Two couples recline outdoors in a mountainous landscape – one lies gazing into each other’s eyes, the other embraces. Cupid kneels on the grass clutching his bow and looks at us. A lizard scuttles down the dark tree trunk and a goat – almost hidden in the shadows – nibbles some foliage.
The painting may illustrate a story from mythology or a literary romance. Garofalo worked at Ferrara, and this ambitious composition of about 1535–45, probably a court commission, reflects the influence of the mythological paintings sent to that city by Titian in the late 1510s and early 1520s, such as Bacchus and Ariadne (now in the National Gallery).
When the National Gallery purchased the picture as part of a larger collection in 1860, the director was concerned about the reception of such an erotic painting in a public collection. He sent it to the National Gallery of Scotland, presumably thinking there was a smaller public in Edinburgh and less likelihood of moral outrage reaching the national press. It remained in Edinburgh until 1932.
Two couples lie outdoors in a mountainous landscape on the outskirts of a town and a riverside village. A young man and woman, their nakedness scarcely concealed by blue and yellow fabric, gaze into each other’s eyes. Cupid kneels on the grass clutching his bow and looks at us. In the shade of some trees, a huntsman has put down his bow and quiver and sits on a rocky outcrop. A naked young woman leans back between his legs and reaches up to embrace him. He holds her head in one hand and touches her nipple with the other.
Above them, a lizard scuttles down the tree trunk and a goat – almost hidden in the shadows – rises up on its back legs to nibble some foliage. Behind the embracing couple, a stream has been dammed with sticks – this is a motif that appears repeatedly in Garofalo’s paintings.
Garofalo worked at Ferrara and this ambitious composition, probably a court commission, reflects the influence of the mythological paintings sent to that city by Titian in the 1520s. The painting may illustrate a story from mythology or a literary romance, but it is unclear which one. The episode does not seem to relate either to Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (published in 1495) or Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (first published 1516) – the two great romances written by Ferrarese poets in this period. It may be that the couple in the foreground is inspired by a composition of Venus and Adonis invented by Raphael and engraved about 1520–5.
The lizard and goat are puzzling elements. It has been suggested that these creatures might have a symbolic meaning, but it is not clear what this could be. Sometimes goats represent lust and animal appetites, although goats and lizards appear in the backgrounds of numerous paintings of this period, including religious ones. Garofalo may just have included the lizard to provide colour and diversion in a dark area of the painting.
The distinctive, elaborately plaited hair of the woman in the central group is similar to hairstyles in Garofalo’s works from the early 1540s. The artist seems keen to demonstrate his knowledge of anatomy in his treatment of the nude figures, especially the female abdomen and male back. He must have known of the muscular anatomies of the figures in the frescoes by Giulio Romano and his workshop, completed in 1535 for the Palazzo del Te in the neighbouring duchy of Mantua. Two Couples with Cupid was probably painted between 1535 and 1545.
The intensely blue drapery beneath the woman at the right is painted in high-quality ultramarine, which has been used lavishly throughout this painting, including in the sky and the distant landscape. The rich colours and detailed, highly finished landscape that stretches away into blue mountains are common to other works by Garofalo, such as The Vision of Saint Augustine and A Pagan Sacrifice.
The picture was purchased for the National Gallery with the Beaucousin Collection in 1860. The director at that time was concerned about the reception of such an erotic painting in a public collection. He offered it to the National Gallery of Scotland, presumably thinking that there would be a smaller public in Edinburgh and less likelihood of moral outrage reaching the national press. The painting remained in Edinburgh until 1932, and was not included in any official catalogue before 1929.
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