Palaeography Student Projects

Ovid Metamorphosed: The Hidden History of MS. Douce 117

by Carrie Heusinkveld

When reading a book, it is easy to become so wrapped up in the story told by the words it contains that one forgets about the narrative lurking just beneath the surface of the page, the story of the book’s creation: what inspired the writer and artists who made it, and for whom was it originally destined? Uncovering this history often reveals a surprisingly complex web of movements and connections traversing physical, temporal, and linguistic borders.

Such is the case with MS. Douce 117, a sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript of Clement Marot’s French translation of the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The description of the manuscript in the Bodleian catalogue of Western manuscripts tells a simple story: it is dated ‘after 1531’ and the summary catalogue entry states that it was ‘no doubt the presentation copy to the king’. At first, these appear to be logical deductions: known as the ‘Prince des poëtes François’, Marot was the reigning poet in the court of Francis I, and the high-quality parchment, lavish illuminations, and opening dedicatory epistle to Francis all appear to support the hypothesis that the manuscript was a gift from Marot to his royal patron. Furthermore, Marot first published a collection of his early writings in an edition called L’Adolescence Clementine in 1532, which did not include his translation of the Metamorphoses (this work did not appear in print until 1534). In the absence of any more obvious chronological clues, the hypothesis that the manuscript was created after 1531 appears reasonable and appropriately cautious. So far, so straightforward.

However, when the manuscript is examined in relation to Marot’s life and work as a whole and within the greater context of the printing and circulation of the Metamorphoses in early modern Europe, a more nuanced and ambiguous narrative emerges. In his dedication to Francis, Marot alludes to an occasion on which he gave a partial reading of the translation to the king during a sojourn at Amboise. Historical records indicate that Marot and Francis were at Amboise at the same time in 1526, and several scholars of Marot’s work have speculated that this is the occasion to which Marot refers (1). According to one theory, Marot may have begun the translation as many as eight years before it first appeared in print in 1534, meaning that the manuscript may in fact have been created before 1531.

It has been suggested that the key to the date of the manuscript’s creation is closely tied to the identity of its illuminator. The illustrations have been attributed to Guillaume II Leroy, who was either the son or the nephew of Guillaume I Leroy, the first printer in Lyon (1). Guillaume II Leroy was both an illuminator and engraver and provided the illustrations for an Italian edition of the Metamorphoses published in Lyon in 1510, several of which closely resemble the miniatures in the manuscript. In particular, the first woodcut (Figure 1) is strikingly similar to the depiction of the creation of the world in Marot’s manuscript (Figure 2): God is depicted in the foreground surrounded by his newly created animals, including a lion to the right and a deer to the left. In both images, he is also flanked by a group of trees on the right and a rock depicting chaos on the left, with the moon and sun overhead.

Figure 2. Illumination in MS. Douce 117 depicting the creation of the world, attributed to Guillaume II Leroy.
Figure 1. Woodcut depicting the creation of the world, attributed to Guillaume II Leroy.

The fact that Leroy died in 1528 appears to support the hypothesis that Marot began his translation in the 1520s and gave a preliminary reading of it to the king during the 1526 sojourn at Amboise. However, this conclusion only stands if the artist is indeed Leroy, and the wide circulation of illustrated Latin and Italian printed editions of the Metamorphoses in sixteenth-century France suggests that identifying the illuminator may not be as straightforward as simply comparing the illuminations in MS. Douce 117 to contemporaneous printed illustrations. The woodcuts from the 1510 edition attributed to Leroy were closely modeled on illustrations by an unknown artist in an Italian edition of the Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1493. However, a set of woodcuts that were also apparently copied from the Italian illustrations appeared in a Latin edition published in Paris, also in 1510 (2). The illustrations therefore circulated widely and may have served as inspiration to any number of artists working in a variety of mediums. In fact, the woodcut in the original 1493 Italian edition depicting the contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Figure 3) clearly influenced Michelangelo Anselmi’s painting of the same subject, completed in the 1540s (Figure 4) (3).

