Paul Barolsky

Ut Pictura Poesis et
Ut Pictura Non Poesis

according to a deep, well-known tradition, ut pictura poesis (“as in painting, so in poetry”). This venerable dictum implies the reverse: “as in poetry, so in painting.” It enables us to grasp the verbal implications of mute images. It is important to the rhetoric of art, as it is to iconography which links artistic images with texts. It is my contention, however, that the attempts to understand the meaning of works of art that depend on the similarities between text and image, which can indeed be instructive can also sometimes be confining, if not misleading. Frequently, for example, paying exclusive or excessive attention to the verbal implications of an image or paying attention to the pictorial image without paying sufficient attention to how it departs from the textual tradition to which it is related can obscure important differences between text and image. In other words, ut pictura non poesis.

It can readily be objected that we know full well there are differences between textsand images. That is a given. To which my reply is, yes: but when we get caught up in the similarities between text and image, we easily forget or overlook these meaningful differences. It happens all the time. In other words, I am here concerned not with what happens in theory but with what matters in practice and the consequences of such practice.

Let me cite an example of how important differences are easily lost in the interpretation of art. It is well understood that when Correggio painted Jupiter and Io (Fig. 1), he worked in a poetic tradition that extends back to Ovid, among other classical and modern writers.Correggio’s Io, enveloped in a sensuous cloud that is consubstantial with the scarcely visible body of Jupiter within, is depicted in a state of sexual rapture a fact much remarked upon and enjoyed. What escapes attention however, is the fact that whereas Ovid dwells exclusively on Jupiter’s desire—he saw Io, he wanted Io, he took Io—the painter obscures Jupiter’s desire within the cloud and focuses instead on the sexual pleasure of Io. Io’s pleasure is not Ovid’s subject. On the contrary! In other words, ut pictura non poesis. What Correggio has pictured differs significantly from what the poet writes, and we understand that difference only when we see it in opposition to the similarity of image to text. Although it has been said that the differences between works of art and texts are obvious, I would contend that such seemingly obvious differences are not apparent if they are universally overlooked. This is the case with Correggio’s Jupiter and Io. What art historians inevitably fail to observe is that Correggio metamorphosed Ovid’s story, which emphasizes Jupiter’s pleasure, into his own pictorial story of Io’s pleasure. What we might say is that ut pictura poesis—the likening of picture to text—prepares us for and sharpens our understanding of ut pictura non poesis—that is, the significant differences between text and image. The doctrine of ut pictura poesis cannot stand alone. It should prompt us to appreciate the ways in which pictures depart from their poetical roots in inventive ways. Thus, we might say all in one breath: ut pictura poesis et ut pictura non poesis!

Figure 1. Correggio, Jupiter and Io.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna