The present bronze model of Cupid is an exceptional late quattrocento bronze that until very recently had slipped out of the art historical world's memory. It has seemingly only ever been exhibited twice: in 1961, at the Meesters van het Brons der Italiaanse Renaissance, Rijksmuseum, and Italian bronze Statuettes, the Arts Council, London. It was then completely forgotten until 2002 when Dr Victoria Avery referred to it in her note on another bronze in the exhibition catalogue Renaissance and Baroque bronzes from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It would be a further three years after that publication before the bronze would be rediscovered.
The Cupid is a remarkable and unique early renaissance object. Created as a solid-cast bronze, with virtually all the modelling achieved in the wax prior to casting, it stands a full 11 inches tall, an unusually large size for a table top bronze of this date. It is highly distinguished for its sensible attention to the anatomy of the young child; with large fleshy face, chubby arms and legs and pot-bellied stomach. Unlike the modelling of children in earlier art forms it is not, anatomically, an adult rendered on a small scale. The most fascinating attribute of this bronze, however, is the extensively hammered surface. While it is a curious feature, it is not unusual to find it on other bronzes of this period where it is juxtaposed with the virtually un-worked features after casting.
In this composition, Cupid is depicted with all the innocence of a child in the process of carrying out one of his mischievous acts. Standing in contrapposto, with his eyes wide open and head slightly tilted, he draws an arrow from his quiver while simultaneously pulling up his bow from behind him. His right foot also steps over the edge of his triangular base, thus stepping out of the confines of the composition, as if actually preparing to carry out his mischievous deed.
When Dr Avery referred to this bronze in 2002 it was in relation to another bronze model of Cupid Shooting an Arrow in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, that is unquestionably by the same hand (see comparative illustration). This other bronze depicts Cupid in mid flight, with wings outstretched, aiming down and drawing back the string of his bow (now lacking). The physiognomy of the facial features and anatomy are identical: broad forehead, large fleshy face, chubby arms and legs and pot-bellied stomach, but most significantly, the same hammered surface. The only variation is in the different bases; our bronze standing on an elaborate tripartite base with sphinxes as feet, the Fitzwilliam bronze with an integral moulded cylindrical socle. However, interestingly, close examination of the present bronze also confirms that it was originally intended to have a circular plinth.
In her catalogue entry of the Fitzwilliam bronze Dr Avery loosely identifies the it as 'probably Florentine' and late 15th century in date. When Colonel Boscawen purchased this bronze in 1944 it was described to him as '…School of Donatello, although probably made between 1500 and 1550…' (Avery, loc. cit.). In the 1961 exhibitions the present Cupid was described as '…evidently Florentine …gnerrically Verrocchiesque… and not impossible at it was made about 1470-80 in the workshops of Verrocchio' (Amsterdam exhibition catalogue, loc. cit.). In stylistic terms, the Donatello connection is not unreasonable, however, the connection to Verrocchio and his circle is more worthy of analysis. Consider, for example, the Verrocchio-workshop tempera on wood Virgin and Child (circa 1470-80) in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (Butterfield, op. cit., pl. 268), where one sees, in the treatment of the Christ child, a number of close comparisons to our Cupid: the tightly packed curls of the hair, large forehead, pronounced eyelids, pursed lips, shallow neck, narrow shoulders, chubby arms, pot-belly and stubby legs. The comparison can then be taken further when looking at Verrocchio's seminal Putto and Dolphin (circa 1480) in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (Butterfield, ibid, pl. 175a-d) and the contemporary derivatives of this model, examples of which can be found in the National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts (Seymour, loc.cit. and Balogh, loc. cit. respectively). In each instance, there is a similar treatment to the anatomy, with an identical use of proportion - each body being four heads high, and a virtually identical rendition of the musculature; the differences being solely in the facial features; the Palazzo Vecchio bronze's being highly individual, while the present Cupid and the Budapest bronze's are more generic.
In recent correspondence with Dr Charles Avery on the subject of the attribution, the idea of it being a product of Verrocchio's workshop was discussed at length, however, another idea was borne from that discussion that drew out Antonio Pollaiuolo as another possible candidate for authorship.
Perhaps the most interesting comparisons can be made to elements of The Tomb of Pope Sixtus IV in the Treasury of St Peter's Basilica, Rome (Ettlinger, op. cit., pl. 110), where, on the reliefs depicting the Virtues and the Arts, one finds a number of putti displaying a similar attention to the anatomy as the Cupid, and that are also depicted standing in contrapposto with one foot stepping slightly over the edge of their bases (Ettlinger, ibid, pl. 111 and 126). A further, although contentious, comparison can be made to the two bronze figures of Romulus and Remus from the Capitoline Wolf in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, (Haskel and Penny, loc. cit.) which, it has been suggested, were made by Pollaiuolo sometime between 1471 and 1510 to accompany the antique model of the Wolf. Although Ettlinger argues (op. cit., p. 170) that neither Antonio nor Piero Pollaiuolo could have been the artists because of stylistic inconsistencies, one does see a convincing degree of continuity in the use of proportions, and physiognomy of the faces and anatomy. Finally, it is worth commenting briefly on the consistent use of the tripartite bases with sphinxes feet that can be seen on a number of Pollaiuolo's smaller bronzes. Although not an uncommon addition to a quattrocento bronze, there is a significant closeness to the base of Cupid and that of the Hercules in the Bodemuseum, Berlin (Ettlinger, op. cit., pl. 75-6) for example.
While an attribution to the circle of Pollaiuolo is plausible, the volume of specific stylistic and compositional similarities that exist between the Cupid and the output from Verrocchio's workshop provides a compelling argument for attribution to the latter. This therefore suggests that a realistic dating for the Cupid would be around 1480 after Verrocchio himself conceived his first model of this same subject.