The putto (pl. putti) is a figure of a pudgy human baby, almost always male, often naked and having wings, found especially in Italian Renaissance art. The figure derives from Ancient art but was "rediscovered" in the early Quattrocento. These images are frequently, and erroneously, confused with cherubs.
Derivation of word
The word putto is Italian singular male; the plural is putti. One never speaks of putta, which would be the female version. (That word is short for puttana, which means "slut.")
In early modern Italian, the word simply meant "child"; today it's used only in this specific meaning.
In descriptions of art, some of the first known references to the word are in Vasari (Lives of the Artists, 1550/68).
Application of word over time
It seems to have developed its application as a specific term in art history only during the modern period.
Revival of putto in the Renaissance
Putti are a classical motif found primarily on child sarcophagi of the 2nd century, where they are depicted fighting, dancing, participating in bacchic rites, playing sports, etc.
The revival of the figure of the putto is generally attributed to Donatello, in Florence in the 1420s, although there are some earlier manifestations (for example the tomb of Illaria del Carretta in Lucca).
Where to find putti
Putti, cupids and angels (see below) can be found in both religious and secular art from the 1420s in Italy, the turn of the 16th century in the Netherlands and Germany, the Mannerist period and late Renaissance in France, and all over Baroque ceilings. It would be too long to list all the artists, but the best known are Donatello and Raphael (with Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine), and all their followers.
They also experienced a major revival in the 19th century, where they gamboled over paintings from French academic painters, to Gustave Doré’s illustrations to Orlando Furioso, to advertisements.
Iconography of putto
The iconography of putti is deliberately unfixed. It is hard to tell the difference between putti, cupids and angels. They have no specific attributes, but can take on the attributes of numerous other figures. As such, putti can take on lots of meanings.
Some of the more common ones are
- associations with Aphrodite, and so with romantic – or erotic – love
- associations with Heaven
- associations with peace, prosperity, mirth and leisure
The historiography of this subject matter is very short. Many important and famous art historians have commented on the importance of the figure of the putto in art but few have taken up a major study.
The only scholarly book with putti in the title is: Charles Dempsey Inventing the Renaissance Putto (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
putto in Catalan: Putto
putto in Czech: Putto
putto in Danish: Putto
putto in German: Putte
putto in Spanish: Putto
putto in French: Putto
putto in Italian: Putto
putto in Hungarian: Puttó
putto in Dutch: Putto
putto in Norwegian: Putto
putto in Polish: Putto
putto in Russian: Путто
putto in Slovenian: Putto
putto in Swedish: Putto