The current vogue is to describe all art, even the oldest, as contemporary. The description is accurate, of course, to the extent that art exists only in the present and is animated by present-day responses. But this shouldn’t oblige us to see all art through the filter of present-day fixations. The richer response, surely, is to toggle between our own preoccupations and a sincere effort to see historical art on its own terms.
I know nothing about what motivated Bartolomeo Manfredi in 1613 when he painted “Cupid Chastised,” which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago. But I suspect his intentions might not have been entirely unimpeachable. He made the painting in Rome, under the nose of the pope, a Borghese, and the tentacled reach of the Catholic Church.
It shows Cupid, known also as Eros or Amor, being “chastised” — brutally whipped, really — by Mars, the god of war, for making Mars fall in love with Venus, and thereby inviting the derision and anger of the other gods. Peace, in the form of two departing doves, is banished, while Venus looks on.
Usually a minor character, or a mere mechanism to advance the plot, Cupid could personify either sexual love or spiritual striving. But when blindfolded, as here, he was a symbol for arbitrariness and unpredictability, as well as night and misfortune.
So here’s a modern interpretation, entirely my own: Manfredi’s picture is about masculine shame. It reveals Mars in the aftermath of an unanticipated moment of vulnerability. Under martial, masculine codes, this translates to a state of disgrace. A god of war should never expose weakness by falling in love. When men feel humiliated (often in complex ways), they look for fast, simple solutions. The fastest is to displace the shame onto others via acts of violence. Cupid, with his little love arrows, was the cause of Mars’s erotic susceptibility. So it is Cupid who must be punished.
A modern, psychological interpretation may suggest a scramble to make the painting feel “contemporary.” But Manfredi’s treatment of the subject feels so vivid and arresting that it almost cries out for such readings. Why?
Born near Mantua, Manfredi (1582-1622) moved to Rome, where he quickly fell under the spell of Caravaggio (1571-1610). Caravaggio’s transformation of picture-making was as revolutionary as the impressionist revolution in the late 19th century. The style he developed — pockets of light emerging dramatically from engulfing darkness — has been called “tenebrism” (from the Italian tenebroso, meaning dark, gloomy, mysterious). Combining tenebrism with real-life models, heightened naturalism and tight, tumultuous spaces, Caravaggio brought pictorial storytelling to an unprecedented pitch of intensity.
In his effort to arm spiritual immediacy with relatable, vividly soiled realism, Caravaggio sometimes used adolescent street children as models. He did this in “Amor Vincit Omnia,” a painting of Cupid that took up a convention, established during the early Renaissance, of depicting Cupid as a slender youth rather than a chubby infant.
In 1947, when the Art Institute of Chicago acquired “Cupid Chastised” (which has no signature or date), the museum believed it was by Caravaggio, despite that the great art historian Roberto Longhi had already attributed it to Manfredi. They soon came around.
Only a few dozen paintings survive by Manfredi, who was the best of Caravaggio’s followers. In the 17th century, he was considered Caravaggio’s equal. Over time it has become clear that it was Manfredi, more than his master, who influenced the so-called Caravaggisti painters of France and the Netherlands.
Manfredi appears to have been more excited by Caravaggio’s native feeling for drama and lowlife subjects than by anything spiritual. Mingling the sensuous license afforded by pagan mythology with turbocharged naturalism, he eroticized Cupid in ways that disturb and fluster modern eyes.
But if Manfredi’s motivations were less than spiritually pure, I can live with that. I don’t mind being disturbed. The idea that art is edifying, educational and generally good for us is a form of contemporary cant that has lately — and lamentably — overtaken other ideas of what art might be. It makes me nervous — not least because it carries within it the risk that art might one day be deemed bad for us, and summarily withdrawn from view.