Circe’s Island

Parmigianino, Circe and the Companions of Ulysses, c. 1527, Black pencil, pen and brown ink and wash, white lead on white paper, 230 x 279 mm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

These past few months, my life has orbited around the same small Manhattan apartment. The experience is like being adrift on an island. Bittersweet, at once insular and insulated, but not so insulated that I could truly escape the world. During the worst weeks of April, I heard the ambulances below, screaming past, far too frequent. I thought, at times, of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, how Aiaia was both dreamtime and prison.

If you, like me, have found these days grinding, full of sorrow and anxiety, and if you have also been surprised, as I have, that in the midst of it all, you’ve noticed spring descending again, the air softening and the trees greening—then you might find something in Miller’s words.

In this suspended dreamtime, I often asked myself the same question as Marilynne Robinson: “What kind of country do we want?”

Such a question can feel like too much. Too broad. A long time ago, in another life, I learned that success in project management depended on the manager’s ability to break each project down to its constituent parts. “What kind of country do we want?” is not a question that submits easily to the project management approach.

I’ll leave you, instead, with Circe’s words: “For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints. I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay.

“Then I learned I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.”



In the 16th century, Parmigianino did a series of drawings illustrating Circe and her story. A talented team of collaborators transformed these drawings into chiaroscuro woodcuts. (But this is a topic for another time.)

Attributed to Antonio da Trento after Parmigianino. Circe giving drink. [between 1500 and 1530, printed later] Woodcut on paper. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Attributed to Parmigianino, Circe, First half of the XVI century. Pencil, Grey-brown ink on yellow paper. Museo del Prado.



And something completely different — one of Edmund Dulac’s illustrations of Circe, for L’Illustration (numéro spécial de Noël 1911).


Dulac did several versions of Circe. This one is from 1915.

dulac circe


Elizabeth Frink’s Circe, from her Odyssey series.


Circe 1973-4 by Dame Elisabeth Frink 1930-1993
Elizabeth Frink, Circe (1973-74), from The Odyssey series, Lithograph on paper, Collection of the Tate Museum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s