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Ariadne loquens, Ariadne muta: Catullus 64 and the Illusionism of Hellenistic Ekphrastic Epigrams


University of Lille 3 (France)

Catullus’s Carmen 64 has puzzled many a critic by its “disobedient ekphrasis” (Laird) of a coverlet: not only does it scarcely describe its subject, but it turns into a long first-person monologue by Ariadne, the main figure woven into the coverlet. Instead of materially describing the artwork to “bring its subject before the readers’ eyes” following the rhetorical tradition transmitted by the Progymnasmata, the ekphrasis gives voice to its central character.

Scholars have mostly focused on the visual issues of the ekphrasis (Fitzgerald, Elsner). Those who tackled its shift from vision to diction read its innovations as shaped by epic narration (Deroux, Gaisser) or by drama (Reitz, Trimble), two genres which allow their protagonists to move and speak. Yet, Laird demonstrated that Ariadne’s oratio recta stems from her woven representation and can be understood within the network of relations between verbal and visual media created by the ekphrasis. I argue accordingly that, far from disregarding the artwork from which it emanates, Ariadne’s direct speech attempts to maximize the ekphrasis and allow its reader not only to see but to hear the artwork. Furthermore, I demonstrate that Catullus’s ekphrasis follows a Hellenistic topos omnipresent in ekphrastic epigrams, where the capacity for an artwork to speak epitomizes its illusionist power: the artwork is deemed so perfectly realistic that it seems about to speak, move or generally come to life (Fuà, Iff-Noël). Sometimes, it can even actually speak, move or come to life as does Myron’s cow (e.g. AP 9.723) or later Pygmalion’s statue (Ov., Met. 10.243-297). By analyzing ekphrastic epigrams that engage artworks in exegetic dialogues rather than descriptions, Goldhill showed how the Hellenistic world developed a new “culture of viewing” where “ekphrasis needs to be seen in a […] more complex set of cultural ideas about vision, reading and the production of meaning”. I contend that Catullus’s “speaking ekphrasis” plays with the Hellenistic tradition of artworks that speak out to reveal their own meaning.

By situating Catullus’s ekphrastic centerpiece within the Hellenistic “culture of viewing” co-constructed by the epigrammatic topos, this paper sheds light on the shift of focus in ekphrases from materiality to meaning. Firstly, I show that Ariadne’s monologue belongs to the ekphrasis and actually stems from her figurative representation on the coverlet. Indeed, the coverlet’s initial description (l.50-70) corresponds quasi verbatim to Ariadne’s description (l.124-131) and to how Ariadne herself pictures her situation when she starts talking (l.132-133) (e.g. corde furores l.54, corde furens l.124; maestus l.60 and 130; desertus l.57 and 132; litus l.52 and 132; etc.). Moreover, Ariadne seems to describe herself as part of the coverlet through the anaphoric sicine (l.132-134) which mimics the deictics used by epigrammatic speaking artworks. While Catullus does not state overtly that he gives voice to a coverlet, he thus appears to play with the epigrammatic topos.

Secondly, Ariadne’s woven figure is explicitly compared to a sculpture of a Bacchant (l.61), echoing epigrams (e.g. AP 9.774) about a 4th century BC Bacchant statue by Scopas that resort to the illusionist topos aforementioned. The phrase mira ars, used to describe the coverlet (l.50), can therefore be understood as a translation of θαῦμα: the coverlet gives the same illusion of movement and speech as the Hellenistic masterpieces that inform Catullus’s poetics.

Lastly, Catullus reverses the illusionist topos when Ariadne paradoxically states that “all is mute” (omnia muta l.187) and that she is “blind with demented passion” (amenti caeca furore l.197): I argue that the latter expression also suggests that Ariadne is “deprived of eyesight and senses” because she is an inanimate artwork. Indeed, many epigrams (e.g. AP 12.57, AP 16.30) varied the illusionist topos by inverting its recurring adjectives ἔμψυχος (“animate”) into ἀψύχος (“inanimate”) or λάλον (“speaking”) into οὐ λάλον (“mute”).

This paper thus reveals Catullus’s interplay with Hellenistic epigrams in his non-epigrammatic poem par excellence and his virtuoso mastery of ekphrastic poetics, where, when masterpieces speak out, showing becomes telling.

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