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The Art of Love

The Romans did have an extremely modern love poet, the notorious Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 18). Among other things, he composed the most famous “how-to” manual in antiquity, The Art of Love. It contained numerous handy tips on how to seduce the object of your desire. It won the poet eternal fame—and near-instant exile to the Black Sea. But in addition to pragmatic advice, Ovid also wrote a massive work on the mythology of love. And here he showed touches of astute psychology—as well as a sense of what romantic love would become in future ages.

It would be useful to concentrate on the single myth which, thanks to Ovid’s account of it, gained wide popularity and has been the source of two very important modern romantic works—which we will soon discuss.

Once upon a time on the isle of Cyprus, there lived a sculptor named Pygmalion who believed no woman perfect enough to be worthy of his interest. Instead he carved a magnificent female statue out of ivory with which—because she was perfect—he fell in love. Understandably, the statue was not moved by his frantic wooing. The desperate sculptor prayed to the goddess Venus to provide him a wife similar to the image he had created. And lo and behold, when he returned home and kissed his statue hello—she responded!

In the area of love, this was one small step for mankind. For, whatever the unusual circumstances, Pygmalion did marry the woman he had created to his own specifications and whom he passionately adored.

It was not, however, much of a step for womankind, inasmuch as we note the absence of two rather important elements in the myth. To begin with, even when animated, Pygmalion’s statue is not given a name (later versions would call her Galatea). And secondly, she doesn’t speak a word. Theirs was hardly what one might call a marriage of true minds. But it was a marriage, and one based on romantic love in which the couple lived happily ever after. And perhaps most important, it provided material for millennia of writers to adapt according to their own philosophies of love.

Parade Magazine, February 12, 1984, p. 10