Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Lovers in Italian Mythological Prints

The Power of Eros
Love conquers all; let us, too, yield to Love!
—Virgil, Eclogues 10:69

The overwhelming power of love was a frequent theme of ancient poets, such as the Greek Theocritus (ca. 300–260 B.C.) and the Romans Ovid (43 B.C.–17/18 A.D.) and Virgil (70–19 B.C.) In their verses, this potent force was often embodied by Venus (the Greek Aphrodite), goddess of love, and her son Cupid (the Greek Eros), whose sharp arrows and flaming torches aroused the passions of both gods and mortals. The conceit of love’s conquest was often given visual form by artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, who illustrated Cupid at the center of a triumphal procession or wrestling Pan, symbol of the universe, to the ground. The interaction between Cupid and his mother could also be a metaphor for various aspects of love, while the adulterous affair between Venus and Mars, the god of war, could signify the capacity of love to subdue violence.

Love of the Gods
O son, both arms and hands to me, and source of all my power … you rule the gods and Jove himself …
Venus, in Ovid, Metamorphoses 5:365–69

Throughout his long poem, the Metamorphoses, Ovid celebrates the power of little Cupid to overcome even the mightiest of the gods. Apollo’s futile passion for the nymph Daphne, the first love story recounted by Ovid, is presented as Cupid’s vengeance on the god who had dared to question his supremacy. The golden arrow with which Cupid pierced Apollo’s heart proved more potent than those Apollo had used to slay the Python. Ovid often refers to love’s capacity to make a fool of the great god Jupiter (the Greek Zeus, also known as Jove), who willingly changed his august form to that of bull, eagle, or swan in order to carry out his seductions. The quotation above comes from the poet’s account of the victory of Venus and Cupid over Jupiter’s brother: when Pluto, struck by Cupid’s arrow, became enamored of Proserpina and carried her down to his infernal realm, love’s dominion was extended to the Underworld.

Beginning in the Renaissance, the Ovidian love stories formed one of the most popular subjects for the decoration of villas and palaces. Such tales also provided ideal material for prints, placing affordable and portable images of idealized nudes—often engaged in provocative acts—in the hands of a wide public.