Bacchus, Venus and Cupid

circa 1535 - 1539 | 16th centuryOil on canvasH x L : 209 x 161 cm

From an art historical point of view, this painting is undoubtedly one of the jewels of the MNHA’s collection of Old Masters. It depicts the beautiful wine god Bacchus holding a precious cup, sitting next to Venus, the goddess of love, both in the exaggerated mannerist postures. In the foreground, Cupid, the messenger of love, sits astride on a lion, turning himself towards the viewer. A laughing faun looks down from the top right. The scene is imbued with extreme refinement and tinged with underlying eroticism.

Born in Florence, the painter Giovan Battista di Guasparre (1494-1540), known as Rosso due to the colour of his hair, had already a well-established career in his hometown and in Rome when he was invited to France by King Francis I in 1530 and appointed court painter. Rosso introduced Mannerism to France, from where it radiated throughout the north-west and north of Europe.

The symbol par excellence of this brilliant period in art history is the palace at Fontainebleau, which Rosso completely transformed for the king between 1530 and his death in 1540. Our painting lay at the heart of this project, the famous gallery luxuriously decorated with frescoes, stucco ornaments and paintings by Rosso and his collaborators. Initially oval, the painting was located on the wall at the western end of the gallery, directly above the door that led to the king’s private quarters. According to a 1568 description by Vasari, it was so perfectly executed “that there was hardly anything better to be seen in the art of painting”; the king himself described it as “fantastic”. The painting’s reputation extended beyond the borders of France. Works like it inspired Mannerist artists as the movement spread north of the Alps, among them the artists of the Prague School at the court of Rudolf II.

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