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Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb 

Cranach Lucas the Elder

(Kronach 1472 - Weimar 1553)

This is one of the first paintings that came into the possession of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It is by the German artist Lucas Cranach, who on numerous occasions depicted Venus with an elongated, sinuous body. Here the attractive goddess is shown together with Cupid, portrayed with a honeycomb in his hands, a clear allusion to his ‘gifts’, which hold in store the painful sting of bees following the brief initial sweetness. The Latin verses legible in the upper right hand corner underline the ephemeral character of love as well as the transient favours of Venus, who is here shown as a Saxon courtesan, with a refined, fashionable hat and an exquisite golden hairnet.


Object details

Inventory
326
Location
Date
1531 ca.
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on panel
Dimensions
cm 169 x 67
Frame

17th-century frame decorated with palmettes, 192.5 x 93 x 7 cm

Provenance

(?) Padua, collection of Alvise Corradini, ante 1611 (Herrmann Fiore 2010); Rome, collection of Scipione Borghese, 12 January 1611 (Coliva 2010); Inv. 1633 no. 186; Rome, Borghese Collection, 1650 (Manilli 1650); Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 11; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Inscriptions

In alto a destra: "DUM PUER ALVEOLO FURATUR MELLA CU[PIDO]/FURA[N]TI DIGITUM CUSPITE FIXIT APIS/SIC ETIA[M] NOBIS BREVIS ET PERITURA VOLUPTA[S] QUA[M]/ PETIMUS TRISTI MIXTA DOLORES NOCET"

Sulla rete dei capelli di Venere: "W.A.F.I."

Già datato sul tronco '1531' (attualmente leggibile solo la prima cifra '1...')

Exhibitions
  • 1992 Torino, Mole Antonelliana;
  • 2007-08 Francoforte sul Meno, Stadel Museum.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1905 Luigi Bartolucci (support);
  • 1933 Tito Venturini Papari;
  • 1949 Carlo Matteucci, Oddo Verdinelli (support);
  • 1950-51 Ettore Patrito;
  • 1958 Renato Massi (frame);
  • 1977-78 Gianluigi Colalucci;
  • 1992 Luisa Barucci;
  • 2008 Laura Ferretti.

Commentary

‘And his mother laughed out, and said, “Art thou not even such a creature as the bees, for tiny art thou, but what wounds thou dealest!”’ (Theocritus, Idylls, XIX). With these verses, the Hellenistic poet Theocritus closes the episode of Love keriokleptes (‘honey thief’) in his collection of 30 poems known as the Idylls. The moral import of the work is in fact summarised in the two stanzas legible in the painting (‘In the same way that the child Cupid steals honey from the honeycomb and the bee stings the thief on the tip of his finger, so the short, fleeting pleasure of our amorous yearnings is harmful and brings sadness and pain’; see Hinz 2010). The sting of the bees is compared to the injuries caused by the sharp arrows of the god of love in this panel: after taking honey from the comb, he whimpers in pain and seeks his mother’s aid.

Twenty-four versions of this subject by Lucas Cranach the Elder are known (Della Pergola 1959; Herrmann Fiore 2010; Hinz 2010). The artist began the series in 1509; the work in question was probably executed in 1531, as suggested by the number that was once visible on the trunk at the centre of the composition. According to some critics (Della Pergola 1959; Herrmann Fiore 2010), this detail was later changed to include the artist’s motto in the form of a winged serpent, such that now only the first digit is visible. Nonetheless, scholars generally accept that date to be the year of the work’s execution (Della Pergola 1959; Herrmann Fiore 2006; Ead. 2010): indeed it coincides with the date of publication of Andrea Alciati’s Emblemata, which not by chance contains the emblem of the honey thief, an image that was certainly known to Cranach (Alciati 1531, no. XC).

