Ossian and Italian Art (2013)

Italy and the Response to Ossian in Visual Art

(Prepared for the Cesarotti Project, University of Padua)



Murdo Macdonald

Honorary Member of the Royal Scottish Academy

Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee, Scotland.





The pioneering Ossianexhibition held in Paris and Hamburg in 1974 had as its focus the response of northern European artists.[1]Because of the substantial nature of that exhibition it has been easy for scholars to assume that they need look no further than northern Europe for responses to Macpherson’s Ossianin visual art. In this paper I consider why it is essential to extend that picture by considering the work of Italian artists.


First of all I will reflect on the significance of frontispieces in the early editions of Cesarotti’s Poesie di Ossian, published in 1763 and 1772.  Secondly I will address the wider tradition of response to Ossianby visual artists in Italy.[2]Much of that work was made in the second decade of the nineteenth century and later, by which time northern European activity was waning. That gives the Italian response an added significance.


As soon as one begins to look seriously at the Italian contribution its importance is clear. It begins, as one might expect, with the first edition of Cesarotti’s translation, Poesie di Ossian, published in Padua in 1763.[3]That was only a year by publication date after that of Macpherson’s Fingalin London and just three years after Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetryhad been published in Edinburgh.[4]For obvious reasons Cesarotti’s Poesie di Ossianonly includes material from Macpherson’s Fingalso the frequently made claim that it is the first full translation of Macpherson’s Ossian, is inaccurate.[5]That misunderstanding is, however, forgivable when one notes that Cesarotti’s title is Poesie di Ossian. One is faced with the surprising fact that a book with the title, were it translated into English, of Poems of Ossian, first appeared in Italy in 1763. It was not until 1765 that Macpherson adopted Ossianas his title, and even then it was The Works of Ossian. It was only in the 1773 edition that Macpherson changed his title to The Poems of Ossian. One can at least speculate that Cesarotti’s choice of title in 1763 influenced Macpherson’s title for the 1773 edition.


Cesarotti’s Poesie di Ossian of 1763 has an interesting frontispiece. Beneath the image is the following quotation from Lucan:  ‘Vos quoq. qui fortes animas, belloq. peremtos / Laudibus in longum vates dimittitis aevum, / Plurima secure fudistis carminaBardi’. The use of that quotation is of interest, for in a slightly different form it appears as the epigraph on the title page of Macpherson’s Fragments: ‘Vos quoque qui fortes animas, belloque peremtas / Laudibus in longum vates dimittitis aevum, / Plurima secure fudistis carmina Bardi’. It has been translated as: ‘The Bards also, who by the praises of their verse transmit to distant ages the fame of heroes slain in battle, poured forth their lays in abundance.’[6]  The quotation does not, however, appear on the title page of Macpherson’s  Fingaland its use by Cesarotti suggests acknowledgment on his part of the Fragmentsas well as of Fingal.[7]Lucan is an interesting figure for both Macpherson and Cesarotti to quote, for in this passage he was exploring the conflict between Rome and northern European tribes. Lucan’s use the word ‘Bardi’ is of course central to the interest that the quotation has for both writers. One can also understand Cesarotti’s keenness to reuse it (and it carries over into his second edition), for it makes the case for a pan-European interpretation of Ossian, of which Cesarotti is the first – and remains the primary – representative. Furthermore the language of Lucan, that is to say Latin, formed the linguistic underpinning of the modern Italian literature that Cesarotti was helping to develop.[8]One can also note that Lucan’s subject involves not Scottish tribes, but northern European Celtic tribes from what is now Germany. For Lucan, these tribes had their traditions maintained and transmitted by Bards. This shift of Bardic activity to the continental mainland of Europe can be thought of as further evidence for Cesarotti of the relevance of Ossianto his own place.[9]So the quotation from Lucan allows Cesarotti to claim Ossian, via Latin, as a true underpinning of modern Italian literature.[10]While Macpherson gives no reference for the quote from Lucan, Cesarotti does, narrowing it down to the first book of Lucan’s epic Pharsalia. There is a further interest here. The etymology of ‘bard’ is often considered as Gaelic and/or Welsh, and yet here we have use of it by Lucan, a Latin poet born in Spain. So Lucan is using the word directly derived from the old Celtic language of Gaulish.[11]Pharsaliawas begun about 61 CE and left unfinished at Lucan’s death in 65 CE.


The image that appears above this quotation in Cesarotti’s Poesie di Ossianis by the distinguished Venice-based engraver, Antonio Baratti.[12]That image was based on the title page engraving made by the English artist Samuel Wale for the first edition of Macpherson’s Fingal. It is, however, a more substantial response than that of Wale because Baratti had a full page available to him: he did not have to fit his image into a page devoted mainly to typography. So this frontispiece – published in Padua in 1763 – can be considered as the first fully realised illustration of Ossian. That assessment in no way undermines the value of Samuel Wale’s work, indeed Wale provided all the elements with which Baratti worked, and one should note that Wale was, like Baratti, an artist of high reputation; he went on to become the first professor of perspective at the Royal Academy in London.  The passage addressed by Wale, and by extension by Baratti, is from ‘Berrathon’. Since Wale’s image is the only image to appear in the first edition of Fingal, it can be taken that it is a response to a carefully selected passage.  Certainly ‘Berrathon’ has a particular importance as the concluding part of Macpherson’s first collection, and the passage in question, which appears on page 267 of that edition, is a key to the understanding of Macpherson’s work as a whole.[13]In that passage, the crucial relationship between Ossian and Malvina is reflected upon by Ossian himself.  As he awaits his own death he feels the ghostly presence of Malvina. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Ossian-Malvina relationship in Macpherson’s work. Malvina is the lover of Ossian’s son, Oscar, and it is after Oscar’s death that Ossian begins to sing his tales to her, to comfort her and himself. But Malvina is herself a bard, a female counterpart of Ossian. She thus has the crucial role of being the bard to whom Ossian transmits his songs. She is the tradition-bearer who has the ability to communicate Ossian’s songs to later generations. Malvina’s tradition-bearing role was noted in Armstrong’s Gaelic Dictionary of 1825, as follows:


