By Tom Rassieur
Mia’s recent exhibition “Botticelli and Renaissance Florence” prominently featured a painting by Luca Signorelli (c. 1450–1523) with the title Allegory of Fertility and Abundance. Painted in various shades of gray, it resembles a relief sculpture carved in stone, its five figures—three adults and two children—all in some degree of nudity. A woman at the left holds a cornucopia in her right hand, bowing her head as a man in a loincloth fashioned from grapevines reaches up to crown her.
In the exhibition catalogue entry on the painting, Renaissance specialist Tom Henry suggests that the woman is probably Abundance or Ceres, the ancient goddess of Fertility, while the man is probably Bacchus (aka Dionysus or Libero), the ancient god of wine. Henry notes the presence of another woman—sitting at the right, contemplating a container of fruit—and two boys in the middle of the action, but does not assign any meaning to them. “The allegory’s meaning is obscure,” Henry writes, “but has been related to fecundity and fertility, and its secular tone establishes that this picture was produced for a domestic setting.”
I would like to suggest a more specific interpretation, one that places the painting early in a long tradition referencing a passage in ancient literature. The man girdled in grapes is certainly Bacchus, but the woman with the cornucopia is not Ceres. Ceres is the woman at the right, bearing fruits of the earth. The woman with the cornucopia has received it as a gift, just as she is about to receive the crown from Bacchus.
In The Eunuch, first performed in 161 BCE, the Roman comic playwright Terence (c. 190 BCE-c. 160 BCE) included a famous adage: Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus—“Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes” (Act IV: line 732). In other words, without food and wine, love grows cold. The woman to the left is Venus, goddess of love. She looks weak, but Bacchus and Ceres are trying to perk her up with the help of two putti—assistants of Cupid. This interpretation helps explain the sadness of Ceres and the intense look of concern on Bacchus’s face.
The text of The Eunuch would likely have been available to Signorelli. It had long circulated in manuscript form. The great Tuscan humanist poet Petrarch (1304–1374) produced a manuscript edition of Terence’s plays and wrote a biography of the ancient author as an introduction. A version of that manuscript served as the basis for a printed edition of Terence’s plays published in Venice about 1476.
If Signorelli did not get his inspiration directly from Terence’s play, he may have known the phrase from Erasmus’s compendium Adagia (Adages or Proverbs), first published in Paris in 1500 and republished in an enlarged edition in Venice in 1508 as Adagiorum chiliades tres (Three Thousand Adages). Erasmus (1466–1536) included Sine Cerere & Baccho friget Venus as item CCCI in his 1508 edition (p. 142v).
Signorelli’s interest in depicting Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes was shared by the Venetian painter Titian—or at least by artists in his circle. A painting from the Titian workshop, now in a Munich museum, bears the title Einweihung in die Geheimnisse Bacchus (Initiation into the Mysteries of Bacchus), with Bacchus, Ceres, Venus, and Cupid all present. A variant of the Titian composition was engraved much later by Jacob Matham (1571–1631) and clarifies that the object held by Venus in this version is a vessel containing a warming fire. It’s worth noting that Matham’s image is accompanied by the now familiar legend, Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus.
A younger Venetian artist, Paolo Veronese, appears to have taken up the theme as part of his extensive fresco decorations of the Villa Barbaro, a masterpiece by the classicizing architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). In a room devoted to the Gods of Mount Olympus, Veronese painted a group scene that clearly shows Ceres and Bacchus. The two gods are often seen as doing double duty as avatars of summer and winter. In the image, there is also a pale-skinned woman wearing a green skirt and a white blouse. She holds grain stalks in her left hand, and in her right is a bowl into which Bacchus squeezes grape juice. I submit that she is Venus, an identification supported by the putto at her feet. Moreover, her green skirt, white blouse and fair complexion echo the representation of Venus in the painting from Titian’s workshop.
In the 1500s, several emblem books—publications that provided simple illustrations of adages—treated the theme of Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus, decades after Signorelli painted his picture in the early 1510s. There may have been a prior instance, but the earliest emblem book containing an image of the theme that I know appeared in Lyon in 1552. The rough little woodcut illustration presents the figures like statues on a plinth.
A more engaging engraving appeared in Laurens van Haecht’s Mikrokosmos—Parvus Mundus, published in Antwerp in 1579. Here, Venus and Cupid try to warm themselves by a very Minnesotan firepit, for Ceres and Bacchus have abandoned them to cavort in the countryside. A verse accompanies the image: Sapiens cor & intelligibile abstinebit se à peccatis & in operibus justitiae successus habebit [Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 3:32]—A wise and understanding heart will abstain from sins, and he who does right shall prosper. On the facing page of the book, van Haecht’s moralizing verse underscores abstinence as a deterrent to adultery. The author, Laurens van Haecht, promotes the departure of Ceres and especially Bacchus. In short, this iteration of the proverb is a buzzkill.
Some Netherlandish artists took a very different view from van Haecht. In fact, the theme of the chilly Venus—including variations in which Ceres and Bacchus have already warmed her—became a frequent subject in the late 1580s when several leading artists, notably Bartholomäus Spranger and Hendrick Goltzius, turned it into a mainstay of erotic art. Spranger (1546–1611) was court painter to the art-loving Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. About 1590, he painted a canvas that completely inverts the Mikrokosmos image. Spranger foregrounds the promenade of Bacchus and Ceres, leaving Venus and Cupid trying to stave off the cold in the distance. On another canvas, Spranger painted the three protagonists in close proximity, with Ceres and Bacchus offering Venus their wares as she looks out to the viewer. The arrangement of drapery that half covers and half reveals Spranger’s Venuses invites the question of whether he could have seen and understood Signorelli’s painting during his decade-long sojourn working for major patrons in Italy.
Goltzius (1558–1617) brought Ceres, Bacchus, and Venus together by 1588, when another artist, probably his stepson Jacob Matham (1571–1631), made an engraving of the three gods as part of a series of eight mythological images designed by Goltzius. Venus is shown well-provisioned by the other two, with Cupid acting as the server. Soon Goltzius seems to have sensed a demand for the subject as a stand-alone image not part of a larger series. About 1590, he made a small round engraving that omitted depictions of Bacchus and Ceres while referring to them in the inscription. He went on to treat the theme time and again, sometimes in group scenes such as his 1595 nocturnal engraving, sometimes as individual figures presented in a cohesive series. One of his most striking renditions is a hybrid between painting and drawing in black and white on a blue background. This work from the very early years of the 1600s is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it is worth traveling to see it.
Other artists of the Mannerist generation, such as Abraham Bloemaert and Joachim Wtewael, could be brought into the conversation, but suffice it to say that artists and patrons were clearly hot for Bacchus and Ceres. Northern Baroque artists took up the theme, too, with works by Abraham Janssens, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Jan Miel, and many others.
The upshot is that paintings of the theme of Ceres, Bacchus, and Venus were apparently rare in Signorelli’s time and thus inscrutable to scholars focused on studying that era, but such images later became popular and thus recognizable to those steeped in Northern Mannerism. I would not go so far, however, to say that the subject of Signorelli’s painting is immediately recognizable to those familiar with the later pictures, for his visual language is entirely different. Signorelli’s austere work emphasizes Venus’s perilous condition. Ceres is downcast and Bacchus looks worried. The actors display none of the sleek sensuality and sexual availability of those in the Northern works, where the warming effects of Ceres and Bacchus are usually more evidently underway. Despite its dissimilarity to the later works, Signorelli’s picture takes on added significance as a pioneering visual translation of Terence’s adage.