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Venus Blindfolding Cupid

Vecellio Titian

(Pieve di Cadore 1488-90 - Venice 1576)

In all likelihood, this painting entered the Borghese Collection in 1608, when it was given to Scipione Borghese by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati. The circumstances of the commissioning of the work are unknown; similarly, it is difficult to interpret its meaning, as critics have proposed a variety of readings over time.

The splendid female figure seated on the left of the painting is shown as she resolutely blindfolds the winged cupid in her lap, while behind her a second cupid devotes his full attention to the operation. On the right, two women – most likely the nymphs Dori and Armilla – approach the scene bearing a bow and a quiver.

Critics believe that the work dates to the later years of Titian’s career, which were marked by a particular mode of applying colour, characterised by means of brushstrokes that produce vibrant illuminating effects.


Object details

Inventory
170
Location
Date
1560-1565 ca.
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
cm 116 x 184
Frame

Gilded frame with painted shells and heads of cupids, realised by gilder Annibale Durante in 1613.

Provenance

(?) Rome, Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, 1608 (Della Pergola 1955); Rome, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1613 (Francucci 1613); Inv, 1700, room V, no. 43; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 9, no. 35; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1935 Venezia, Cà Pesaro;
  • 1980 Tokyo, The National Museum of Western Art;
  • 1982 Roma, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1985 Roma, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1986 San Pietroburgo, Hermitage;
  • 1990 Venezia, Palazzo Ducale;
  • 1990 Washington, National Gallery of Art;
  • 1993 Parigi, Galeries Nationales d’Exposition du Grand Palais;
  • 1995 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni;
  • 2003 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado;
  • 2004, Oslo, Nasjonal Galleriet;
  • 2006 Gerusalemme, Museo Israel;
  • 2007 Mosca, The State Tretjakov Gallery
  • 2007-2008 Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum;
  • 2008 Venezia, Gallerie dell’Accademia;
  • 2008-2009 New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art;
  • 2013 Mosca, Museo Puskin;
  • 2013 Roma, Scuderie del Quirinale;
  • 2021-2022 Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1920-1921 Tito Venturini Papari;
  • 1992-1993 Annamaria Brignardello (indagini diagnostiche; asportazione vernice e ridipinture; reintegrazioni pittoriche, verniciatura).

Commentary

This painting is mentioned for the first time in 1613 in the poem by Scipione Francucci about the works that made up the collection of Scipione Borghese; by that time, Scipione had been cardinal-nephew for eight years and had established his reputation as an enthusiastic collector of ancient and modern sculpture, contemporary painting and 16th-century masterpieces. Francucci describes the subject as ‘Venus blindfolding Cupid’ and also mentions the other figures in the painting: a second cupid and the two nymphs Dori and Armilla, one with arrows and the other with a bow. The scene has always presented interpretative difficulties, to the point that the various Borghese inventories have assigned it different titles. The painting was seen by Antoon van Dyck at the beginning of 1620, as we know from a drawing of his conserved today in Chatsworth. Suggestions for the identity of the figures have ranged from Venus blindfolding Cupid to a representation of the three Graces with cupids.

In the 20th century, the most complex interpretations of the subject were traced to literary sources. Hans Tietze (1936) proposed that the canvas alluded to the scene in Apuleius’s Golden Ass in which Venus punishes Cupid for having fallen in love with Psyche by confiscating his weapons. Erwin Panofsky (1939; 1969) offered a Neoplatonic reading, identifying the two cupids, Eros and Anteros, with passionate love and divine love, respectively; the latter, though, is not blind but able to contemplate true love, a difference which is not clearly formulated in ancient sources but is explained by Vincenzo Cartari in Le imagini degli dei degli antichi. In his studies of 1939, which he partially revised in 1969, Panofsky suggested an allegory of conjugal love, basing his interpretation on the association of the two feminine figures with pleasure and chastity.

Later readings have in part moved away from these hypotheses. Close observation of the expressions of the figures led some writers to propose that the two women are about to give the blindfolded Cupid his bow and arrows rather than take them away from him; meanwhile, his brother, leaning on his mother’s shoulder and observing the scene, appears worried rather than certain of his superiority over his sibling. Another possible interpretation is that the painting represents the education of Cupid: several recent catalogues have in fact proposed this title rather than the traditional one, given that Venus appears to harbour the hope that blind Love will carry out his first missions by arbitrarily striking mortals with his arrows, causing them to fall in love and feel passion.

To add a further twist to the challenges of reading the scene, X-rays performed in 1992-93 revealed that the artist had second thoughts: the inclination of Venus’s head was changed significantly between contour drawing and finished painting such that she now casts her gaze upon the preoccupied child; above all, a third figure was eliminated with respect to the original plan. Kristina Hermann Fiore (1995) has identified this figure with the third of the Graces, arguing that Titian drew inspiration for this work from the description of a famous ancient painting depicting Venus between the Graces and Cupids, whose motif he wished to revive as a means of ‘testing’ the excellence of painting against  the claims of literary sources. Further diagnostic testing using modern techniques may reveal new elements of considerable importance.

In all probability, the interpretation of the scene would be clearer if we were able to shed light on the context of the work’s commission, about which we unfortunately know nothing. Miguel Falomir (2003) tracked down a valuable reference to a similar subject in the inventory of Antonio Pérez, which was compiled in Madrid in 1585. We cannot at all assume that the painting was destined for Pérez, although we do know that he owned other originals by Titian. In addition, it is not clear how the painting might have come from Spain to Italy, and in particular by what means it entered into the collection of Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, nephew of Gregory XIV, who in 1608 gave the canvas to Scipione Borghese (della Pergola 1955).

In spite of our lack of information regarding the origin and exact date of its execution – probably sometime between 1560 and 1565 – the painting takes us back to the ‘poetic’ side of Titian’s production, to that phase of his career in which he drew inspiration from the ancients, resulting in those ‘disintegrating’, dreamlike images of his last years. The work in question was indeed composed with great skill: none of the protagonists occupies the centre of the painting, which is rather defined by an opening toward the sunset, with a sky coloured by pink and orange clouds above bluish mountains. In a refined chromatic scheme, the pink and light blue are repeated in the small wings of the blindfolded Cupid, while the blue is found again in Venus’s cape, which stands out against the crimson red of the female figure with the arrows. Light traverses the whites of the gowns and the flesh of the figures, while the delicate transitions to coloured shadows contribute to the uncertain rendering of the contours of the subjects, whose definition is left to the viewer’s ability to perceive and grasp them.

Among the high-quality copies of this painting, we must note the canvas conserved in Madrid (Museo del Prado, inv. P003865) which according to Harold Wethey (1975) was purchased in Rome by several diplomatic agents and then added to the Spanish royal collections. In all likelihood, this copy was executed in Rome from the Borghese original around the first decades of the 17th century. A painting similar to the work in question is held at the National Gallery of Washington (cat. X-5), which was made in about 1570 by an anonymous follower of Titian. The right side of this composition shows a woman standing behind Venus in the act of lifting a basket; this figure is probably the one that was included in the original plan for the Borghese canvas, as the X-ray testing revealed.

Francesca Cappelletti and Antonio Iommelli




Multimedia


Maria Giovanna Sarti - Venere che benda Amore by Tiziano
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