The Putto - Angels in Art

by Lin Vertefeuille, 2005


Putti proliferate in popular culture: on buildings, in decorative arts, on greeting cards - a popular purveyor of love. But in Art through the ages, the putto has been a curious little figure, often reflecting philosophy, theology and literature of the time. The putto in Renaissance art was a winged or wingless, male child figure. The word putto (plural putti) in Italian vernacular was derived from Latin putus, meaning "boy." Putti were secular, sometimes profane and definitely not part of the nine choirs of angels. However, in the Baroque period of art, the putto was often used in a religious context and the distinction between being secular and ecclesiastic became less defined.

Beginning of the Putto- Greek, Roman

The conception of the putto reaches back in art to the ancient classical world, where winged infants were physical manifestations of invisible essences or spirits called genius, genii, that were believed to influence human lives. Love putti (erote) were familiars of Eros and Venus. In Bacchanals, which were celebrations of Dionysius (Bacchus), putti represented fertility, abundance, the spirit of the fruit of life and were often depicted in wild revelry. Most intriguing was the ancient creation of the larvate-putto (to be explained later.)

Winged infants were found flying across Etruscan pottery holding garlands of fruit. In the Roman era carved stone garland swags of leaves, fruit, and flowers [Latin: festa corona] supported by young male children were important ornamentation and festoons on buildings and sarcophagi.

Creation of the Putto- Renaissance

During the Middle Ages putti disappeared .... and then reappeared in early Renaissance Italy. During the Quattrocento, Italians had great interest in their Roman heritage and it became popular to use two kinds of architectural ornamentation called reggifestone and reggistemma to adorn churches, funerary objects and public buildings. Reggifestone was reminiscent of the Roman style of garlands held by putti. One of the earliest Renaissance examples of this form was the Tomb of Ilaria (1406) by Jacopo della Quercia. It was described as celebrating Ilaria's beauty and life, not her death, and was decorated in garlands held by "ingenuous children"

In the reggistemma architectual style of ornamentation, there were usually two flying putti flaming and flanking either a shield, coat of arms or scroll with text. An example of reggistemma is on the upper walls of Ringling Galleries 1 and 2.

Donatello has been called the real inventor of the putto. This is because he gave the putto dynamic personality, character and spirited animation. Most significantly, he integrated the putto into the context of his sculpture and made the delightful little figure a participant in his work of art. In this way he expanded the putto beyond mere ornamentation and static embellishment. In Donatello's Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce, Florence, the Virgin is shown mastering her fear after being first startled and then recoiling from Gabriel's announcement.

Her surprise and sudden rush of fright the moment before, is reflected in the behavior of the putti on the frame above her. They mischievously push each other to the shelfs edge and in childish fright, a putto crouches behind the another peering out hesitantly.

In written contracts of his works, Donatello, referred to his delightful chubby putti as "spiritelli." This term was particularly descriptive because it was the diminutive of "spirito - spiritus" which translated from the Greek "pneuma" meant a spirit, a movement of air and even the act of breathing. Spirit was the breath of life animating the human organism and departing from it at death. It was believed that invisible spirits drawn from air were mixed with blood in veins and arteries. Blood transmitted sustenance and sensations that entered involuntarily through sensory organs. There were three main types of spiriti: (1 .) natural spirits in the liver expanded through the body providing nutrition of life - supported by essences in water, meat and fruits of the earth (2.) vital spirits resided in the heart attended by pulse and respiration (3.) animal spirits were the most rarefied and located in the brain, rushing through nerves connected to sense organs where they receive external influences communicated by spiriti sensitivi. The spiriti sensitivi were many, varied, and caused random impulses, and emotions such as: surprise, sudden erotic arousal, panicky disturbances, drunken giddiness, wonderment, joy... This is where we get that expression," as the spirit moves." The putto-spiritello was the physical representation in art of these invisible spirits that evoke emotion and thought in all of us.

Love - Putto

In scenes with Venus, Eros (Cupid) and nymphs erote-putti were spirits of love. Sometimes they represented gentle subtleties such as catching someone's eye, or why we are attracted to a certain someone and other times they represented strong passion. A less familiar aspect to us is the erote ceremonial procession popular in the Renaissance Florence. Lorenzo de' Medici celebrated love in a Triumph of Love procession. A triumphal car (trionfo) decorated in gold, silver and jewels had Eros featured in the center with erote on each comer holding flaming torches. Young men and women as lovers walked beside the trionfo surrounded by music and merrymaking. This kind of procession related to feudal rituals rooted in chivalry and courtly love. Sometimes these processions were more subdued and celebrated the triumph of chastity.

In Counter-reformation art, erote were allegorical representations of God's love, our love of God and the Church. In the 18th and 19th centuries romantic images of love were popular and the endearing erote became quite sentimentalized. Today the putto is often referred to as a cherub. This is not to be confused with the Cherubim~ which are one of the Choirs of Angels. The putto is neither angel or Cupid. However, they were frequently combined with angels or used in the context of angels in art of the Baroque period.

Bacchanal - Putto

Another popular application of the putto was in the bacchanal. In Donatello's Judith and Holofernes (left), putti cavort and act out the effects of inebriation- loss of judgment and narcotic sleep that overwhelmed General Holofernes and brought him to his shameful end (closeup above).

