The sculptural group was produced between 1818 and 1820 by Adamo Tadolini and is a replica of the work commissioned from Antonio Canova by the Russian Prince, Yussupoff (now in the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg), derived from the original plaster model that Canova had given to his favourite student Tadolini, authorizing him to make as many copies as he wished.
In reality, the famous group appeared in several versions: first in marble, in 1792, for Captain Campbell and purchased by Murat, now in the Louvre; a second version is the one found in the Hermitage, made for Yussupoff.
The two versions differ in size (the Louvre sculpture is smaller) as in the position of the wings and of the faces. The copy found in Villa Carlotta is not identical to its model either and this suggests that Canova modified the model before he gifted it to Tadolini, seeking absolute perfection.
With the exception of the wings, the work comes from a single block of Carrara marble of exceptional beauty and arrived in Tremezzo in 1834. For many years it was mistaken for an autograph work by Canova because of its sheer quality and it became one of the most famous icons of sensuality and passion.
Apuleius, Metamorphoses, Book VI
The marble depicts one of the most intense moments of the fable of Cupid and Psyche, written by Lucius Apuleius as part of the novel Metamorphoses.
Psyche was a girl of rare and absolute beauty, loved and celebrated for her incredible good looks. Venus, envious of her beauty, decided to take revenge with the help of her son Cupid, who was to have her fall in love with a coarse, petty man.
However, as soon as Cupid saw Psyche, he fell deeply in love with her himself and decided to take her to his palace with the help of Zephyr. There Psyche spent every night with Cupid but was never able to look at the face of her lover. Indeed, Cupid never revealed his identity to avoid the wrath of his mother Venus. But the girl’s curiosity got the better of her and one night Psyche took a lantern to look upon her husband’s face. A drop of hot wax fell on Cupid’s shoulder and woke him up. In his rage, he deserted Psyche.
Psyche was then subjected to a series of terrible trials by Venus. The last test was the most difficult and she was sent down into the Underworld to ask the goddess Proserpina to concede Venus some of her beauty.
So it was that Psyche received an ampoule from Proserpina and, overcome by curiosity she opened it only to discover that the vase did not contain beauty, but infernal sleep that sent her into a deep torpor. When Cupid discovered the tragic fate of his lover, he went to her and saved her from mortal sleep, and this is the moment immortalized by Canova: