Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Meet three couples, real and mythical, and their romantic stories: Federico and Battista’s arranged marriage, Apollo’s longing for Daphne, and Hadrian’s infatuation with Antinous. A good place to start with any love story is Cupid, that little guy who claims responsibility for love, lust, and broken hearts. He is one of the most recognizable Greco-Roman gods still going strong today.
There’s a perfect motto for Cupid from the Roman poet Virgil (Ecl. 10:69), “Amor vincit Omnia”, love conquers all. Cupid, or Amor in Latin, appears as a minor god in Greco-Roman mythology but became a favorite to include in mythological Renaissance art and beyond. It seems including chubby boys with wings was required in many mythological subjects. Cupid does hang-out in a plethora of scenes with other gods and goddesses, although he isn’t the main character, but a reminder of his ability to create or destroy love. He is a mischievous maker extraordinaire.
The son of Venus, he is frequently pictured with her, often in a weird sort of way, as a mother-son love duo. His main objective is to send arrows of love from his quiver to unsuspecting maidens or lads, tricking them into relationships, some which are meant to be, and some which end in tragedy. He is an uninvited match-maker who pairs lovers for his own amusement. Venus is often depicted rebuking Cupid, spanking him, or taking away his arrows. He is sometimes seen blindfolded, of course because love is blind, but also to remind us of the darker side of desire. He is a constant reminder of our strong instincts and attraction to others, spurring us on to pursue earthly desire instead of divine love.
In one of the more unusual representations of a mother and son, Venus and Cupid is meant as an amusing twist on the pair. Most likely made as a wedding painting, Lorenzo Lotto (c.1485-1556) loaded the image with symbolism. The painting is inspired by ancient wedding poems which gained popularity in Renaissance Italy. Amorous poetry was read out loud at wedding celebrations, honoring the bride and groom and the marriage tradition.
In this surprising representation, Cupid pees directly onto his mother, into her crotch, through a myrtle wreath with an incense burner, which they both hold. He is delighted with his aim. If zoomed-in one can see the droplets on her thighs and abdomen. The painting is about three feet wide, so if placed in the wedding chamber it would be a potent reminder of the purpose of marriage - love, pro-creation, and to have some fun. Brides often wore a crown of myrtle leaves to evoke the goddess Venus. The bedroom would be scattered with rose petals and incense would enhance the atmosphere. The ivy on the tree trunk stands for fidelity, and the snake guards against evil and envy. The shell suspended above Venus’ head refers to her birth in the sea. Most likely the facial features are that of the bride for which this painting was intended. The overall theme is fertility, which seems odd to us that urinating would symbolize pro-creation, but Renaissance couples would understand the meaning.
Lotto was a northern Italian painter always on the move, active in Venice and many of the surrounding regions. His style was individualistic. Known for beautifully painted and detailed textures with striking colors, his paintings are brightly lit with an economy of composition. He bucked some of the popular trends in Venetian art, which sometimes tended towards darker earth tones and crowded compositions. Lotto is best known for portraits and religious paintings. Venus and Cupid was painted while he resided in Bergamo, outside of Milan.
It appears that in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we find fewer toddler sized Cupids and more pre-teen Cupids. Although he is taller, Cupid still aims to create romance. Parmigianino’s painting from 1535 shows a lean Cupid carving his bow from a fresh sapling with curls of wood falling down on books. Books symbolize reason and logic, and under Cupid’s spell, love conquers reason. Parmigianino (1503-40) worked in the central Italian city of Parma. He was known for elongated and sensual figures.
Cupid’s ivory skin contrasts with the dark background as he looks knowingly over his shoulder at the viewer. Between his legs are two very young children, one angry with a red face as the child is being grabbed and forced to touch Cupid’s legs. The mischief maker looking at us and grabbing the arm of the child has the same blue wings as Cupid, which could signify that it is Cupid’s younger brother, or simply an amorini, one of multiple small Cupids.
Either way, the pose is rather suggestive (note the position of the large knife) and right in line with Renaissance erotic humor. Parmigianino’s Cupid was celebrated and often reproduced in prints and paintings. The painting became well-known due to its sensual nature, as well as the unusual subject of Cupid carving his bow.
An Agreeable Union
Marriage Renaissance style was not usually one based on mutual love, but one of convenience, and maintaining or attaining social status. Portraits of married couples are not very common in Italy. The Renaissance version of a dating app consisted of painted portraits of prospective young women and men, dressed in their finery, presented to families of potential brides or grooms. Most of the names of the people in surviving portraits are unknown to us, however, we do know quite a bit about how marriage came to be and what rituals they followed. One such couple, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, were a fifteenth century Italian power couple who joined forces in marriage to carve out a political and cultural dynasty.
Prior to the Council of Trent (1563), before Protestant beliefs influenced marriage, getting married was fairly casual. Protestants favored less partying and a more somber occasion. Marriage was viewed as a civil arrangement between two families, and the only requirement was mutual consent. The church and priests were not involved. Couples could get married outdoors, or in a home. Sometimes rings were exchanged. Pageantry, feasts, gifts, and a dowry were characteristic.
Eligible women married in Florence at about age 14, men about 30-35. A broker who knew the community arranged a proposed match and the families negotiated the terms of consent. It was all about social and material benefit. A son of an established clothing merchant may want to marry into a well-respected family of bankers, as banking and the cloth industry were compatible businesses and similar on the social scale. Men tended to marry up in status and women down. If all agreed to a marriage, a document was sealed and the couple met at the bride’s house (probably not for the first time) for a toccamano, literally a touching of the hands.
After this handfasting ritual, the men negotiated the exact terms of the dowry along with feasting and celebrating. The dowry was key, and often amongst the rich, became very expensive. A skilled construction worker would earn about 50 florins a year in about 1400-1450, but dowries for rich daughters reached 1,000 florins. Next to the dowry, the trousseau was most important, with linens, clothing, and items to set up a household.
If rings were exchanged an anellamento took place at the bride’s house. A colorful and sometimes extravagant procession took place from the bride’s house to the groom’s house, through the city. This public display of the couple, along with the dowry and material gifts to the bride, legitimized the union. Wedding celebrations went on sometimes for days with banquets and entertainment. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic church got involved and considered marriage a sacrament, and weddings became part of a religious institution in Catholic countries, not a civil matter. More than mutual consent was necessary.
Federico and Battista's wedding was purely a civil matter. Federico’s first wife had died, and he needed to remarry to continue his lineage. Producing a male heir was of utmost importance. Federico was a condottiere, a mercenary commander who was hired by various cities and regions to raise an army and subdue uprisings or acquire territory. He followed in his father’s warlike footsteps, although he was the illegitimate son. The legitimate heir to the territory was assassinated, although we don’t know to what degree Federico was involved. Known for insurrectionist type warfare, sacking castles and raiding towns, Federico was much in demand. He was also charming, shrewd, and cunning. His home town was Urbino, a landlocked territory about twenty miles from the Adriatic coast. A small city-state, Urbino paled in comparison economically and artistically to the big towns of Venice or Florence. He aimed to change that.
Federico needed a wife with a powerful family to consolidate and expand his own territory, and transform Urbino into a humanist center of courtly life. His marriage needed to send an important signal. As the highest paid layman in Italy at the time, he could spare no expense. The Sforza family had deep roots in Milan as well as in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. Battista Sforza’s family came from Pesaro although she spent time in Milan, where she was well educated in Latin, Greek, history and philosophy, and received the same education as her brother, which was highly unusual. Battista’s uncle initiated the marriage negotiations, although Federico and Battista knew of each other from close family ties. Their wedding took place in 1460, when she was fourteen and he was about thirty-seven.
By all accounts, they were happily married, although Renaissance martial happiness may have differed from our definition. Battista could check off many requirements for a successful marriage: smart, young, chaste, pure, pious, from good family, and fertile. She gave birth to eight daughters and one son, Guidobaldo. Unlike most other wives, she was seen and treated as equal to Federico. At age fifteen she was given complete control of ruling Urbino and its territories while Federico was off warring. This type of independence was unheard of, and I cannot find any equivalence in other major Italian cities in this time period. Unfortunately, she died five months after giving birth to their son at the tender age of twenty-six. Federico held her in his arms at her death. He never remarried.
They must have been compatible. Federico and Battista succeeded in tripling the territory of Urbino and creating a humanist center for the arts and literature. He managed to acquire over 1,000 manuscript codices for his library. He hired the best artist to commemorate their marriage following her death, Piero della Francesca. A native of Sansepolcro, Piero resided in Urbino off and on a few years prior to her death, and most likely knew her. He remained close to the family, and their son Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, to whom he dedicated his mathematical treaties.
Piero had completed a large fresco cycle in Arezzo, The Legend of the True Cross (started in 1452-3) as well as work in other nearby towns, and Rome. He was very interested in perspective and mathematics and their application in painting. Piero’s double portrait is very striking and likely one you won’t forget, especially if you have the opportunity to see it in person. Unusual in many regards, the portraits are a diptych, hinged and would fold inward, revealing paintings on the reverse. Battista and Federico look directly at each other, eye to eye. They are presented as equals.
Federico wears a red beretta hat and a red doublet to mark his nobility. Federico was injured in a 1451 joust where a lance slipped under his metal visor, taking out his right eye and part of his nose, which is why Piero depicted him with his left eye visible. Battista has an elaborate hairstyle and ruby, sapphire, and pearls set in gold. Her shift was originally blue, but is now faded. The detachable sleeves are red and gold brocade. Her hair is plucked back to enhance a high forehead which was very stylish at the time. Her pale skin and light hair were also in high fashion.
The reverse sides of the portraits each feature a triumph of their virtues. Federico is depicted in full armor with Fame and the Cardinal Virtues in a cart pulled by white stallions (Piero painted in his right eye). Battista’s cart is pulled by two unicorns with virtues of Charity, Hope, and Faith. Her epitaph is written in the past tense and his in the present tense. The composition is novel with portraits presented against a landscape without architectural motifs, such as a window or railing. Piero utilizes atmospheric perspective with the sky painted a deeper blue as it recedes from the horizon, with clear luminous light throughout. If all panels are viewed together the landscape appears continuous across the four scenes.
How did Piero paint her likeness after she died? He probably used a death mask for reference. Death masks were usually reserved only for important males. Just after passing, a plaster mold was placed over the face. They were used often to create a more realistic sculpture or painting of the deceased.
Mythological love can mirror real life in its drama and equivalent desire, but hopefully not always in its outcome. Artists and patrons from fifteenth century onwards were very keen on capturing the actions of mythological figures in their greatest moment of drama. The story of Apollo and Daphne implores artists to interpret the scene and moment of transformation.
Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE) wrote volumes of poetry and myths which became very popular in the Renaissance. There are over 250 myths in his Metamorphosis, which inspired many writers and artists from Dante to Shakespeare. Knowledge of Ovid became a prerequisite for elites to demonstrate knowledge of Greco-Roman culture and literature.
Stories by Ovid usually include a cast of characters. In the myth of Apollo and Daphne, Cupid and Apollo were teasing and provoking each other about their hunting skills, and as an ultimate revenge, Cupid let loose with a golden love arrow to Apollo to stoke his love interest. At the same time, he struck Daphne with a lead arrow to produce the opposite result. Daphne pledged to remain chaste and virginal and wanted nothing to do with Apollo. Apollo desired Daphne and has no intention of letting her go. The chase began. Apollo took pursuit after Daphne outside, through the woods and meadows. She ran to escape him and at last resort, called out to her father Peneus, the river god, to save her. Peneus granted her wish, changing her into a laurel tree as Apollo reaches her. She takes root in the ground as her limbs change and bark grows on her skin. Apollo promised to love this laurel tree and his devotion inspired poets who wrote love sonnets to the female version of the laurel tree, Laura.
