Ill - Guarded apples (and nymphs)

Written by  Claudio Cazzola
Ferrara and the metamorphosis of a line from Ovid.
The article by Carlo Bassi devoted to Ferruccio De Lupis in the last number of this journal inspires me to take up a thread in our local history.

The article described the illustration of a precious work designed, written and edited by the prolific Ferrara intellectual in 1921, with a frontispiece declaring "AB INSOMNI NON CUSTODITA DRACONE - FERRARA" The motto comes from a classical quotation,
but more interesting is the fact that the wording is also found on the heraldic crest of Ippolito II d'Este (1509-1572), the son of Alfonso I and brother of Ercole II who was appointed cardinal in 1539.

This individual, launched on a career in the church despite his unbridled, ambitious and constantly discontented character, acquired a palazzo (now Palazzo Taverna) in via Monte Jordan in Rome in 1549.

On the facade he affixed a heraldic crest which disappeared some time ago, but which can be described as follows: a white eagle, holding in its claws the apples of the Hesperides, with the words 'ab insomni non custodita dracone'.

Though the mythological reference to the labours of Hercules is clear, a little more investigation is needed to unearth the classical source of the quotation.

The Latin author who, alongside Virgil, retained uninterrupted popularity from Roman times to the renaissance, is Ovid, a poet of the Augustan age, and author of the poem in hexameters known as Metamorphoses.

The fifteen books tell the history of the world through the continuous evolution of living beings, whose transformations (the metamorphoses of the title) ensures the continuity of the life on earth, from the original Chaos to the times of Caesar Augustus.

The ninth book tells the story, among others, of the end of the earthly life of the Greek hero Heracles (first name Alcide, "the strong": Ercole to the Romans), the son of Zeus and Alcmena, wife of Amphitryon, king of Thebes: after completing the twelve famous labours, he was returning home in triumph when his wife Deianira, made jealous by a report of her husband's supposed infidelity, sent him a shirt poisoned with the blood of the centaur Nessus.
After putting on the shirt Hercules was driven mad by the pain and built his own funeral pyre before dying. After his death, however, he was taken up to Olympus by his father Zeus and thus became immortal.

Dying, Heracles remembers all the benefits he has brought humanity through his heroic deeds Verse 190, contains the line pomaque ab insomni concustodita dracone, i.e. apples (poma) permanently guarded (concustodita) by a serpent that never sleeps (ab insomni - dracone): Gaia, the goddess mother of the Earth, gave Hera three golden apples on the occasion of her marriage to Zeus.

These apples were entrusted to three nymphs, the Hesperides, in a distant place in the west (generally assumed to be in the Capo Verde Islands) and guarded by the eyelash-less dragon Ladon. Heracles succeeded in stealing these apples with the help of Atlas.

From classical tradition we know that this magical and secret spot was also the location of Zeus and Hera's marriage bed, covered by the golden protection of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, here represented by the apples.

At this point the context implied by the cardinal becomes clearer. His own well-known love affairs could very well be echoed by Heracles' successful penetration into the sacred marriage bed.

This possible reading is broadly confirmed by the textual variant adopted by the cardinal, repeated by De Lupis, in which the learned form concustodita is simplified to non custodita.

This, of course radically changes the interpretation of the text: the apples are ill-guarded, despite the fact that the guardian serpent never sleeps (and in the case of Ippolito, there may well be hidden a father, or, more likely, a jealous husband, behind this mythological image).

As for the choice of hero, Heracles - Alcide -Ercole, this was a propaganda theme par excellence at the Este court, starting in the times of Ercole I.

In choosing this crest, our cardinal, a refined lover of the classical arts, will have sought to associate himself with the supposed founder of the Este family, whose name was also used by his brother Ercole II.

The white eagle of the house of Este might represent the metamorphosis of the cardinal while he gathered the precious fruits ill-guarded by the dragon, albeit sleepless.

That Ferrara in particular is a place with profound echoes of Ovid is also demonstrated by the publication, in 1570, of a translation of the Metamorphoses by Fabio Marretti, with a dedication to Alfonso II.

But what has De Lupis to do with all this? The refined aesthete and follower of D'Annunzio of the Memorie, published in 1990 by the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara, suggests a vision of the city of the Este: not the city that exists, but the city which once was, and which has preserved its mythical beauty intact down the centuries.

This interpretation may easily be confirmed by consulting the volume AB INSOMNI NON CUSTODITA DRACONE - FERRARA.

"My heart beats for you, Ferrara, when the spring returns, like that of a father beside his dying son; not that life will continue in you, Ferrara, but that death will never abandon you - death, that colours your silence with tragic beauty", we reads on page 107: a clear reading that seems to overturn the 'vitalist' meaning of cardinal Ippolito's enterprise that provide the model for the frontispiece. Ferrara - no longer the golden apples, nor nymphs whether nubile or not - lies in an eternal sleep, fleeing from the control of the mythical being that would have protected its existence, and thus - paradoxically - lives.