Lorenzo Lotto, whose unusual genius makes him one of the most fascinating of all Venetian painters, depicts Venus and her son Cupid in a bower, a subject inspired by ancient marriage poems known as "epithalamia." It was almost certainly painted to celebrate a wedding and Venus’s features may be taken from the bride’s. Lotto was fascinated with emblematic devices, here relating to the goddess and marriage. The shell above Venus’s head and the rose petals on her lap are her attributes, while the ivy is symbolic of fidelity and the myrtle wreath was worn by the bride. Cupid’s action, an augury of fertility, confers a mood of light-hearted wit. The painting was probably done in the mid-1520s for a cultivated couple in either Bergamo or Venice.
There is no certain record of this picture prior to 1918, when a line engraving was included in Reinach's Répertoire de peintures du moyen age et de la renaissance (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Its reappearance and acquisition for the Metropolitan Museum in 1986 brought to the attention of scholars one of the most individual masterpieces of Venetian painting and resulted in an extensive literature. The picture shows Venus, the goddess of love, reclining naked on a cloth spread before a tree from which has been suspended a red cloth and a conch shell. Ivy climbs its trunk. Venus wears a jeweled diadem,a veil, and a dangling, double-tier pearl earring in one ear. With one hand she holds a ribbon to which is attached a wreath of myrtle, the flower of marriage, and an incense burner. An impish Cupid—her son and co-conspirator in love-matching—stands at her feet, his bow over his shoulder, a myrtle wreath jauntily placed askew on his head. With one hand he steadies the wreath held by his mother while with the other he directs a stream of urine through it onto his mother's lap. Rose petals are scattered on Venus. A stick lies in front of her and a snake—evidently an asp—emerges from beneath the blue cloth on which she reclines and hisses at the goddess.
The picture has been understood as a painted epithalamium, the classical term for verses composed to celebrate a marriage. This literary form was revived in the Renaissance by humanists and was current in all the courts of Italy as well as in Venice. The imagery of Lotto's painting has much in common with the epithalamia of the Roman poets Claudian, Statius, and Catullus (see, for example, Statius's Silvae, I.ii: An Epithalamium in honour of Stella and Violentilla). Many of these poems feature Cupid waking his mother Venus and urging her to make haste to adorn herself and preside over wedding festivities. Venus then blesses the couple and expresses her hope that the marriage will be fruitful and that the bride will have a safe delivery (Christiansen 1986, p. 169, and Bayer 2008, p. 321).
Although the subject of Venus and Cupid was enormously popular in Venice, no other Renaissance painting develops the theme with the rich allusiveness of this one, making it of singular importance for our understanding of the genre. Venus is portrayed as at once the goddess of love and a surrogate for the bride (it has been suggested that she is, indeed, a portrait of the bride). The veil, diadem, and pearl earring are all accouterments of brides in sixteenth-century Venice (see Additional Images, fig. 2, for the illustration of a Venetian bride in Cesare Vecellio's 1598 Habiti antichi et moderni), though the strophion supporting her breasts is a part of ancient rather than modern dress. The knotted ribbon bracelets are emblems of love, well known from Renaissance poetry. Although Venus is shown in her bower, the red cloth and incense are mentioned in classical poems as proper decorations for a bridal chamber (Claudian, The Magnate: ". . . myrtle wreaths adorn the portals, the couches are piled with roses, while cloth of scarlet dye, as befits a marriage, adorns the bridal chamber"; Sidonius, Epithalamium: "Thus they come to the bridal [chamber]; incense, nard, bal, and myrrh are here"). The open clam shell that is her normal symbol has been substituted by a much more sexually suggestive conch shell (Christiansen 1986, p. 170, and Massi 2006, pp. 168–70). The roses scattered on her body and in the foreground were not only Venus's flower par excellence, but they were also essential features of classical and Renaissance wedding ceremonies, together with the myrtle wreath the figure is holding. The playful attitude of Cupid embodies the joy of love and introduces a light, jocular note into a subject usually treated with greater solemnity; his action would have been understood in the Renaissance as an augury of fertility, but also as humorous (peeing youths appear on the reverse side of a number of Renaissance birth trays, and in Francesco Colonna's fantasy narrative, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or "the dream of Polipholus", a peeing infant adorns a fountain inscribed with the Greek word for "laughter": see Additional Images, fig. 3). Only a couple of details disturb the generally cheerful tone of the painting. The rod is the instrument with which Cupid was punished when misusing his arrows (his blood was said to have turned the white roses red). And the snake is perhaps a reference to some hidden danger, such as jealousy, that newlyweds must guard against and therefore can be understood in opposition to the ivy clinging to the tree trunk, a symbol of undying love (Christiansen 1986, pp. 169–73, and Bayer 2008, p. 321).
