The true meaning of Renaissance

A different catalog from the Gulbenkian suggests that the iconography of the Children Playing cycle of tapestries (see previous post) was based on Philostrates’ Imagines: a work describing in poetic prose paintings he had seen in Naples sometime in early 3rd century AD.

Here is the relevant excerpt from Imagines:


See, Cupids are gathering apples; and if there are many of them, do not be surprised. For they are the children of the Nymphs and govern all mortal kind, and they are many because of the many things men love; and they say that it is heavenly love which manages the affairs of the gods in heaven. Do you catch aught of the fragrance hovering over the garden, or are your senses dull? But listen carefully; for along with my description of the garden the fragrance of the apples also will come to you.

Here run straight rows of trees with space left free between them to walk in, and tender grass borders the paths, fit to be a couch for one to lie upon. One the ends of the branches apples golden and red and yellow invite the whole swarm of Cupids to harvest them. The Cupids’ quivers are studded with gold, and golden also are the darts in them; but bare of these and untrammelled the whole band flits about, for they have hung their quivers on the apple trees; and in the grass lie their broidered mantles, and countless are the colours thereof. Neither do the Cupids wear crowns on their heads, for their hair suffices. Their wings, dark blue and purple and in some cases golden, all but beat the very air and make harmonious music. Ah, the baskets15 into which they gather the apples! What abundance of sardonyx, of emeralds, adorns them, and the pearls are true pearls; but he workmanship must be attributed to Hephaestus! But the Cupids need no ladders wrought by him to reach the trees, for aloft they fly even to where the apples hang.

Not to speak of the Cupids that are dancing or running about or sleeping, or how they enjoy eating the apples, let us see what is the meaning of these others. For here are four of them, the most beautiful of all, withdrawn from the rest; two of them are throwing an apple back and forth, and the second pair are engaged in archery, one shooting at his companion and the latter shooting back. Nor is there any trace of hostility in their faces; rather they offer their breasts to each other, in order that the missiles may pierce them there, no doubt. It is a beautiful riddle; come, let us see if perchance I can guess the painter’s meaning. This is friendship, my boy, and yearning of one for the other. For the Cupids who play ball with the apple are beginning to fall in love, and so the one kisses the apple before he throws it, and the other holds out his hands to catch it, evidently intending to kiss it in his turn if he catches it and then to throw it back; but the pair of archers are confirming a love that is already present. In a word, the first pair in their play are intent on falling in love, while the second pair are shooting arrows that they may not cease from desire.

As for the Cupids further away, surrounded by many spectators, they have come at each other with spirit and are engaged in a sort of wrestling-match.16 I will describe the wrestling also, since you earnestly desire it. One has caught his opponent by lighting on his back, and seizes his throat to choke him, and grips him with his legs; the other does not yield, but struggles upright and tries to loosen the hand that chokes him by bending back one of the fingers till the other no longer hold or keep their grip. In pain the Cupid whose finger is being bent back bites the ear of the opponent. The Cupids who are spectators are angry with him for this as unfair and contrary to the rules of wrestling, and pelt him with apples.

And let not the hare yonder escape us, but let us join the Cupids in hunting it down. The creature was sitting under the trees and feeding on the apples that fell to the ground but leaving many half-eaten; but the Cupids hunt it from place to place and make it dash headlong, one by clapping his hands, another by screaming, another by waving his cloak; some fly above it with shouts, others on foot press hard after it, and one of these makes a rush in order to hurl himself upon it. The creature changes its course and another Cupid schemes to catch it by the leg, but it slips away from him just as it is caught. So the Cupids, laughing, have thrown themselves on the ground, one on his side, one on his face, others on their backs, all in attitudes of disappointment. But there is no shooting of arrows at the hare, since they are trying to catch it alive as an offering most pleasing to Aphrodite. For you know, I imagine, what is said of the hare, that it possesses the gift of Aphrodite to an unusual degree.17 At any rate it is said of the female that while she suckles the young she has borne, she bears another litter to share the same milk; forthwith she conceives again, nor is there any time at all when she is not carrying young. As for the male, he not only begets offspring in the way natural to males, but also himself bears young, contrary to nature. And perverted lovers have found in the hare a certain power to produce love, attempting to secure the objects of their affection by a compelling magic art.

But let us leave these matters to men who are wicked and do not deserve to have their love returned, and do you look, please, at Aphrodite. But where is she and in what part of the orchard yonder? Do you see the overarching rock from beneath which springs water of the deepest blue, fresh and good to drink, which is distributed in channels to irrigate the apple trees? Be sure that Aphrodite is there, where the Nymphs, I doubt not, have established a shrine to her, because she has made them mothers of Cupids and therefore blest in their children. The silver mirror, that gilded sandal, the golden brooches, all these have been hung there not without purpose. They proclaim that they belong to Aphrodite, and her name is inscribed on them, and they are said to be gifts of the Nymphs. And the Cupids bring first-fruits of the apples, and gathering around they pray to her that their orchard may prosper.



And gives in my eyes — a new, previously unsuspected — meaning to the term RenaissanceChildren Playing was a conscious recreation of a lost classical work; the genre of natura morta began as a recreation of a work of Apelles; groteschi were recreated Roman wall decorations; Gregorius Agricola’s De re metallica (1556) was an effort to recreate a lost work by Theophrastus of Eresos. 

Re-creation rather than Rebirth.

(“We had all these works of art and we lost them.  Let’s bring them back to life now”).

Not unlike, in its spirit, the modern historical instruments movement.

2 responses

  1. Great images — if only I had been allowed to photograph the tapestry show in Chicago last year.

    I especially love the reflections of the cupids in the water –
    and appreciate your digging up the text — from which I discovered the following piece of sage advice:

    “While painters ought usually to represent the faces of those who are in the bloom of youth, and without these the paintings are dull and meaningless, this Comus has little need of a face at all, since his head is bent forward and the face is in shadow. The moral, I think, is that persons of his age should not go revelling, except with heads veiled.”

    This is the earliest art criticism that I can remember reading.

    May 27, 2010 at 23:04

  2. How I wish you had been allowed to photograph the tapestry show last year!

    “The moral, I think, is that persons of his age should not go revelling, except with heads veiled.” — strikes me not so much as art-criticism as sensible life advice.

    It’s a wonderful text.

    And yes, the reflections in the water are super.

    The whole thing is just absolutely breathtaking. Sitting in front of it in demi-murk is like lying prostrate before the high altar of a great church.

    May 30, 2010 at 10:33

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