‘The companion of [Ossian’s] loneliness was Malvina, the amiable widow of his son Oscar. It is probable that it is to this female, who committed these poems to memory, that we ought to attribute the dissemination amongst the bards of her time, and their transmission, for fourteen centuries, from one race to another, of appointed rehearsers.’[14]


What is interesting here is not the literal truth or otherwise of Armstrong’s suggestion, but that it reflects a central intention of Macpherson’s work, namely to assert the value and legitimacy of the oral transmission of culture. The fact that Malvina dies before Ossian himself may reflect an understandable pessimism on Macpherson’s part for the future of Gaelic culture. It should be borne in mind that Macpherson was publishing at a time when the everyday clothing of his fellow Gaelic-speaking Highlanders – tartan – had been illegal for well over a decade and would remain so for another twenty years.[15]An interesting riposte to this ban can be found in one of Macpherson’s notes to ‘The Songs of Selma’ where he speculates that the very word ‘Britain’ derives from the same source as the Gaelic word for tartan ‘breacan’.[16]One might also read this note as an implied plea for the lifting of the ban.[17]


The significance of the Ossian-Malvina relationship is reflected in due course by the response of visual artists. Fine treatments can be found, for example, ‘Ossian und Malvina’ by Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)from about 1810, and ‘Ossian invita al canto la mesta Malvina’ by Luigi Zandomeneghi (1778-1850).  from 1813.[18]A number of other Italian artists explored the Ossian-Malvina relationship in the wake of Zandomeneghi, including in 1825 Camillo Guerra (1797-1874)[19]in 1846  Giacomo Trécourt (1812-1882)[20]and in 1859 Guiseppe De Nigris (1832-1903).[21]In addition to the work of these Italian artists, a little known work by the English artist and engineer William Brockedon (1787-1854) is of interest here. Brockedon spent a considerable amount of time in Italy. He became a member of the academies of both Florence and Rome, and his self-portrait is to be seen in the Uffizi in Florence.[22]With such strong Italian links, it is worth considering that Brockedon’s ‘Ossian Relating the Fate of Oscar to Malvina’, which was probably painted in the 1820s, may be as much a response to Cesarotti as it is to Macpherson.[23]Brockedon’s Italian links are further underlined by his portrait of the Paduan explorer and engineer, Giambattista Belzoni, which is to be found in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The subject of Ossian and Malvina had a resurgence in the art of the Scottish Celtic Revival, a notable version of the subject being Stewart Carmichael’s oil painting from 1928.[24]The subject had formed an important part of the background of John Duncan’s visual manifesto for the Celtic Revival, ‘Anima Celtica’published in Patrick Geddes’ magazine The Evergreenin 1895.[25]The following year Geddes was the publisher of the Centenary Edition of Ossian, edited and introduced by William Sharp.[26] Another Geddes associate, Robert Traill Rose, made an ‘Ossian and Malvina’ as the frontispiece for Keith Norman MacDonald’s In Defence of Macpherson’s Ossian, published in 1906.[27] It is interesting to compare these Scottish Celtic Revival images of Ossian and Malvina with that of Zandomeneghi, which dates from the best part of a century earlier. The shared visual language is both surprising and impressive.


The gender equality between Ossian and Malvina with respect to bardic activity resonates strongly with the cultural reality of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd for Macpherson. He would have been well aware of the significance of female bards. Examples from close to his own time include Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh(c.1615 – c. 1706) and Sileas na Ceapach (c.1660-1729). Although there is no sexual relationship between Ossian and Malvina, at the same time sexuality is at the heart of the relationship, for Malvina is the lover of Ossian’s son, the late lamented Oscar. Thus her relationship with Ossian is mediated by sexual love, but her love is not for Ossian but for his son. In some sense then Malvina also stands in for Oscar, and Ossian’s feeling for her is that of a father. So the relationship between Ossian and Malvina is charged by love, and by death, and by the necessity of inter-generational transmission of culture.


Here is the passage from ‘Berrathon’, to which Wale responds and which Baratti takes up, as published in the first edition of Fingal:


‘My harp hangs on a blasted branch. The sound of its strings is mournful.  – Does the wind touch thee, O harp, or is it some passing ghost? – It is the hand of Malvina! but bring me the harp, son of Alpin; another song shall rise. My soul shall depart in the sound; my fathers shall hear it in their airy hall. – Their dim faces shall hang, with joy, from their clouds; and their hands receive their son.’[28]


Ossian’s harp has become, for a moment, an Aeolian harp, that is to say a harp played by a force of nature, the wind itself.[29]Ossian then identifies Malvina with that force of nature. Ossian then declares his right to be at one with that force of nature himself at the moment of his own dying. His links to his ancestors are via nature and his place with them is within the ‘airy hall’ of nature that they inhabit. So the notion of human life and cultural tradition as integral to the natural world is carefully indicated here. The word ‘ecological’ has been used in respect of the work of Macpherson’s great contemporary, the Gaelic bard Duncan Bàn Macintyre (1724-1812). Perhaps we should use this word to describe Macpherson’s work also.[30]


In due course a smaller version of Baratti’s image was engraved by Giacomo Malosso for the smaller format of the second edition of Cesarrotti’s translation, published in four volumes in Padua in 1772. That edition includes much more material than the 1763 edition and forms the substantial basis of the definitive version of Cesarotti’s Ossian, published in 1801.[31]It thus has a significance independent of the 1763 publication. It is also an important event in the iconography of Ossianfor the surprising reason that the 1772 frontispiece was the only image derived from Ossianthen in print. The English language editions at that time had no visual response to Ossian. The most recent of those images dated back to 1763, when the title page of Temoraincluded a work by Isaac Taylor, who had also engraved the image by Samuel Wale for Fingal. But Macpherson’s 1765 edition, unlike the Cesarotti translation of 1763, made no attempt to adapt any image to its new format.[32]That lack of title page image or frontispiece continued in Macpherson’s revised edition of 1773.


