Io, Argus, Hermes, Syrinx: An Example of the In_uence Excersiced by Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Ancient Roman Painting


  • Monika Osvald



classical literature, Latin literature, Ovidius, Roman painting, iconography, Io, Argos, Hermes, art history


Although a main source of iconography ever since the Middle Ages, the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Ancient Roman visual arts has been presupposed rather than researched in detail. This lacuna in ancient iconography has been filled by the research project MetaMArS, Le Metamorfosi di Ovidio: Mito, Arte, Società, headed by Professor Francesca Ghedini of Padua University. The aim of the project is the systematic study of mutual influences between Ovid and the art of the Roman period. The research is based on a four-step methodology: (1) selecting the subject-matter and compiling an inventory of all literary and iconographic testimonies relating to it; (2) dividing Ovid’s narrative into episodes, i.e. acts and scenes; (3) classifying the iconographic repertoire by themes and schemes; (4) identifying the convergences/ divergences between the two parallel series.

Following the above methodology, the paper focuses on the myth of Io woven by Ovid into Book 1 of the Metamorphoses (ll. 568–750). The lines have been divided into a prologue and five acts, with each of the latter subdivided into two scenes, while Act 4 subsumes the passage on Pan and Syrinx as well. In the opinion of Franz Bömer, it is the Syrinx element that is Ovid’s original contribution: thus both the Syrinx figure and the entire first scene of Act 4, which has Hermes in a shepherd’s attire beguile Argus by playing a new instrument, are crucial to establishing a potential in_uence of the Metamorphoses on select Roman iconography.

The iconographic theme of Io, Argus, and Hermes is represented in Roman wall painting by eleven pictures, which may be divided into bi-figural and three-figural depictions, with the former corresponding to Act 3, Scene 1, and the latter to Act 4, Scene 1. In terms of composition, the images follow four schemes, the second of which includes two variants. Schemes 3 (in the House of the Citharist at Pompeii) and 4 (in the temple of Isis at Pompeii) directly allude to Ovid’s verse, encompassing the Syrinx motif and thus practically serving as illustrations to Act 4, Scene 1. According to Burkhardt Wesenberg, all four schemes stem from a common prototype – the painting Io by a late Attic painter, Nicias of Athens (Pliny, Natural History 35.132).

What seems likely, however, is that Ovid’s new version with Syrinx influenced a rearrangement of the figures in the original composition, which led to the formation of new schemes.


Download data is not yet available.