(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
Oil on canvas, 156 x 113 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
This paintings was always considered one of Caravaggio's great masterpieces. He painted it for Marchese Giustiniani. The figure sets up a direct, special and privileged relationship with the viewer, with an immediate appeal that is truly extraordinary. One is bewildered by this painting, by the absolute freedom that the subject obviously enjoys, detaching himself from mere mortals who must obey the laws of nature. The figure is in the act of mocking the world with a complete impunity, a self-assurance that produce a mixture of astonishment and envy. The figure has a torso that recalls Michelangelo's Victory.
The painting probably shows Earthly Love triumphant over the Virtues and Sciences, symbolized by the musical instruments, pen and book, compass and square, scepter, laurel, and armor at his feet.
Caravaggio's Amor, a teenager with a gloating smile, "reigns" over a pile of weapons, instruments, a book (sheet music), drawing utensils, and a laurel wreath. He places his left knee lightly over these objects, while he holds a bunch of arrows in his right hand. Since the attributes of war, military glory, science and arts are scattered at Amor's feet, the painting reminds the viewer of a Vanitas still-life. Some objects in this still-life are emphasized: pieces of a suit of armour, a lute and a violin with a bow. These may refer to Mars and Venus, who, according to some classical genealogies, including that of Virgil's Aeneid I. 664, were the parents of the playful little winged deity Amor.
Thus in this painting the musical instruments represent Venus herself rather than either art in general or, through the association of fading melodies, transitoriness of human life. It is likely, of course, that the viewer of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have thought of all the previous connotations, too, since he was used to the multiple meanings of symbols.