The theme of this painting certainly took shape in Wittenberg in the north of Germany, which experienced a great artistic and cultural phase in the 1530s in its capacity as the home of a prestigious university and a crossroads for merchants, sorceresses, priests and swindlers. As is well known, it was here that Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses in 1517, launching the small town onto the international stage, which by this time had felt the impact of the iron laws dictated by the Protestant Reformation. Artists were deeply affected by this development, obliged now to produce closely studied images and at times – as in the case of the Borghese panel – forced to add Latin phrases to paintings to unambiguously communicate the underlying moral message, such that even a profane subject, executed for refined, cultured clients, could be completely understood. Cranach was in fact a friend of Luther and at the same time the court painter of Frederick the Wise; in these circumstances, he managed to produce an unusual quality of works with nude female figures. Interestingly, such paintings were in demand in a country which could not easily admire the half-dressed masterpieces of ancient statuary, with the sole exception of naked images of Adam and Eve or of ancient Roman martyrs. In this case, the subject portrayed is a woman of the Saxon court in the guise of an attractive deity; she is completely naked, with a hat that clearly places her in the contemporary world. Yet the Latin verses transfigure her into an allegorical image of voluptas and its bitter consequences. As Peréz D’Ors (2007), explained, this unique iconography came into being through the meeting of the German artist with Georg Sabinus, professor of Greek at the University of Wittenberg and author in 1536 of the first Latin translation of the Idylls of Theocritus. Sabinus was also the son-in-law of Philip Melanchthon, who a decade earlier had given a public lecture in the town on the works of the poet from Syracuse, an event which stimulated interest on the part of a number of intellectuals (Peréz D’Ors 2007).

According to critics (Herrmann Fiore 2010), an important precedent for this composition was an Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Dream of the Doctor (1504), from which Cranach evidently took the arrangement of the figures in the work in question: Venus filling the height of the space on the right and Cupid on the left, with his foot coming close to the edge of the frame; the play of the goddess’s arms and her hairnet were likewise inspired by the engraving. In this regard, we should also recall that the representation of standing Venus portrayed nude at the edge of the panel has other precedents, such as the woodcut Triumph of Men over Satyrs (1497) by Jacopo de Barbari, a Venetian artist who was likewise in the service of Frederick the Wise and whose place at court Cranach in fact took in 1505; and Dürer’s well-known engraving Adam and Eve (1504): the latter work, incidentally, contains the motif of the extended right arm and the reproduction of a Y-shaped tree behind the protagonists, which alludes to the ‘fork’ between virtutis and voluptas (Herrmann Fiore 2010).

Another important detail is the red hat decorated with crane feathers, an accessory that was particularly in vogue at the court of the Saxon dukes. Here women would gather their hair by means of this exquisite headdress and a hairnet with large pearls, both of which Venus wears here, in addition to a collar with precious jewels and a ribbon bearing the embroidered letters ‘W.A.F.I.’, perhaps an allusion to the name of the model.

Regarding its provenance, according to Herrmann Fiore (2010), the panel came into the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese through the Paduan jurist Alvise Corradini. As mentioned by Johannes Thuilius in the 1621 edition of Alciati’s Emblemata, Corradini possessed a Venus on panel ‘manu periti artificis depicta’, in which the same motto appears as in the Borghese exemplar (see Leeman 1984, pp. 274-275; Herrmann Fiore 2010). This detail has led critics to identify the work in question with the painting formerly in Padua, unless the latter is another of the many versions of the series of Venuses, whose prototype is preserved today in St Petersburg (Hermitage Museum, inv. no. 680).

In spite of lingering doubts as to whether the painting came into the Borghese Collection via Corradini, it is certain that the carpenter Annibale Corradini constructed the frame for it in 1611 (Coliva 2000; see Della Pergola 1959 on a receipt for a payment made in 1613-14, which in the past was erroneously believed to concern the work in question). The panel was meant to form the pendant of the Venus by Brescianino (inv. no. 324): indeed the pair of masterpieces were seen in the same room by the compiler of the inventory which can be dated to roughly 1633 (Corradini 1998; Pierguidi 2014), as well as by Iacomo Manilli, who in 1650 noted the painting – ‘in the German style’ – as part of the first group of works belonging to the determined collector Scipione: ‘in the second room [...] the two standing Venuses, long and narrow paintings: the first is believed to be by Andrea del Sarto [sic], the second, extremely refined, in the German style’ (Manilli 1650). Shortly thereafter the panel was moved to a different location: it does not in fact appear again in the Borghese documentation or guidebooks until 1833, when the Inventario Fidecommissario made the correct attribution to Cranach, which all critics have since accepted.

Antonio Iommelli




Bibliography
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