You might think of them as angels or cherubs, but the chubby little winged boys which became popular in renaissance painting are also known as putti, and they have their roots in classical antiquity. Since their revival in the 15th century as secular rather than religious figures, they have often taken on the role of illustrating science and scientific principles. By turns reverent and cheeky, they even make their way into a safe sex poster of the 1980s.
This fragment of decoration from an ancient Greek tomb shows a putto long before Christian imagery of them existed. The presence of a snake and a physician on the same fragment might also indicate early associations with healing and scientific knowledge.
Putti have always liked to show things off. In this 17th-century print, a putto carries a building on his head, part of the glorious bounty of art and nature laid before the goddess Cybele.
Andreas Vesalius's landmark 16th-century anatomy text ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ set out a vision of the human body based on dissection and observation. At the beginning of each chapter, an illustrated capital letter shows putti carrying out the tasks of anatomy students. In this gruesome example they are killing a stray dog to prepare it for dissection.
Putti maintained an ongoing association with classical knowledge. In this 1777 etching, putti attend the Greek goddess Hygieia, goddess of health, who points towards the canon of physicians in the western medical tradition. The names Hippocrates, Galen and Vesalius are still familiar to us today; Joseph Pitton de Tournefort and Gerard van Swieten perhaps less so.
As experimentation became more popular, putti moved into a more active role in illustrations, particularly in alchemy. In this illustration from the 16th-century alchemical manuscript ‘Splendor Solis’, our solitary putto is bravely pouring liquid into the mouth of a dragon. The process represents the chemical fixing of a volatile substance using fire.
As historian Steven Shapin has noted, putti often stood in for the technicians or servants who actually conducted scientific experiments. This mid-18th century print features putti demonstrating new methods in optics and physics. They illustrate a selection of heroic couplets about art and reason, including the often misquoted line from Alexander Pope's 1711 ‘Essay on Criticism’, “A little learning is a dang'rous thing”.
These putti hard at work suffocating a small bird seem more interested in the dispassionate pursuit of science than in sadistic thrills. Asphyxiating a bird or small mammal in a vacuum pump was a popular 18th-century demonstration of oxygen and animal respiration. Perhaps the most famous illustration of this experiment was painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1768.
Scientific knowledge of life and death might ultimately lead to political conquest. Here, a more passive putto holds a ship’s mast as a symbol of seafaring as Wisdom displays the globe to Britannia. The broken tusks at the bottom of the picture, perhaps unwittingly, show the contempt with which Britain would treat the rest of the world and its resources.
Children’s bodies might seem out of place in a safe sex advertisement, but putti take centre stage in this 1988 AIDS poster from Denmark. The text reads “Himlen må vente”, which means “Heaven can wait”, and the putti are reminiscent of the cherubs in Francois Boucher’s rococo putti paintings. Even in the late 20th century, putti as a secular motif could point towards beating disease through their long association with scientific knowledge.
About the author
Danny is Wellcome Collection's Digital Content Manager.