What It Feels Like To Be Human
“Cupid Chastised”, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Oil on Canvas.
Although it has been quite a while, since I’ve been in to see it, “Cupid Chastised”, by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1580-1620), is inarguably a highlight of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Baroque masterpieces. This work was painted during the artist’s unusually short, twenty-year career; it is astounding that in this duration, an artist such as Manfredi could emerge, and arrive with distinction enough to employ his contemporaries’ most advanced approaches in his own work. In fact, he painted with such eloquence, and complete assimilation, as in the work above, that his hand was oft confused with that of his personal hero, Caravaggio (1571-1610). What is even more arresting, are the depths to which Manfredi’s storytelling plunges to envelope witnesses of his masterpieces (if you are local to St. Louis, go check out “Apollo and Marsyas” at S.L.A.M.) into the at once sensual and ferocious realm where his tragic characters reign. A place that is unmistakably Baroque, where emotions are as atmospheric as the darkness engulfing the contestants.
Toward the finish of the sixteenth century, the Baroque period was beginning to emerge within the studios of European artists, most significantly in Italy. Thought to be borrowed from a term jewelers used to “denote an irregular pearl…’baroque’ means ‘imperfect'” (Bazin, 6), the descriptor then grew to absorb ideas about the emotional significance of art and how it could be best utilized to capture and express emotional subject matter. As a pioneer in capturing the “emotional moment”, Caravaggio expanded on the High Renaissance techniques he had learned as an apprentice, of Simone Peterzano in Milan, by painting his subjects in a way that bent light and darkness to his particular taste. The effect, known later as tenebrism, “figures are cast in semi-darkness, but strong light falls on them, models them, and gives them a robust three-dimensional quality” (Wittkower, 54), became a defining Baroque technique, that also garnered it a reputation for strangeness. In truth, Caravaggio was just intensifying the technique of chiaroscuro, which harks its lineage back to illuminated manuscripts and Spanish woodcuts. Nonetheless, Caravaggio modeled his belief of not copying ancient art, and crafting his compositions from studies of actual life, upon Leonardo da Vinci’s example. In accordance to the volumes of notes and sketches that da Vinci left behind, Caravaggio’s work possessed a sense of the moment being captured in time, not unlike a photograph, but with an emotional urgency more akin to memory. For Manfredi, Caravaggio’s paintings outlined a formula for which he would himself become famous.
Born in Mantua in 1580, Bartolomeo Manfredi moved eventually to Rome where he crafted his most significant paintings, including “Cupid Chastised”. It is most likely in Rome where Manfredi was able to encounter Caravaggio’s work, and to develop his own approach to that artist’s technique. In his lifetime, Manfredi would become one of the most renowned followers of Caravaggio, known collectively as the Tenebrosi or Caravaggisti. He was even thought to exhibit the same ad hoc technique of working directly onto the canvas without pre-sketches, which also may suggest that Manfredi subscribed to da Vinci’s mode of “life-sketching”. For these painters, this technique “had two consequences which seem natural: it led to a painterly softening of form and to an emphasis on the individual brush-stroke.” (Wittkower, 54) Whatever his manner of approaching his compositions, he was able to assert an enviable degree of depth into his cast of characters, and a level of control over chiaroscuro that ensured his status among other Baroque painters.
“He [Manfredi] was one of the few close imitators of Caravaggio and interpreted the master in a rather rough style which later generations came to regard as characteristic of Caravaggio himself; for it was Manfredi possibly more than anyone else who transformed Caravaggio’s manner into a proper genre, emphasizing the coarse aspects of the latter’s art to the neglect of his other qualities.” (Wittkower, 76)
At first glance, it is easy to see how Manfredi’s work could be confused with Caravaggio’s, especially since it was my intention to find a Caravaggio that stopped me originally in front of “Cupid Chastised” at the Art Institute of Chicago. It is equally apparent that Manfredi understood the full potential of emotional realism, or the manner of Baroque painting, while at the same time, feeling the freedom afforded a post-Renaissance painter to explore non-Christian imagery; a freedom for which many painters who had come before had fought strenuous uphill battles against the Catholic Church. For within “Cupid Chastised”, a beautiful and complex classical myth unfolds to depict the seedy love affairs and fervent vengeance inherent to the Greco-Roman Mythos.
