Cupid Chariot Races

These strange paintings of mythic, winged toddlers (cupids, cherubs or putti) racing gazelle-drawn chariots are from a Beehive sale. They are only 9″ long including frames, and were done in gouache, a form of water-color using pigments with ground chalk added to make the colors opaque instead of watercolor’s usual transparency. Expensive and tricky to work with, on dark backgrounds gouache’s opacity produces striking results.

These paintings are by Italian painter Antonio Napo, born in 1942. Although the subject matter may seem unique, a number of painters in 1950 – 70s Italy produced these cupids frolicking on mysterious black backgrounds. There were a number of specific ‘scenes’ – cherubs racing, making wine or perfume, creating floral arrangements, smithing gold, etc. Each scene was painted many times by different artists but always in the same style, using the same poses, backgrounds and props. They are excerpts made of a much larger, older work. 

The titles on these paintings translates to “Cherub Races in Pompeii” and the fresco they are based on was painted over 1,000 years ago; a frieze encircling the dining room of the House of the Vettii, in the coastal Roman city of Pompeii. The cherub represented earthly Love so this frieze expresses various ways Love might be pursued and obtained. In the first painting, Love in his chariot is helped on by Zephyrus (or Favonius), God of the West Wind. But alas, in the other Love is portrayed as something of a train wreck. Not much has changed! The House of the Vettii was titled by archaeologists after its residents, Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva. Former slaves, the two brothers rose to prosperity selling wine and built themselves this magnificent villa, where they lived in happy luxury until noon, August 24, 79 A.D. 

We know the exact date and time because it was recorded by Roman author Pliny the Younger, a 17-year old eyewitness to one of the biggest disasters to hit the Roman Empire. Nearby Mount Vesuvius, responsible for both the fertile soil that made the region ideal for vineyards, and the semi-regular, small earthquakes that harmlessly rattled local towns, had finally blown its top. Like Mount Rainier in Washington State, Vesuvius is a stratovolcano, prone to both effusive and explosive eruptions, but the Romans living at its feet didn’t know that. When Vesuvius finally went, it rained down rocks, scalding hot mud and volcanic ash. People who didn’t immediately flee were overcome by toxic gases. Teenaged Pliny survived because he evacuated across the bay. His uncle, Roman General Pliny the Elder, then returned to Pompeii trying to rescue a friend and died there. This photo of Vesuvius erupting again was taken by an American Airman during World War II. By August 25, 79 A.D. Pompeii and the nearby towns of Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae had been completely buried and remained so, almost forgotten, until 1709 when accidentally uncovered artifacts led to their rediscovery. 

These hermetically sealed Roman cities captured the world’s imagination when it was discovered that the ’empty’ cavities archaeologists’ hammers would open in the solidified ash were naturally-formed casts of people who’d been buried. Filling the voids with plaster and removing the ash revealed these long-gone Romans curled in each other’s arms just as they had died 1,000 years ago. That same ash also preserved the delicate fresco on the vicissitudes of Love. If you want your own Pompeiian cupid, in the 1970s these little paintings were also issued as prints so come visit QBO – chances are you will eventually find a little Love.