Who the picture was painted for is still not established, but there can be no doubt that it once decorated a wedding chamber in a well-to-do house in Venice or the Veneto. Lorenzo Lotto belonged to a remarkable generation of Venetian painters, including Giorgione, Titian, and Palma Il Vecchio. Unlike his contemporaries, he traveled widely and received his most important commissions in the Venetian provinces and in the Marches, where he spent much of his career producing altarpieces, devotional pictures, and portraits. Venus and Cupid stands out from the more traditional kinds of paintings commonly treated by Lotto. Although the artist was fond of intricate emblematic accessories, he painted few secular or mythological pictures. The only example comparable to the Metropolitan's painting is the Triumph of Chastity of about 1531 (Palazzo Rospigliosi Pallavicini, Rome), which would, indeed, make an appropriate "pendant". The date of the Metropolitan picture has been disputed. It has been dated to the late 1530s or early 1540s (Humfrey 1997, p. 139), but was perhaps more likely painted in the 1520s, either in Bergamo, where the artist resided between 1513 and 1525, or more probably in Venice, his native city, to which he returned in 1526 (Christiansen 1986, pp. 168–69, and Bayer 2008, p. 323).
Prior to purchase, the picture was cleaned at the Metropolitan, removing overpaint that had significantly altered its appearance. The face of Venus had been made less individual. Her crown had been reduced to a fillet with only a single row of pearls. Drapery covered her lap and right thigh and the rose petals had been painted out (see Additional Images, fig. 4). And there was evidence that at an earlier moment Cupid had been made to hold a nosegay instead of his penis. The picture had thus lost the layered allusions that make it so individual.
[Keith Christiansen 2010]
Inscription: Signed (lower right, on tree trunk): Laurento. Loto
?Granet collection, Paris (in 1912); private collection, Switzerland (until 1986); [Adrian Ward-Jackson, New York, 1986; sold to MMA]
Paris. Grand Palais. "Le siècle de Titien: L'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise," March 9–June 14, 1993, no. 154.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy," November 11, 2008–February 16, 2009, no. 148.
Salomon Reinach. Répertoire de peintures du moyen age et de la renaissance (1280–1580). Vol. 4, Paris, 1918, p. 652, no. 1, ill. (engraving), attributes it to Lotto and calls it "Venus et Cupidon 'mingens'"; as in the Granet collection, Paris, in 1912.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 310, lists it as "Allegory of Venus and Cupid" by Lotto; incorrectly gives the location as the Grasset bequest to the Louvre.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 266.
Anna Banti and Antonio Boschetto. Lorenzo Lotto. Florence, , p. 113, tentatively identify it with Lotto's "Lo sposalizio d'amore," mentioned by Ridolfi in 1648 as in the Tassi collection, Bergamo.
Bernard Berenson. Lotto. 3rd ed. Milan, 1955, pp. 112–13, pl. 258 [English ed., "Lorenzo Lotto," New York, 1956, p. 83, pl. 258], erroneously as in the Louvre, Paris, Grasset Bequest; tentatively dates it 1532, comparing it with Lotto's "Triumph of Chastity" (Galleria Pallavicini, Rome) and with contemporary Fontainebleau paintings.
Piero Bianconi. Tutta la pittura di Lorenzo Lotto. Milan, 1955, p. 79 [English ed., "All the Paintings of Lorenzo Lotto," 2 vols., New York, 1963, vol. 2, p. 106], lists it with pictures attributed to Lotto by Berenson.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 104.
Giordana Mariani Canova inL'opera completa del Lotto. Milan, 1975, p. 125, no. 379, judging from a photograph, questions Berenson's attribution to Lotto.
Francesca Cortesi Bosco. Gli affreschi dell'Oratorio Suardi: Lorenzo Lotto nella crisi della Riforma. Bergamo, 1980, p. 145 n. 69, fig. 155, accepts Berenson's attribution to Lotto, but dates it closer to his Bergamask period (1513–25); compares it with a Venus by Luini in the Gerli collection, Milan; finds much of the symbolism of the painting, including Cupid's action, to be based on alchemy.
Ernst H. Gombrich. Letter to John Pope-Hennessy. December 31, 1984, discusses the iconography; mentions a suggestion from Charles Hope that the painting might be a pendant to the Pallavicini "Triumph of Chastity".
