Explore Education Iconics College of Education and Human Development

Teaching Cupid to Read - Lecture

...Symbols, Emblems, Impresses, Devices, if we shall believe Jovius, Contiles, Paradine, Camillus de Camillis, may be ascribed to... [Love]: most of our Arts and Sciences; painting amongst the rest, was first invented, saith Patritius, for love's sake...Apollo was the first inventor of Physic, Divination, Oracles; Minerva found out weaving, Vulcan curious Ironwork, Mercury letters, but who prompted all this into their heads? Love.

So Robert Burton reports in The Anatomy of Melancholy, a seventeenth-century work rich in references to love. Sir Kenneth Clark drew from it for a memorable passage in one of his essays in the series on Civilization. "O Cupid, Prince of Gods and Men!" It was a line sung by Perseus in Euripides' Andromeda. Those who heard the first performance in Abdera were captivated by the song. "O Cupid, Prince of Gods and Men!" People sang it everywhere, in houses and on street corners. Then as now, Cupid's unbridled, undiscriminating potency has been a source of rapture for poets; then as now, a source of consternation for philosophers and others who have yearned for an orderly, harmonious society.

Cupid continually threatens disorder. Northrop Frye summarizes the theme: "One might be living one's life carelessly, in complete freedom from the perturbations of love; then the God of Love, Eros or Cupid, would suddenly strike, and from then on one was Love's abject slave, supplicating the favor (usually) of a mistress." Generalize from that scenario and implications are evident: I'm struck, you're struck, we're all struck without warning, perhaps repeatedly. Cumulatively, the results are social conditions inimical to predictability and planning. Hence, how to bring Cupid under control has been a question since antiquity. One Greco-Roman proposal recommended punishment as a means of control. Judging by the number of artifacts extant, the proposal never won wide acceptance. Perhaps the theology was found wanting. A later view, pessimistic in at least one sense, judged Cupid's power as subject only to Time, who, in the guise of old age, could clip the little fellow's wings, i.e., cool his ardor, if not restrain him entirely.

From Roman antiquity, confident in its administrative skills and artistry, emerged an alternative proposal of means for controlling Cupid: school him. Ovid in the Ars Amandi (Art of Love) expresses the ambition most notably. Comparing himself to Chiron, the wise centaur who taught fierce Achilles, the poet declares: "ego sum praeceptor Amoris" [I am Cupid's teacher] (I, 12). Just as Chiron "made the boy Achilles accomplished on the lyre, and by his peaceful art subdued those savage passions," so Ovid, master poet, will teach Amor, "though he wound my breast with his bow" (I, 10-11, 21-22). The boy is wild, "indeed is he, and apt often to fight against me; but he is a boy, tender in his age, and easily controlled" (I, 9-10). Venus, Ovid assures the reader, has authorized his position as Cupid's teacher (I, 7).

If antiquity ever produced visual imagery of Cupid at school, it has eluded exhaustive twentieth-century inquiries into extant material expressions of themes from Greek and Roman mythology. Researchers employed by the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae have found no trace of the image. Not antiquity, but the early modern era, offers the most fertile fields for inquiry into the iconography of love's education.

Cupids in numbers greater than the world had ever seen before go frolicking through the sixteenth-century imagination. They proliferate beyond precedent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of them convey no trace of interest in education or lessons of any kind. Rubens' chubby infant loves are not taught to read, neither do they go to school. They are of play and flowers. Yet, the early modern imagination was not entirely content with this lifestyle for the little loves ("amorini"). Often they are seen at ease in the presence of Minerva, Mercury, and the arts and sciences. (see Bayle images) Perhaps they admire. Sometimes they seem to learn, as pupils might.

No continuous, rigorously observed distinction, separates the amorini from the infant genii, who inspire practitioners. The amorini usually embody a benign infancy. Unlike these infant brethren, Cupid in his boyhood, represents more complex relations with themes of literacy, academic learning, or schooling. He may sometimes be said to "learn a lesson," as, for example, in Alciato's Emblematum Liber, in which Cupid runs to Venus for comfort after having been stung by bees. He had sought honey in their hives; instead, he found a hard and paradoxical lesson: a source of sweet pleasure may also be a source of bitter pain. This is a lesson in learning to read the book of the world, of learning by experience. It is clearly not a lesson in reading inscriptions on a page. Iconic expressions of the schooling of childhood since the high middle ages in western culture have featured the image of children attending to books, tablets, or scrolls, i.e., to the written word.

Imagery of book learning has dominated the iconography of childhood schooling since the middle ages. For Cupid, however, at least one Renaissance proposal construed his curricular needs with an eye to the quadrivium. Cupid, according to this diagnosis, needs order, proportion, symmetry. Most basically, he needs good measure. From discipline in the quadrivium and its applications comes one of the blessings of urban life: fine architecture. Whatever the intrinsic merits of the argument, the imagery seems to have been singularly rare. Although the quadrivium had its advocates among humanists, most were dedicated to the trivium. The great rise of interest in the quadrivium coincides rather with the rise of modern science and its applications.

