National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Massimiliano Soldani's
"Venus Plucking the Wings of Cupid"

by Jennifer Montagu

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  

The title which is given to our bronze in the exhibition catalogue, and also in other early references we shall consider in due course, presents no problem: "Venus Who Plucks the Feathers of Amor (or Cupid)" perfectly describes the action of this bronze. Yet the subject is by no means so simple as it may seem, for we may legitimately ask why Venus should want to do such a thing to her own son. Other scenes of the discomfiture of Cupid fall into two different iconographic classes: on the one hand, we find Cupid, the god of love, fallen victim to superior forces, whether it is Time who clips his wings (fig. 4), (9) or whether it is beauty who ties his wings together in the bonds of matrimony or trims the ends of his pillions to keep hill from flying away from the domestic hearth (fig. 5), but in this case, of course, doing hill no serious harm; on the other hand, we find pictures of those who would punish Cupid for the pain or dishonour he has inflicted on them, whether they be contemporary mortals (fig. 6), nymphs, (10) or the heroes and heroines of ancient legend who would avenge the sufferings they had borne in the cause of Chastity (fig. 7). (11)

We have only to look at our screaming and struggling Cupid to see that he cannot belong to the first category: Venus, would not, like Time, wish to destroy utterly the force of Love, and if this were to be a marriage allegory, we might allow Cupid to whimper a little at his loss of freedom, but hardly to bawl his head off: So it must belong to the second category, of those misused by Cupid, and taking their revenge. There is indeed one story in which Venus does just that, and it is in the tale of Cupid and Psyche as recounted by Apuleius in The Golden Ass, the source of that other bronze by Soldani which was paired with ours, and a story beloved of the artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque.

We need not go into the details of this charming legend. It is sufficient to say that so great was the beauty of Psyche that men began to pay her almost divine worship, and to neglect the cult of Venus, at which the goddess took such offence that she sent her son Cupid to earth with instructions that he should cause this presumptuous mortal to fall in love with the vilest object he could find; but he too fell victim to Psyche's beauty, carried her off to his palace and there secretly wed her. When Venus learnt of how her son had betrayed her, her anger knew no bounds:

...To what a public scorn am I now driven? What shall l do? Whither shall l go? How shall l repress this beast? Shall l ask aid of mine enemy Sobriety, whom l have often offended because of thy wantonness? But l hate to seek for counsel from so poor and rustical a woman. No, no, howbeit l will not cease from my vengeance, whencesoever it cometh; to her must l have recourse for help, and to none other (I mean to Sobriety) who may correct sharply this trifler, take away his quiver, deprive him of his arrows, unbend his bow, quench his fire, and subdue his body with punishment still more bitter; and when she hath razed and cut off this his hair, which l have dressed with mine own hands and made to glitter like gold, and when she hath clipped his wings which I myself have dyed with the immortal fountain of my breast (pinnas, quas meo gremio nectarei fontis infeci, praetotonderit), then shall l think to have sufficiently revenged myself for the injury which he hath done." (12)

The rest of the story, the trials and tribulations to which Venus subjected the unfortunate Psyche, are even less relevant to our purpose, but there was a happy ending: eventually Venus was reconciled with her daughter-in-law, "Psyche was married to Cupid, and after in due time she was delivered of a child, whom we call pleasure." (13)

Admittedly, the bronze is far from being an exact illustration of Apuleius's text, for even in her fury Venus does not contemplate having the feathers pulled brutally from Cupid's wings, only that they should be clipped, nor was she to execute this punishment herself, but to hand her erring son over to Sobriety. Yet it is the tone of this passage which Soldani chooses to illustrate, and much the same could be said of his companion bronze, which, with the original bronze plaques on the base symbolizing the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, must represent the implied "and they lived happily ever after" of the story, of which Apuleius tells us nothing beyond what we can guess from the subsequent birth of an offspring. It can hardly illustrate their earlier love-making in Cupid's palace, for this took place in the dark, and Psyche never saw her lover. This was the scene which was far more of tell chosen by artists, the end of this happy interlude and the beginning of Psyche's real troubles, when, lured by her jealous sisters into the belief that her unseen lover must be a monster, she prepared to cut off his head, but seeing Cupid for the first time by the light of an oil-lamp, she was so overcome by his beauty that she let a drop of the burning oil fall on his shoulder, at which he awoke and fled away to his mother.

If we compare Foggini's treatment of this episode (fig. 8) (14) with Soldani's bronze, it will make this point clearer: Foggini illustrates a narrative episode, a particular point in the story, crucial for its further development, whereas Soldani contrasts two emotional states which just happen to occur in the course of this story, and for which the literary source is merely an excuse, the sweet joy of Cupid as he exchanges caresses with his beloved, and his rage and pain at the punishment inflicted by his mother. (15)

The contrast is the more subtle, in that it is expressed through forms which are basically remarkably similar. Both bronze groups are constructed on a very strongly marked diagonal, partially balanced by the fluttering cloaks; both are placed diagonally across the rectangular bases (this is less obvious from frontal photographs of the Cupid and Psyche, but it can be highly probable that they were made after 1702, when seen that the base of the throne is not set square to the Soldani sent a list of his available models to the Prince edge) and yet designed to be seen strictly from the of Liechtenstein and did not include these subjects, front. The contrast occurs in the facial expressions, though these mythological groups with their mildly particularly that of Cupid, and also in the differences erotic overtones were just such as might have been in the speed and violence of the movements.

When Gaston Migeon wrote of the replica in the Bucquet-Bournet de Verron collection that "this is throughout his maturity. Dr Schlegel has compared no longer the noble art of Louis XIV, it is almost the gracious voluptuous art of Boucher," he was of course wrong in associating the bronze with France, (16) but his judgement of style was none the least just: with a bronze such as this we have passed stylistically from the High Baroque, if not quite to the Rococo, at least to the Barocchetto. But the precise date is harder to establish.

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