So as it is nearly Valentine’s Day, and I haven’t posted anything in a while, I thought I’d post something about a painting I really love – which just so happens to be about love itself. It is also in my favourite place of all time, the National Gallery, which possibly contributes to why I like it so much. Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid stands in Room 8 alongside works by Correggio, Michelangelo, Raphael and Parmagiano, to name a few, but for me it stands out because of the beautiful blue background material, the assortment of slightly odd figures and the marble-like, statuesque Venus that dominates the centre.
It is also highly ambiguous. Widely agreed to have been painted in about 1545, it is likely to be the painting Vasari described in his 1568 Life of Bronzino. Vasari describes a nude Venus receiving a kiss from Cupid, and shown to the one side are Pleasure, Play and other Loves, and shown on the other side are Fraud, Jealousy and other passions of Love. He neglects to mention the figure at the top right, reaching across in agitation to grab the cobalt blue material, who is a characterisation of time. In 1860, when it was bought by the National Gallery, the director Sir Charles Eastlake declared it
“the most improper picture”
“if the details of the kiss are altered the rest may pass”
In 1958, it was restored and a Victorian-added veil was removed which had been protecting the modesty of Venus. It was originally a gift from Cosimo I de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence and Bronzino’s patron, to King Francis I of France. It was – as you can probably tell by the not-easy-to-ignore nude Venus – designed to appeal to his extensive interests in women.
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is a brilliant example of mannerism, which was popular following the art of the High Renaissance in Italy. It is very figurative and uses idealised human forms that often seem to follow the work of Michelangelo, and often uses expressive and unnatural colour. Bronzino here has used very elongated forms which are almost swanlike – one of the tell-tale signs of mannerism, alongside the women often having quite long necks. Bronzino’s mannerism was influenced by his time spent as a pupil of Jacopo Pontormo, and he (and his teacher) were inspired by Michelangelo. He dominated Florentine painting from the 1530s to the 1560s, with this during the middle of his heyday.
All of Bronzino’s slightly strange characters are representational and allegorical, containing a hidden moral meaning. Probably the most notable part of the painting is the erotic pose in the centre – made slightly more obscene by the way Cupid is falling into her trap of seduction. They are surrounded by many other characters who personify different things; this was quite a frequent practice when Bronzino was painting, but there was no standardisation of such personifications until 1556 and 1593, when Cartain and Ripa respectively drew on visual precedents and understandable attributes to define such characterisations. This leaves Bronzino’s myriad of characters open to many different interpretations.
I’ve already mentioned Time in the top right – identifiable due to the hourglass. He has muscles in the style of Michelangelo which show he has the strength to cover and reveal the scene. He seems to be interacting with the figure in the top left – often noted to be Oblivion or Fraud – and stopping it from covering up the howling man. Are they interacting to show that love is unintelligible and demonstrate the negative side to love’s emotions? Either way, Oblivion is an interesting character that is actually a backless head, with eyes that are only sockets, with no teeth or tongue. In the Renaissance, it was believed the memory was in the back of the brain, a theory advocated by both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, so the lack of a back of the head suggests the character is definitely Oblivion. However, the empty head actually seems to be a mask which is quite convincingly human that has to be looked at twice to see that it isn’t all that it seems; so is it Fraud, not Oblivion?
One of the other characters in the painting I find really interesting is the man who seems to be in agony on the left, angrily clutching his head. Vasari labelled him jealousy, but quite a lot of recent research has suggested that he is actually a man suffering from syphilis. Believe it or not, this was a courtly subject around the time Bronzino was painting his Allegory – there had been an epidemic in the late 1400s so it was a hot topic. The howling man shows the signs of syphilis: hair loss, skin discolouration and finger nodules, as well as the absence of teeth, which would fall out during treatment. Due to the attached stigma, it became almost synonymous with disguise, which may be why Fraud is trying to drape the blue cloth over him. During the epidemic of syphilis, Venus came to be presented as an agent and a symbol of the disease, particularly with respect to a male audience – sex was also referred to as the “Act of Venus”. So is this no longer a painting about love – but the dangers of having a bit too much love?!
Another slightly strange character is the girl-monster on the right. She has a sweet face but secretly has scales, a tail and lion’s feet (this always makes me think of the part in Bridget Jones’ Diary when Bridget is asked at a dinner party why there are so many single thirtysomething women and she replies that it doesn’t help that underneath their clothes they are covered in scales – though I’m sure Helen Fielding didn’t have Bronzino in mind!). Is she Fraud instead of the backless head? She also represents pleasure followed by pain, symbolised by the simultaneous holding of honeycomb and sting of a tail, suggesting she is offering a moral to Cupid, who is being lured into Venus’ love. It has been suggested that the jolly young boy, or putto, is throwing roses at Cupid to deceive him more into being seduced.
However, I don’t think the theme of love is too lost – Bronzino was incredibly interested in poetry and was a poet himself. He was especially enthralled by Petrarchan love poetry, Dante and bawdy poetry. One story often told is that Bronzino painted the Allegory to prove to the Accademia Florentina that another artist could create a painting to match and overtake Michelangelo’s Venus and Cupid in representing a mastery of the language of poetic love. What does the painting mean? Various things have been suggested by different art historians: Michael Levey suggested the conquest of love by beauty. Margaret Healy suggested Bronzino is warning man not to trust any sensory experience by duplicitous women. Charles Hope points to Venus removing Cupid’s arrow, suggesting that Cupid won’t be wounded:
“The poet sings of Love and its passions; these are subject to Time and Oblivion, but poetry itself is enduring”
which ultimately suggests that Truth will always out. For me the meaning is clearly very ambiguous, but I love looking at the beautiful mannerist painting that stands out in its room at the National Gallery – it could be analysed and interpreted without end. Perhaps Bronzino meant to present a kind of truth about love or desire – this is probably quite apt as it was a diplomatic gift to Francis I of France, a lover of women. Maybe he was trying to put a playful spin on what was ultimately a warning to the king, but it shows the multiple ways art can be interpreted and themes presented. I love Bronzino and would recommend anyone going to see it, even if it isn’t the most romantic message about love for Valentine’s Day!
- I feel like I always write this, but go see it in the National Gallery! The Gallery are also doing some really interesting videos at the moment that I’ve spotted on Twitter about curators’ favourite paintings, so they are well worth a watch.