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Ut pictura poesis

Original post date: Sunday, July 01, 2007

In English: Poetry is like a painting.

I've included today's saying because, like yesterday's proverb, it provides a good example of a Latin noun in -ura: pictura, from the verb pingere (participle: pictus), meaning "to paint, draw," etc.

The saying ut pictura poesis is very well-known, made famous by Horace's Ars poetica:
Ut pictura poesis; erit quae, si propius stes,
te capiat magis, et quaedam, si longius abstes;
haec amat obscurum, uolet haec sub luce videri,
iudicis argutum quae non formidat acumen;
haec placuit semel, haec deciens repetita placebit.

Poetry is like painting. There might be a painting which, if you stand close to it, will hold your attention more, and another painting holds your attention more if you stand away at a distance; this painting loves a dark corner, while this one wants to be seen in the light, since it does not fear the penetrating judgment of the critic; this painting was nice to look at one time, while another painting will bring pleasure looked repeatedly dozens of times.
Given that we possess so little evidence for the paintings of ancient Rome, it is good to be alerte here by Horace to the great variety of paintings he could have in mind.

There's something very interesting here about the argument, too, and shows what a shift there has been between Horace's time and our own. Horace could take for granted that people took the visual arts seriously, and that there were examples of visual art that were truly outstanding and merited the audience's attention and regard. He wants to make the same claim for poetry, too.

Now, in our world, with a superabundance of verbal art and printed material, it is written works of literature that have captured our attention, with painting far behind. There are bookstores in every city, filled with books, and you probably bought several books this year yourself, right? And how many paintings did you buy, eh?

In Horace's world, however, books were a rare commodity, rarer even than paintings. Books, moreover, had to be copied from other books. Paintings, however, could be done from life itself - all you needed to do was to be able to paint. So, if you got a craving for a painting to keep in your ancient Roman villa, you could actually satisfy that craving more easily than you could satisfy a craving for a book.

With digital art, however, the image is starting to gain on the written work. People can now make images using a camera, and then make endless copies of their photographs digitally, sharing them via the Internet with anyone who wants a copy. Plus, it is far easier to take pictures with a camera than it is to write proper English (the spellchecker can only do so much!).

So perhaps the pendulum is swinging back to Horace's visual world, where painting took precedence over poetry, allowing Horace to assert, ut pictura poesis. Although in the modern age, we will perhaps need to assert, ut Photoshoptura poesis.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

157. Ut pictura poesis.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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