The first English language edition of Macpherson’s text that includes a frontispiece is the new edition published by Robertson in Edinburgh in 1792.[33]It is significant that the frontispiece is based on the Baratti image; that again underlines the importance of the Cesarotti edition of 1763 to the development of the iconography of Ossian. The engraver is R. Scott.[34]The 1792 frontispiece image, as engraved by Scott, is reversed. It should be noted that although the overall composition is close to Baratti, Scott has drawn directly on Wale’s image for the features and poses of Ossian and Malvina. It is clear that Scott had both images available to him. That 1792 edition marks the beginning of a plethora of illustrated editions from both Scottish and English publishers. Baratti’s image can be seen as a catalyst for those editions.


That gap in illustrated editions in Britain from 1763 to 1792 might give the impression that there was little interest in Macpherson’s Ossianamong visual artists in Scotland. However, the very year that the second edition of Cesarotti’s translation was published, 1772, was an important one for Ossianand art in Scotland. In the work of Alexander Runciman (1736-85) the first full-scale illustrative response to Ossianwas underway near Edinburgh at Penicuik House. A strong Italian dimension was present here also, for as with so many artists of that period Runciman owes much to his experience of Italy. In 1767 Runciman had left Scotland to study in Rome, supported financially by Sir James Clerk, on the understanding that on his return he would carry out a mural scheme for Sir James’ residence at Penicuik House near Edinburgh. That scheme became the first sustained visual response to Ossian.[35]It was destroyed by fire in 1899, but sufficient evidence of it survives in the form of preparatory drawings, etchings, engravings and even some photographs, to demonstrate its interest.[36]While we can assume that Runciman brought Ossianic ideas with him to Rome and transformed them in the light of Homer and Virgil, we should not ignore the possibility of a direct influence on Runciman of the Cesarotti translation in the Rome into which he arrived.


Scottish links with Rome were well-established in the eighteenth century and Scottish artists, architects and antiquaries a decade or two older than Runciman, such as the artist Allan Ramsay (1713-84) and the architect Robert Adam (1728-92) had close links with the city. Of particular importance to Runciman was the painter and antiquary Gavin Hamilton (1723-98). With respect to Hamilton and those he influenced Robert Rosenblum has noted the importance of Scottish painters ‘in the introduction of classic style and iconography in the second half of the eighteenth century’.[37]More recently the significance of Hamilton and Runciman has been given further acknowledgement in the close attention paid to them the assessment of developments in the depiction of the male body in British art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[38]


Hamilton was a pioneer of a renewed interest in a neoclassical style of painting. His work had a strong influence not only on Runciman but on Jacques Louis David (1748-1825).[39]It was David’s students, among them Girodet, Gerard and Ingres, who developed themes from Ossianin French art in the early years of the nineteenth century. When Runciman arrived in Rome, Hamilton was engaged in an extensive and influential visual reassessment of Homer. One can note here that Hamilton’s work also influenced Cesarotti’s view of Homer.[40] By 1769 Runciman was experimenting with the idea of a monumental narrative scheme based on the life of Achilles to satisfy his commission for Penicuik House.[41]But he shifted his perspective from Homer to Ossian. The ease of this change is illuminated by the shared language of Hugh Blair’s introduction to Macpherson’sOssianand the work of the Aberdeen scholar, Thomas Blackwell’s Inquiry into the Life, Times and Writings of Homerpublished in 1735.[42] With respect to this Homer-Ossian link, it should be noted that Blackwell was James Macpherson’s teacher.


Rome has a further importance for Alexander Runciman, for he was was one of a group of artists which included Henry Fuseli,[43]indeed Fuseli described Runciman as ‘the best painter of us in Rome’.[44]Fuseli himself did not take Ossianas a subject, but many of the artists linked to him did. As well as Runciman, these international Ossianists in Rome included Angelica Kauffmann, James Barry, and Nicolai Abildgaard.More research needs to be done on the role of the Cesarotti translation for these artists working in Rome. It has, for example, been pointed out that Abildgaard’sBlind Ossian Singingmay have been influenced by Baratti’s frontispiece for Cesarrotti.[45]In favour of that interpretation is the fact that Abildgaard uses a portrait format for his painting, as does Baratti for his engraving.


Runciman can be thought of as pioneering a unity in visual art of Celtic and classical perspectives, and this unity, (whether one sees it in terms of north and south, or of rural and urban, or as folk culture and academic culture, or as unity of antiquarian and modern) can be seen as fundamental to the development of visual art of the romantic period. Another pioneer of this Celtic classicism was Runciman’s friend the Irish painter James Barry. Rome was, as ever, the crucial place of contact, for Barry and Runciman had been on close terms while both were resident in that city.[46]On his return to London Barry proposed and eventually carried out a narrative mural scheme every bit as ambitious as his Scottish friend’s Ossianmural. This was his Progress of Human Knowledge and Culturecarried out between 1777 and1783 for the newly formed Royal Society of Arts. In the ‘Elysium’ section, in the company of Homer, Virgil and others is Ossian with his harp.