This small oil painting on a wood panel, not much larger than a piece of 8 x 11 paper, represents Daphne as her arms, now branches, reach skyward, taking up almost half of the painting. One leg is a trunk, one flesh. Her loose blond hair blows in the wind. A Tuscan countryside with the Arno River is depicted in the background, as is Florence. Apollo wears princely red velvet. He has dropped his bow on the ground, as he finally reaches Daphne.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498) was a sculptor, metalworker, and engraver who sometimes worked with his brother Piero. He had a keen interest in human form and how the body functions in motion. He sculpted and engraved nude men fighting, which are pre-cursors to Michelangelo’s nudes. Antonio also excelled at representing the natural world. The landscape evokes a Tuscan countryside. His lyrical interpretation suggests movement of the figures, but they lack emotion. Daphne’s pose is a bit awkward, with the branches reaching upwards.
The laurel leaves are given great prominence in the painting. The laurel is an ancient symbol of victory, as a wreath of laurel leaves adorned the head of the victor in ancient art. It is also a symbol of artistic and literary accomplishment. This painting may have been made for the Medici family as they adopted the laurel as their emblem, and we know Antonio worked for the Medici in Florence. Perhaps the painting was set into a cabinet or a trousseau chest, or used as a decorative piece.
The same moment, but with a different interpretation, was sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1623-4, and is his first recognized masterpiece. Bernini’s ability to sculpt marble as flesh, bark, and leaves is remarkable.
He has done away with much of the clothing in order to emphasize the metamorphosis. There are incredible details such as the toenails of her feet elongating and turning into roots. The rough marble mimics the bark which contrasts with her white smooth skin. The sculpture is delightful from various angles and entices us to walk around it. Daphne’s hair is half human hair and half laurel leaves. Her mouth is open in surprise. Daphne’s chastity is usually the moral of the story, but in the seventeenth century that took a back seat to dramatic interpretation.
Bernini’s technical superiority at twenty-five years of age marked him for greatness. This sculpture, along with his David, Rape of Proserpine, Aeneas, Anchises, and Ascanius, and portraits all date from this period and are housed in Rome’s Galleria Borghese, a must see if you visit Rome. These mythological sculptures were made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese for his private villa. The Cardinal was quite a rascal and scoundrel, as well as rich, powerful, and vengeful. He was nephew to Pope Paul V and successfully pursued hedonism to its fullest. Scipione was called many names, but never chaste. Daphne does not convey any moral story for the cardinal, but was purely for the pleasure of viewing. Roman elites flocked to the Borghese villa to view these masterpieces and appreciate Bernini’s newfound talent.
It’s hard to escape Emperor Hadrian’s presence in Europe. Hadrian (76-138 CE) built the seventy-three-mile wall running across northern England, re-built the Pantheon, built a huge villa complex in Tivoli, and a tomb which is now Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome by the Vatican. His other notable achievements were making facial hair a fashion statement, killing generals who might challenge his authority, and deciding not to expand the empire, but to hold tight on what was the empire. Very popular with the commoners, Hadrian forgave back taxes, lowered taxes, handed out some “stimulus money,” put on games, and stabilized the territories. He came to power in 117 and ruled for twenty-one years. His family was from Spain, and to the insiders in Rome, especially in the Senate, he was always an outsider.
He was a big supporter of the arts, philosophy, and considered himself an amateur architect. One could say he was two sided: spiteful and ruthless, yet he admired and encouraged anything Greek-like in the arts. In 100 he married Sabina, who was fourteen (the age difference was not uncommon). Their marriage was childless, and no illegitimate children are known. It was rumored they did not get along.
Hadrian did find someone to dote on and fall deeply in love with. Hadrian did not like spending time in Rome, so he made far reaching travel an important focus of his reign, making forays into the provinces, which took years and years. The empire stretched from most of western and eastern Europe, to Britain, modern day northern Tunisia, northern Libya, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, and Greece. On one such trip to Turkey in 123, along with his 5,000-member entourage, he met a stunning youth named Antinous, who was about twelve or thirteen.
Antinous was a Greek lad born in Bithynia. What we know about him is sketchy and piecemeal, however, what is certain is that Hadrian was smitten. Antinous was not from nobility, but became part of Hadrian’s closest entourage. He was brought to Rome for schooling and became a court errand boy. He even took Antinous on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean provinces, along with Sabina. Hadrian was about forty-seven when he met Antinous. Most scholars are certain there was a sexual relationship, based on Antinous’ importance in the inner circle and custom to have older men to “mentor” a youth until they reached maturity, sometimes with sexual favors. And, if you are emperor, you get to do what you want.
There was no word for homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. Sexual orientation as a concept did not exist. Strict gender roles did. Young males prior to adulthood, mostly teens, were characterized similarly to females, as the passive partners in sexual activity. It was acceptable for adult males to have young males as their sexual partners, up to a point, as long as the adults were the instigators. Gender deviance was intolerable (like cross-dressing, or identifying as a different gender) and considered a character weakness. Men (and women) had strict clothing rules regarding class and gender. Other than hairstyles, and beards with Hadrian, there wasn’t much, if any, fashion in clothing. Same sex male relationships with differing ages were tolerated, but Hadrian broke several boundaries. One was falling love. Another was mixing classes or having a long-term lover.
In 130 while visiting Egypt, Antinous suddenly died, drowning in the Nile River. There is much speculation about his death. One version says a seer predicted Hadrian would soon die if he didn’t sacrifice something dearest to him. Was his drowning purely an accident or were the breaking of social boundaries too much and was he killed by others? Some think Antinous knew that at nineteen he would soon be too old for Hadrian and would be replaced by another youth. Perhaps it was a voluntary suicide. We have no idea what Antinous’ side of the story was. Was he happy as Hadrian’s lover and companion? It was reported Hadrian was out of his mind with sorrow when he learned of his death, and cried for days, “like a woman.”
Hadrian’s grief was great but to combat his loss, he deified Antinous immediately and created a cult to honor his fallen lover. He built a city called Antinoopolis in his name and created many statues of him (over 100 survive) throughout the empire. There are more statues of Antinous that there are of emperors. The cult spread throughout the empire, most likely to appease Hadrian. The cult died out with the rise of Christianity. It should be noted Hadrian did not grieve similarly for family members who died, and did not commission statues or build cities for them, especially women relatives.
Statues of Antinous follow a pattern. In other words, they all pretty much look the same. He appears about nineteen with longer curly hair and not so much an athlete’s body, but a late adolescent body, and not quite muscular. His head is usually turned down and to the side. Of course, he is idealized, and slightly abstracted.
Hadrian wasn’t well at the time of his lover’s death. As far as we know, he did not take another lover. Sabina died in 137, and Hadrian followed one year later, after a great deal of physical and emotional suffering. He never spent much time in Rome, instead spending time in Tivoli, the sprawling three-hundred-acre grounds with thirty buildings, a city in its own right. He attempted suicide, but to no avail. His ashes were brought to his tomb, the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, along the Tiber River.
Hadrian would be pleased that Antinous’ statues were coveted collector’s items in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century Antinous became a revered figure for same sex males, a little because of written accounts, and also because of the visual sculptural evidence. Antinous became an erotic homosexual icon in gay Western culture. His story became divorced from Hadrian and instead took on a life of its own. Today, there is a gay following that honors Antinous through social media as a pagan god.
Arenas, Amelia. “Antinous’ Lips: A Note on the Slippery Matter of Realism in Portraiture.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 19, no. 1, Trustees of Boston University, 2011, pp. 1–22.
Banker, James R. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Brüggen, Machtelt Israëls. Piero della Francesca and the Invention of the Artist. Reaktion Books, 2020.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Harper & Row, 1979.
Herlihy, David and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber. Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427. Yale University Press, 1985.
Mormando, Franco. Bernini: His Life and His Rome. The University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Olson, Kelly. “Masculinity, Appearance, and Sexuality: Dandies in Roman Antiquity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 23, no. 2, University of Texas Press, 2014, pp. 182–205.
Strauss, Barry. Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Sutherland Harris, Ann. Seventeenth Century Art and Architecture. 2nd edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.
White, Ethan Doyle. “The New Cultus of Antinous: Hadrian’s Deified Lover and Contemporary Queer Paganism.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 20, no. 1, University of California Press, 2016, pp. 32–59.
Woods-Marsden. “Piero della Francesca’s Ruler Portraits.” in The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, Jeryldene M. Wood, ed., Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 91-114.
Vout, Caroline. “Antinous, Archaeology and History. The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 95, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 80-96.