A young family enjoys a tender moment in a leafy glade. Venus, goddess of love, holds her son Cupid’s bow as his father Mercury, god of wisdom, teaches him to read. Mercury looks down fondly at his child but Venus gazes dreamily towards us and smiles. Unusually, Venus is shown with wings.
The painting was designed as one of a pair with Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (Louvre, Paris), in which a satyr draws back the cloth covering Venus and Cupid who lie fast asleep, revealing their naked bodies stretched out in voluptuous abandon. The Louvre’s painting represents the earthly Venus; the National Gallery’s painting represents the celestial Venus. The two pictures were meant to be displayed together, and an inventory of 1589 records that they were hung in a ground floor bedroom of a palace in Mantua.
‘The School of Love’ was always a very famous painting – elements from it have been copied by Titian, Annibale Carracci and Rubens.
The scene takes place in a leafy glade. A young family enjoys a tender moment in the sunshine. Venus, goddess of love, holds her son Cupid’s bow as his father Mercury, god of wisdom, teaches him to read. Mercury looks down fondly at his child but Venus, leaning on a broken tree trunk, gazes dreamily towards us and smiles. Her gaze is both alluring and elusive, not quite meeting our eye.
Unusually, Venus is shown with wings like her son. Her pose resembles the stance of Venus Pudica from classical statues, in which the goddess demurely conceals her private parts. Her weight is shifted onto one leg, accentuating the curve of her hip; her spot-lit breasts are pushed up by the sweep of her right arm that directs our attention down to Cupid.
The relationship of the figures to one another appears completely effortless and natural but is actually very sophisticated. The composition is based on a series of criss-crossing diagonals that run through the figures’ limbs and the tree trunks behind them. Venus’ and Mars’ hands and lower legs echo each other in pose and position, and the line of their arms creates a graceful heart shape that ties the group together. Cupid, with the wings of a little bird (the colours of which are those of the painting – blue, white and gold), stands on the central vertical axis of the composition between his parents at the foot of the tree, the splintered wood at the top of the painting recalling his golden curls. Correggio has created a wonderful rhythm of soft, sunlit skin against the darkness from which the figures emerge, the careful balance of the composition with his soft, smoky brushwork evoking a deep sense of harmony.
The painting was designed as one of a pair with Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (Louvre, Paris), which shows Venus and Cupid lying fast asleep on the ground in a leafy glade. A grinning satyr draws back the blue cloth that has been covering them, revealing their naked bodies stretched out in the voluptuous abandon of their dreams. Correggio’s scene of the sleeping mother and child is characteristically tender and naturalistic, their fingers just touching as Cupid snuggles up to his bow on the warm fur of a lion skin. Venus‘ arm is thrown back behind her head, her pose completely open and unguarded. The scene is at once innocent and erotic, and we become voyeurs like the satyr. The Louvre’s picture represents earthly Venus and the National Gallery’s picture represents celestial Venus, and they were meant to hang together.
Originally, the paintings were almost certainly in the collection of Count Nicola Maffei (about 1487–1536) who was a close associate of Federigo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. A Maffei family inventory of 1589 records that in a ground floor bedroom of their palace in Mantua was ‘a Venus and Cupid who are asleep with a Satyr from the hand of Correggio’ and ‘a Venus who guides Cupid to school with Mercury from the hand of Correggio.’
The subject of Venus with Mercury teaching Cupid to read is rare in art. The episode is described in an allegorical romance by Francesco Colonna called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili meaning ’Philo’s Strife of Love in a Dream‘. Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, owned a bronze sculptural group by L‘Antico of Mercury teaching Cupid to read. Correggio or his patron may have had this group in mind when deciding on the subject for this painting.
When first made, the two paintings were the same size, but ’The School of Love' is now significantly smaller than Venus with Cupid and a Satyr, having been cut down. Although the paintings were both designed to be viewed from low down, the figures in The School of Love are smaller than those in the Venus and Cupid with a Satyr, so they must have always made a slightly odd pair.
There are two surviving preparatory drawings for The School of Love, a small sketch for the figure of Cupid (British Museum, London) and a first idea for the figure of Venus (Teylers Foundation, Haarlem), suggesting that Correggio carefully planned the picture. However, X-ray images reveal that he made major alterations while painting. He changed the position of Venus’ head so that instead of looking down at Cupid she now looks dreamily at us. This way of working directly on the canvas was particularly typical of Venetian painters.
Correggio, whose real name was Antonio Allegri, was from Correggio, a small town equidistant from Mantua and Parma. His style reflects the fact that he was in the centre of the larger artistic triangle of Venice, Milan and Rome. The blurred contours, soft transitions from rosy shadows to gold and white highlights and from flesh to feather, and the elusive mood of The School of Love recall the work of the Venetian painter Giorgione. The influence of Leonardo’s Milanese works can be detected in the dreamy smiles and in Venus’ complex pose. Correggio also learned the softness of his modelling from Leonardo’s pictures but developed his own confidence and freedom in the handling of oil paint, shown in his creation of a sense of living flesh emerging from the darkness of the landscape.
It seems that The School of Love was always a very famous painting. The Venetian art dealer Jacopo Strada (portrayed by Titian), made arrangements to have it and its pair copied in Mantua in 1567. The pose of Cupid, in reverse, seems to have been copied by Titian for the Cupid in his Venus with a Mirror (National Gallery of Art, Washington). The School of Love also certainly inspired Annibale Carracci’s Toilet of Venus of the 1580s or 1590s (National Gallery, Washington), in which the pose of Venus is reused for one of the nymphs. Even Rubens, from Antwerp, quotes from the figure of Cupid in his Venus and Adonis of about 1612 (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) – he probably saw The School of Love in Mantua during his travels in Italy.
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