Barry’s comments on his selection provides a conspectus of European poetry – not least Italian – from an eighteen-century perspective. At its heart is Ossian, reclaimed for Ireland by Barry. Homer is the starting point, and having mentioned Shakespeare and Milton, etc., Barry continues:


‘Behind Sappho, who is near Chaucer, with a pen in her hand, &c. sits the poet Alcaeus, who was so much admired by the ancients, though his writings are lost, yet fortunately there is a head of him remaining, and from the noble and spirited account Horace gives of his abilities. I have found a companion for him, very much of his own cast, in our own ancient bard Ossian, with whom he is talking; as to the merit of Ossian’s poetry, whether it was better or worse, or of the same lofty, impetuous, fierce character, with that of the Runic and Islandic bards, is now difficult to determine; but if we may be allowed to estimate him by the Fingal, Temora, &c. which the ingenious Mr. Macpherson has published in his name, it is certain he would do honour to any company to which he might introduce him.’[47]


Barry then echoes the literary disputes by reclaiming, in visual terms, Ossian for his native Ireland from Macpherson’s Scotland:


‘I have accordingly given Ossian the Irish harp, and the lank black hair, and open unreserved countenance peculiar to his country; …..’ [48]


Particularly interesting in the present context is his treatment of Italian poetry:


‘Next to Homer on the other side sits the great Archbishop of Cambray [i.e Fénelon], with that first of all human productions, his inestimable poem of Telemachus; Virgil is standing between, and leaning on the archbishop’s shoulder. The next figures are Tasso, Ariosto, and Dante, the last of whom with his hands on the shoulders of his two descendants, is leaning forward, attending to Homer …. Behind Dante sits Petrarch, with his hand locked in that of Laura; and between them, and further in the picture, is Giovanni Boccaccio, &c.’[49]


This is the valuable insight of a well informed Irish painter trained in Rome, giving emphasis to Ossian in the context of Homer and at the same time indicating his awareness of the work of Dante, Petrach, Tasso, and Ariosto, the very figures to whom Cesarotti was looking in his efforts to revitalise Italian literature.


While Barry’s visual advocacy of both Ossian and the Italian literary tradition in the late 1770s or early 1780s has considerable interest, in due course an image of Ossian attributed to Alexander Runciman has a direct link to Cesarotti’s work.  That image – a crucial one in terms of this paper – is a head of Ossian, which is known to us in the form of an engraving by John Beugo.[50]It appeared in the influential 1807 publication by the Highland Society of London, which included both Gaelic and Latin versions of Ossianic material.[51]What is less appreciated is that this image had its first publication a year earlier, in 1806 as the frontispiece of John McArthur’s English translation of Cesarotti’s Historical and Critical Dissertation Respecting the Controversy on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems.[52]Cesarotti’s dissertation is also included as part of the 1807 publication, and when one takes into account that its first, 1806, publication was directly in the context of Cesarotti, it is not surprising that this Runciman image in due course becomes part of the Italian visual response to Ossian. An important occurrence of it, in re-engraved form, is as the frontispiece of Nuovi canti di ossian pubblicati in inglese da Giovanni Smith e recati in Italiano da Michele Leoni  published in Florence in 1813.[53]As Francesca Broggi-Wüthrich has pointed out Leoni published his work as a very conscious complement to that of Cesarotti.[54]He expanded the corpus of Ossian available in Italian by his translations of John Smith’s Gallic Antiquitiespublished in 1780.[55]It is all the more appropriate therefore, to find the frontispiece of Leoni’s work developing the response to Ossian in visual art.


However, what seems to be the first appearance of Runciman’s image in a continental European publication is neither in Cesarotti nor in Leone but as the frontispiece for a new edition of Letourner’s translation into French published in Paris in 1810.[56]It is likely that this 1810 edition influenced Leoni because Letourner translates John Smith’s poems as well as those of Macpherson. The presence of a version of Runicman’s image in Leoni’s 1813 publication is entirely consistent with him both using the 1810 edition of Letourner and being aware, as he would have been, of the McArthur translation of Cesarotti’s dissertation as it appeared in 1806 and 1807.


In the early nineteenth century Runciman’s image was thus strongly linked to continental Europe, first through the English translation of Cesarotti’s defence of Ossian, then through Letourner’s French translation, then through the Leoni’s Italian translation of John Smith. A version appears later as a frontispiece for a Milan edition of Cesarotti’s translation published in 1828.[57]  One can also note its influence, probably via the Milan edition, on the features of Ossian as shown in the ‘Ossian and Malvina’ paintings (noted above) by Giacomo Trécourt in 1846 and Guiseppe De Nigris in 1859.


The ‘prehistory’ of this image is interesting for it is to be found in the work of Runciman’s teacher in Rome, Gavin Hamilton. His Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus, painted by between 1760 and 1763, has, in the background the figure of Achilles’ tutor, Phoenix.[58]The identification of this figure is based on Phoenix’s presence at the mourning scene as related in the Iliad, but the identity of the figure is less important here than the resemblance to the face of Ossian as envisioned by Runciman. The form of words beneath the engraving of 1806 by Beugo should, however, be noted. ‘From a picture supposed to be sketched by Runciman.’ So there is no definite attribution of this Ossian image to Runciman. However the link to Hamilton strengthens the attribution, not least because Runciman adapted other Hamilton ‘Homer’ details for his own work, for example the pose of Fingal in Runciman’s etching Fingal discovering Conban-Carglasscan be linked to Achilles’ pose in Hamilton’s Achilles Vents his Rage on Hector. The certainty is that an image originating from a Homeric painting by Hamilton in Rome, becomes, via a Scottish translation of Cesarotti’s dissertation, part and parcel of the Italian visual response to Ossian.


