(Florence 1585 - 1644)
Venus, Cupid and Pan
Inscribed in an old hand on the reverse, possibly by the artist himself: originale di Giovanni Biliverti/Fiorentino
Oil on copper; 18 x 13 in. (45.7 by 33 cm)
Private collection for at least one hundred years; Sale, Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 2012, lot 29.
Venus bathes in a brook in this ephemeral scene set in Arcadia. A pearl headdress adorns her tousled red hair, loosely arranged in a bun at the nape of her neck. A matching pearl drop earring draws attention to her stark nudity. Cupid sweetly tends to the goddess of love; his dimpled hands guiding her leg into the clear pool. Standing in the water, he, too, is bare but for a silken sash tied around his chest. Behind him, Pan stands holding Venus’ red cloak and a shepherd’s crook, a conventional attribute of the god of woods and fields, flocks and herds. The sumptuous texture of the drapery contrasts with the roughness of his fur garb and unlike the smooth, luminous flesh of Venus and Cupid, Pan appears dark, weathered, and rustic. The figures are neatly framed by the woodland trees and are set against a vibrant blue sky. Perhaps the most seductive detail of the picture is the surface of the stream, beautifully painted with careful brushwork. Venus’ ankles are submerged in the shallow pool, her feet only slightly veiled by the cover of water, rippling around her, provoking the senses of sound and touch.
Giovanni Bilivert was the son of a goldsmith, Jacques Bilivert, who left his hometown of Delft as a young man to supervise the metal workshops of Grand Duke Francesco I de’Medici in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. With a recommendation from Ferdinando I de’Medici his son gained an apprenticeship with Lodovico Cigoli with whom he traveled to Rome in 1604. After three years there Bilivert returned to his hometown of Florence and enrolled in the Accademia del Disegno in 1609. He went on to establish a successful workshop in Florence, which included such pupils as Orazio Fidani, Sigismondo Coccapani, Baccio del Bianco, and Francesco Furini. Employing loose brushwork and warm effects of light and shadow, Bilivert was inspired by sixteenth century Venetian painting: by the 1620s Cigoli’s influence was less evident than that of Veronese’s. The artist was further influenced by his pupil, Furini, famous for his soft sfumato effects and the ambiguous sensuality of his many female nudes, inspired by the classical sculpture in the Medici collection. Furini’s influence on his teacher is clear in Venus, Cupid, and Pan.
The present work is a variant of an earlier, larger painting on canvas now in the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden (fig. 1). A preparatory drawing also exists in the Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, (fig. 2), which more closely resembles the format of our work than that of the squarer Dresden picture. Bilivert’s pupil, Orazio Fidani, recorded a reference to the Dresden work some time before 1656, "Fece per il re d'Inghilterra due quadri di quattro braccia, dentrovi in uno il consiglio di Psiche e ne l'altro una Venere che Amore gli lava le gambe e ci è un Dio Pane che li serba il manto. Dipinse questi quadri con una dolcezza straordinaria, e piaqquono sì che ne fu fatte fare molte copie per diversi amici sua" ["He painted for the king of England two paintings four braccia high, one showing the council of Psyche and the other Venus with Cupid washing her legs, and the god Pan is also there holding up a cloak. He executed these paintings with extraordinary sweetness, and they were so well liked that he had numerous copies made for various friends of his"]. Though his studio produced several copies of the popular painting, the present copper was most certainly commissioned by a private patron shortly after the execution of the first, painted sometime between 1630 and 1633. The inscription scratched into the back of the support is likely by the hand of Bilivert himself, so as to distinguish it from the copies produced by his workshop. Our version is unique in both its small scale and medium; only one other painting on copper exists in Bilivert’s oeuvre, The Temptation of Charles and Ubaldo (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The small format of our picture enhances its intimacy. Set in the romantic realm of Arcadia, ruled by Pan – the personification of lust in Renaissance allegory, the picture’s subject and setting offer a sensual retreat to the viewer.
 O. Fidani, in F. Baldinucci, Notizie dei Professori del Disegno da Cimabue in Qua, ed.