Closer to the spirit of humanist educational emphases is Correggio's "School of Love," (1542). The imagery maintains the idea of schooling as instruction in the acquisition of literacy, although the personae and setting are unconventional. The painting was much admired and copied often, sometimes crudely, as in this tile (London, V&A), sometimes more closely. In Correggio's presentation, Ovid's reputed wild boy looks like a model student. No savage passions, no threats of wounding, burst from the imagery. The artist depicts benign figures, even angelic, giving them wings. Venus, Mercury, and Cupid comprise a trio representing Cupid's schooling, with Mercury hearing the boy's reading lesson, while Mother Venus stands by. The imagery is gentle, almost familial. The lesson is conducted in a bower, a natural setting, away from architecture. Mercury's reputation for eloquence recalls the first arts of the trivium--grammar and rhetoric--and, therefore, poetry: "...our old Poets, the senate and populace of poets," Robert Burton explained to seventeenth-century readers, "Made Mercury the Gentleman-usher to the Graces, Captain of eloquence..." A conflated personification, Mercury represents at once Cupid's teacher and his curriculum.

Correggio's figures are nude but he gives them no gesture or facial expression signaling erotic interrelations. Questions about how viewers of the imagery might react to the imagery, or what reaction the artist hoped to elicit from viewers, can be left aside when interest centers on the observable features of the work. And what is observable is not only the fact of nudity; it is also the artist's virtuoso rendering of flesh. This leads to a recognition of one of the most striking features of the imagery, namely, the contrast between the theme and its sensuous embodiment.

Cupid, his little muscles tense, labors at learning: he works to concentrate his attention on the lesson page before him. Learning letters requires focusing attention, sustaining it, a demanding discipline; it is essentially an occupation of the mind. Yet we are made to see that Cupid's intellectual exertion, his schooling, is conducted in and by voluptuous flesh. Such is the human condition, according to a central strain in western culture: sensuality, fleshly desire, compete with aspirations to self-discipline, stability, and intellectual achievement. For the moment, as depicted in Correggio's masterpiece, flesh is subordinate to the lesson which preoccupies the participants, even though viewers might be fixated at the level of the flesh. The participants in the lesson, who compel viewers' eyes, are shown as indifferent to their own beauty, a complexity of the work which invites moral reflection.

If Correggio's School of Love does not promise that Cupid will pass the course, John Blow's Venus and Adonis (c. 1682), usually called the first English opera, positively denies that making Cupid literate will result in freeing humankind from bondage to irrational desire. The opera was first performed in Whitehall, London. At the time, it may be noted incidentally, the Whitehall ceiling featured little cupids painted by Rubens.

The opera libretto tells of Venus and Adonis, their passion, and Adonis' call to slay a rampant wild boar, which in the end slays him. While Adonis is away at the hunt, Act II presents a domestic scene to the audience. The stage directions state: "The curtains open and Venus and Cupid are seen standing with little Cupids round about them." Cupid impatiently awaits the lesson which Venus prepares to teach. She sings it to him, and he, in turn, sings to the little Cupids, as though in the role of student teacher.

What is the content of the lesson? Here are the key verses: "Fit well your arrows when you strike, / And choose for all what each may like, / But make some love, they know not why, / And for the ugly and ill-humour'd lie; / Such as scorn Love's fire, / Force them to admire /...For him that's faithless, wild and gay, / Take some affected wanton she, As faithless and as wild as he." The little Cupids then echo Cupid's last phrase. Commentators have agreed that the Cupids' lesson consists of "duties of making the wrong people fall in love with each other." If there is no malice implied in the prescriptions, there is clearly an exaltation of Cupid's power over rationality.

Ironists may delight in seeing the smallest, youngest of the gods as most powerful. According to tradition, no one was exempt from Cupid's power: not Hercules, greatest of the ancient heroes, a champion of moral education; not Aristotle, wisest of men, "breathing libraries." (Burton, p.34) "Omnia vincet amor" (Love conquers all), Virgil's line [Ecologues X, lxix] found its way into Caxton's "Prioress Tale." It came also into sixteenth-century school books. For the Prioress, divine love would have been the intended meaning of amor. Schoolboys would have learned additional meanings, of course.

Irony layers irony when the culture of early modern grammar schools is contemplated, recognizing that no small number of masters seemed intent on conquering love, following a punishment model of control. Even if grammar school culture were only half as loveless as testimony indicates, it challenges Virgil's maxim. Stanbridge's Vulgaria provides indicative sentences in Latin and English; schoolboys were to study them: "I fear the master" (p. 20, l.33), "I shall be beaten" (p. 22, l.32), "The master gave me a blow on the cheek" (p. 19, l. 26), "I am weary of study" (p. 16, l.35), "I am weary of life" (p. 16, l.36). Thoughts of violence, pain, suffering, deprivation pervade Stanbridge's textbook. Here is book discipline with a vengeance, intended to subdue the spirit even if this meant breaking it.