It is particularly interesting to note here the transformation of this image as it is used as the frontispiece of Leoni’s Nuovi canti di Ossianin 1813.[59]Runciman’s image is abstracted from Beugo’s fully articulated engraving, and re-expressed in the form of a neoclassicised linearity, almost as though it were a drawing of a relief sculpture in marble. This is a strong reminder of the influence in Italy during this period of the English sculptor and graphic artist John Flaxman (1755-1826). When resident in Rome in the 1790s Flaxman drew strongly on the influence both of Gavin Hamilton and of ancient Greek vases in the development of his art. As a student at the Royal Academy in London in the 1770sFlaxman, along with his fellow students William Blake and Thomas Stothard, had taken an interest in Ossian, and a head of Fingal by him has survived.[60]However his importance for Italian interpretations of Ossianis through his illustrations of both Homer and Dante. These, as well as influencing the reinterpretation of the Runciman image of Ossian for Leoni’s translation of Smith, had a major influence on another project. That was the work of Flaxman’s fellow sculptor and designer Luigi Zandomeneghi (1778-1850). His remarkable ‘Ossian invita al canto la mesta Malvina’, which has already been noted, was part of this series. He was a pupil Antonio Canova (1757-1822) in Rome, and he had a distinguished career as a sculptor in Venice. Zandomeneghi Ossianwork consists of a bound portfolio of forty-eight designs complete with descriptions on separate sheets. The designs were engraved by Felice Zuliani and the result is an exceptionally important visual response to Cesarotti’s work.[61]The set as a whole is all the more important because it is the one major proposed set of Ossian images which came to fruition in the early nineteenth century. Two other projects, that of Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) carried out between 1800 and 1805, and that of Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) carried out in 1804 and 1805, never got as far publication although the preparatory material has become an important part of the visual discourse around Ossian.[62]


Zandomeneghi’s Ossianworks attracted significant attention at the time, for example in the English-language publication, The Literary Panorama and National Register, of 1818, which reported as follows:


Ossian: Subjects for design. / The British public has paid a due tribute of acknowledgement to the subjects in outline composed by Mr. Flaxman from the poems of Homer, and Hesiod, and Dante. / As an honourable object of emulation, a similar series has been composed by Sig. Luigi Zandomeneghi, a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, at Venice, who has taken Ossian for his author; and thus has a Caledonian poet been illustrated by a Venetian artist. The work is entitled I Canti di Ossian pensieri d’un Anonimo, disegnati, et incise a Contorno. It is an oblong folio, is accompanied by an explanatory text, and a preface, declaring the author’s reasons for adopting that costumewhich he has preferred.’ [63]


The work of Zandomeneghi provides a good conclusion to this paper. It looks forward not only to later Italian work,[64]but it also prefigures the work of Celtic Revival artists in Scotland around 1900. At the same time Zandomeneghi’s work can be seen as a powerful reassertion of the Italian graphic response to Ossianthat was pioneered by Antonio Baratti in his frontispiece for Cesarotti’s first edition in 1763. With proper attention to work such as that of Zandomeneghi and Baratti, not to mention the Italian adoption of Runciman, one can return Italian art to its rightful place at the heart the iconography of Ossian.





This paper was made possible by an invitation to conduct research in 2013 as part of the Cesarotti project led by Professor Guido Baldessarri at the University of Padua.  My warmest thanks must go to Professor Baldessarri, and also to Dr Valentina Gallo, whose guidance was invaluable.


Thanks are also due to the staff of the following libraries: Biblioteca Civica di Padova; Biblioteca Universitaria, Università delgi Studi di Padova; Biblioteca Nationale Marciana, Venice; British Library, London; National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.



[1]Hohl, H. & Toussaint, H. (1974) Ossian,catalogue of exhibition at Kunsthalle, Hamburg (8 May to 26 June, 1974), and Grand Palais, Paris (15 February to 15 April, 1974). See also Okun, H. (1967) ‘Ossian in Painting’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 30, 1967, 327-56; Macdonald, M. (2004) ‘Ossian and Art: Scotland into Europe via Rome’, in Gaskill, H., ed. (2004) The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes, pp. 393-404.

[2]My thanks to Dr. Valentina Gallo of the Cesarotti project at the University of Padua, who drew to my attention the paper of Fernando Mazzocca, published in 2002, ‘La Fortuna Figurativa di Ossian in Italia Negli Anni Della Restaurazione’, in Gennaro Barbarisi e Guilo Carnazzi, ed. (2002) Aspetti dell’Opera e della Fortuna di Melchiorre Cesarotti, 2V, Milano: Cisalpino, pp. 835-855. I also note Dr. Gallo’s own reference to aspects of the visual art tradition in her contribution to the exhibition ‘Melchiorre Cesarotti (1730-1808): un letterato tra il Veneto e l’Europa. Documenti originali, stampe e manoscritti’, mounted at the Oratorio di San Rocco, via Santa Lucia, Padua, 22 April to 10 May, 2009.For the wider literary context see Mattioda, E. (2004) ‘Ossian in Italy: From Cesarotti to the Theatre’, inGaskill, H., ed., The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes; pp. 274-302.


[3]Cesarotti, M. (1763) Poesie di Ossian, Padova: Guiseppe Comino.

[4]The date of publication appearing onFingalis 1762, but it was available at the end of 1761. Cesarotti’s achievement of a 1763 publication date for his translation is, nevertheless, extraordinary.

[5]See Gaskill, H. (2004) ‘Introduction: Genuine poetry … like gold’, in Gaskill, H., ed., The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes; 14-15.

[6]Duff, J. D. (1962) Lucan, with an English Translation. The Civil War Books I – X (Pharsalia), London: Heinemann; pp.36-37.

[7]On the title page of Fingal, Macpherson shifts from Lucan to Virgil: ‘Fortia facta patrum’: ‘the brave exploits of forefathers’.

[8]Note that in due course, a poet strongly influenced by Cesarotti – Leopardi – becomes influential on the late-nineteenth-century Scottish poet, James ‘BV’ Thomson.

[9]There is a strong presence of bardic imagery at the heart of Cesarotti’s native city, Padua, in the form of two mural panels showing harps. These are to be found on the north wall of the interior of the Palazzo Della Ragione, at the civic heart of the city. One of these panels, situated close to the astrological symbol for Libra, shows two seated figures, one playing the harp and the other playing the violin. The other panel, situated high on the wall between the Sagittarius area and the Capricorn area of the mural, shows a single harp. Due to major storm damage in 1756 this second panel (and perhaps the other too) would have been renewed at the very time Cesarotti was translating Ossian, so the influence of Cesarotti on its design cannot be ruled out. However, it may be more likely that it followed an earlier design and this indicates the historical importance of such imagery in the Veneto, an imagery of which Cesarotti would have been well aware. One can also note here the interest shown in the Celtic bardic tradition by the Tuscan musician and music theorist Vincenzo Galilei (c.1520-1591), father of the renowned astronomer and professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). My thanks to Malcolm MacLean for drawing my attention to this last point.

[10]He may also have had in mind that fact that Lucan’s subject of Celto-Germanic tribes had a direct link to Padua, a city with the Guelph cross prominent in its coat of arms. The point being that the original Guelphs (Welfs) travelled to Italy from Germany.

[11]For an informed perspective see Blom, A. H., 2009, ‘lingua gallica, lingua celtica: Gaulish, Gallo-Latin, or Gallo-Romance?’, Keltische Forschungen, 4 (2009); pp. 7-54. Lucan is referred to on page 19.

[12]On the title pages of the 1763 and 1772 editions of Cesarotti there is also a small engraving, signed F.V., of a man digging up ancient artefacts, which contains the following quotation from Horace: ‘Quidquid sub terra est, in apricum proferet aetas’ which comes from Horace’sEpistles(I, 6, 24)‘Time will bring to light whatever is hidden’. (The full quotation in Horace reads: ‘Time will bring to light whatever is hidden; it will cover up and conceal what is now shining in splendour’. [Lat., Quidquid sub terra est, in apricum proferet aetas; Defodiet condetque nitentia.] ). It is interesting to note the balance between the Celtic note struck by Lucan and the antiquarian and historicist note struck by Horace.



[13]Note that ‘Berrathon’ also provides Goethe with a key passage in The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in German in 1774.

[14]The full entry reads: ‘OSSIAN, a celebrated Caledonian warrior and poet of the third century was the son of Fingal, the Caledonian king, and Roscrana. He attended his father in most of his wars in Ireland, and succeeded him in the command of the army. At an advanced age he lost his sight, and became of course unfit for the business of the field. He cheered his misfortune and his solitude by celebrating the exploits of other warriors, – the subject of which his poems principally treat. The companion of his loneliness was Malvina, the amiable widow of his son Oscar. It is probable that is to this female, who committed these poems to memory, that we ought to attribute the dissemination amongst the bards of her time, and their transmission, for fourteen centuries, from one race to another, of appointed rehearsers. They were ultimately collected, arranged, and translated, about the middle of the eighteenth century, partly by James Macpherson, and partly by Dr J. Smith of Campbelton. The works of Ossian, speedily after their publication, excited the astonishment of every cultivated mind in Europe; and the most enlightened critics placed the bard of Caledonia among the first poets of any age. Ossian has been translated into Italian by Cesarotti; into French my Mons. Le Torneur; and the greater part of them into French verse by Baour-Lormian. The Germans have three different translations of them. Fingal has been translated in to Latin hexameters, with very great success, by a Bishop Macdonald, a native of Scotland. The best of Ossian’s poems are, of those of Macpherson’s collection, Fionnghal and Tighmhòr; – of those of Dr. Smith’s, Dàn an Deirg, Tiomna Ghuill, Diarmad, Trathuil, and Losga Teamhra.’ From page 1026 of Armstrong, Robert Archibald: A Gaelic Dictionary, in Two Parts: i. Gaelic And English. – ii. English And Gaelic; in which the words, in their different acceptations are illustrated by quotations from the best Gaelic writers, with a short historical appendix of ancient names, deduced from the authority of Ossian and other poets: to which is prefixed, a new Gaelic grammar.London: Printed for James Duncan, 1825. Note that Edward Dwelly reproduces this whole passage in his Illustrated Gaelic Dictionary, Herne Bay: E. Macdonald, 1902-1911. My thanks to Dr Lorna J. Waite, Honorary Fellow at the University of Dundee, for drawing to my attention this passage in Dwelly.

[15]The Disarming Act came into force on first August 1747 and the wearing of tartan was illegal until another Act of the Westminster Parliament made it legal to wear it again in 1782. The banning of tartan was thus regarded as part and parcel of disarming the Highlands. It should be stressed that the provisions of the act extended not only to the more unique aspects of Highland dress such as the kilt, but to any use of tartan, for example in coats. The offence is extended to the wearing not just of the garments themselves but to the wearing of any part of them. That is to say the wearing of any part of any garment that could be considered to be Highland dress was illegal. This process of ethnic suppression is at its clearest when one reflects that the Act applied equally to those Gaels who had fought on the Hanoverian side in the ’45. Even though they (Duncan Bàn McIntyre among them) had been on the ‘winning’ side, their culture was still destroyed. Rarely has a cultural double bind been more effectively deployed.

[16]‘The present name of our island has its origin in the Celtic tongue; so that those who derived it from any other, betrayed their ignorance of the ancient language of our country. – Breac’t in, variegated island, so called from the face of the country, from the natives painting themselves, or from their party coloured cloaths.’ Macpherson, J. (1762) Fingal, London: T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt; note to page 210. Bear in mind the illegality of the ‘party coloured cloaths’, i.e. tartan, at the time.

[17]The ban on tartan, seen as part of the attempt in the wake of the Battle of Culloden to destroy Scottish Highland culture, has attracted the attention of a number of artists of the present day. Notable are the responses of Calum Colvin (e.g.Vestiarum Scoticum I-III. Photographic work made as part of the BBC Digital Picture of Britain, 2005), Richard Dunn (e.g. A Plaid found at Culloden. Installation made for Sleeper gallery, Edinburgh, 2009) and Kirsten Norrie (e.g. Vestiarum Scoticum. Watercolour on print, Ruskin School of Art / Wolfson College, University of Oxford, 2012). Both Prof. Colvin and Dr. Norrie have also worked extensively with Macpherson’sOssian.

[18]Luigi Zandomeneghi, engr. Felice Zuliani (1817) ‘Ossian invita al canto la mesta Malvina’ in I Canti di Ossian pensieri d’un Anonimo, disegnati, et incise a Contorno. Venezia: Guiseppe Battaggia. My awareness of this image stems initially from the reproduction in Fernando Mazzocca (2002) ‘La Fortuna Figurativa di Ossian in Italia Negli Anni Della Restaurazione’, which can be found in Gennaro Barbarisi e Guilo Carnazzi, ed. (2002)Aspetti dell’Opera e della Fortuna di Melchiorre Cesarotti, 2V, Milano: Cisalpino, pp. 835-855. It appears on page 847, and is also reproduced on the cover. My own direct study of this work has been of the copy held by the British Library in London.

[19]Camillo Guerra (1825) ‘Ossian e Malvina’,Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodamonte. See Mazzocca, op. cit., p. 854.

[20]Giacomo Trécourt (1846) ‘Ossian che canta a Malvina le gesta di Carthon’, Brescia, Civici Musei d’Arte e Storia. See Mazzocca, op. cit., p. 853.

[21]Guiseppe De Nigris (1859) ‘Ossian e Malvina’, Caserta, Palazzo Reale. See Mazzocca, op. cit., p. 855.

[22]For a short biography of Brockedon see Lise Wilkinson ‘William Brockedon, F.R.S. (1787-1854)’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jun., 1971), pp. 65- 72.

[23]Guildhall, Totnes, Devon, England.

[24]Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

[25]The Evergreen: Book of Spring, 1895, Edinburgh: Patrick Geddes and Colleagues. For context see Macdonald, M., 2008, ‘The Visual Dimension of Carmina Gadelica’ in D. U. Stiubhart, ed., The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael, Port of Ness: The Islands Book Trust.

[26]Macpherson, J. (1896) The Poems of Ossian, edited and introduced by William Sharp, Edinburgh: Patrick Geddes and Colleagues.

[27]MacDonald, K. N. (1906) In Defence of Macpherson’s Ossian, Oban: Oban Times.

[28]Macpherson, J. (1762) Fingal, London: T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt; p. 267.

[29]Macpherson may have had the work of his fellow Scot, James Thomson (1700-1748), in mind when he wrote those words. See Thomson’s ‘The Castle of Indolence’ and ‘Ode on Aeolus’s Harp’ both 1748, and, for context, Hankins, T. and Sliverman, R.J. (1995) Instruments and the imagination, Princeton University Press; p. 91. Note that Thomson credits the Scottish composer James Oswald (1710-1769) with the ‘invention’ (by which he presumably means ‘construction in a new design’) of the Aeolian Harp. Oswald was to set a passage of Macpherson’s ‘Songs of Selma’ to music in the 1760s.

[30]For insight on the modern English use of the word ‘environment’ deriving from Thomas Carlyle via Goethe’s consideration of Ossian, see Jessop, R. (2012) ‘Coinage of the term environment: a word without authority and Carlyle’s displacement of the mechanical metaphor.’Literature Compass9 (11). pp. 708-720.

[31]See Mattioda, E. (2000) ‘Nota Bibliographica’, in Cesarotti, M., 2000, Le Poesie Di Ossian, Roma: Salerno Editrice; pp. xxxii-xli.

[32]As Howard Gaskill has pointed out, from a literary point of view the 1765 edition can be regarded as the text of preference. See Gaskill, H., ed. (1996) The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; pp. xxiv – xxv.

[33]Macpherson, J. (1792) The Poems of Ossian, new edition, Edinburgh: J. Robertson.

[34]Possibly an early work of Robert Scott (1777–1841), thenotable Edinburgh engraver. He fathered two artist sons, David Scott (1806-1849) and William Bell Scott (1811-1890). The former made work inspired by Ossian, but this has not been traced. The latter was an early advocate of Celtic Revival design, notably in the gravestone he designed for his brother’s grave in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery in the early1860s. Robert Scott was articled to the engraver Andrew Robertson at the age of ten. By 1792 he would have had three to four years training, however he would only be about fifteen years old, so if the Ossiancommission was given to him, he must have been a highly regarded apprentice. The fact that both publisher and engraver are named Robertson may be significant.

[35]Oil on plaster, Penicuik House, near Edinburgh; destroyed.

[36]A number of these works can be found in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. See also Macmillan, D. (1970) ‘Alexander Runciman in Rome’, Burlington Magazine, 112; pp. 22-31; Macmillan, D. (1978) ‘Truly National Designs; Runciman at Penicuik’, Art History, 1; pp. 90-98; Macmillan, D., 1986, Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age, London: Phaidon.

[37]Rosenblum, Robert (1957) ‘The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism’, Art Bulletin, 39, pp. 279-90; p. 282.

[38]Myrone, M. (2004) Bodybuilding: Reforming Masculinities in British Art 1750-1810, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[39]See, for example, Monneret, S. (1999) David and Neo-Classicism, Paris: Terrail; pp. 41-44.

[40]See Fedi, F. (2002) ‘Aspetti neoclassici della traduzione omerica’, in Barbarisi, G. & Carnazzi, G., ed. (2002) Aspetti dell’Opera e della Fortuna di Melchiorre Cesarotti, 2V, Milano: Cisalpino, pp. 133-156; p.140.

[41]Macmillan, D. (1970) ‘Alexander Runciman in Rome’, Burlington Magazine, 112, pp. 22-31; pp. 27-8.

[42]‘Blair’s Ossian relates to Blackwell’s Homer much as Runciman’s art relates to that of Hamilton’; Macmillan, D. (1986) Painting in Scotland: The Golden Age, London: Phaidon; p. 54.

[43]Antal, F. (1956)  Fuseli Studies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; p. 19.

[44]Pressly, N. (1979) The Fuseli Circle in Rome: Early Romantic Art of the 1770s, New Haven and London: Yale University Press; p. viii.

