This young Cupid follows Virgil’s saying “Amor vincit omnia” (Love conquers all). He triumphs over science, art, fame and power, whose symbols are strewn at his feet: musical instruments, straight-edge, laurel wreath, and pieces of armour. He wears dark eagle wings, half-sitting on or perhaps climbing down from what appears to be a table.
The boy’s position, with his left leg at the edge of a draped table, so that his genitals thrust almost into the center of the picture, strikes a homoerotic note. There is an undeniable resemblance to the pose of Michelangelo’s Victory now in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, and it is likely the artist had this in mind. The subject was common for the age. The homoerotic content was perhaps not so apparent then as it has become today. Naked boys could be seen on any riverbank or seashore, and the eroticization of children is very much a cultural artefact of the present-day rather than Caravaggio’s.
Caravaggio painted direct from a live model. The painter Orazio Gentileschi lent Caravaggio the wings as props to be used in the painting, and this allows fairly precise dating of 1602–3. It was an immediate success in the circles of Rome’s intellectual and cultural elite. A poet immediately wrote three madrigals about it, and another wrote a Latin epigram in which it was first coupled with the Virgilian phrase Omnia Vincit Amor, although this did not become its title until the critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori wrote his life of Caravaggio in 1672.
Want more about Caravaggio? Read our article about his mysterious death.