Keith Christiansen. "Lorenzo Lotto and the Tradition of Epithalamic Painting." Apollo 124 (September 1986), pp. 166–73, colorpl. 1, figs. 1–3 (details), dates it to the mid-1520s; rejects the suggestion that it was a pendant to the Pallavicini "Triumph of Chastity" [see Ref. Gombrich 1984]; discusses the iconography, stating that the work was painted for a wedding and that it is based on the ancient genre of marriage poems (epithalamia); notes the "highly individual features" of Venus.
Charles Dempsey. Letter to Keith Christiansen. June 23, 1986, discusses the iconography.
John Russell. "Art: Warehoused Old Masters in Met Exhibition." New York Times (June 20, 1986), p. C24.
Everett Fahy inRecent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1986–1987. New York, 1987, pp. 33–34, ill. (color), dates it to Lotto's Bergamask period; suggests that the figure of Venus may be a portrait, possibly of the bride for whose marriage the painting was made.
Görel Cavalli-Björkman. "Worship of Bacchus and Venus: Variations on a Theme." Bacchanals by Titian and Rubens. Ed. Görel Cavalli-Björkman. Stockholm, 1987, p. 99, fig. 5, dates it about 1530; accepts Christiansen's [see Ref. 1986] argument that the picture was inspired by an ancient marriage poem.
Francesca Cortesi Bosco. Il coro intarsiato di Lotto e Capoferri per Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo. Bergamo, 1987, p. 410, under no. 36, pl. 104, suggests that the roses may allude to the brevity of pleasure.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. rev., enl. ed. New York, 1989, p. 390.
Milton Esterow. "Masterpiece Theater." Art News 89 (Summer 1990), pp. 136–37, ill. (color), repeats Everett Fahy's comments on the painting made during a lecture given at the Metropolitan Museum.
David Rosand. "Venereal Hermeneutics: Reading Titian's 'Venus of Urbino'." Renaissance Society and Culture: Essays in Honor of Eugene F. Rice, Jr. Ed. John Monfasani and Ronald G. Musto. New York, 1991, p. 267 n. 10.
Rona Goffen. "Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love' and Marriage." The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. Ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. New York, 1992, pp. 119–20, fig. 10, dates it about 1520, assuming that it was made for a local client in Bergamo since its explicitness would have been less acceptable in Venice; contrasting it to Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" (Galleria Borghese, Rome), also a wedding picture, notes that Lotto focuses on the bride only in her reproductive role, whereas "Titian frees his woman's identity and her sexuality from this biological limitation".
Rona Goffen. "Titian's 'Sacred and Profane Love': Individuality and Sexuality in a Renaissance Marriage Picture." Titian 500. Ed. Joseph Manca. Washington, 1993, pp. 131–32, 143 n. 51, fig. 12 [expanded version of Ref. Goffen 1992], assumes incorrectly that the painting known by Berenson was an "inferior variant" of the MMA work.
David Rosand. "'So-And-So Reclining on Her Couch'." Titian 500. Ed. Joseph Manca. Washington, 1993, pp. 109, 116 n. 10, fig. 8 [expanded version of Rosand 1991; reprinted in "Titian's 'Venus of Urbino'," Rona Goffen, ed., Cambridge, 1997, pp. 48, 58 n. 10, fig. 11], suggests that it might have hung in a bedroom over the bed, noting that Marcantonio Michiel recorded a reclining nude by Savoldo in just such a location.
Sylvie Béguin inLe siècle de Titien: L'âge d'or de la peinture à Venise. Exh. cat., Grand Palais. Paris, 1993, pp. 546–47, no. 154, ill. pp. 147 (color) and 546.
Jacques Bonnet. Lorenzo Lotto. Paris, 1996, pp. 139–40, 196, no. 88, fig. 92 (color), dates it to the first years of the Venetian period (1525–32) on p. 139 and about 1532 on p. 196.
Peter Humfrey. Lorenzo Lotto. New Haven, 1997, pp. 139–40, 145, 174 n. 34, pp. 177–78, colorpls. 142 (overall) and 144 (detail), and ill. on back of dust jacket (color), tentatively identifies it with a painting of Venus commissioned by Lotto's relative Mario d'Armano in September 1540, noting that Lotto later painted a Susannah and the Elders (lost) as a pendant for this picture; finds it stylistically consistent with Lotto's works from the late 1530s and early 1540s and suggests that it may show the influence of the Florentine Mannerist Francesco Salviati, active in Venice from 1539 to 1541.
Jaynie Anderson. Giorgione: The Painter of "Poetic Brevity". Paris, 1997, p. 228, fig. 143 (color) [French ed., 1996], suggests that it may have been painted for the wedding of one of the children of Lotto's nephew Mario d'Armano [see also Ref. Humfrey 1997].
