Ut pictura poesis

With this introduction to the subject of narration and translation of poetical descriptions of images, we are introducing a number of exemplary tales
Loretta Secchi

Simonides of Ceos (born c. 556 B.C.) is reported to have made the remark: "Painting is mute poetry and poetry is a speaking picture." The theme of formal bonds of connection in art forms, through images and words, even emerges in the rhetorical text Progymnasmata or preparatory exercises, attributed to Hermogenes of Tarsus (2nd century B.C.). Here èkphrasis is defined as a description, a literary reconstruction of the art work, "a descriptive discourse that places the object before the eyes with vivid clarity."

Enàrgeia entails an advanced exercise used in the composition of texts. It consisted in describing people, places, temples, events, and other objects. Èkphrasis is interesting not only from a literary perspective: descriptions of places, weapons, objects, events, public ceremonies, religious rituals, people are a valuable mine of information, which scholars have drawn from since the beginning of ancient studies to address topography, history of art, physiognomy and antiquities. Èkphrasis is describing with eloquence. Famous examples are the descriptions of the shield of Achilles in Homer's Iliad and the shield of Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid, and also many passages of Alighieri's Divine Comedy. Èkphrasis is a description of the visible into words, as Umberto Eco explained in his book entitled Saying Almost the Same Thing. The Latin expression Ut pictura poesis by poet Quinto Orazio Flacco (1st century B.C.) literally translated means "as in painting so in poetry" which means that poetry is like a painting or that a painting is like poetry.

Jupiter Painting Butterflies, Dossi Dosso

The poet explains that there is a kind of poetry that is pleasing when viewed up close, and another that appeals only when viewed from afar, or observed a second time, or analyzed with a critical eye, as with a painting. Since antiquity, the link between poetry and painting has always been debated. Orazio in his Ars Poetica (Epistle to the Pisos, one of the essential reference texts to this day relating to the philosophical and historical discourse on Aesthetics) highlights how in poetry and art there are works that are immediately understandable and evident, and others that we cannot interpret so easily.

Translating a literary text into a visual text is the task of the Renaissance and Baroque painting mythography that aims to preserve the principle of aesthetic equivalent, to preserve the expressive power of the source language, knowing that it will undergo a transformation and not a loss of its original meaning, in spite of the fact that translation requires adaptations which may imply forms of calculated and sometimes inevitable betrayal of the imaginative power that the description "Through words" is able to generate for the reader. Determining the degree of correspondence between text and image is a difficult task: whenever one tries to describe in images a poetic text, one realizes how much the narrative and evocative power of the author undergoes a transformation at the risk of weakening its meaning. However, if we accept the search for the principle of equivalent aesthetics, understood as the effort of transforming content from an aesthetic context to another, the concept of functional adaptation will be acceptable.

The differences in languages, in fact, must not be misleading. The relevance between two textual objects is the philological explanation of a story, sometimes an evocative reference to a symbolic meaning of the story which, expressed with images, is condensed and synthesized, certainly moved to a moulded form on a semantic and stylistic model to which it must refer and of which it must conform. Something extraordinary happens when reading a myth in Latin poems, namely the mythological epic poem The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.C.) in which all sung episodes originate one of the five most important driving forces of the ancient world: Love, Wrath, Envy, Fear, and Thirst for knowledge. And there are no actions, not from Gods nor from men, that are not attributable to these invisible forces.

Thus, we are inaugurating with this introduction to the subject of narration and translation of images with poetic descriptions a series of mythological tales intended to make us understand what it means to move from an objective fact towards the direction of a symbolic development of the narrative and in this way transform the real to the ideal, or the real into an existential, philosophical and conceptual synthesis. Classical and medieval works will lead us on this path where we will discuss the poignant story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the comforting story of Cupid and Psyche, Homer's and Dante's Ulysses, Paolo's and Francesca's love, and many other beautiful stories which meet the universal principles of loss and separation, sacrilege and recomposition.


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