This exceptionally well-preserved painting was acquired by the present owner as a work by Pietro Testa, an artist born in Lucca but one who worked primarily in Rome. Testa was a member of the intellectual circle of Cassiano del Pozzo, best known as an early patron of Nicolas Poussin, to whom this present work is clearly indebted.
The subject matter is itself debatable. The central figures, one an idealized feminine beauty, the other an adoring young man, recline together on a classical bed and may be seen as Mars and Venus. However, there is no armor or any other of the traditional attributes to confirm this identification of Mars. Meanwhile, the numerous putti busily picking apples and grapes and cavorting in a generally bacchanalian fashion echo the various depictions of the Worship of Venus described by Ovid, immortalized by Titian and depicted, at least on paper, by both Poussin and Testa. On the other hand, the prominence given to the still life, very possibly painted by a specialist artist such as Campidoglio (1610-1670) (who was employed by the Chigi family), leads one to consider this as a depiction of Autumn, one of The Four Seasons, itself a theme encountered in the work of both Poussin and Testa.
Seals on the back of the (new) stretcher, presumably transferred in the process of a former conservation, identify this as a work with a Chigi provenance. We are indebted to Burton Fredrickson and Carol Togneri who succeeded in conecting this painting with the work listed in the 1692 inventory of works owned by Cardinal Fabio Chigi as by School of Albani, described under number 365 as 'Un quadro di pmi 6, e 8 cornice dorata l'arga con una Venere stesa sopra un letto, con una figura a canto, con diversi Putti, che schersano, con frutti, e Paesi della Scuola dell'Albani'. Although the description and measurements allow us to identify this as the Chigi picture, the attribution to Albani or his school is clearly untenable. We are grateful to Catherine Pugliesi for confirming that this painting relates to no composition by Albani and should not be associated with his school.
Pietro Testa, though highly regarded as an intellectual and draftsman, well grounded in his understanding of classical antiquity, struggled to find success as a painter. He was a prolific draftsman and engraver, and parallels may be seen in his drawings to this painting. Most notably, the figure of Venus here shows similarities with a drawing for Lot and His Daughters (Florence, Uffizi). A study of dogs in Chatsworth echoes the elegant greyhounds in this composition, and numerous studies for putti with their mischievous Correggesque expressions exist, especially for the etching The Garden of Venus. In addition, the noble, expansive classical landscape relates to some of the very rare paintings by Testa, notably the Allegory of the Massacre of the Innocents (fig. 1).
Pietro Testa, despite his close connections to the world of Poussin, to Domenichino, and Pietro da Cortona (for both of whom he worked) found it impossible to establish himself as a painter. Most of his very few extant canvases are darker in palette than this example and are less evenly lit. Although the traditional attribution to Pietro Testa seems plausible, an attribution to another artist active in Rome in the 1630s or 1640s cannot be excluded.