(b. 1500, Treviso, d. 1571, Venice)

Venus and Mars with Cupid

Oil on canvas, 118 x 130,5 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

The painting is signed at bottom left on tree trunk: .O. PARIDIS. /bordono

The beautiful courtesan, with a bright scarlet dress that falls in cascades, appears in two guises. One is Venus, with an apple (or an orange, which the infant Jesus also holds sometimes instead of an apple, and which represents desire, so that it has the same metaphorical value), symbol of love and beauty, given to her by Bacchus. The fruit has a multitude of erotic associations and also alludes to the artist's own name (Paris). But she also takes on the allegorical significance of Victory, who usually holds a pomegranate in her right hand and a helm in her left. By this she is, in turn, referring to Mars, disarmed by Cupid, winged boy and the son of Venus, seated on the armor. Mars, according to Aristotle, is rightly linked with Venus, for men of war are strongly inclined to lust.

The victorious Venus rests on the stump of a tree. Behind stands a stag, symbol of nobility and courtesy and emblem of the royal house of France. As well as suggesting who may have commissioned the painting, this hints at a connection between Mars and Actaeon, whose attribute is the stag. Its antlers, resembling the branches of a tree, are periodically renewed, symbolizing the continual rebirth of life. Having got this far, we can attempt a more detailed interpretation of the subject, in which, behind the common mythological theme of Mars, Venus, and Cupid, is concealed an 'Allegory of the victory of love (and of beauty) that always overcomes martial vigour,' a subject that could have been dedicated to two people in love or, on the contrary, reflect the world of courtesans, as might seem more likely from the naked breasts, the colour of the dress, and the blond tresses of the woman.

It is no surprise that between 1649 and 1652, when the painting is mentioned for the first time in the collection, its subject remained an enigma and was not stated. It is clear that this sensuous mythological fable of extraordinary chromatic richness, full of stylistic preciosities as well as decorative qualities in the sumptuousness and beauty of the fabrics, has connections with the world of chivalry, the refinements of aristocratic courtesy, the works of erotic art, and the exquisite and elegant style of the Mannerists, that are all typical of Fontainebleau. We know that the artist visited the French court, perhaps twice, in 1538/39 during the reign of Francis I and in 1559/60, in the time of Francis II. Recently critics have dated this painting to both the first and the second of these visits. The second is more likely given the highly evolved style of the work.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 4 minutes):
Francesco Gasparini: The Meddlesome Cupid, aria