Even if you’ve only wandered through an art museum once in your life, you’ve likely noticed the nude, chubby, male babies—often with wings—filling paintings and sculptures, especially those from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. These babies are known as putti, an Italian word derived from the Latin putus, meaning “boy.” And this month, you’re likely seeing a lot of the Western world’s most famous putto: Cupid, whose journey from Roman mythology to greeting-card aisles is worth noting just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Putti originated in ancient Roman art, but Cupid—son of Venus, the goddess of love—was not among them. Instead, he was a powerful god who aimed his arrows at hapless mortals. Cupid was armed with a quiver full of golden arrows that would arouse passion and leaden arrows to inspire repulsion. Unlike today’s harmless portrayal of his effects, the irrational, overwhelming passion resulting from the prick of Cupid’s arrow was scorned in ancient Rome. The Roman Empire was driven by power and self-control: Feckless lovers were a liability.
And Cupid was no innocent matchmaker, helping heartsick mortals fall in love. Quite the opposite: His name is derived from the Latin cupido—“desire”—and the Roman god was known for toying with his victim’s emotions. Consider this story from the ancient Greeks: Cupid (known as Eros to the Greeks) strikes a golden arrow at Apollo, who falls in love with the nymph Daphne; but then Cupid launches a leaden arrow at Daphne, so she rejects Apollo’s affections. It’s not exactly the stuff of Valentine’s-inspired poetry.
In the Archaic period (800-480 BC), Cupid/Eros’s appeal was irresistible to gods and mortals; slowly he has endured a Benjamin-Button-esque transformation from sexy immortal to darling baby. The beginning of that change came as early as the Hellenistic period (323 to 31 BC), when artists began portraying him as an impish child. For a prime example, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you’ll catch sight of “Sleeping Eros,” a bronze (circa 250 – 150 BC) that captures the charm of a tuckered-out kid, complete with pudgy limbs.
Artists of the Renaissance sealed Cupid’s fate: As they revisited classical mythological subjects, including putti, they filled their work with fat, flying, naked babies who often represented love. The jump from generic putto to Cupid (whose love-inducing powers would have been well studied in this era) was relatively short. As if that weren’t enough, Victorian-era artists gave the flying babies bows and arrows, thereby stripping Cupid of any last hope he might have had of returning to his status as the hunky, trouble-making god of the ancient Western world.