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Materiam Superabat Opus? Raw Materiality in Ovid’s Phaethon Episode (Met. 2.1-366)

Del A. Maticic

New York University

In the ekphrasis of the Palace of the Sun in Metamorphoses 2, Ovid enumerates the precious metals, stone, and ivory that compose the palace (1-5), before transitioning to describe the image engraved by Vulcan on the palace doors (5-18) with the remark “the work transcended the material” (materiam superabat opus, 5). This sentence is usually read as an aphoristic claim about the power of art over physical, mythological, and philosophical matter in general (see, e.g., Graziani 2003; c.f. Schiesaro 2014). However, as my paper contends, the status of materia is more complicated if one takes the entirety of the Phaethon story into account. Indeed, Ovid’s tale of Phaethon’s chaotic ride explores the nature of the raw material as a metaphor for chaos and the object of artistic transformation. Rather than articulating a formalist aesthetic in which the artist shapes inert mass like a demiurge molding chaos, the landscape of the story is characterized by a materialist aesthetic wherein metal, stone, ivory, wood, and amber all exert agency in the face of the artistic fire of Phaethon and the sun.

The palace ekphrasis is typically read as an allegorical re-telling of the cosmogony in Met. 1, where the palace stands for the indigesta…moles of Chaos shaped by deus et melior natura into the mundus (Met. 1.21; see, e.g., Brown 1987). But a number of problems arise from reading of the palace as an allegory for chaos or the four elements. Substances like stones and metals and the elements of ancient physical theories, though related, exist on different ontological levels and the analogy between them, often invoked by Latin authors, is more complicated than scholars have acknowledged. It is, for example, a well-attested theory that the qualities of mineral, plant, and animal matter is determined by a composition of the four canonical elements mixed in different proportions (see esp. Vitruvius, de Arch. 2 with Habinek 2016). In our passage, the distance between the materials and the elements of chaos is emphasized by the complicated wordplay with one of the metals: flammas…imitante pyropo (Met. 2.2), or “reddish-bronze imitating flames”. Thanks to the bilingual pun on the Greek pyrōpus, “fiery-eyed,” or “fire-like” the object imitates flames, mirroring the fact that the word itself, as it were, imitates “imitating flame.”

Here and elsewhere, the relationship between fire and materia is figured not as reaction but interaction. The descriptions of not only the palace but also the Sun’s throne (23-4) and chariot (107-10) employ dynamic, active words to describe the metal, stone, and ivory’s actions in the light. During Phaethon’s ride, the burned “crops furnish fuel for their own destruction” (materiamque suo praebet seges arida damno, 212-3), and when Phaethon’s sisters metamorphose into poplars, they weep amber which hardens in the sun (sole rigescunt) and is brought by bright streams (lucidus amnis, 365) to Rome where it can be worn by brides (2.361-6). This unusual etiology not only of the poplar tree but of a cultural commodity makes it even more unlikely that we are to read the Palace of the Sun, an assemblage of mineral and animal materials each with their own deep materialities as commodities, as merely an allegory for chaos overcome by human art. This sensitivity to a materiality embedded within a kosmos of commodities—of gemstones, metals, and marble but also the fuel that enables many of these to be worked in the first place—complicates our reading of the art/nature binary in Ovidian poetics, challenging a reading of materiam superabat opus as a general claim about art. On the contrary, rather than articulating a formalist aesthetics in which artistic form is imposed on passive substance, Ovid’s Phaethon engages with a tradition of aesthetic materialism that a number of scholars, most notably James Porter (2010, 2016; cf. also, e.g. Elsner 2014), have identified in ancient Greece and Roman literature and philosophy.

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Ovid and the Constructed Visual Environment

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