Figure 3. Woodcut by an unknown artist depicting the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo in a 1493 Italian translation of the Metamorphoses.
Figure 4. Apolo y Marsyas by Michelangelo Anselmi (c. 1540), inspired by the woodcut of the same subject in the 1493 Italian translation of the Metamorphoses.

The similarity between the woodcuts in the 1510 edition of the Metamorphoses printed in Lyon and the illuminations in MS. Douce 117 therefore cannot be considered definitive proof of Leroy’s involvement, especially since Leroy’s woodcuts were already modeled on those of another artist. Consequently, Leroy’s death in 1528 does not rule out the possibility that Marot presented the beginning of his translation to Francis during a second sojourn at Amboise in 1530, four years after his appointment as the king’s valet de chambre in 1526.

Furthermore, textual clues in Marot’s Epîtres indicate that he commissioned multiple manuscripts of his translation: he wrote a poem of thanks to the king for funding the copying and illumination of the manuscripts, one of which he presented to the Duke of Lorraine in the winter of 1530-1531 when the Duke was visiting Paris for the marriage of Francis to Eleanor of Austria. It therefore seems most likely that Marot commissioned the manuscripts at some point in 1530, rather than sometime after 1531, as the Bodleian catalogue suggests.

The fact that more than one copy* of the manuscript was made brings us to the question of the ownership of MS. Douce 117: was it truly a gift to the king, as the catalogue entry claims? Francis was an enthusiastic patron of both the literary and visual arts, with a particular interest in classical poetry. It is certainly plausible that Marot presented one of the manuscripts he commissioned to the king as a gift, and the dedicatory epistle to Francis appears to support this theory. However, the epistle also appears in printed editions of Marot’s translation, indicating that it was not unique to this manuscript.

The historical details of Marot’s manuscript – the precise date of its creation, the identities of its illustrator and original owner – are therefore far more complex and mysterious than the catalogue entry suggests, and perhaps, in the final analysis, unknowable. However, peering into the past of MS. Douce 117 does shed light on the circulation of texts and images in early modern Europe and the dialogue between manuscripts and printed books in the age of the printing press. Peeling back the surface layers of the manuscript reveals a complicated web of movements and images that flicker in and out of focus – a shape-shifting quality well-suited to a translation of the Metamorphoses, whose opening prayer to the gods declares Ovid’s intention to ‘speak of forms changed into new bodies’ (4). To encounter Marot’s version of the Metamorphoses is to encounter the early modern book, with a protean chaos of shifting shapes and forms transformed – visual and verbal – rippling beneath its surface.

Works Consulted:

  1. Cooper, Richard, “Picturing Marot,” in Book and Text in France, 1400-1600, ed. M. Quainton & A. Armstrong. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006, p. 117-38.

2. Moss, Ann, Ovid in Renaissance France: a survey of the Latin editions of Ovid and commentaries printed in France before 1600. London: Warburg Institute, 1982.

3. Sarah Schell, From the Library: The Transformation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2013.

4. Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by H.T. Riley. London, New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1889.

*I am currently searching for another manuscript of Marot’s translation, which has seemingly disappeared from the bibliographic record since it was sold at an auction of the library of Lucien Graux at Druot in 1957. It has five illuminations: 1. the division of heaven and earth into five zones, 2. the regions of the four winds, 3. the metamorphosis of Lycaon into a wolf, 4. the Flood and Deucalion and Pyrrha, and 5. Apollo and Daphne. The Latin text is also written in the margins, and the translation begins as follows (Figure 5):

Mes volentez sont toutes animees
De dire au long les formes trāsformees
En nouveaulx corps O dieu qui tout scavez
Puis quen ce point changees les avez
Favorisez a mon commencement
Et deduysez continuellement
Le myens propoz depuys le premier naistre
Du monde rond jusque au temps de mō estre.

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