Catullus on the Cover: Sparrows Go Cheap

Isobel Williams

Every time I see a new Catullus book cover with an illustration rooted in the nineteenth century, I greet it like an old friend. The tide of art has moved on, so why are such pictures so regularly chosen?

First of all, there is no verified image of Catullus (c. 84-54 BC) to fall back on. I will leave it to others to speculate about the fresco of a man holding a scroll that was discovered in the ruins of a Roman villa on Lake Garda, the region where Catullus was said to have been brought up. The villa was built after he died.

Catullus remembered? Fresco of late 1st cent. BC (Museum of the “Grotte di Catullo”, Sirmione, Italy).

Romanticised images of Catullus and his mistress Lesbia appeared in the eighteenth century. This amorous engraving by Michael van der Gucht (1660–1725) is the frontispiece of The Adventures of Catullus, and History of his Amours with Lesbia (J. Chantry, London, 1707):

The banner contains the opening line of Catullus 5: Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (“Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love”).

In the nineteenth century, the rendering of such subjects grew more respectable. The skill and prettiness of their execution, the glowing palettes and narrative charm made them popular, in a way that lingers on.

Favourite Poet, Lawrence Alma-Tameda, 1888 (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, England).

Favourite Poet (1888), which depicts a languorous scene not linked to a specific poet, appears on the cover of John Godwin’s Reading Catullus (Liverpool University Press, 2008). The painting is by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), a major influence on this type of art. While still in his twenties (1863), he visited Italy for the first time, on honeymoon. After that he made a career out of Classical Roman scenes.

He amassed books, images and antiquities, for scholarly background and visual reference. But artists don’t always let historical accuracy get in the way of creation. Alma-Tadema would depict a broken marble statue as complete and glowing bronze if it suited his plan.

It was not the job of a popular artist to step beyond the classroom bowdlerisation of Catullian poetry. Alma-Tadema’s Catullus at Lesbia’s (1865) is a bourgeois gathering, not an intimate encounter. Here are four Victorians in fancy dress. (Four? Your guess is as good as mine, which is that there are just two sitters.)

Catullus at Lesbia’s, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1865 (private collection).

Catullus eyes a man whose head is bound in a pink ribbon while he himself handles Lesbia’s dead sparrow from Poem 3, in which his mistress is not ogling him from a couch but weeps for her pet.[1] Does this picture show the end of the affair? Are they playing charades? That is all immaterial. To quote Alma-Tadema himself, “the subject is merely the pretext under which the picture is made, therefore it is wrong to judge the picture according to the subject.”[2]

The real subject here is colour and décor: the Pompeiian red and ochre palette, the courtyard vista, the antiquities and the historically inaccurate scarlet of the toga. A more authentic white-ish toga would create a visual vacuum, rather than an heroic focal point. An erotic scene behind Lesbia’s garlanded portrait bust, impossible to see clearly in the reproduction here, hints at her scandalous reputation, but could easily be overlooked.[3]

Alma-Tadema admired the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), but the Catullus he and his followers painted is remote from the anguished sadomasochistic writhing of Swinburne’s 440-line “Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs)”, from Poems and Ballads (1866):

For dried is the blood of thy lover,

Ipsithilla, contracted the vein;

Cry aloud, “Will he rise and recover,

Our Lady of Pain?”

And the chaplets of old are above us,

And the oyster-bed teems out of reach;

Old poets outsing and outlove us,

And Catullus makes mouths at our speech.[4]

An oyster reference does at least crop up in Alma-Tadema’s Spring (1894) which, with the odd error, reproduces on a banner the Priapic fragment attributed to Catullus, calling the Hellespontine coast ostriosior – richer in oysters.[5] In this picture, statues of satyrs (libidinous man-goat hybrids) and a frieze showing the battle between the Lapiths (a legendary tribe from Thessaly) and the (drunken, lecherous, half-man, half-horse) centaurs are other indicators that the artist was speaking over the heads of some of his clients about what seems at first glance to be an innocent flower festival.

Spring, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1894 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA).

Carrying on the tradition

One of the artists influenced by Alma-Tadema was John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), whose Ariadne (1898) appears on the cover of A Companion to Catullus (Wiley-Blackwell, London/New York, 2011). The princess from Poem 64 reclines among poppies – a reminder that laudanum (an opiate) might be helping the model through the ache of posing in St John’s Wood, at that time a London garden suburb known for artists’ studios and stucco love-nests.

Ariadne, John William Waterhouse, 1898 (private collection).

The Alma-Tadema style fell out of favour, except in Hollywood, for the first half of the twentieth century. The estimable British film Carry On Cleo (1964) shows his vision alive and well at a time when his auction prices were picking up. The filmmakers co-opted redundant costumes and sets which had been created in the UK for the blockbuster epic Cleopatra (1963).

