“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys,
after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.”
The exhibition aspires to reconstruct the iconographic fortune of Ulysses over the centuries.
The protagonist of the Odyssey, “the strongest character of all ancient literature”, as Flaubert will say, casts a long shadow over the Western imagination of man.
Art, in unison with literature, has expressed the myth in every era.
Ulysses of the Odyssey is the hero of human experience, endurance, intelligence of the word, knowledge, survival, awareness of self and the social values of one’s time.
The development of Ulysses’ character, who at one point also becomes narrator of himself, follows a complex story in the poem: an initial, progressive reduction to nothing, to the “No one” of the name with whom he introduces himself to Polyphemus, until he truly becomes no one, when alone, exhausted, naked and salt-encrusted, he reaches the Island of the Phaeacians. A difficult reconquering of self begins, of his own identity, through the narrative recovery of his episode at the court of Alcinous. It finishes with the experience of returning and reconquering his home.
Ulysses, as Piero Boitani states (Il grande racconto di Ulisse, Il Mulino, 2016), is the first autobiographer and the first novelist of the Western World. And the memory of Ulysses is never forgotten, not even when Homer’s poems are no longer read, due to ignorance of Greek after the separation between the Byzantine and Latin Middle Ages, until Petrarch and Humanism.
Other sources also exist on the story of Ulysses in the different ages of Greek and Roman history (from the tragedians of the 5th century - Sophocles above all – to Pindarus, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid), which crossed the entire Middle Ages but, before and after, the key reference point remains the Homeric cycle.
Since Archaic art, artists have never tried to illustrate the entire Odyssey in purely didactic form, but rather selected what appeared more in tune with their time.
The first episode of the Odyssey, which the artists deemed worthy of figurative translation, is the blinding of Polyphemus (Odyssey IX). The episode is key and the reason behind the misadventures of Ulysses in the sea and his long return. Of the three moments concerned (the offer of wine, the blinding and the escape), the Archaic Age privileged the last two, and in particular the third: the escape. In addition to the story of Polyphemus, Greek Archaic art interested itself in the story of the sorceress Circe who transforms men into animals (Odyssey X, 135-574).
The figure of Circe is important for the subsequent phase of the narration: the advice given to Ulysses for his return and descent into hell (the nékyia). However, the Archaic Age prefers to depict action; the Classical and the subsequent Hellenistic eras will privilege other parts of the Odyssey, while the Roman era will limit itself to resuming the models.
In short, the Archaic Age privileges the episodes of Polyphemus, Circe, the Mermaids and Scylla. In the Classical Age, there is the addition of the meetings and recognitions: the nékyia, meeting with Athena, with Nausicaa, the pain and deceit of Penelope’s Shroud, the recognition of the wet-nurse Eurycleia and, above all, the tragedy of the Suitors. Hellenism added other episodes, like the domestic and moving meeting with his dog Argos, the embrace and recognition between Ulysses and Penelope. Roman art privileged the embrace between Ulysses and his father Laertes as consoling epilogue.
For this reason, in the 26th canto of his Inferno, Dante can impart a new and different centrality to Ulysses, transforming him from centripetal hero to centrifugal hero: his Ulysses belongs more to the cycle of the nostoi, his protagonist is not driven by nostalgia of the return nor, like the Virgilian Enea, by a mission. Ulysses is a wanderer, driven by the ardour “to become expert of the world / and of human vices and of value”, he launches himself “on another open sea” towards a “folly flight”.
Dante’s story of Ulysses is both powerful and controversial – almost a voice-over in the Comedy in which the two destinies (Dante-Ulysses) meet and overlap, since the Comedy is also a journey – involving the vision of man’s destiny, his desire to go beyond set limits, becoming the journey of man with God.
In Dante (who, like the entire Middle Ages, did not have Homer as a source), Ulysses is condemned. The conviction is related to the prevarication of the mind: the highest faculty of man, which in the Convivio is called “divine essence”. Ulysses presents himself with Diomedes with whom he has stolen the Palladium from Troy and is the artifice of the deceit of the horse and, not by chance, we found ourselves in the 8th pit of hell. The Dantesque story goes even further. Dante wants to speak of Ulysses’ death, the end of his existence, which the poets (Virgil, Cicero and Horace) have said nothing about.
Dante builds up the episode like a large fresco on the virtues and limits of the ancient world.
Dante’s influence on art is found in codes and miniatures, capitals and sarcophagi and reaches Giovanni di Ser Giovanni (known as “Lo Scheggia” or “The Splinter”), Botticelli and his illustrated reinterpretation of the Comedy, before immersing itself into a long period of silence that continued until the 19th century.
The possibility of artists to be inspired directly by the Odyssey, after the mid-15th century, ensures that Homeric inspiration returns to dominate art from the 16th to the 18th century. It is visible in the paintings and manufactured articles, with a character that is not only illustrative or decorative, but in an integrated synthesis between formal and moral values: from Pinturicchio to Beccafumi and Dossi in the 16th century, to move on to the 17th century of Rubens, Jordaens, Cornelis and the 18th century of Barry, Wright of Derby, Bottani, Mengs. In sculpture, the finding of Laocoön (1506) and the recovery of many Roman copies of Greek originals will affect the plastic values of the major artists of that and subsequent eras; from Michelangelo to Bandinelli, to Bernini and Canova.
The 19th century finds something Odysseic in the destiny of modern man in the myth of the traveller and wanderer (from Foscolo to Tennyson, from Romanticism to Nietzsche) thanks also to the resumption of Homeric studies between the seventeenth and eighteenth century and the new archaeological discoveries. The Pre-Raphaelites, in the depictions of subjects like Calypso, Circe or the Mermaids, contemplate the dream-like vision of a world which escapes the desire of beauty and is overwhelmed by the middle class reality.
From the return to the classic of Canova and Füssli, to the Romanticism of Hayez, to the symbolist anxieties and neo-fifteenth century poetics of Waterhouse, the story of Ulysses remains at the centre of artistic international research.
The 20th century, despite its evident breaks with the past, makes Ulysses the prototype of contemporary man: restless, alienated, irretrievably divided in his I. Ulysses is the metaphor of human existence, in which even the most optimistic vision of the world is never separated from the melancholic regret for the destiny of decline and death of man. For this reason, more than an integral return of the myth, art celebrates isolated and partial portraits of the hero.
The most influential literary version (but many other 20th century models and authors could be mentioned: from D’Annunzio to Saba, from Pascoli to Primo Levi to Kavafis) is that of James Joyce. His Ulysses is published in the fateful 1922. His story, which takes place on a single day (16 June 1904), is not a nostos in the Homeric sense, nor does it evoke the theme of a mission or refer to the challenge of Dantesque knowledge.
The day of Irish Jew, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses), is nothing but a daily process of alienation: his journey does not lead to any destination, or to any result. The hero becomes a divided I who is faced with the absolutism of daily reality and looks for his possible unity: the parody of every language and experience, which can lead him back to something of himself.
From Böcklin to De Chirico, from Savinio to Cagli, from Mestrovic to Martini, we see art as research and representation of an opening, a way out which is denied to the hero become man.
The great exhibition at the San Domenico museums in Forlì deals with the relationship between art and myth over the centuries, through the paradigmatic figure of Ulysses. The key issue, which is clarified at the beginning of the exhibition route and developed in ten large sections, is to show how the mythical tale transforms into figurative image and how this transposition influences, re-interprets and re-defines the vision itself of the myth.