Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures

This post was contributed by Linda Grant, a Birkbeck PhD student working on the Renaissance reception of Latin love elegy, and jointly supervised in English and Classics by Professors Sue Wiseman and Catharine Edwards.

On Thursday May 232013 as part of Arts Week, Birkbeck was delighted to host a lecture by Leonard Barkan, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, on the ‘deliciously ambiguous’ relationship between words and pictures, poetry and painting. Leonard, with typical verve, energy, humour and keen insight drew on his recent book, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures (Princeton University Press, 2012), but also took the opportunity to explore some of the questions that, as he put it, weren’t in the book but should have been.

The concept and literary practice of ecphrasis, the textual description of a visual work of art, has a long history going back at least as far as Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. But what happens when an art object is created out of words within a literary text, or when a painting turns on the mimetic representation of written language? Moving with enviable ease between classical antiquity and the European Renaissance, Leonard offered rich and perceptive analyses of some key cultural moments when poetry and image come together: Ovid’s Metamorphoses which insistently probes the relationship between name and physical form; Caravaggio’s 1602 painting St Matthew and the Angel with its central focus on the physical writing of the gospel; Desdemona’s vividly-described handkerchief in Othello.

Erudite and yet wonderfully relaxed and generous, Leonard gave us a stimulating talk which prompted many questions and much discussion afterwards.


Caravaggio – Matthew and the Angel


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