Sulmona

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I just got back from Sulmona, Ovid’s hometown. It was something like a pilgrimage for me; right now, I’m living in the city Ovid loved, but I felt like I needed to see where he came from, too. Of course, modern Sulmona doesn’t look anything like it would have in the 1st C. BCE – medieval buildings cover the ancient city. Nevertheless, the mountains probably have changed relatively little in the past 2000 years, so it was just a little bit magical knowing that I was seeing the same scenery and breathing the same air as, oh, the greatest poet of all time.

Originally, I had planned to use the train ride to get some homework done, but I decided at the last minute that I wanted today to be solely about Ovid. So, I spent the train ride with Tristia 4.10, appropriately enough. I’m a little bit ashamed to say that I don’t think I had ever read that poem in Latin before. It’s Ovid’s autobiographical poem, but its literary value extends way beyond its function as a history lesson. Two lines in particular gave me something to think about as I traversed the rainy streets of Sulmona. The first was: quotque aderant uates, rebar adesse deos (4.10.42). It means, “As many poets were there, I thought [that many] gods were there,” in the sense that the poets seemed like gods to young Ovid. The word uates is important because it can mean “seer” as well as “poet,” so, in proximity to deos, it emphasizes the proximity of the poets to divinity. I probably should have mentioned that the previous line, the hexameter line to which this line is joined by the nature of the meter, is temporis illius colui fouique poetas. If one preserves the religious sense of the verbs colui and fouique, the line literally means, “I worshipped and cherished the poets of that time.” Anyway, I think that the whole couplet, but especially line 42, just about sums up the feeling of finding oneself in the midst of several people who are one’s seniors in any group or profession that one aspires wholeheartedly to join. In addition, Ovid might (though this is certainly my opinion, and a tenuous one at best) have intended line 42 to remind the reader of the first line of Catullus 51: ille mi par esse deo videtur – “he seems to me to be equal to a god…” Catullus is referring to an earlier poem by Sappho, in which the speaker is watching a man talk to the woman whom he/she (depending on whether you differentiate between author and speaker…I try to) is in love with, but gets too nervous when he/she is actually the around that woman. Nevertheless, when Catullus adopts the line, he seems to be putting it in the context of the emotional experience of writing poetry, if, of course, one agrees with the interpretation that his addressee, Lesbia, is more of a symbol than an actual person. So, if Ovid is really recalling this line, he is saying that the famous poets of his time have the godlike quality of being able to converse with their respective Muses, which is appropriate when one considers that Ovid is not on equal terms with his Muse at the beginning of the poem – she has to drag him along. He also would be alluding to his poetic heritage, which is important when you consider that this poem begins with his literal heritage.

Another great thing about this line, as indicated by the bold text, is its structure. Aderant (“they were [in an ongoing sense] present”) and adesse (literally, “to be present,” but “were present,” because it is the verb of an indirect statement) are both forms of the same verb. In addition, the words uates (poets) and deos (gods)are conceptually linked by the verb rebar and the correlation between the clauses due to the use of quot (as many) in the dependent clause, which demands that the reader understand tot (that many) in the independent clause. Both nouns, although they are in different cases, govern verbal forms. So, the line involves a synchesis, that is, interlocking word order. The poetic device neatly ties together reality and Ovid’s perception of that reality. Moreover, the verb rebar breaks up the synchesis, so the reader almost sees it as a golden line, except that aderant, the beginning of the synchesis, is not the first word in the line. Nevertheless, this particular line could never be a golden line, because it is not in dactylic hexameter. Rather, it is the shorter, pentameter line (subordinated to a hexameter line) that sets elegy, viewed as a lesser genre, apart from epic. The golden line, of course, is the epitome of perfection in dactylic hexameter, the meter of epic, the “serious” genre in the Augustan Age. So, regarding the synchesis that surrounds the verb, the structure of the line approaches, but falls short of, the golden standard for poetry in Ovid’s time. Since line 41 was the hexameter line, it could have been a golden line, but was not. Line 42 (apparently) never had the potential to become the (supposed) poetic ideal, but it came closer to that ideal than line 41. In a way, the couplet itself is a compact recusatio on several levels, considering that the ideas of inferiority and superiority figure so prominently in the content.

The second line that stood out to me related to the first: utque ego maiores, sic me coluere minores – “just as I [worshipped] my predecessors[/superiors], so too did those after me[/my inferiors] worship me” (4.10.55). Like my other favorite, this line applies to so many things outside its original context. Moreover, it employs synchesis as well, but this time the correlatives are both expressed, while the verb coluere must be understood (in first-person, singular form) in the the first clause. I’d like to think that Ovid omits the verb in the first clause to emphasize that, at that time, he had reached the same level as the poets he used to admire. It’s also worth noting that this line is hexameter, and it comes dangerously close to ideal form, but still does not reach it. The simplest explanation: it could be just a normal line of poetry. Or it could be referring back to the structure of the couplet to which its content refers. Either way, I’m not saying that Ovid intended any of the things I have pointed out. Who could know that, anyway? I just don’t believe that misguided mental exercises are necessarily useless.

Although the past three paragraphs seem like one trainwreck of a tangent, bear in mind that there isn’t that much to do in Sulmona, and time for thought was one of the main purposes of my trip there. Of course, I went to the Museo Civico. I walked through the medieval displays (mostly religious artifacts), and then went downstairs towards the Roman area. Hey, I like building anticipation. I was looking forward to the mosaics especially, so I got excited as I walked to the staircase. Then, I saw the sign (..and it opened up my eyes and I am happy now living without you?  No. My personal life is a seperate issue). CHIUSA. Seriously. et coepi parte carere mei (Tristia 4.10.32 – In English, we’d say, “a part of me died”). Okay, my disappointment was not that dramatic. I did get to see the Ariadne house, named for remains of mosaics of Dionysus and Ariadne inside it. Most of the mosaics were, however, in the Roman display.

After that, I walked around for a bit, but then I hit the time of day when everything dies. At about 1300 in Italy, the shops close and people go indoors. I was one of the only people still in the streets. I looked at the map of the city and noticed that a bunch of streets and piazzas were named after Roman authors, so I sought them out for something to do. After walking for a long time, I ended up in a residential area. It turned out that the lawn in front of each apartment complex bore the name of one author, as did the street running by it. I took pictures, too. At the city limit, I was happy to find that Sulmona is the sister city of Costanza, formerly known as Tomis, the place where Ovid died in exile. There’s even a Viale Costanza. I occupied the rest of Sulmona’s naptime by documenting every reference to Ovid I could find. Lame. Here’s my favorite one, though:

Oh, I was tempted. I want another one (or ten). Nevertheless, a small town in the mountains is probably not a great place for that.

Other than the museum and the scavenger hunt, I basically just bought confetti to send home and wandered. Sulmona seems to be more proud of its wedding confetti than its poet, sadly enough. At least Ovid gets his statue in the most fashionable area of the town, the Piazza XX Settembre, which sits by a street full of designer clothing stores and confetti shops. It took Sulmona long enough – the statue was only put in sometime in the 20th Century.

I’m glad they put one in, but I’m not sure how I feel about its design. Don’t misunderstand, I take Ovid completely seriously, but, really, is that the face of a tenerorum lusor amorum? I think not. The statue I envision would probably have him reclining in a symposiastic setting. He’d still be holding the tablet and stylus, but he’d be looking up (to the stars, of course, not at the ground like an animal!) and contemplating what to write next with a sort of bemused expression. Looking at it, you’d get the feeling that his mind is working more rapidly than yours ever will, and that he’s playing with one particular idea that he’s extracted from the ever-flowing stream of his own brilliance. So, when I go pro in Classics and make enough to own my own town, you’ll know what to expect.

The downside to the entire day was not having anyone to share it with. I am happy to spend a great deal of my time in solitude, but when it comes to the literature that I care about and ideas concerning it, I feel like I need someone else there who will not only appreciate it, but also will share ideas and call me on my errors. I guess I was hoping that people in my program would be like that, but many of them aren’t using their future Classics degrees for anything Classics-related, and the ones who are don’t really seem have strong preferences for any particular literary works or authors. As a result, my friends find it amusing when I get excited about Latin, but they don’t share that experience. They were all kind of puzzled why I would want to go to a town in the middle of nowhere, and preferred to see something important this weekend. Maybe I will have better luck in graduate school, if I get in. I suppose my enthusiasm is just a form of immaturity, but it’s difficult for me not to get swept up in something so beautiful, so meaningful, and so completely complex as Ovid’s poetry. Simply trying to understand it is a mentally and emotionally consuming process, yet absolutely worthwhile. To be perfectly honest, it’s the same experience as being in love.

On the train back to Rome, I was happy to have experienced Sulmona and to have, maybe, gained a little perspective on life from it. It’s a beautiful town, but, surrounded by mountains, it feels cut off from the world. Returning to the city felt like entering a sphere in which I have some kind of purpose, where I have a chance to be something greater than I am, if only in extremely brief moments of intellectual clarity. If Ovid ever visited Sulmona after he left, I’d like to believe that he felt the same way about returning to Rome.
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