Italian medieval period by moving beyond a focus strictly on the so-called three crowns, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. In her highly scholarly and thoughtful study, she situates Dante’s and Petrarch’s reception of Ovid in the literary context of other poets writing in Italian languages before and during Dante’s lifetime. At the same time, focusing on Ovid in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italy, she expands narrow conceptions of reception to include commentaries, translations, anthologies, citations, and the contexts in which Ovid might be encountered (schools, universities, monasteries, and courts). As Van Peteghem writes in stating one of the central arguments of the book, “The meanings of ‘Ovid’ expand in many directions” (11). She attempts to demonstrate “what reading and responding to Ovid meant in the Italian thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (12). Because her focus is poetry, unfortunately she excludes Boccaccio’s Ovidian reception most notably in the Genealogy of the Gods. Perhaps that will be the author’s next book.

The book is divided into two parts, the first on “Writers as Readers” with an introduction titled “Ovid, the philosopher who wrote books about love” and a chapter that provides an overview of reading Ovid in the Italian Due- and Trecento. The section skillfully demonstrates what texts of Ovid that medieval readers encountered looked like. With manuscripts to demonstrate her point, Van Peteghem sets out to emphasize that what we modern readers encounter as Ovid readers is vastly different to the medieval experience. Part 2, “Readers as Writers,” is a rich collection of five essays that tell the story of Ovidian reception from the Occitan models to Sicilian writers and on to Dante, Cino da Pistoia, and Petrarch. Thus, chapter two, “Examples (Not) to Follow: The First Italian Ovidian Poems and Their Occitan Models,” turns from “Italian readers of Ovid” to “Italian writers about Ovid” (73). Examining “the crucial role of Occitan poetry,” a vernacular literature that emerged before its Italian followers, the chapter shows how the Italian poets (Sicilian, the Siculo-Tuscan, and the dolce stil novo poets) are both similar to and different from their models (74). She argues that, despite the fact that the Latin text of the Metamorphoses, often accompanied with commentaries, was available in Italy, still the poets’ references to the Ovidian matter (most notably the Narcissus and Echo, and Pyramus and Thisbe, episodes from the Metamorphoses) come mostly from Occitan models and did not require actual knowledge of Ovid’s text. Chapter 3, “Something Old, Something New: Dante, Cino da Pistoia, and Ovid,” demonstrates that Cino and Dante “moved beyond the Occitan models” (124) and that they were probably following Ovid’s Latin texts. Examining Dante’s Vita nuova, which, Van Peteghem maintains, prioritizes vernacular Italian not classical poetry, she shows that Dante uses Ovid, along with other classical poets, for contrast with the Italians. Dante’s Rime petrose, on the other hand, introduces “new approaches to the Ovidian material” (134), and Van Peteghem makes the important point that Dante moves beyond the Narcissus and Pyramus and Thisbe stories while adopting “gender reversals in his comparisons with Ovidian characters” (134). In Cino da Pistoia’s earlier poetry, the poet likens himself to Ovidian characters when introducing the Apollo and Daphne story. More importantly, Van Peteghem sees Dante and Cino, both exiles, following Ovid’s lead in his first exile letter in their own correspondence when discussing their mutual exilic condition.

Chapter 4, “Ovid in Dante’s Commedia” makes important additions to the well-established scholarly engagement with Dante and Ovid. It starts with the premise that while Ovid is always included among Dante’s classical sources, importantly “Dante’s Ovidian sources consist of both Ovid’s Latin texts and Ovidian readings in vernacular lyric poetry” (171). As author of Intertextual Dante, a digital humanities project that is part of Columbia University’s Digital Dante website (, Van Peteghem in her digital edition of the Commedia demonstrates that “Dante’s language in the Commedia closely resembles Ovid’s Latin” (180). This work also allows her to show that Dante’s 150 references to Ovid’s writings in the Commedia can be characterized by four main points: 1) although the Metamorphoses is the main Ovidian source, in fact, the references come from all of Ovid’s works; 2) a third of the references to Ovid occur in similes; 3) the number of similes citing Ovid are equal across the three canticles, but Ovid references decline as the poem moves through the canticles; 4) each canticle has “Ovidian moments” and “Ovidian silences” (195).

The final chapter, “Petrarch’s Scattered Ovidian Verses,” is highly original. Inserting Ovid into a discussion of Dante versus Petrarch allows Van Peteghem to avoid the simplistic divides between the two poets. She finds that Petrarch shares approaches to reading Ovid with Dante, integrating them both into “a longer Italian tradition of reading Ovid” (223). The chapter carefully demonstrates how not just Ovid’s poetry but Latin commentaries on it, volgarizzamenti, Ovid the philosopher cited in anthologies and treatises, and references in poetry from antiquity to Petrarch’s own time inspired Petrarch’s poetry. Petrarch thus follows the pattern of other Italian poets who were readers of Ovid.

This is a superbly researched book that contributes an important new chapter to the discussion of the reception of Ovid in the poetry of the Italian thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In addition to an extensive bibliography, noteworthy is the fact that the publisher allowed bottom-of-the-page footnotes, a tradition invariably abandoned even in medieval studies. In such an extensively researched study, this is a welcome convenience to the reader.