This young Cupid, recklessly painted by Caravaggio, follows Virgil’s saying amor vincit omnia (love conquers all). He triumphs over science, art, fame, and power, the symbols of which are strewn at his feet: musical instruments, laurel wreath, and pieces of armor. He has dark eagle wings and is half-sitting on – or perhaps climbing down from – what appears to be a table. This daring depiction is one of the highlights of the Gemäldegalerie collection and you can visit it in Berlin.
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 The Genius of Victory, which is now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and it is likely the artist had it 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 artifact of the present-day rather than Caravaggio’s.
Caravaggio painted directly 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. Another wrote a Latin epigram in which the piece was first coupled with the Virgilian phrase omnia vincit amor, although this did not become its title until the critic Giovanni Pietro Bellori wrote about the life of Caravaggio in 1672.
Want to know more about Caravaggio? Read our article about his mysterious death.