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 cherubim.
The word putto is Italian singular male; the plural is putti. The female is putta but is not used since it is the short form of puttana ("slut", "whore"); this derogatory meaning is retained in the closely-related Spanish vulgarity, "puta".
In early modern Italian, the word simply meant "child"; today it is 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)
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 sarcophags 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 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 Dorl's illustrations to Orlando Furioso, to advertisements.
In the twentieth century, they appeared in Walt Disney's fantasy.
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.
In Saint-Petersburg there are a lot of putty. These little babies are situated on the facades, buildings and decorative details of our city. Although you can see them flying near the Greek goddess (such as Venera, Afrodithe) on paintings.
One of the famous putto is situated on the street lamp on the Solyanoy lane near the Mukhinskoe colledge.
Print this document
Back to Editorial section