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Vertumnus and Pomona by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

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Vertumnus and Pomona by Luca Giordano (1682–1683), private collection


Emperor Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor as Vertumnus, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (now at Skokloster Castle, Sweden).

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A rococo Vertumne et Pomone, by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, 1760.

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Vertumnus and Pomona in an allée of the Summer Garden, St. Petersburg, by Francesco Penso, called "Cabianca", 1717

In Roman mythology, Vertumnus — also Vortumnus or Vertimnus — is the god of seasons, change and plant growth, as well as gardens and fruit trees. He could change his form at will; using this power, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses (xiv), he tricked Pomona into talking to him by disguising himself as an old woman and gaining entry to her orchard, then using a narrative warning of the dangers of rejecting a suitor (the embedded tale of Iphis and Anaxarete) to seduce her. The tale of Vertumnus and Pomona has been called the only purely Latin tale in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Roman cult and possible Etruscan originEdit

Marcus Terentius Varro was convinced that Vortumnus was Etruscan, and a major god. Vertumnus' cult arrived in Rome around 300 BC, and a temple to him was constructed on the Aventine Hill by 264 BC, the date of the fall of Volsinii (Etruscan Velzna) to the Romans. Sextus Propertius also asserts that the god was Etruscan, and came from Volsinii.

The name Vortumnus appears to derive from Etruscan Voltumna. It was likely then further contaminated in popular etymology by a pre-existing Latin word vertēre meaning "to change", hence the alternative form, Vertumnus.

Sextus Propertius refers to a bronze statue of Vortumnus that replaced an ancient wooden statue that was placed in a simple shrine called the signum Vortumni, located at the Vicus Tuscus near the Forum Romanum and decorated according to the changing seasons. The base of the statue was discovered in 1549, perhaps still in situ, but has since been lost. Its inscription referred to a restoration to the statue made in the early 4th century AD: VORTUMNUS TEMPORIBUS DIOCLETIANI ET MAXIMIANI. Vortumnus' festival was called the Vertumnalia and was held 13 August.

The origin and nature of Vortumnus that is the subject of the elegy of Sextus Propertius, our major literary source for this god, is presented as if the statue in the Vicus Tuscus were addressing a passer-by.

Ovid recalled a time (Fasti, vi, June 9 "Vestalia") when the Roman forum was still a reedy swamp, when

That god, Vertumnus, whose name fits many forms,
Wasn’t yet so-called from damming back the river (averso amne).

Image of Vertumnus and Pomona in later artEdit

The subject Vertumnus and Pomona appealed to European sculptors and painters of the 16th through the 18th centuries for its opportunity to contrast young fresh female beauty with an aged crone, providing a wholly disguised erotic subtext. Similar subtly pornographic uses were made of the theme of Zeus disguised as Diana, and Callisto. Donald Lateiner points out that Ovid does remark that the kisses given by Vertumnus were such as an old woman would never have given: qualia numquam vera dedisset anus: "so Circe's smile conceals a wicked intention, and Vertumnus' hot kisses ill suit an old woman's disguise".

The subject was even woven into tapestry in series with the generic theme Loves of the Gods, of which the mid-sixteenth century Brussels tapestry at Museu Calouste Gulbenkia, Lisbon, woven to cartoons attributed to Jan Vermeyen, must be among the earliest.

François Boucher provided designs for the tapestry-weaver Maurice Jacques at the Gobelins tapestry manufactory for a series that included Vertumnus and Pomona (1775–1778), and, extending the theme of erotic disguise, Jupiter wooing Callisto in the guise of Diana: an example is at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Mme de Pompadour, who sang well and danced gracefully, had played the role of Pomone in a pastoral presented to a small audience at Versailles; the sculpture by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1760) alludes to the event.

Joseph Brodsky wrote a poem about Vertumnus.

Modern interpretations of Vertumnus and PomonaEdit

David Littlefield finds in the episode a movement from rape to mutual desire, effected against an orderly, "civilised" Latian landscape

Conversely, Roxanne Gentilcore reads in its diction and narrative strategies images of deception, veiled threat and seduction, in which Pomona, the tamed hamadryad now embodying the orchard, does not have a voice.


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