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.
In early modern Italian, the word simply meant "child"; today it's used only in this specific meaning.
It seems to have developed its application as a specific term in art history only during the modern period.
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).
Putti, cupids and angels (see below) 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.
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
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.
The only scholarly book with putti in the title is: Charles Dempsey Inventing the Renaissance Putto (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).