Paola Tinagli. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity. Manchester, 1997, pp. 144–45, 153 n. 38, fig. 56, dates it to Lotto's Bergamask period; believes that the symbolic objects were probably requested by the patron.
Rona Goffen. Titian's Women. New Haven, 1997, pp. 43–44, 305 n. 185, fig. 28, dates it about 1520.
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio. The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy. New Haven, 1999, pp. 130–31, fig. 125.
Gregor M. Weber inFaszination Venus: Bilder einer Göttin von Cranach bis Cabanel. Ed. Ekkehard Mai with the assistance of Ursula Weber-Woelk. Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 2000, p. 61, fig. 7, dates it 1540, identifying it with the Venus commissioned by Mario d'Armano.
Keith Christiansen in2001: An Art Odyssey 1500–1720, Classicism, Mannerism, Caravaggism & Baroque. Exh. cat., Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd. London, 2001, p. 90, under no. 6.
Carlo Pirovano. Lotto. Milan, 2002, pp. 120, 184, no. 107, ill. (color and black and white), dates it about 1530.
Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 60 (Spring 2003), p. 16, fig. 9.
Nicholas Penny. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings. Vol. 1, Paintings from Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. London, 2004, pp. 50–51 n. 12, disagrees with Humfrey's [see Ref. 1997] dating of "1540?".
Everett Fahy inThe Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 6–9, no. 2, ill. (color).
Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Venice and the Veneto." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Summer 2005), pp. 42, 44, fig. 36 (color).
Jo Saxton. Nicolaus Knupfer, an Original Artist: Monograph and Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Drawings. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 2005, p. 228, fig. 58, mentions it in connection with a drawing by Knupfer of Venus and Amor (MMA 1999.151ab), where Amor is urinating onto the floor.
Pierre Rosenberg. Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Milan, 2006, pp. 56–57, 232–33, ill. (color).
Eric Jan Sluijter. "'Les regards dards': Werner van den Valckert's 'Venus and Cupid'." In His Milieu: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Memory of John Michael Montias. Ed. A[my]. Golahny et al. Amsterdam, 2006, p. 435.
Norberto Massi. "Lorenzo Lotto's New York 'Venus'." Watching Art: Writings in Honor of James Beck. Ed. Lynn Catterson and Mark Zucker. Todi, 2006, pp. 167–70, colorpl. XII, fig. 1, dates it to Lotto's period in Bergamo, based on the fact that Venus's features seem Bergamask; discusses the symbolism of the picture in detail, describing the two wreaths as laurel, not myrtle, and Venus's headgear as a tiara, not a crown; identifies the girdle worn by Venus beneath her breasts as a "strophion," worn by Roman brides and tied in the back with a "Herculean knot" meant to be untied by the bridegroom on the wedding night; proposes that Cupid's action of urinating through a garland may be related to the story of a sixteenth-century Venetian folk healer who cured male impotence by having her patients "piss through the marriage ring of a virgin"; suggests that Venus's single earring might be a reference to the Venetian tradition that a sailor wearing a single earring was open to amorous advances from his companions.
Deborah L. Krohn inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 62–63, 66, fig. 50 (color detail).
Andrea Bayer inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 232, 236, 321–23, 332, no. 148, ill. (color), dates it to the late 1520s.
Jacqueline Marie Musacchio inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 153, 159.
Dora Thornton inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, p. 72.
Everett Fahy inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, pp. 26–27 n. 41.
Beverly Louise Brown inArt and Love in Renaissance Italy. Ed. Andrea Bayer. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2008, p. 242.
Keith Christiansen inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 36.
Everett Fahy inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 33, fig. 43 (color).
Patricia Simons. "Manliness and the Visual Semiotics of Bodily Fluids in Early Modern Culture." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39 (Spring 2009), pp. 360, 373 nn. 105–6, fig. 12.
Margaret Binotto inLorenzo Lotto. Ed. Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa. Exh. cat., Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2011, pp. 252–55, 258 nn. 35, 37, 46, 59, p. 259 n. 62, figs. 1, 2 (color, overall and detail).
Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo inPaolo Veronese: l'illusione della realtà. Ed. Paola Marini and Bernard Aikema. Exh. cat., Palazzo della Gran Guardia, Verona. Milan, 2014, p. 208.
David Young Kim. "Lotto's Carpets: Materiality, Textiles, and Composition in Renaissance Painting." Art Bulletin 98 (June 2016), pp. 181, 207 n. 7, fig. 1 (color).