Neither harsh nor constrained by the architecture of contemporaneous grammar schools, Correggio's School of Love is spiritually akin to Marsilio Ficino's optimistic blend of love, wisdom, and power. Writing to Lorenzo De' Medici, Ficino explained a generous view. "No reasonable being doubts that there are three kinds of life: the contemplative, the active, and the pleasurable (contemplativa, activa, voluptuosa). And three roads to felicity have been chosen by men: wisdom, power, and pleasure (sapientia, potentia, voluptas)."

To assume that wisdom, power, and pleasure are mutually exclusive is to misjudge life, according to Ficino. Balance is needed: the universal man knows this; he does not devote himself only to Athena the wise, as did Socrates, or to Venus the lovely, as did Paris, or to Juno's life of heroic virtue, which was the choice of Hercules. The universal man adores all three of these goddesses "according to their merits...wisdom from Pallas [Athena], power from Juno, and from Venus grace and poetry and music." Ficino's optimism presupposes the possibility of cultivating rationality and judicious choosing, which is to say, the possibility of effectively schooling Cupid.

Realization of Ficino's vision would depend upon a special understanding of Cupid's nature. The little god would have to embody rational potential as well as animate impulse and desire. For such a Cupid to fly, one of his wings would be desire, the other, intellect. Forging Cupid's second wing, the wing of intellect, would be necessary before he could learn to read. It is understood, however, that learning to read is mandatory, and, judging by the recommendations of both Renaissance and Reformation educational theorists, the content of the reading matter would require supervision.

The twentieth century has inherited a complex legacy of views on the subject of educating Cupid. In one vision, he is Desire rooted in the sexual instinct, capable of destruction, capable too of ennobling. Punition may help curb his excesses, or so one ancient tradition suggests. In another vision, he may be civilized by the arts: harmonized by music, proportioned by poetry. Contrastingly, Christian theorists saw no hope for the success of such an education as long as Cupid (or Eros) was conceived naturalistically. Christian theory required another view of love and other terms to name it, i.e., agape and caritas; from the latter we derive "charity" in English. The Christian Deity is the source of this love, not animal instinct, and the possibility of human kind being empowered by it derives from supernatural grace. In the history of western education imagery, a telling model associating reading with grace may be seen in representations of St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read.

Correggio's imagery harkens to pre-Christian deities. The setting is natural; if it is an Eden or an Arcadia, it is not a geometer's vision of Eden or Arcadia. The figures of Venus, Mercury, and Cupid are well proportioned, harmonious, gracefully self-controlled, nude but unashamed, and winged. They are on earth, yet their wings imply they are not earth-bound. Such anomalies and other features mentioned earlier, plus the seeming disengagement of Venus, suggested by her physical distance from Cupid and Mercury and the direction of her gaze away from them, raise questions, nudging attention from aesthetic contemplation to efforts at interpretation.

Some years ago, Egon Verheyen proposed convincingly that the subject of Correggio's painting belongs to an altered frame of mythic reference, that the so-called Education of Cupid would be better understood as the Education of Anteros, the good brother of bad or frivolous Eros, whom we call Cupid. Eros or Cupid is earthly love; Anteros is celestial love. If each is the projection of elements in the human soul, and if this implies a psychomachia, then the role of education would be to cultivate Anteros, which would entail not simply teaching him how to read, chancing intrusion of the malicious themes sung in John Blow's opera, but seeing to the moral content of his lessons.

Will Cupid pass his lesson? Can we doubt it? After graduation, will he allow humankind to live less impulsively, less destructively? That depends on the content of his lessons, not merely on the acquisition of literacy.


  1. Ayers Bagley, "Seventeenth Century Childhood Education: Reflections from 'Venus and Adonis'," History of Education Quarterly 5 (Dec. 1965): 224-234.
  2. Northrop Frye, "The Survival of Eros in Poetry," in Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1988).
  3. Roger Gibson, "Correggio's 'School of Love' and Nell Gwyn," Burlington Magazine (Jan. 1972).
  4. Cecil H. M. Gould. The School of Love and Correggio's Mythologies (London: National Gallery, 1970).
  5. Lauren Soth, "Two Paintings by Correggio," Art Bulletin XLVI (Dec. 1964): 539-544.
  6. Egon Verheyen, "Eros and Anteros: L'Education de Cupidon et la Prétendue Antiope du Correges," Gazette des Beaux Arts series 6, v. 65 (1965): 321-340.
  7. Bayle, Pierre, Dictionaire Historique et Critique, 1734.

| Education Iconics | 206 Burton Hall | 178 Pillsbury Drive SE | Minneapolis, MN 55455 USA | Tel: 952-944-8122

©2019 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer