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Peter Humfrey, “Titian/Cupid with the Wheel of Time/c. 1515/1520,” Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed February 25, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2019 Version

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Cupid labors against a rolling wheel, apparently trying to stop its momentum. The space around him is energized by a wind that blows his drapery. The scene is made somber by the dark, cloudy background and the skull hanging from a tree trunk.

This painting is unique among works by Titian. The only other context in which he used monochrome was to imitate marble sculpture within details of larger paintings in full color. The present work, by contrast, is executed entirely in monochrome and with a much more fluid technique, in which the rapid handling of the brush is conspicuously evident.

This work may have originally functioned as the cover, or timpano, to a portrait. Such complements to portraits were not uncommon in Venetian painting in the decades around 1500. The painting’s allegorical subject supports this possibility. It may have been meant to represent the personality, status, or philosophy of the sitter of the portrait beneath. Based on the main symbolic elements—Cupid, the wheel, and the animal skull—scholars have suggested various potential interpretations for the image. Considering Cupid’s apparent effort to stop the wheel, the scene may suggest that love holds a central position in human life and lends sweetness to the fleeting hours, even though the roll of time must in the end lead to death.


The picture was first published in 1931 by Wilhelm Suida, who rejected a previous, traditional association with Correggio in favor of Titian.[1] Suida’s attribution has been generally but not universally accepted: Hans Tietze and Rodolfo Pallucchini omitted the picture from their monographs on Titian;[2] and Francesco Valcanover and Harold Wethey explicitly denied Titian’s authorship.[3] Alternative attributions proposed by the skeptics include Romanino (Bernard Berenson, MS opinion, 1938);[4] Giulio Campi (Hans Tietze and Erika Tietze-Conrat, MS opinion, 1947);[5] and Follower of Veronese (Wethey).[6] But none of these have won any further acceptance, and Suida’s much more convincing attribution is supported by his comparison of the figure of Cupid with the angels in Titian’s Assunta (Frari, Venice) of circa 1515–1518. Another particularly relevant comparison, pointed out by Fern Rusk Shapley, is with the cupid on the far right in Titian’s Three Ages of Man of circa 1513–1515 (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Bridgewater loan).[7] These close similarities of figure type (and also with the cupids in the Prado Feast of Venus of 1517–1518) further suggest that the picture is a relatively early work of circa 1515/1520. Consistent with such a dating is the fact that Cupid is standing on a foreground parapet parallel to the picture plane, a compositional device characteristic of Giovanni Bellini and the 15th-century tradition, and used by Titian only in his early career. Anjelica Dülberg suggested a later date of circa 1540–1560, without providing any particular reason.[8]

The doubts entertained by some critics regarding the attribution may stem from the fact that the picture is in several respects unique in Titian’s oeuvre. Several of his works include fictive reliefs in monochrome (for instance, the Votive Picture of Jacopo Pesaro, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp; the Schiavona, National Gallery, London; the Sacred and Profane Love, Galleria Borghese, Rome; and the Clarissa Strozzi, Staatliche Museen, Berlin); but such reliefs are all details of larger paintings, and are painted in imitation of marble sculpture. The present work, by contrast, is executed entirely in monochrome and with a much more fluid technique, in which the rapid handling of the brush is conspicuously evident. But this difference of treatment may in part reflect a different source of inspiration, since, as observed by Douglas Lewis,[9] the combination of Cupid, chariot wheel, and tree trunk derives from a 15th-century Roman plaquette [fig. 1]—in other words, a small-scale bronze all’antica.

In part, too, as observed by Dülberg, the technical characteristics of the Cupid are entirely consistent with the suggestion first made by Giuseppe Fiocco (MS opinion, 15 March 1935, in NGA curatorial files), and later by Alessandro Conti, that the picture originally functioned as the cover, or timpano, to a portrait.[10] Such complements to portraits were not uncommon in Venetian painting in the decades around 1500 (examples in the Gallery’s collection include Allegory of Virtue and Vice and Allegory); and the fact that they became increasingly unusual after circa 1520 is again consistent with a relatively early dating.

Another element in favor of the supposition that the picture was painted as a cover is its allegorical subject, which, as was customary, presumably in some way reflected the personality, status, or philosophy of the sitter of the portrait beneath. An interpretation of the subject as an allegory of Fortune was outlined by Suida: Cupid (identifiable from his wings) symbolizes the triumph of Love, at least temporarily, over the rolling Wheel of Fortune and the inevitability of death (represented by the animal’s skull suspended from the tree).[11] Elaborating on this interpretation, Edgar Wind identified the skull as that of an ox, and hence as a symbol of Patience, and saw Love as setting the Wheel of Chance into motion; for the writer, therefore, the picture was an allegory of the classical tag festina lente (make haste slowly).[12] Yet as Shapley rightly objected, the skull is not apparently that of an ox, and Cupid appears to be restraining the roll of the wheel rather than setting it into motion.[13] Dülberg accordingly proposed a somewhat different refinement of Suida’s interpretation: Love holds a central position in human life and lends sweetness to the fleeting hours, even though the roll of time must in the end lead to death.[14] This reading is further supported by the writer’s observation that Cupid is apparently struggling to maintain a moment of stability, despite the wind that makes his draperies flutter in opposite directions. While Patricia Fortini Brown agreed with Suida,[15] a similar interpretation of the subject as Love arresting the Cycle of Life was offered by Lewis, based partly on his interpretation of the Renaissance plaquette from which the central motifs derive.[16]

