Ovid’s Art of Love

About Ovid and Art of Love:

Ovid’s Art of Love, originally published as Ars Amatoria in circa 2 A.D. in Ancient Rome, has managed to live on through the centuries as a highly influential piece of writing. However, as much as it was applauded, it was also equally contested due to its ‘vulgar’ and ‘immoral’ content. The poem, written in three parts, is similar to an instruction manual on love. The first two books spoke to men, teaching them how to win the love of a women and subsequently keep it, while the final third book told women how to do the same for a man. The promiscuity of the text is also thought to have been the reason why Ovid was exiled from the Roman Empire by Augustus (“Ars Amatoria”). Despite the overtly sexual tones and content of the poem, it has managed to transcend time with numerous translations and different printings throughout the centuries. It’s imperative to study how Ovid and his work, Art of Love was able to achieve this, specifically studying its English translation in London in the 18th century.

Due to the nature of the content of Art of Love, reading it in 18th century England was done so with caution. According to Heather James, “Schoolmasters opted for selective reading: Ovid’s poetry could be safely mined for its models of eloquence and knowledge of ancient myth and custom. In this view, Ovid’s verse was comparable to a garden, complete with rhetorical ‘flowers’ that one might pluck from context and arrange at will” (423). The promiscuous and ‘immoral’ essence of Ovid’s writing was able to be avoided by not reading Ovid in its full form. Instead, they would read sections or excerpts that “spared tender students the moral trials of reading Ovid first-hand” (423). It was deemed that the cultural importance of Ovid’s writings was more important than any potentially harmful content.  James reiterates Ovid’s importance, stating; “It is hard to imagine what the shape of English Renaissance literature might be, if Tudor and Stuart writers and readers had listened to the advice of moral reformers and shunned Ovid.” (423). This heavy reading of Ovid contributed to his continuing relevance throughout the centuries.

The Woodcuts:

Art of Love contained beautiful printed woodcut illustrations, along with the signature of French engraver Louis Du Guernier. On the title page of the book, there was a statement that read “adorn’d with cutts”, referring to the woodcut illustrations that decorated the book. These woodcuts “were designed to attract the reader by offering a visual component to the text” (Grand). The images in the book often portrayed women and angels in natural surroundings such as the forest or in the sky. Considering the book is about how to romance women, it could be possible that these images of women were displayed to attract the attention of male readers. However, they never completely related to the content of the poems as “the suitability of an image for a particular text was not a great concern for publishers” (Grand).

The overall look of the woodcuts were very clean and detailed due to the process of woodcut printmaking “by making sharp, clean cuts into the end of a piece of soft wood”, which produced an inked image on a page (Grand). The wood block worked like a stamp in which the part of the wood that is cut away left a white impression on the page and the wood levelled with the surface left an inked impression. In Art of Love, there were a few pages that shared both a woodcut illustration and text, and the woodcut acted as a decorative heading that preceded the text excerpt. This supports how woodcuts were used for aesthetic purposes more than a reflection of content. The process also shortens the time needed to format and print the pages since you can place the woodblock alongside the letter type, allowing  more books to be made and published compared to other printing technique at this time.

The Paper:

The definition of paper specifies that it is made out of a vegetable fibre, in the case of the 18th century when this book was printed, those fibres were most commonly cotton and linen fabric. Paper shortages resulted, as the demand for printed materials greatly exceeded the amount of raw materials needed to make the paper. This book is unique in that the type of paper used is not consistent throughout the entire book. All of the pages appear to have been made from white fabric rags, however part way into the book, the weight and texture of the pages change. From page 47 onward, the paper changes, having a thicker, heavier feel compared to previous pages. The change in paper type would likely have been due to widespread paper shortages at the time. There is no way to tell exactly why the paper type changes, however it is likely  that the printer began using a certain type of paper, but due to the paper shortages, there may not have been enough. This resulted in another, similar, type  of paper being used to  finish the product.

The paper that makes up this edition of Ovid’s Art of Love is not perfect, but rather it tells a story of the book’s creation. For a text that had existed centuries before, the paper that the words are printed on roots this edition in its own space and time.

The Ink and Type:

Translated by Dryden and Congreve, their 1712 rendition of Ovid’s Art of Love encapsulated the need for mass production. The piece was likely produced by a letterpress and was formulated by an oil-based ink which “was more suitable for adhering to metal” (Morris, “History of Ink”). The ink used during this time was a “carbon-based [ink], containing copper, lead and titanium,” and was often confused with the properties of varnish (Morris). Ink was not cheap; which meant producing such a book was not economic and therefore, not  accessible to the general public. Rather, the book would be distributed only to the upper-middle class and scholarly people who could afford them. This division was made possible because of the complexity and expense of creating and preserving the ink. Chemicals were added to “aid or slow dry to adhere to the many complexities of metal or plastic” (Easson, “History of Printing”). Such practices were timely and carefully crafted, contributing to the economic value of print.

Observing the remediation of Art of Love, I am able to identify certain practices that reflect a world of history. Firstly, the book contains an array of fonts of varying sizes. Most of the text was also written with an em-spacing and italicized font. Importance was emphasized through space; a practice that we no longer obey. Another obscure quality within the text was the indexed word that appears on the right side of the page, signalling the first word on the page to follow. This characteristic is no longer present in Western novels today, and was considered the art form of typography. What typography really represented was the skill to be a master in “‘fine printing” or [a] ‘good printer,’” which Tomson truly was (McLean, 23). His type was placed specifically to induce meaning and evoke feelings of importance and significance.


Ovid was highly popular, more so than most other Latin poets of his time, and was also one of the most controversial writers in history. Ovid’s ability to be interpreted and read in so many different ways has resulted in his increased circulation. Women could hide his works under their pillows while students would later critically analyze his writing in class. Dryden and Congreve’s translation of Ovid’s Art of Love (1712), was just one of the many translations of the text. This particular translation reveals much regarding eighteenth Century printing techniques, such as woodcut illustrations, the ink and font type(s) that were used at this time. The text also provides insight into the history of paper at the time, especially regarding conflicts that surrounded its production. Thus, it is through works such as Dryden and Congreve’s translation of Ovid’s Art of Love that modern audiences can gain knowledge on the deeply embedded histories that are ascribed within the book.

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