Often he lays on the work of his hand to test if it is flesh or ivory and he does not concede that it is ivory. He kisses it and thinks it kisses him back. He speaks with it, embraces it, and even feels that his fingers sink into its limbs and fears to turn them black and blue.

This passage, from Book X, lines 254258, describes Pygmalion’s infatuation with his own statue. In the ancient world, conventional wisdom held that the best art replicates nature almost perfectly. To some degree, the story of Pygmalion holds to this wisdom. Pygmalion’s statue mimics the female form so exactly that he mistakes it for a real woman. Indeed, the statue transforms into a real woman, as if Pygmalion’s artistry is so successful that it cannot remain mere art. At the same time, though, the story of Pygmalion may reverse the conventional wisdom. We could argue that Pygmalion’s artistry actually exceeds nature’s greatness, that the statue comes alive because nature longs to embody it. Elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, Ovid makes this reversal more explicit. In Book III, there is a grotto so beautiful that, the narrator says, it must be nature’s imitation of art. There is a similarly gorgeous grotto in Book XI. The narrator says he does not know whether nature or art created the grotto, but if he had to guess, he would say art. For Ovid, art transcends nature.