Ovid’s Hercules in 1497: a Greek hero in the Metamorphoses translation by Giovanni de’ Bonsignori and in his woodcuts
Ovid dedicated almost all of the ninth book of the Metamorphoses to Hercules, relating the main events of his mythical complex, from his tiring birth to Alcmene, to his main ventures, death and deification. Affected by an early wave of moralisation, the Metamorphoses is one of the main channels of the survival of Greco-Roman mythology in Christian culture and therefore of the myth of Hercules. Between 1375 and 1377 the Italian humanist Giovanni Bonsignori translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses into prose; published for the first time in 1497 (Ovid Metamorphoseos vulgare), with a series of woodcuts, illustrating the main Ovidian myths. In this translation, in a sense, the process of moralization of Ovid’s tales is completed and the author delivers a text in which all myths are explained to their audience in the light of Christian doctrine.
In the work of Giovanni Bonsignori, particularly in the allegories that accompany the story of Hercules, the hero is purified of every aspect of his personality that, according to Christian morality, could be interpreted in a negative way. So even the marital infidelity, arrogance, and violence of Hercules are interpreted in a positive way, as a continuous struggle towards good against the bestiality of theological error or the lust of the devil, which manifests itself in various and changing forms. In this rehabilitation of an ambiguous hero, the four woodcuts dedicated to Hercules have the same role; they form a small cycle inside the volume, consisting of Hercules and Achelous, the Wedding of Hercules and Hercules and Nessus; Hercules against the Amazons; Hercules and Lichas, Hercules and Philoctetes and the Death of Hercules; the Birth of Alcmene. Taken together, they present Hercules as a Christianː the result of a miraculous birth, a winner against the irrationality of evil and one who is taken up into heaven.