Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, usually known as Il Bronzino (probably because of his dark complexion), was born in Monticello, a town south east of Florence, in 1503. His early artistic training was as a student of Raffaellino del Garbo, the Florentine painter of the early Renaissance. From his tutelage Il Bronzino went on to study under Jacopo Pontormo who was one of the founders of Florentine Mannerism. The plague hit the area where they lived and so Bronzino and Pontormo moved north to Certosa where they continued to collaborate on a series of frescos. Master and pupil got on well which was surprising as Pontormo was known to be a curmudgeonly and melancholy old man. Il Bronzino established his own reputation as a great artist in his late twenties and in 1530 he was working for the Duke of Urbino. Two years later he returned to Florence where he concentrated on portraiture and some fresco work. At the age of 37 he was made court painter to Còsimo di Giovanni degli Mèdici, the de facto ruler of Florence and his wife Eleanora of Toledo for whom he decorated the chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio with fantastic coloured frescoes of astonishing incoherence and they were filled with the usual Mannerist exaggerated distortions.
It was about this time (c.1545) that Il Bronzino completed the painting which I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today. It is an oil on wood painting entitled An Allegory with Venus and Cupid. It is believed that Il Bronzino was commissioned to do this by Cosimo de’ Medici as a gift for King Francis I of France. This is a complex painting full of hidden meanings and open to a great deal of interpretation. Many art historians have submitted long and complex theses with regards to the meaning of this many faceted work of art. So let us take a look at the painting and see what we can glean from Il Bronzino’s enigmatic and complex painting.
First of all we need to identify the characters within the scene. The leading individual at the centre of the painting is Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, holding the golden apple in her left hand, which she had been given to her by Paris for being the fairest of all the goddesses. To the left of her and slightly behind her is her son Cupid.
They are entwined in an incestuous act. His right hand is fondling his mother’s breast at the same time as he plants a kiss on her mouth. Is she seducing her adolescent son who by now would appreciate her sexuality? Which of them do you think is controlling the situation? But look more closely at Venus and her son. Although they are exchanging a kiss they have other thoughts on their minds. Venus is reaching behind Cupid removing an arrow from his quiver whilst he is trying to remove her crown with his left hand.
To the right of Venus with an anklet of bells is the smiling nude putto who represents Foolish Pleasure. He dances towards them with a somewhat lascivious expression, scattering flowers, blissfully unaware of the thorn which pierces his right foot.
Behind him is a female dressed in green and purple robes holding in her right hand a sweet honeycomb which she is offering up as a gift. However beware as this Fraud or Deceit and as the saying goes she is “fair of face but foul of body”. Why do we believe this? Well look at her left hand and you can just make out the sting in her serpentile tail which she tries to hide behind her back.
Above Fraud and Foolish Pleasure we see a bald bearded elderly man, whose well-muscled arm is holding up an exquisite ultramarine coloured cloth behind all the characters in this scene. He is Father Time and he has an angered expression as he looks across at the half-completed head of Oblivion.
Below this unusual unfinished head is the very disturbing figure of Suffering or Jealousy. He clutches his head and we can see that his face is distorted in pain. Art historians now believe this character could represent Syphilis which had reached epidemic proportions in Europe at this time.
So there you have it, seven strangely portrayed characters but why did Il Bronzino paint them like he has done. The painting, as I said earlier, was thought to be for King Francis I of France who was notoriously lecherous and maybe this is why the painting has a predominately erotic feel to it. He was also known to like heraldry and obscure symbolism so this in a way may have been a puzzle for him to fathom out. But remember Il Bronzino was a painter of the Mannerism genre and this ambiguous imagery with its erotic overtones is typical of the Mannerist period of art. His wealthy noble patrons would also have liked the silky-smooth textures, masks and the jewels on display in this painting.
If you like paintings with hidden meanings and varied interpretations then this painting is for you. Look at it carefully and see if you can see any other hidden clues as to its meaning.