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Visualizing Voice in the Story of Echo and Narcissus

Mariapia Pietropaolo

McMaster University

Ovid’s story of Echo and Narcissus consists of parallel narratives based on the illusory power of vocal and visual reflections. The myth was also a popular subject of wall paintings in and near Pompeii, a few of which include a female figure commonly identified as Echo. The relationship between the paintings and the Metamorphoses has been studied by numerous scholars concerned with showing possible influence of the text on the paintings (Platt, Elsner, Valladares, Knox, Rosati, Prioux), pointing out the correspondence between philological and iconographic details and their significance for the cultural history of the myth of Narcissus and the interpretation of Ovid (Squire). Less attention, however, has been paid to the aesthetic relationship between the textual and figurative representations of sound in the Ovidian story and the Pompeian paintings.

Accordingly, this paper explores the aesthetic management of the figure of Echo in the Metamorphoses and in Pompeian frescoes. It seeks to uncover the philosophical premises for the representation of sound by means of the sight-based mental imagery of poetry and visible imagery of art, both viewed against the background of the ancient aesthetics of synaesthesia (Butler and Purves, Bradley and Butler) and in relation to the gender and materiality of voice (Carson, Barthes). Considering Ovid’s representation of Echo in her vocal gestures of grief (Pavlock), in her limited exercise of agency (Salzman-Mitchell, Fulkerson and Stover), in her refashioning of words and sounds (Butler), together with his strategic use of Lucretian language in the episode (Hardie, Barchiesi, Rosati), I argue that the text invites a painterly approach to reading, whereas the figures in the paintings invite a narrative approach to viewing, an approach in which what is visible leads to the visualization of absent details.

I show that Ovid regards Echo’s voice, even after the dissolution of her body, as a synecdoche of her being: if indeed sonus est, qui uiuit in illa (3.401), there is a her in whom sound survives. Moreover, when Narcissus slaps his shoulders in grief, she sends back the same sonitum plangoris (3.498). She does not echo a vocal sound but a tactile noise produced by a solid body. The reader therefore is automatically tempted to imagine Echo beating her chest with her hands to echo Narcissus, temporarily re-personifying her.

A parallel phenomenon occurs in our viewing experience of paintings, in which we are drawn to consider the depictions as reverse ekphrases, transforming the synchronicity of static images into the diachronicity of events in visualized narrative. We can see this in the fresco of Casa dell’Efebo, in which Echo appears as visible but is not reflected by the water, perhaps suggesting that she may also be incorporeal. The viewer and the reader are thus led to consider, respectively, the narrative as a temporal experience of voice through the sense of sight, and painting through the sense of hearing, both engaged in an aesthetic of synaesthetic attunement.

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