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Syphilitic Trees: Immobility and Voicelessness in Ovid and Fracastoro

Kat Vaananen

The Ohio State University

This talk will discuss how Girolamo Fracastoro, in his poem Syphilidis, sive Morbi Gallici, brilliantly reimagined the tree transformations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to showcase the impact of syphilis on the human body and psyche. Ovid was an ubiquitous presence during the Renaissance (Burrow; Moss), and Fracastoro’s familiarity with Ovid has not escaped some notice of scholars (Eatough, 1984). This previous scholarship on Fracastoro’s use of classical texts in his poem, however, has only skated across Fracastoro’s nuanced engagement with Ovid.

Fracastoro’s work begins with a detailed description of the causes and effects of the disease, and it is in this first book where Ovid’s strong presence has not yet been given its due; it is here that I will focus my discussion. Fracastoro describes how the course of the disease transforms a person’s physical appearance, and ultimately destroys the victim.  He even compares the end result to a sap-covered almond tree (MG.1.349-364)After this devolution, Fracastoro crafts a tale about a youth (MG.1.384) who starts out as a desirable young man who lives in a rustic setting, is adored by the local girls and rustic divinities, and on account of his rejection of the affections of one of them ends up dissolving his human form.  In the end the young man also resembles the voiceless and sap-covered bark of the almond tree. Phillip Hardie believes that this story is modelled on Ovid’s Narcissus (Hardie), and while there are several tempting parallels, I argue that the allusions to the transformations such as Myrrha’s and Dryope’s are much stronger. Fracastoro’s descriptions of skin hardening into bark and the loss of the ability to speak are common features in many Ovidian tree transformations (Daphne Met.1.548-567; the Heliades Met.2.346-366; Dryope Met.9.349-394; Myrrha Met.10.489-518; Cyparissus Met.10.138-14; Attis Met.10.104-105; the Apulian shepherd Met.14.517-526).

I base my suggestion on Fracastoro’s admiration for and engagement with the Neapolitan poet Pontano, who makes significant use of Ovid’s Venus and Adonis story (Caruso). It is plausible that, in taking a closer look at the Adonis story, Fracastoro turned his attention to the story of Adonis’ mother Myrrha, and from there to other similar stories about transformation.  As with Fracastoro’s syphilitics, the final changes to Myrrha’s person are the loss of her most identifiable characteristics: her face and voice (Met.10.507-508). She becomes a plant that is continually covered in (medicinal) sap (Met.10.409-502). Her final state as a hardened tree covered in an ever-flowing and sticky substance strongly resonates with the image of the almond tree that Fracastoro uses in his first image of a syphilitic.

Fracastoro’s presentation of the progression of the disease markedly mirrors the course taken by transformations like Myrhha’s. The first indication that change is afoot occurs when they are no longer able to move as quickly or as well as they used to. Fracastoro describes this slowing down with phrases such as torpor gravati, languentes, and segnes (MG.1.325-327). In Fracastoro’s description of the progression of the disease, and in the Ovidian transformations, the victims then suffer dramatic changes to their outward appearance which ultimately envelope their entire bodies, and their voices and distinguishing characteristics are extinguished.

In this poem, Fracastoro does not just versify his initial thoughts and opinions about the disease itself.  He uses poetry as a medium to deal with the fear and terror the new plague has brought down on society, to work out the science of the disease, and to express his view of the emotional and physical toll it takes on the human mind and body in a way that we today would call the medical humanities. Not only does Fracastoro take up the physical changes that Ovid describes in the Metamorphoses, he also shares Ovid’s emphasis on the negative impact those changes have on an individual’s personhood. Fracastoro uses Ovid as a lens through which he can view the whole patient and their disease.

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