Mars sleeps while Venus watches him and three small fauns blow a horn in his ear. i Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, c.1485, detail, tempera and oil on poplar, The National Gallery, London. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Courtauld at Castello Odescalchi di Bracciano

“Love Conquers All”: Art and Eros in Early Modern Italy

Dr Paolo Alei

Wednesday 18 – Saturday 21 October 2023
Castle of Bracciano and sites in Rome

NB – One last minute place has become available on this tour (which is otherwise full), please fill in the booking form to request it (on a first come first served basis).

You may also be interested in the online Study Tour In the Footsteps of Renaissance Visitors: Four Walks in Rome.

Course description

This study tour explores various aspects of love and gender in Italian culture from circa 1350 to 1650. From the impact of the verses of Petrarch, through the writings of Marsilio Ficino, the sonnets of Pietro Aretino, to the poems of Giovan Battista Marino, Eros was theorised and represented in treatises, poetry, painting, and sculpture. Urban palaces and country villas were pervaded by the spirit of Venus and Cupid who constantly reminded inhabitants that amor vincit omnia (love conquers all). Partially in-class in the magnificent Castello Odescalchi in Bracciano and on-site in Rome, this four-day course will consider the poetic, social and visual aspects of the subject in an interdisciplinary approach that pays attention to both texts and images.

The course will explore both the religious and secular aspects of love and sexuality. We shall begin with a reflection on Adam and Eve, newly aware of their sexuality after the fall, and then investigate the iconography of nudity in Christian art more widely. Subsequent lectures will focus mainly on the more secular and sensuous implications of love by considering the rebirth of ancient classical culture. Central to this was the revival of ekphrastic literature, especially in texts by Pliny the Elder and Philostratus, and the effects of a reading of the Metamorphoses by Ovid beyond medieval moralisations. Fascinating themes derived from the comments on these texts by early modern authors generated the cultural contexts for works of art in which the verbal and the visual coalesce: for example, the tropes of unrequited love in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne; the Pygmalion effect in Bernini’s Abduction of Persephone; and self love, with its intrinsic metaphor evocative of the invention of painting, in Caravaggio’s Narcissus. We shall reconstruct an intriguing network of patrons, artists, poet-advisors and beholders, all with a close interest in the subject, which included gender relations and identities, such as marriage, virility, female chastity, same-sex attraction, and androgyny. All of these we shall see refracted through a variety of art objects commissioned by or for famous Renaissance brides, grooms, lovers and courtesans.

The first two days will consist of class-room sessions held in the salons and hanging gardens of the Castle of Bracciano where, between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, the powerful Orsini family established a diplomatic stronghold for their political strategies. Intermarriage with the greatest families of the time, from the della Rovere to the Medici and Aragona, led the Orsini to establish close links (amicitia and familiaritas) with popes, kings, and queens, including Elizabeth I of England, who danced for Virginio Orsini. From Bracciano we shall see how the themes, explored in the course, will lead us into a complex net of conceptual relationships which we shall develop further over the following two days during visits to relevant galleries and sites in nearby Rome.

Arial view of a castle with a lake in the background.
Castello Odescalchi, Bracciano, Italy. Photo: © Fabio Baroni

Lecturer's biography

Dr Paolo Alei is an art historian based in Rome. He is an adjunct professor of art history at the University of California (the UCEAP academic program in Italy) and Curator of the Museum of the Castello Odescalchi of Bracciano. He has an MA from Columbia University where he specialised in Venetian Renaissance painting and a PhD from Oxford University. Paolo has published several articles on Raphael, Titian, and Caravaggio with a particular focus on painting and rhetoric, and a book on the history of the Venetian Carnival for Artmedia, London (2000). Recently, he co-edited a major publication on the patronage of the Orsini family in Central Italy: Paolo and Max Grossman, Paolo Alei (eds), Building Family Identity: The Orsini Castle of Bracciano from Fiefdom to Duchy, 1470-1698, New York 2019. With Dr Julia Hairston, he co-organises EMR (Early Modern Rome), one of the leading conferences for the study of Renaissance and Baroque culture in Rome.