The “Little Men”

Prof. Roy DeVille
Prof. Roy DeVille

The term putto (pl. putti) comes from the Latin putus, meaning “little man”. Putti are the chubby male children, usually nude and sometimes winged, that are used as figures in art. These figures are not to be mistaken with angelic babies—they are not human and they are not innocent! In fact, babies were never considered models for putti. Unlike babies, putti are clever and intense in their purpose.


Putti first appeared in Greco-Roman myth, associated with Eros/Cupid. Putti often helped Eros/Cupid to facilitate profane love, that between two individuals. Early visual representations of putti can be found on sarcophagi of children dating from the 2nd Century CE. In no way are putti related to cherubs. The cherubim comprise the 2nd order of angels in the Biblical hierarchy. Putti are completely secular in nature and intent.


Putti disappeared from art works during the Middle Ages in an era more concerned with the spiritual aspects of angels. The revival of the putti during the Quattrocento (1400’s) is credited to Florentine painter, Donatello. Donatello in a sense reinvented the putti during the 1420’s by infusing the form with Christian meanings. The inclusion of putti in art reached culmination in the baroque ceiling frescoes, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. Baroque putti and cherubs were used interchangeably and represented the omnipresence of God. Whether they were actually putti or cherubs depended on the subject of the painting. All this ties in to the significant role that putti play in semiotics, the study and interpretation of signs and symbols.


Most everyone is familiar with the two putti who hang over the edge of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. They are probably the most famous putti in the world and appear on everything from mouse pads to mugs. My wife’s favorite mug shows Raphael’s putti, one drinking a beer and one smoking a cigarette. She likes those sorts of things.


A less familiar but quite interesting example of putti is found on the Great Hall staircase of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. Completed in 1897, the four featured putti depict a musician with a lyre, a physician grinding medicine with a mortar, an electrician who is shown with a burst of electricity shining from his forehead and a telephone at his ear, and an astronomer with telescope, the signs of the zodiac encircling his head. These figures and their representative symbols point to popular occupations in American life at the time of the construction of the stairs.


One of my favorite examples of putti can be found at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Rome. The church is built on the site of an Imperial Roman Temple of Isis. The land was given to the Jesuit Order who built the church between 1626 and its dedication in 1722. It is a Latin cross design with numerous side chapels. The final architect for the titular church dedicated to Ignatius, founder of the Society of The Jesuits was Andrea Pozzo, himself a Jesuit. Pozzo was also responsible for the interior design of the church. St. Ignatius represents his masterpiece in the illusionary technique of quadratura.


Often mistaken for the trompe-d’oeil style in French art, quadratura is defined as an illusionary ceiling painting. The flat nave ceiling represents the Apotheosis of St. Ignatius, shown in a bright sky with many floating figures, putti included. There is no dome in St. Ignatius, but everyone is fooled. Pozzo’s quadratura technique produces the optical illusion of a tall ribbed and coffered dome. Quadratura is an Italian baroque term that is directly tied to 17th-century theories of perspective and architectural space. Uniting architecture, painting, and sculpture, quadratura is much more than trompe-d’oeil in its total reliance on perspective.  A painting in this style presents a false architecture on a flat surface that appears to continue the architectural design. The perspective centers on one focal point and produces a sense of deep recession. The figures are strongly foreshortened. Quadratura requires anamorphosis, a distorted projection that requires the viewer to stand in a specific place to see the optical illusion correctly. This technique has been used as far back as the paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, France. When used on a ceiling, the technique requires di sotto in sù, “seen from below.” In other words, the illusion of a 3-dimensional space on a flat surface above the viewer can be seen correctly from only one specific place on the floor below. Brass discs in the floor of St. Ignatius mark the places where the nave ceiling and the oculus dome can be seen correctly.


My first occasion to see the “dome” of St. Ignatius was during a study trip that my wife and I had in Rome. We attended a concert at St. Ignatius. I must confess that I did not hear a note of that music because of my pre-occupation with the “dome” of the church. That trip to Rome occurred during the coldest winter in 50 years. The church, of course, had no heat. I was amused to see several “princes of the church” who attended the concert were seated in the center aisle. While the audience and musicians froze, the clerical nobility sat comfortably with individual heaters placed directly behind each of their gilded, upholstered chairs. In Rome, it pays to wear magenta!


The culmination of anamorphosis is the Camera Picta (Painted Room) of the Castle of St. George, known as the Palazzo Ducale, home of the Gonzaga family in Mantua. These frescoes were painted by Andrea Mantegna, court painter to Ludovico Gonzaga, who commissioned the work on the occasion of his son, Francesco being elevated to the rank of cardinal. Sometimes known as the Camera degli Sposi (Room of the Spouses), two walls and the ceiling bear the illusionary work of Mantegna in the quadratura style. Mantegna’s putti are in the false dome. An oculus opens to a blue sky. It is surrounded by a balustrade with a wreath in the circle below. Painted during the years 1465 to 1473, Mantegna filled the space figures that lean out over the balustrade, watching the events taking place in the room below. A large peacock sits on the rim of the balustrade while a large vase appears to be falling over into the room. Ladies of the court lean over to see what is taking place in the room. The winged putti play around the rim of the balustrade. One is even “mooning” the occupants below! These putti are having fun in their frolicking. They tease and tempt us to watch them. All the figures are foreshortened to present the distorted projection of anamorphosis.


I was sad to hear of the two major earthquakes that struck Mantua on May 20th and 29th of 2012. The quake of May 29th did extensive damage to the Camera Picta. The palace has since been closed to the public.  Natural disasters are a constant threat to Italy, and earthquakes are most common. We have witnessed the damage caused in Assisi and surrounding areas. It is a part of life in that region of the world.


Putti bring comedy and joy to these great works of art. Their popularity has extended through the ages of art history. Putti can even be found in Walt Disney’s classic film, Fantasia. Baroque and Rococo putti are often disguised as cherubs as is the case in modern popular art. All of them represent love, the earthly profane love of mortals. And their antics always bring a smile!