Wanton Allegories

Agnolo Bronzino’s paintings are peculiar, as they represent the most sensual subjects in a cold, aloof manner. His allegories are based on refined concepts and intellectual riddles. It is known that Bronzino enjoyed the company of humanists at the court of the Medici family in Florence. Presumably, his milieu inspired him to paint the Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-45). This is a masterpiece among sixteenth-century paintings and the epitome of Tuscan Mannerism.

Allegory with Venus and Cupid – Agnolo Bronzino – 1540-5 – oil on panel – London, National Gallery

Bronzino had a special talent when it came to the human body. The carnation of his figures is white and smooth as polished marble. He could paint without showing a single brushstroke. The shape of their bodies is seldom correct but he was not after realism. Looking at Cupid in the Allegory, one grasps the painter’s love for intricacy. The god’s back turns and bends as if spineless. His neck, far too long, supports a wanton head of ephebe. The rounded bottom is cheekily turned toward the viewer.

Some of the symbols scattered throughout the panel are easily recognisable. The doves are a common attribute of Venus, while Cupid often carries arrows. Other objects are more ambiguous. What is the purpose of the two masks on the left? Do they represent deceit? Bronzino was peculiarly interested in masks, and his portraits often presents allusions to them. They evoke multiple identities and uncertainty, the complexity of reality which is the great discovery of Mannerism. In fact, as Arnold Hauser wrote, Mannerism is a great reaction against the Renaissance faith in the world’s rationality. Also, the figure on the top-left seems to be an empty mask, but its identity is unclear

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The relation between the figures is unclear as well. The old man on the top-right seems to be a depiction of Time. Both his wings and the hourglass are likely attributes. Furthermore, he is holding a blue backdrop, which some have interpreted as reality, that is to say, what happens in the realm of time. The remaining three characters are far more mysterious. There is a young boy, scattering rose petals, with thorns in his feet. There is a screaming woman in the background on the left. On the right, a creature with the face of a young girl, and a beastly body: lion paws, snake scales, a scorpion thorn. She holds it in one hand, while the other offers a honeycomb, a common symbol of love.

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Although the meaning of the allegory is elusive, we gather that it might be related to love. The core of the painting is a wanton kiss between the god of love and his mother. In some perverse way, she seems to have been seduced by her own son. She also keeps an arrow in her own hands, a weapon. The monstrous girl on the right and the masks indicate deceit, and danger. The joyful putto with the splinters in his feet does not seem aware. The image is complex, disturbing, and definitely fascinating. A perverse, mysterious beauty.


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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