University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.

Book of the Month

September 1999

Ovid: Metamorphoses

Illustrated by Virgil Solis

Frankfurt 1569

S.M. 875

Andromeden Perseus liberat: p.57
Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster


The Metamorphoses is a narrative of over 100 stories from myth and legend loosely connected by the theme of transformation. It was completed by Ovid (43 BC - AD 18) shortly before he was exiled by Augustus for an unspecified indiscretion.

The works of Latin authors were well known throughout the Middle Ages. By the time of the Renaissance, the Metamorphoses was regarded as a classic, and it was reprinted many times for an enthusiastic audience of scholars and laymen who demanded more and more translations, adaptations and illustrated versions of the poem.

Picture books enjoyed a great vogue in Europe throughout the 16th century and the period is renowned for the high quality of its book illustration. Of all the classics, the Metamorphoses was one of the most frequently illustrated; the first printed edition of Ovid's poem adorned with woodcuts was issued by Colard Mansion in Bruges in 1484, while it is estimated that from 1500 to 1599 some one hundred illustrated versions appeared in print.

The illustrations in this edition are the work of the great Nuremberg engraver, Virgil Solis (1514-1562). Representative of a group of artists known as the German mannerists who partly followed in Dürer's tradition, Solis was one of the most prolific artists of the sixteenth century. His output, which was extremely versatile, included many designs for craftsmen working in media such as furniture and jewellery, as well as engravings for various printed works: from 1540, he and his workshop created over 2,000 prints and drawings. Much of this work, however, is derivative and borrows heavily from the compositions of other German and Italian masters.

Solis' distinctive monogram is clearly visible on this cut, etched into the side of Diana's bathing pool, to the left of the draped cloth. From the uneven quality of the large number of prints which bear this monogram, it can be safely assumed that this signature indicates that the work was the product of Solis' workshop, and was not necessarily the personal work of the master himself.

Actaeon in cervum: p.40
Actaeon transformed by Diana into a stag



The first edition of the Metamorphoses bearing Solis' cuts appeared in 1563, a year after the artist's death. It was published by the consortium of George Corvinus, Sigmund Feyerabend and the heirs of Wygand Galli, as was our later oblong octavo edition from 1569. Feyerabend, who controlled most of the Frankfurt book trade, was one of the most influential printers of his day.

The title-page is in Latin and German, the two languages being differentiated by the use of roman and gothic typefaces. That this is a work adapted from Ovid's poem is evident from the prominent authorial emphasis given to Johannes Posthius of Germersheim (1537-1597) on the title-page: he is the author of the German and Latin tetrastichs which make up the text of the book.

Considering that Ovid's original poem ran to nearly 12,000 lines in 15 books, it is clear that in this version the commentary of quatrains is of secondary importance to the forceful illustrations. The dominance of the cuts in this edition is underlined by the different elaborate woodcut borders which act as frames to each design.

Chaos: p.1
God resolves chaos and creates the earth

Icari casus: p.95
Daedalus watches Icarus fall


Solis designed 178 woodcuts in all for this version of the Metamorphoses. However, examining earlier illustrated editions of the work reveals that his designs are in fact close copies of those produced by the Lyonese artist Bernard Salomon for an edition printed by Jean de Tournes in 1557.

Solis depicts exactly the same 178 fables as can be found in Salomon's edition. The resemblance between the cuts is obvious in comparing the illustrations depicted here, each showing the same episode of Daedalus watching in horror as his son Icarus falls to his death after his home-made wings have melted from flying too closely to the sun.

folio g2r from 1557 edition with cuts by Salomon (BD1-g.27)

Solis's cuts are reversed and larger than the originals from which they were modelled. It is interesting to note that although Solis was working on a larger scale, he does not use his extra space for any embellishment or further interpretation of the scenes. In fact, rather than improving on Salomon, Solis' work is usually criticised for being heavy-handed and lacking the fineness of Salomon's artistry.

Although Virgil Solis may have lacked originality, there is undoubtedly great skill and energy in his illustrations. Certainly, these cuts for the Metamorphoses proved to be extremely popular and were widespread, the blocks being re-used in 25 successive editions up to 1652, with accompanying texts in Dutch, Flemish, German, Latin and Spanish.

This book is from the library of Sir William Stirling Maxwell which was bequeathed to Glasgow University Library in 1956 and now bears the call number S.M. 875.

Illustrated editions of the Metamorphoses: 1557, printed at Lyons by Jean de Tournes, with 178 woodcuts by Bernard Salomon Sp Coll BD1-g.27; 1559, printed at Lyons by Jean de Tournes, with 187 woodcuts by Bernard Salomon (NB. 17 cuts are different from the 1557 edition and 8 cuts have been removed) Sp Coll S.M. 1016; 1574, printed at Venice by J. Gryphius, with 61 cuts by an unidentified artist Sp Coll Hunterian Br.2.19; 1584, printed at Venice by B. Giunti, with 15 engravings by Giacoma Franco Sp Coll Hunterian Ba.2.15; 1596, printed at Antwerp by Joannes Moretus, with 178 copperplates by Peter van der Borcht (NB. also copies, although on a larger scale, from Salomon) Sp Coll 601; 1602, with 127 cuts by Crispin van de Passe, Sp Coll S.M. 826; 1632, printed at Oxford by J. Lichfield, translated by George Sandys and with 14 engravings by Francisco Clein and an engraved title-page by Salamon Savery, Sp Coll f94 and Sp Coll BG55-a.9; 1690, printed at Augsburg by J. U. Kraus, with 226 engravings Sp Coll Mu45-c.12; 1698, printed at Nuremberg, with 55 engravings by Johannes Jacobus de Sandrart (NB. only the first 7 books of the poem are covered) Sp Coll Bl10-a.12; 1698, printed at Liege by J.F. Broncart, 177 copperplates Sp Coll BD2-i.2; 1732, printed at Amsterdam, with engravings by B. Picart, Sp Coll Hunterian Bn.1.3,4; 1767-71, printed at Paris, with 170 engravings by various artists Sp Coll Hunterian Cz.1.4-7.

Also with woodcuts by Virgil Solis: Biblische Figuren dess Alten Testaments and Biblische Figuren dess Neuwen Testaments, both printed in Frankfurt am Main in 1562 by Feyerabend and associates Sp Coll S.M. 984

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Julie Coleman September 1999