Putti celebrating revelry in honor of Dionysus reinforced the dangers of such excesses. Larvate putti and satyrisci (small satyrs) were the spirit of wild abandon (orgy) and (larval) hallucinations.

Bacchanal scenes celebrated fertility and abundance and hard working putti tended the vine representing the natural spiriti that give us sustenance. Today we still refer to alcohol as "spirits."

In Christian art the bacchanal had quite a different meaning. Wine became the symbol of God's blood and sacrifice. In a parable Christ said,"I am the Vine" and early church fathers referred to "the grape trampled for our salvation. The putto was the natural spirit (pneuma) animating from the vine as a nourishing substance. Putti tending the vine were nurturing our faith. Sometimes bacchanals depicted infant putti attacking or riding a goat. This theme came from Virgil's reference to new shoots and leaves as "the tender child" who must be protected from the sharp-toothed goat.

The Bacchanal painting by Luca Giordano in Gallery 8 is a wonderful example of Bacchanal putti. Visitors often misinterpret the wine for blood in this orgy. This is certainly not a representation of Christ's blood.

Larvate - Putto

The larvate was an enigmatic spiritello. This putto was shown in mischievous antics playing bogeyman, scaring companions by wearing the Silenus mask and often playing with Mars's helmet or shield. The putto behind the mask was called a larvate

The mask was the ugly face of Silenus, who was the hairy debauched satyr companion of Bacchus. The larvate represented empty fright - those frights we feel that are unfounded and without real cause. They are involuntary conflicts and desires that prey on the human heart. Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to these frights as "hobgoblins of little minds." They could be serious as our fear of death or lesser childish ones- the point was they were frights that haunt us but we can do nothing about them. Also our' fears may be greater than the reality of what we fear. A great description of the larvate is, "The mask pretends to cover something tremendous and terrifying, but which is really nothing" - just a little putto playing pranks. When the larvate was used in love, bacchanal or dream scenes, he created tension, possibly anxiety and sexual arousal. Interestingly, the word larvate is used today as a medical term for a disease that is masked.

Dream - Putto

When putti were shown playing in the background or around a recumbent figure, it indicated a dream sequence. Putti were the feelings and emotions the reclining figure was experiencing in the dream. A dream was illustrated in the painting, Mars and Venus by Piero di Cosimo (below) and it is so different from The Building of a Palace in Gallery 4. It is Mars' dream and erote playing in the background with his discarded armor show he has let down his guard. This suggests that Venus has completely seduced him and love conquers war. This painting was owned by Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance painter and author of Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors.

Panisci - Putto

Putti called panisci were associates of the woodland god, Pan. In mythology, Pan with goat hoofed feet and pan flute was believed to blow a conch shell horn that evoked extreme panic enough to terrorize the Gods and overwhelm armies. In fact the word panic is derived from Pan. Putti in art were shown in mischievous play blowing a conch shell. These" little pans" when they blew a conch shell, they created little panics, that were sudden panicky distractions that confuse the mind diverting it from serious business.

Mars and Venus (below), by Sandro Botticelli, is an musing example of panisci used in Mars' dream. You can certainly tell the pattisci are up to no good by their malevolent facial expressions. A pancisci blowing the conch shell is causing Mars' sexual panic-arousal The other panisci are holding Mars' lance, his phallic symbol The swirled shape of the conch shell symbolizes woman-Venus. The panisci are thrusting Mars' lance into Venus' conch shell. This is putti portrayed erotica!

Water Sprites - Putto

Charming putto are often found in fountains holding a dolphin. These water sprites represented the natural spirit or essence of the water and its life giving force.

Musical - Putto

To end on a high note, delightful musical putti are particularly charming as they dance, play instruments and sing. The musical putto was the spirit of music whose rhythms and melodies, when heard quickened the heartbeat and stirred the soul. They were exuberance expressed by the sounds and joy felt by the listener. Donatello's frieze in the Cantoria (Singing Gallery) in the Florence Cathedral was described in the Dictionary of Art, "...conveys the ecstatic dance of souls of the innocent in Paradise."


In conclusion, the putto in the 1400's - 1600's was a personification of human spirit and emotion expressed in art and was much more than just an endearing sentimental symbol of love.

The Ringling Collection does not have a diverse representation of putti. Love-putti are predominant in our paintings. They are in religious allegories and in mythological contexts.

Putti are decorative architectural elements found in the Museum's door surrounds and are quite prominent on the fireplace and on the wall cornice Gallery 21 (see photo below). Reggistemma (a shield flanked by two putti) is displayed just below the clerestory in Galleries 1 and 2.

Peter Paul Rubens effectively used reggifestone in three of our Eucharist paintings: The Four Evangelists, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek and The Defenders of the Eucharist. Putti with garlands of fruit are in the act of decoratively hanging the tapestries, cleverly creating the illusion of a tapestry within a tapestry.

Dempsey, Charles. Inventing the Renaissance Putto. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2001

Duston, Allen and Nesselrath, Arnold. Angels frorn the Vatican. Art Services
International, Alexandria Virginia, distributed by Harry Abrams, Inc.,44 - 60. 1998

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1979

Dictionary of Art, Macmillan Publishers Limited, London 1996