Ut pictura poesis

Ut pictura poesis is a Latin twist that comes from the poet’s poetry Horaz. Ut pictura poesis can be translated as “How a picture [be] the poem”. In a modified form, theorem was already published by the Greek poet Simonides von Keos, but it gained an enormous popularity only through Horace’s treatise. Originally, the comparison pointed to the fact that poetry and painting resembled certain aspects, and yet it was misunderstood, especially in the Renaissance. In this epoch the saying was interpreted to the effect that lyric art should be as picturesque as possible. It was only Lessing who measured the two forms of autonomy, even if he preferred the art of poetry, pointing to the fact that poems were essentially word-work and that both arts were not to be equated.

Ars Poetica is a font written in hexameters. It played a decisive influence on the poetry of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Classicism. In this brief treatise, Horaz did not create an independent poetry, but he pointed to characteristics which, in his view, were essential for the aesthetics of a poetical work. From verse 361 the following is found:

Ut pictura poesis; erit quae, si propius stes
te capiat magis, et quaedam, si longius abstes.
Translation: Like a picture be the poem: there are those who bind you more,
if you stand nearer, and those who bind you when you are further away.

This passage can be found at the end of Ars Peotica. In this paragraph, Horaz points out that poetry, like painting in its own day, must be interpreted and not revealed at first sight. Horace continues to find further comparisons, but ultimately lead to the same result.

From this, however, a great debate developed over the extent to which these arts could be compared with one another, and which common structural laws show painting and poetry. In the Renaissance, Horace ‘Ut pictura poesis was misunderstood to the effect that Horace was under the impression that he was demanding a painting that was descriptive.

Furthermore, the two arts were often compared with each other frequently. In numerous poetics this led to the fact that poetry was given precedence or a much higher rank was assigned to it in comparison to painting. It was only Leonardo da Vinci who showed that the art of poetry was superior because it was distinguished by a tremendous simultaneity that poetry could never imitate.

This contest of the various forms of representation came to an end only through the publication of Lessing’s Laocoon (1766), a work which was to show the limits of Mahlery and poetry. Lessing attempted in this work to portray the artistic differences between the visual arts and literature. He succeeded in this through the description of a masterpiece of antiquity: the Laokoon group.


Lessing, in examining the Laocoon group, shows, as the above section shows, that the visual arts and poetry are not to be compared with each other, as was demanded in the Renaissance as well as in the Enlightenment. He points out that poetry places the words consecutively (temporally) and art arranges its colors and forms side by side (spatially).

From this, Lessing concludes: “[Thus] side-by-side signs can only express objects that are adjacent to each other, or parts thereof side by side, but can only express successive signs or objects which follow one another or their parts.”

This means that the visual arts represent exclusively objects, whereas the poetry can show actions. Painting can indeed imitate actions, but only by means of the body and the poetry can quite portray, but only by means of actions. Consequently, painters should choose an incisive moment from which the past will become comprehensible, and poets should not deliver expansive descriptions, but rather show the descriptions through actions.

Short overview: The most important thing about “Ut pictura poesis” at a glance
The Latin phrase Ut pictura poesis goes back to the poet Horace. Horace compared the visual arts with the art of poetry and pointed out that both had to be interpreted, that is to say, from different points of view, in order to develop the full meaning.
This statement led to a great debate about the rank of painting and poetry. Numerous poetics compared the two forms with each other, whereby the one and sometimes the other forms of representation were given preference.
Only Gththold Ephraim Lessing did all this experiment, pointing out in his Laocoon that both forms were not to be compared with each other, since they were used in completely different forms of representation.
Hint: In Horaz, all the other phrases come back in Latin, like the terminology in medias res or abo, the narrative techniques mine as well as sapere aude and carpe diem, which became the leitmotives of whole epochs.

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