Rival birds

The BBC website uses Le Moineau de Lesbie (“Lesbia’s Sparrow”), painted in 1860 by Charles Guillaume Brun (1825–1908), to illustrate the episode about Catullus in BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time (9 January 2020). The poet is poised to jot down Poem 2, about the sparrow.

Le Moineau de Lesbie, Charles Guillaume Brun, 1860 (for sale).

There is indeed a cock sparrow in the painting – as opposed to the goldfinch on the Cambridge Companion to Catullus (Cambridge UP, 2021). This features a detail from Lesbia with her Sparrow (1916) by John William Godward (1861–1922). Despite being a twentieth-century work, it ignores the innovations of Picasso and other iconoclasts of the time.

Is the bird substitution a problem? Not really – the goldfinch matches the palette. Peter Green sticks to ‘sparrow’ in his translation The Poems of Catullus (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007), but his note on Poem 2 asserts that Catullus’ passer was “probably a blue rock thrush”.

The blue rock thrush and the house sparrow.

Did Godward’s painting have anything to do with Catullus at all? In 1977, the auctioneers Sotheby’s Belgravia catalogued it as The Pet. That doesn’t prove anything, however, as salerooms can be wayward: the cataloguer might have felt that ‘Lesbia’ could deter bids from a conservative international market.

Godward’s old-fashioned style was pushed aside by new artistic movements in the early twentieth century, but today his images adorn duvet covers and mobile phone cases.

Commercial considerations

On the cover of the Cambridge Companion, does it matter that there is dissonance between the model’s alabaster emotion and the tortured refinement of Catullus? No. A pretty girl sells. The colours are arresting. Are these Neo-Classical covers what Catullus would have wanted? Yes. Their age places them beyond copyright restrictions, so that they are cheap or even free to use; and Catullus is cautious with cash. One fifth of his surviving poems mention money, numbers or counting. He calculates debt, emotional and fiscal; moans that his private income isn’t enough; complains about being overcharged for faulty goods by a pimp.

As one of the editors of the new Cambridge Companion, Tony Woodman, points out (in private correspondence), “A first consideration is that any illustration must be available online; it is very difficult to get permission to reproduce anything more esoteric, and it can also be very expensive.”

In my own limited experience, the cover illustration budget of one academic press has recently gone from £300 to zero. Authors have been known to buy their way out of the problem and commission an original image if they don’t like those presented by the publisher.

One area of controversy in art history, which spills over into book covers, is the question of whether payment should be made for image rights in out-of-copyright works of art. Many in the field, including lawyers, argue that photographic reproductions don’t have copyright protection, and conclude that fees ought to be limited to any handling charges related to a high-resolution image if you can’t find a free high-quality one. The British Art Journal’s opinion is here.

Another factor in what is used as cover art is the stock of images chosen by picture librarians, who open a primrose path to the charming old favourites. Cambridge University Press’s cover art guidelines usher authors towards Getty Images, because it has a deal with this picture library, although the Godward image was taken from a different one.

The studio fakery of these nineteenth-century paintings is nowhere in Catullus. Does that matter to the reader? No. Just as Catullus warns us in Poem 16 not to judge a poet by the poetry, we can detach the cover art’s aesthetic from the book’s subject matter; in the academic field, at least, book-as-artefact is different from book-as-content.

You may think you are too highly trained to be beguiled by such images, just as you may think you are too sophisticated to crave sugar, fat and salt. But you are human, so ultimately you do. These artists earned popularity for a reason – “pretty cool,” says Twitter:

@Credit Aranya047 via Twitter.


I illustrate my Catullus: Shibari Carmina (Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2021) throughout with my drawings of Japanese rope bondage (shibari). To my mind they fit Catullus’ instinct for conflict, performance, dominance and submission. The cover I designed was rejected by the publisher as “dark and Victorian”.

As if that were a bad thing.

Isobel Williams wrote and illustrated The Supreme Court: a Guide for Bears (2017) and blogs about drawing (


1 This poem, along with the rest of the collection, can be freely read in parallel Latin and English translation here.
2 Helen Zimmern, L. Alma-Tadema, Royal Academician, His Life and Work, Art Annual (H. Virtue, London, 1886) 28.
3 For a close study of this painting, including the anachronisms which are a feature of Alma-Tadema’s work (his visual focus was on the Roman Empire rather than Catullus’ time, the late Roman Republic), see Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Rosemary Barrow (Phaidon, London, 2001).
4 The poem can be read in full here.
5 Hunc lucum tibi dedico consecroque, Priape, / qua domus tua Lampsaci est quaque <silva>, Priape, / nam te praecipue in suis urbibus colit ora / Hellespontia, ceteris ostriosior oris. (‘To thee this grove I dedicate and consecrate, Priapus, / Who hast thy shrine and shady wood at Lampsacus, Priapus, / For chiefly in its towns the Hellespont thy glory soundeth, / Than which no other shelly shore in oysters more aboundeth.’ Trans. James Cranstoun, 1867).