Jacopo Robusti (known as Tintoretto)

The Origins of Love. 1562. Oil on canvas, 174 × 232 cm. Courtesy of Antichità Pietro Scarpa

The Origins of Love. 1562. Oil on canvas, 174 × 232 cm. Courtesy of Antichità Pietro Scarpa

The Origins of Love

Oil on canvas, 174 × 232 cm
Courtesy of Antichità Pietro Scarpa

After centuries of oblivion, this painting was discovered in 1991. It was initially thought to be part of the Doge’s Palace decoration. However, over time, the scholars have identified the commissioner and iconography of this work.

The painting was commissioned by Federico Conatrini, who belonged to one of the noblest Venetian families. In 1562 he founded the Compagnia della Calza degli Accesi aimed at promoting cultural events and performances among his peers. They used the antechamber of the Marciana Library as a meeting place. Works of art of the time illustrated the contents of the splendid library of Cardinal Bessarione, which made this place a cultural center of the Republic in the mid-1500s. Contarini seemed to be following in the footsteps of his relative, humanist Sperone Speroni, who in 1540s had founded the Accademia degli Infiammati in Padua.

The iconography of The Origins of Love, which became the insignia of the Compagnia, is a summary of the Dialogue on Love that Speroni published in 1540s. In the brazier held by Apollo the sun lights up the human soul with love, with reflections from the mirror adding up to the process. Next to him, Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Urania — the sacred and profane love — hold the attributes of Abundance, Prudence, Measure, Purity and Wisdom — qualities necessary to sustain the flame of love.

At the time when Tintoretto received this commission, he worked on a painting cycle for the Atrio Quadrado at the Doge’s Palace. These works are stylistically close to each other. The golden light this painting emanates, on the one hand, conveys the divine world. On the other, it alludes to the golden age that the painter witnessed: the Library was the evident testimony of the knowledge that the Venetian humanists inherited from the classics. Unlike Tintoretto’s multi-figure compositions full of tension, struggle and emotion conveyed by jittery light, this painting shows a glorious radiant scene of the divine act of creation.