[45]Celenza, A. H. H. (1998) ‘Efterklange af Ossian: The Reception of James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossianin Denmark’s Literature, Art and Music’, Scandinavian Studies, vol. 70, no. 3, pp. 359-396; p. 170.   For the wider context see Macdonald, M. (2004) ‘Ossian and Art: Scotland into Europe via Rome’, in Gaskill, H., ed. (2004) The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes, pp. 393-404.

[46]Macmillan, D. (1978) ‘Truly National Designs; Runciman at Penicuik’, Art History, 1; pp. 90-98; p. 91.

[47]Barry, J. (1809) The Works of James Barry, 2 vols, London: Cadell & Davies; pp. 370-71.




[50]John Beugo was a distinguished Scottish engraver who is most remembered today for his engraved version of Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of the poet Robert Burns, which appeared as the frontispiece of the Edinburgh Edition on Burns’ poems, published in 1787.Burns, R. (1787) Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Edinburgh: Creech. Interest in Runciman’s image in Scotland has been significant again since 2002, when Calum Colvin (Professor of Fine Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee) used it as the basis of his exhibition Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry: Oisein : Bloighean de Sheann Bhàrdachdat the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The significance of this exhibition in the reassessment of Macpherson’s work has been widely recognised, for example through its citation in the introduction and research timeline of Gaskill, H., ed., The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes. Colvin’s immediate source was the image as reproduced in a 1997 paper by Hugh Cheape, then of the Royal Museum of Scotland and since 2006 professor at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. Cheape, H., (1997) ‘The Culture and Material Culture of Ossian’, Scotlands4.1, pp. 1-24; p. 17.

[51]Macfarlan, R., Sinclair, J. & M’Arthur, J. (1807) The Poems of Ossian in the Original Gaelic with a Literal Translation into Latin … together with a Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Poems … and a Translation from the Italian of the Abbé Cesarotti’s Dissertation on the Controversy Respecting the Authenticity of Ossian, with Notes and Supplemental Essay. London: Highland Society of London.

[52]M’Arthur, J. (1806) A Translation (from the Italian) of the Abbé Cesarotti’s Historical and Critical Dissertation Respecting the Controversy on the Authenticity of Ossian’s Poems, by John M’Arthur LL. D. One of the Committee of the Highland Society of London, Appointed to Superintend The Publication of Ossian in the Original Gaelic. With Notes and Observations by the Translator. London: William Bulmer.

[53]Leoni, M. (1813) Nuovi canti di ossian pubblicati in inglese da Giovanni Smith e recati in Italiano da Michele Leoni, Firenze: Vittorio Alauzet. This is a translation of Smith, J., 1787, Sean Dana Le Ossian, Orran, Ullan, &c., Edinburgh: Charles Elliot. It is interesting to note that the British Museum Library (now The British Library) purchased two copies of this work, which were accessioned on 1 November 1841, and 23 April 1868, respectively.

[54]Broggi-Wüthrich, F. (2004) ‘From Smith’s Antiquitiesto Leoni’s Nuovi Canti: The Making of the Italian Ossianic Tradition Revisited’ in Gaskill, H., ed., 2004, H. Gaskill, ed., The Reception of Ossian in Europe, Vol. V, Athlone Critical Traditions Series. London: Thoemmes, pp. 303-334.

[55]Gallic Antiquities: Consisting of a History of the Druids, Particularly Those of Caledonia; A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian; and a Collection of Ancient Poems, Translated from the Galic of Ullin, Ossian, Orran, &c..Edinburgh: T. Cadell & C. Elliot, 1780.

[56]Letourner (1810) Ossian, Fils de Fingal, Paris: Dentu. Runciman’s image is engraved by Babet Lefevre.

[57]Cesarotti, M. (1828) Poesie di Ossian,Milano: Presso Gaetano Schiepatti.

[58]See Macdonald, M. (2008) ‘Art and the Scottish Highlands: An Ossianic Perspective’ in Ogee, F. & Geracht, M., eds. (2008) Interfaces, Image, Texte, Language, No. 27, Ossian Then And Now. Paris: Université Paris Diderot, and Worcester, Mass: College of the Holy Cross, 2008; pp. 75-88.

[59]I have not yet been able to determine the identity of the engraver. The initials might be ‘L F’.

[60]For a reproduction, see Williams, I. A. (1960) ‘An Identification of some Early Drawings by John Flaxman’, Burlington Magazine, 102, June 1960, pp. 246-250; plate 20.

[61]Zandomeneghi, L. (1817) I Canti di Ossian pensieri d’un Anonimo, disegnati, et incise a Contorno. Venezia: Guiseppe Battaggia.  Note that with respect to its reception in Great Britain, a copy was purchased by the British Museum Library and accessioned on 18 March1869.   Eight works from this set of forty-eight are reproduced in Mazzocca, F. (2002) ‘La Fortuna Figurativa di Ossian in Italia Negli Anni Della Restaurazione’, in Barbarisi, G. & Carnazzi, G., ed. (2002) Aspetti dell’Opera e della Fortuna di Melchiorre Cesarotti, 2V, Milano: Cisalpino, pp. 835-855.

[62]Hohl, Hanna & Toussaint, Hélène (1974) Ossian,catalogue of exhibition at Kunsthalle,

Hamburg (8 May to 26 June, 1974), and Grand Palais, Paris (15 February to 15 April, 1974). Pages 46 to 58 detail Koch’s work, and pages 61 to 70 deal with Runge. With respect to Runge, see also: Susanne Strasser-Klotz, S. (2005) Runge und Ossian: Kunst, Literatur, Farbenlehre, Inaugural-Dissertation
zur Erlangung der Doktorwürde
der Philosophischen Fakultät I der Universität Regensburg.

[63]The Literary Panorama and National Register: A Review of Books, Register of Events, Magazine of Varieties: Comprising Interesting Intelligence From The Various Districts of the United Kingdom; The British Connections in … All Parts of the World, etc., etc.,London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1818; pp. 271-272.

[64]Note that the work of other Italian artists e.g. Enrico Scuri (1806-1884), and Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) are noted in Mazzocca, op.cit.