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Cupid and Psyche

ligurian school

The painting shows a climactic moment in the tale of Cupid and Psyche, when the beautiful maiden uncovers the features of her beloved by illuminating him with an oil lamp as he rests. When a drop of boiling oil falls on Cupid, he awakens and abandons his lover. Only after many more setbacks will the love story conclude with a happy ending. Long believed to be a copy from an original by Alessandro Varotari, known as Il Padovanino, this canvas has recently been attributed to Giovanni Battista Paggi and recognised as a prototype of that painting.

Object details

First decade of 17th century
oil on canvas
cm 113 x 146

(with late 18th-century stucco fillet) 160 x 174 x 5 cm


Rome, Borghese Collection, 1790 (Inv., 1790, Room X, no. 6); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 25. Purchased by Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1951 Augusto Cecconi Principi e Alvaro Esposti


This painting, whose current dimensions result from an enlargement of the support, which occurred at an unspecified but certainly remote time, shows a climactic moment in the fable of Cupid and Psyche as recounted by Apuleius in The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses, books IV-VI): the god of love Cupid has fallen in love with the mortal Psyche and, despite being forbidden to have relations with the maiden, visits her nightly on the condition that his identity is kept concealed. Psyche, gripped by curiosity to see her nocturnal lover who has never allowed her to look on him, decides to defy the prohibition and, while Cupid rests, uncovers his features by illuminating him with a lamp. When a drop of boiling oil falls on Cupid, he awakens and is forced to abandon his lover. Only after overcoming terrible trials will the mortal be reunited with her beloved in the realm of the gods.

In the Borghese painting, Psyche, with her back turned, holds a knife (a symbol of distrust) in her right hand and a lantern in the other. She is in the act of illuminating sleeping Cupid, semi-reclining and naked, only partially covered by a red drape. According to a humanistic interpretation, the scene depicted expresses the allegory of the tension of the Soul (Psyche) towards union with Desire (Eros).

The picture is documented as being in the Borghese collection only from the 1790 inventory, described as a work by the Genoese Bernardo Strozzi, known as il Cappuccino. It is later mentioned, with the same attribution, in the 1833 fideicommissary inventory, but also, before the entire Borghese Gallery was transferred to the State, in Piancastelli's catalogue. From a historical-critical perspective, the work was first thought by Adolfo Venturi (1893) to be by an unknown 18th-century painter; it was later correctly dated to the 17th century by Roberto Longhi (1929) and likewise catalogued by Paola Della Pergola (1955), who assigned it generically to the Ligurian school around the middle of the century. According to Giuliano Frabetti (1959), it could be a copy of an unknown original by Luca Cambiaso, while more recently it has been suggested that it is a copy of a painting by Alessandro Varotari, known as Padovanino (Stefani 2000; Herrmann Fiore 2006). Its alleged prototype has been auctioned a number of times in Germany in the last two years (most recently at Hampel, 21 March 2024, lot 283); another version, a matching piece, is also known to exist, and is in a private collection too (Ruggeri 1993). Although critics have repeatedly labelled the Borghese painting a copy, perhaps reflecting Longhi's opinion that it was of very poor quality, a closer examination reveals its compositional, tonal and luminist value, which is likely to re-emerge following some much-needed cleaning. Recent studies by Ettore Giovanati (currently pending publication) show, from a stylistic viewpoint, that the painting is perfectly in keeping with “the manner of” Giovanni Battista Paggi, a Genoese painter directly influenced by the art of Luca Cambiaso. The debt to Cambiaso, however, is less obvious here thanks to the renewed luminist and colouristic sensibility acquired by its creator during his long stay in Florence in the last twenty years of the 16th century – which leads to the dating of the work to the first decade of the new century. The conciseness of the composition, the simplicity of the setting and the radiance of the light from the oil lamp all highlight the solid and gilded forms of the half-naked, sensual bodies of the two figures. From a formal point of view, it is also worth noting in Cupid's pose the allusion to ancient statuary and to the nymph on the left of Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians, possibly unexpected references for a painter like Paggi. For chronological reasons – but not only – the hypothesis that the Borghese painting is a copy of Varotari's should be rejected.  If anything, it is its prototype, from which the painter from Padua drew inspiration for the picture of a similar subject today held in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (inv. 178).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese, in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 112;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 58;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 181;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 73, n. 131;
  • G. Frabetti, Aggiunte a Luca Cambiaso, in Studies in the history of Art dedicated to William E. Suida on his eightieth birthday, a cura di P.A. Underwood, London 1959, p. 275, n. 20;
  • U. Ruggeri, Il Padovanino, Soncino 1993, pp. 110-111, n. 32 (sulla copia del Padovanino, non cita il quadro Borghese);
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Guida alla Galleria Borghese, Roma 1997, p. 47;
  • C. Stefani, in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese 2000, p. 167, n. 20;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 22.