Edited by Luca Giunta Baroni

The word ψυχή (psyché), in Greek, has a double meaning, describing both the spirit (in the meaning of “soul”, “breath”), and the butterfly: two subjects apparently distant but united by volatility and ephemerality1.

Hellenistic art appropriated this theme by linking the butterfly to the idea of falling in love: Eros, god of love, is often represented playing, capturing, tormenting or burning a butterfly, a metaphor of the soul. The insect’s attributes (the coloured wings) are sometimes used to identify his loved one, Psyche, thus symbolising the transience of life and passion.

In the neoclassical age the myth of Psyche, linked to philosophical and Platonic themes, assumed particular relevance, becoming one of subjects most loved by artists.

Among her most successful representations are Cupid and Psyche by François Gérard (fig. 1), exhibited at the Parisian Salon of 1798, and the famous group Cupid and Psyche standing by Antonio Canova (1796-1800), in which Psyche places a butterfly her hands as a symbol of his love (fig. 2)2.

Antonio Canova, Cupido e Psiche stante, Louvre
Fig. 2 Antonio Canova, Cupid and Psyche standing, Louvre

Despite the exceptional quality, the unpublished canvas presented here, in impeccable conservation conditions and extremely refined in the execution, has so far escaped a solid attribution. The comparison with the major names of the Italian neoclassical art (Appiani, Giani, Palagi) does not exclude the hypothesis that the author of the painting, datable to the early 19th century, may be French or German3.

1 Matilda Morrone Mozzi, Bestiario. Libro degli animali simbolici in C. G. Jung, Macerata 2016, pp. 56-59.

2Amore e Psiche a Milano. Antonio Canova, François Grard, exh. cat. (Milano, Palazzo Marino, 1.12.2012-13.1.2013), ed. by Vincent Pomarède, Valeria Merlini, Daniela Storti, Catanzaro 2012.

3 Iconographically, the canvas can be compared with the Psyche by Prospero Minghetti (Reggio Emilia, Museo Civico). See Elisabetta Farioli, Prospero Minghetti: 1786 – 1853. Nel laboratorio di un artista neoclassico, Reggio Emilia 1993, and Giulio Zavatta, “Per la formazione della sua cultura artistica e per l’esecuzione delle sue opere di pittura”: Prospero Minghetti collezionista, disegnatore e maestro di disegno, “Taccuini d’arte”, 9 (2016), pp. 12-19.

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