Although there is no obvious candidate for a surviving portrait by Titian for which the picture could have served as the cover, the field is limited by the fact that the majority of his portraits, and particularly those of his middle and later career, are considerably larger in their dimensions. The relative intimacy of scale, combined with the allegorical message, suggests that the sitter below, if a man, was a poet or philosopher and/or a friend of the painter, rather than a member of high society. But the themes of love and of the passing of time would also have been appropriate as complements to an image of female beauty, and in this connection it is worth observing that the dimensions of the picture correspond closely to those of the so-called Violante (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; 64.5 × 50.8 cm), usually dated to circa 1515.

Peter Humfrey

March 21, 2019


(Angelo Bonelli, Rome), by 1803; (Bonelli sale by private contract [not an auction], No. 4 Duke Street [The Roman Gallery], London, 4 January 1803 and continuing until 15 December 1803, no. 65, as A Genius trying to stop a Wheel by Parmegianino[sic], not sold); (Bonelli sale, Christie's, London, 24-25 February 1804, first day, no. 24, as A Sketch, very spirited by Parmigiano[sic], bought in); (Bonelli sale, Farebrother, London [?], 2 May 1804, no. 42, as An allegory, a beautiful sketch -- from the Altieri Palace at Rome by Polidoro).[1] Viani, Rome. (Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, Florence and Rome); sold October 1935 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[2] gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History

A Collector's Cabinet, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, no. 57, fig. 18.
Fortune: "All Is But Fortune", The Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., 2000, no. 9.

Technical Summary

The support is a fine-to-moderate weight fabric. The painting has been lined and the original tacking edges have been cut off, but x-radiographs reveal slight cusping along the edges of the original fabric, indicating that the painting has not been cut down substantially. The ground consists of a moderately thin white layer. Infrared reflectography (Vidicon)[1] reveals some underdrawing executed in a liquid medium marking the contours of Cupid and the wheel. In the x-radiographs it is possible to see some of the rough brushwork originating from the ground and the background paint layers; the x-radiographs make the latter more apparent than does examination under normal light. There are no appreciable compositional changes, only some minor alterations of contour. Apart from some scattered small losses, the worst damage is caused by abrasion, as is particularly evident in the area around the top right corner and generally in the background. The extensive inpainting, applied to pull together the areas of abrasion, dates mainly from the conservation treatments undertaken in 1936 and 1942, as the painting has not been treated since then. Although the inpainting has only discolored slightly, the varnish has discolored considerably.

Peter Humfrey and Joanna Dunn based on the examination report by Kate Russell

March 21, 2019


Suida, Wilhelm. “Alcune opere sconosciute di Tiziano.” Dedalo 11 (1931): 894-897.
Suida, Wilhelm. Tizian. Zürich and Leipzig, 1933: 70, 156.
Suida, Wilhelm. "Die Sammlung Kress: New York." Pantheon 26 (1940): 278.
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 197, no. 324.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 246, repro. 197.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Venetian School. 2 vols. London, 1957: 1:192.
Wind, Edgar. Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance. London, 1958: 93.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 188, repro.
Valcanover, Francesco. Tutta la pittura di Tiziano. 2 vols. Milan, 1960: 1:96.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 129.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 116, repro.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XV-XVI Century. London, 1968: 186, fig. 444.
Wethey, Harold. The Paintings of Titian. 3 vols. London, 1969-1975: 3(1975):209.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 203, 470, 645.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 344, repro.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: 1:481-482; 2:pl. 342, 342A.
Barocchi, Paola, ed. Firenze e la Toscana dei Medici nell’Europa del Cinquecento, vol. 2: Palazzo Vecchio: Committenza e Collezionismo Medicei. Exh. cat. Florence. Milan, 1980: 258.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 210, no. 255, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 395, repro.
Dülberg, Anjelica. Privatporträts: Geschichte und Ikonologie enier Gattung im 15. und 16 Jahrhundert. Berlin, 1990: 56-58, 295-296.
Brown, Patricia Fortini. Venice & Antiquity. The Venetian Sense of the Past. New Haven and London, 1996: pl. 254.
Kuntz, Paul Grimley, and Lee Braver. "Fortune: The Wheel." Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art, ed. Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago and London, 1998: 1:344.

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