Cupid and Psyche is a heartwarming love story. Antonio Canova carved an artwork destined to become immortal in art history.
Let’s take it from the end, when Cupid and Psyche finally got married with a rich wedding banquet to which all the gods were invited. It’s exactly when “The Three Graces” are featured while spreading the intoxicating scent of balsam around the heavenly feast. A common thread connects this and another famous carving by Canova: the same classical theme of beauty beyond time and space that was taken up in 1787 from the Greek and Roman mythology, and the same year the sculptor met the Scottish Colonel John Campbell in Naples and started working on his future masterpiece. Indeed, the Colonel was also a passionate art-collector and, during his journey across Italy to purchase several antiquities, he commissioned to Canova the “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” sculpture.
England? No, France
The artwork was finished in 1793 and, in the meantime, it was spotlighted by many visitors of Canova’s studio in Rome. However, due to the difficulties and the excessive transport costs from the eternal city to London, the sculpture remained in the hands of Canova until 1798, when the French troops invaded Rome to tore out the city from the Pope. Thus, it happened that the French Marshal Joachim Murat, impressed by the beauty of “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, acquired it, paying two thousand gold coins to Canova. He then moved the sculpture to his chateau near Neuilly, at the gates of Paris, but he was sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad in 1815, after his capture by the Bourbons in Calabria. All his assets went to the French Crown, before finally being bought by the Louvre Museum in 1824, where “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” is to this day displayed togheter with other carvings by Canova which belonged to the same sculptural group on the same subjects.
Napoleon Bonaparte himself, after his military conquests in Italy, was responsible of several lootings of cultural goods and works of art. However, recognizing the incredible talent of Antonio Canova, he did everything to provide him protection and invited him to work permanently at his service in France. Anyway, his stay in Paris was very short and, after the restoration of the Papal States in 1814, Canova was sent again to France to bring back some artworks taken by Napoleon and belonging to Papal States, succeeding partially. Not for nothing, Canova never forgave the French Emperor for his military invasions of Venice and Rome, and always argued that “Art was above politics”. His consistency and his love for independence was proved also some years before Napoleon’s proposal, when he rejected a generous invitation to court by the Empress of Russia Catherine II.
As it happened for “The Three Graces” a few years later, a second identical copy of “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” intended for Russia came to light. Indeed, the Russian Prince Nikolay Yusupov visited Rome in 1794, on behalf of Empress Catherine II, in order to bring Antonio Canova to her court back in the motherland. That attempt did not succeed, but when he visited Canova’s studio, Prince Yusupov was struck by the then-brand-new carving that was meant to be shipped to England. Therefore, he commissioned a copy to the Italian artist, who happily started to work on it, finishing the sculpture in less than three years.
The replica made its way to Saint Petersburg in 1802, where it was on display at Yusupov’s royal villa, until he moved it to his luxurious residency at Arkhangelskoye Palace, not far from Moscow. After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1817, his priceless and extensive art collection was seized and nationalized by the Bolsheviks. A big part of those works of art, including “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”, was brought back to Saint Petersburg, entering in the magnificent collection of the Hermitage Museum. The same museum where, as we have already seen, Canova’s first version of “The Three Graces” is still on display.
Cupid and Psyche
Psyche was a rapturously beatiful mortal maiden, attractive enough to be compared to goddess Venus who, blinded by jealousy, commannded her son Cupid — the god of love — to hit her with one of his arrows to make her fall in love with a rude man. Cupid obeyed his mother but, at the moment to shoot the arrow while Psyche was sleeping, he hesitated due to her unbelievable beauty. Then, the maiden awoke and Cupid, flailing, injured himself with the arrow of love. Meanwhile, the parents of Psyche, worried that no-one would want to get married to Psyche, consulted an oracle who suggested them to leave her daughter on a cliff. Psyche, left alone to her fate, was drifted in the west wind Zephir to Cupid’s palace where, with the promise to meet only in the darkness, the son of Venus professed his love to her. Since then, Cupid and Psyche lived endless nights of strong passion in the palace, with a subsequent pregnancy ahead of the wedding.
However, the two sisters of Psyche, malignant and envious of her happiness, incited her to get a look at the face of her beloved, convincing her that he could be a horrible creature. Psyche approached Cupid holding a lamp of oil while he was sleeping and, as happened the other way around at the beginning of their love story, she was also amazed by his beauty, finding out so he was the god of love. Unfortunately, an oil droplet fell into his face, waking him up. Cupid, disappointed for the violation of trust by his beloved, flew off her arms. The desperate Psyche, after trying to kill herself, started a long road looking for Cupid until she got to the temple of Venus. Here, the mother of Cupid imposed her difficult tasks for forgiveness, the last one of which was to descend to the Underworld to take from Proserpine a box containing a dose of beauty which Venus needed.
Actually, the box was given to Proserpina — the queen of the Underworld — directly from Venus. When Psyche got it, driven again by her curiosity, she opened the box before handing it over to Venus, falling thus into an infernal sleep. Meanwhile, Cupid was informed and teared up when he knew about the destiny of Psyche and, in turn, went looking for her. When the god of love found her love unconscious on the ground, he prodded her with a golden arrow and revived her with a kiss. This suspended kiss is precisely the one immortalized forever by Antonio Canova. The tale ends with their happy wedding and the birth of their daughter “Voluptas”, that in Latin means pleasure. The same pleasure that everyone feels when looking at Cupid and Psyche’s romantic sculpture on all sides.