This Mythical Painting Still Puzzles Art Historians

Dare you enter this enigmatic scene?

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London,

A painting like this deserves to be looked at for more than just a few moments. It is at once a puzzle, a warning and work of eroticism.

At the centre of the image, a boyish youth clasps a woman’s breast whilst leaning forward to kiss her. They are, in fact, mother and son.

Several features about this painting are immediately striking. The way the boy — Cupid — sticks out his buttocks provocatively; the unadulterated smile on the lips of the woman; or what about the young girl in green behind, under whose dress it’s possible to see the scaly body of a lizard?

As for what the painting is trying to say, historians have long debated the exact meaning — and the conclusions are striking.

Mother and son kiss

The two central figures are both naked. They are supposed to be Venus and her son Cupid.

The two figures are locked in an embrace, with Venus coyly stealing one of Cupid’s arrows. Their kiss is pleasurable, their desire unrestrained.

It’s possible to recognise Venus, goddess of love and beauty, by the golden apple she is holding in her left hand, given to her by Paris when he judged her to be the most beautiful of all goddesses in a contest. A pair of doves — her traditional attribute — sit at the corner of the painting.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

Her son Cupid is shown as a winged child. His attributes are a bow, arrow and quiver. When Cupid fires his arrows, those who are hit become lovers — or occasionally, as romance can sometimes go, sworn enemies.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

This strange image is made even more curious by way that the two figures are posed, with each adopting a twisted, winding posture. It is most likely an influence of the Mannerist ideal of figura serpentinata, an idealised style of depicting figures that came into fashion in the late stages of the Renaissance. Originally formulated by the 16th century art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, who compared the figura serpentinata to a burning flame, the serpentine shape was designed to emphasise bodily movement and potency.

One further detail in the foreground that catches our eye is a laughing child who is about to throw a bunch of rose petals over them — in celebration of their liaison.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

But look very closely and you’ll notice the laughing child is actually stepping on a twig of thorns and has pierced his foot. It is thought the child symbolises Foolish Pleasure or Folly — representing the lack of wisdom in the central characters.

And so, the meaning of this complex painting starts to become clear…

Love with a sting in the tail

It’s hard to look past the overt eroticism of this painting, most especially in the way Cupid grasps Venus’ breast and nipple. The painting was probably made at the request of the Florentine ruler Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. It is thought that he commissioned the artist, Bronzino, and had the painting sent on to King Francis I of France as a gift.

Notoriously lecherous in his appetites, the King of France would have taken pleasure in the conspicuous eroticism of the work, as well as the erudite puzzle it presented.

So, what is the deeper meaning?

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is thought that the whole painting is an allegory on the dangers of unbridled desire.

Take the girl in green with the scaly body hidden beneath her dress, for instance. She leans forward, proffering a sweet honeycomb in her right hand — whilst behind her back a long winding tail has a scorpion’s barb at its end. This dual-nature represents Deceit, or else the double-edged nature of love: pleasure and pain.

The other figures in the painting similarly emphasise the conflicts that might accompany unchaste romance.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

In the upper section, an old man who represents Father Time (notice the hourglass on his shoulder) sweeps a rich undulating blue fabric across the scene. It is thought that the gesture implies the fleeting nature of time and how things may come to an end at any moment.

This interpretation is given added meaning by the figure shown opposite Time, who has eyeless sockets and a mask-like face, who is thought to signify Oblivion — the eternal nothingness that may face us after death.

The subject of death seems even more present when we turn our attention to the figure below on the left side of the painting. This hell-raised woman has been painted with extraordinary vigour.

Detail of ‘An Allegory of Venus and Cupid’ (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

It is believed she is a representation of Jealousy, or possibly Suffering with her expression of anguish. Alternatively, this tormented figure might represent the ravaging and sometimes deadly effects of syphilis — a disease that had reached epidemic levels during the 1500s, especially in France.

An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540–1545) by Bronzino. Oil on panel. 146 x 116 cm. National Gallery, London

And so, when seen altogether, this claustrophobic painting begins to lose some of its salaciousness and take on a somewhat darker, chilling tone.

The unpleasant consequences of illicit or wanton lust are revealed like a riddle solved, encouraged by Folly and aided by Deceit.

Dare you enter this pleasure palace?

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