Manfredi’s depiction of this story is itself multi-faceted, illustrating the centuries of developed symbolism employed by artwork that stood between this painter and his Classical Period counterparts. This painting portrays the God of War, Mars, with his arm raised, about to flagellate Cupid, the God of Love, whom he is standing over and pinning down; this, the result of an illicit love affair with Venus, the Goddess of Beauty. Mars’ clothing is a fierce red, the color of anger and retribution, and it fully swathes his figure like a veil over his better judgment; meanwhile, Venus is cloaked in an exposing green robe, which is the color of envy (this she feels for others who are allowed to be consumed by the type of love that she can only inspire). Cupid, on the other hand, is nude, suggesting his vulnerability to the actions of the other characters. Also, Cupid and Venus are accentuated with white as a testament to their innocence and purity of intentions (though apparent lack of foresight). A very controlled light beams over the flesh of all of the cast enhancing the emotions of the scene and renouncing them from the darkness that would otherwise envelope them, save for a thin shadow that falls across the face of Mars, perhaps as an emulation of the shame he feels for having allowed himself to be so utterly taken advantage of. It is possible that, while Baroque painters manipulated light to push their characters’ emotions forward, the light was, in addition, meant to represent the eye of the public, able to see what it wants to see despite the anonymity of darkness or emotional temperance.
Another element that is worth noting in Manfredi’s painting is his strict employment of simple, geometric shapes to emphasize how he wants the viewer’s eye to react to the action and “move” around the arrangement of figures. For example, the painter places the action within the painting along the route of a simple, isosceles triangle, the top point of which originates with Mars’ hand and is drawn diagonally down to Cupid’s head and the triangle’s base, or Cupid’s prone body. The triangle method was, by this time, used by most artists, and began with the major developments of one- and two-point perspective, in the Renaissance. Traveling upon these implied lines with your eye introduces you to the characters and their context within the moment; however, Manfredi further accentuates where he wants your eye to pause and reflect by intersecting the triangular plane with circular forms. This is recognizable in the sweeping oval made by Venus’ cloak, projecting the emotion of her face, as well as, in the semi-circle of Cupid’s wing, a gesture showing his defeat, and maybe, most of all, in the figure eight of Mars’ whip, caught in perpetual motion and threatening to descend in a painful blow at any moment.
Another aspect of the symbolism intoned within “Cupid Chastised” is in all of the elements occupying the composition outside of the triangle. Since paintings from the Baroque Period are characterized by the careful control of light and dark within them, it goes without saying that any objects illuminated enough to be visible, play into the overall message or moment of the scene. This is one important way in which Baroque images differ from images of other styles wherein a landscape or background scenario provides a backdrop for the characters. In Baroque paintings, figures emerge from an otherwise engulfing darkness, and only what is useful to the emotional context of the composition is illumined; this is much in the same way that people recall significant or traumatic events, with a sort of “tunnel vision”. In “Cupid Chastised”, these extra elements include the doves at the top right of the painting about to escape from view, the chariot wheel behind Mars, and the broken arrows and helmet in the foreground under Cupid. The doves act as a symbol for Venus, but also as a representation of the fleetingness of love, as the birds’ exit marks the end of a passionate affair. I t could also be believed that these doves symbolize purity and innocence lost; that is, the innocence of Venus herself, and the innocence, wrapped in ignorance, of Mars in his relationship with Venus. The chariot wheel is an unmistakable personification of Mars in the abstract, but is also a representation of the inability for emotional attachment of a warrior committed to conquering new territories as it awaits to take him swiftly off again to the forefront of battle. And simultaneously, the chariot placed at the back of Mars is a mark of his shame, as it serves as a reminder that he turned his back upon his responsibilities, for mere fleeting love, and in doing so, made himself vulnerable to attack. The broken arrows and discarded helmet in the foreground are representative of a broken heart struggling against the call to duty of a disciplined person. It is likely that Mars has broken these arrows to prevent Cupid from taking advantage of him again, and to show to all who view this scene where his commitments lie.
But, Mars is not the only player here on this stage; even as Venus tries to halt her newly lost lover from punishing her son, she picks up Cupid’s broken arrows, possibly as an affirmation that she desires to rekindle her relationship with Mars, or maybe to demonstrate to Cupid that his meddling has value, in that love, even when fleeting, can provide some degree of fulfillment to two beings who are otherwise empty vessels. She seems to want to let Cupid know that he should not feel defeated by Mars. Erstwhile, Venus appears to want to pursue the affections of Mars, which Cupid has helped to draw out of her. Although, the God of War and the Goddess of Love are not meant to be together in the heavens of man. Mars would be much too weak and vulnerable, were he to take on a relationship with Venus. Manfredi sees the tragedy, and pulls the emotions of it to the surface of his painting. Of course, these are merely my interpretations, assisted by some academic exploration.
Whatever the intentions of Manfredi’s implications, “Cupid Chastised” humanizes its cast in an unmistakably Baroque way. His leveling of the actions of the Gods to the particularly mortal, emotional plane is an emanation that we can all recognize. It is, after all, our ability to empathize that makes the “emotional moments” explored by Baroque painters so significant. For it is truly when we see the mingling of fear with defeat in Cupid’s face, or the tension and rage expressed in Mars’ clenched fist, or even the desperation betrayed by adoration painted into Venus’ eyes that we finally understand what it means to feel and be human.
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