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(S)expurgation: Censoring images in Ovid’s Metamorphosis

the story of Cadmus, founder of Thebes.

By Jessica Farrell-Jobst |

Within the collection of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto is a 1517 folio edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis printed in Venice by Georgio Rusconi (USTC 763005). Metamorphosis was one of the most popular texts of the early modern period, having been printed in at least sixty-two various editions between 1471 and 1517. Rusconi himself printed this text in three separate editions that same year, two Latin and one Italian editions. Although admittedly not that rare, within the scholarly community at the library this text has received a fair amount of attention. What makes this popular book so intriguing for library patrons are the copy-specific markings. This copy of the Roman poet’s magnum opus bears evidence that the text has undergone an expurgation process, a post-printing censorship activity intended to cover up (or in some cases physically take out) anything later deemed offensive, heretical or immoral.

Acts of censorship are important elements to consider when examining the development and operation of the early modern print world. Although not wholly systematic or enforceable, indexes of prohibited texts, governmental decrees against printing and selling of certain texts and other pre-printing forms of censorship were generally more effective than attempts to censors books already in circulation. Yet, readers and owners of certain texts clearly made conscious efforts to purge their copies of offensive materials. This is true for an early modern reader of the CRRS’ copy of Metamorphosis, whose objections were not with the printed word per se, but rather the images in the book.

There are several instances of attempted bowdlerization throughout the work that reveal the editors’ erasure program. At the completion of the second book, there is an image depicting the story of Cadmus, founder of Thebes. The depiction illustrates several scenes, including Cadmus speaking to the Oracle of Apollo, his later confrontation with the water serpent, and Cadmus with a naked woman laying upon a rocky crag. We can also see a large spot of ink covering the naked woman’s genitalia on the image. It is noteworthy that the naked Apollo in the background was left untouched, suggesting his lack of genital detail secured his continued spotless existence. On the other hand, because the early modern ink in now faded the present-day viewer can discern that the original depiction of the woman actually contained enough detail to represent a formed labia, condemning her to expurgation.

the fourth book, in the net
A woodcut from the fourth book of Metamorphosis. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, shelfmark PA6519 .M2 1517.

Later in the fourth book, an image depicting Vulcan’s discovery of the adulterous Venus and Mars has also been censored. Caught in Neptune’s net, the clandestine lovers are exposed to their godly peers, but where the two lay entangled in passionate coitus, we see a large spot of ink instead. While their forms actually lack any bodily detail of the first image, their sexual activity has been purged.

the tale of Lotis and Priapus
The story of Lotis and Priapus from Ovid’s ninth book. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, shelfmark PA6519 .M2 1517.

Located in the ninth book of Metamorphosis is another altered image. This woodcut illustrates the tale of Lotis and Priapus. As the nymph, Lotis, runs away from the lustful Priapus, god of fertility, she is transformed into a Lotis tree in order to escape her determined chaser. In the image Priapus is depicted with an exceedingly large phallus, adhering to the typical iconography. But, again, someone has attempted to conceal this detail with ink. However, the ink is now greatly faded revealing Priapus’ characteristic apparatus.

From the evidence, it is clear that the protesting editor was averse to visual representations of sex, both organs and activities. The remnant markings denote a certain conservative attitude towards sex and nudity, whether of the editor personally or society more generally. Furthermore, the incidents of concealment highlight both the significance of images and the ineffectiveness of this type of censorship. While the poem talks of passion and lustfulness, only the images are defaced, leaving the surrounding words unaltered. It seems the danger stemmed from visual stimulation, and pictorial representations of such actions or displays had greater power to incite the viewer to immoral thoughts. Notwithstanding the tagger’s efforts, expurgation of this sort only serves to emphasise what is not to be viewed.

Despite the poem’s obvious popularity, not all readers appreciated the famous Roman poem, in text or image, as one reader makes explicit in his marginal note on the last page of this copy, stating ‘mucha mierda’!

colophon stating ‘Mucha Merda’!
A critical response to Georgio Rusconi’s colophon. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, shelfmark PA6519 .M2 1517.

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Jessica Farrell-Jobst is a senior PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, where she is currently completing her doctoral thesis. Her research examines the multifaceted ways women participated in the early modern book trade. Her project focuses on the printing and production trades within the imperial free city of Nürnberg during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jessica is also a student researcher at the Universal Short Title Catalogue transcribing the Frankfurt and Leipzig Fair Catalogues for the seventeenth century.