The picture was probably painted for Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence as a gift for the King of France, François I — it would certainly have been welcome as François was noted for his pursuit of women. The king and his courtiers would have been able to appreciate the eroticism of the piece safe in the knowledge that their attention could be explained by their presumed interest in its complex meaning.
Bronzino certainly packs the available space. His characters are set against an exquisitely painted satin backcloth for which the artist has used the extravagantly expensive ultramarine pigment. The flesh tones arrayed in front of this sumptuous cloth are somewhat cold as if Bronzino is deliberately invoking links with the marble of antique statuary. Every centimetre is given a lustrous finish; the effect is immensely pleasing as the eye passes over each area of fine detail discovering new delights as it goes. The piece is overtly erotic and Bronzino does not hold back. Even to the twenty-first-century viewer, a certain frisson accompanies the realisation that Cupid has parted two fingers in the hand which encompasses the breast of Venus so as to gently excite her nipple between them.
But what does it all mean? There is no definitive answer. The identity of the main protagonists is relatively clear but there is much learned debate concerning the identity of some of the other players. Venus, holding a golden apple, a reference to the Judgement of Paris, is incestuously embraced by her son Cupid (Eros, in his Greek form) who kneels on a large cushion covered in a beautiful pink silk. In the arcane world of allegory, this cushion is to be construed as a symbol of Lust. So, we are on safe ground to conclude that the picture is concerned with love, lust and pleasure, and the often malign consequences of this combination.
The naked child to the right of Venus is probably a personification of Foolish Pleasure who is about to release a handful of rose petals in the direction of Venus and Cupid. Behind him is a chilling depiction of Deceit whose pretty face, one realises with horror, is attached to a monstrous scaled body. In one hand she holds a sweet honeycomb but in the other is her scorpion’s sting. The message is not too difficult — lustful activity may be pleasurable in the short term but may also result in less pleasing consequences. However, confusingly, there is another view, that the pretty face does not belong to Deceit but is Pleasure with the naked child as Folly.
In looking at the remaining peripheral figures, interpretations of meaning become even more uncertain. Directly above Pleasure, Father Time makes an appearance with his hourglass balanced rather incongruously on his right shoulder. He stretches an unnaturally long arm across most of the composition determinedly resisting the efforts of a mysterious personage inhabiting the upper left of the composition who seems to be trying to pull the backcloth over the whole scene. This mask-like apparition is probably Oblivion, for part of the head, and therefore those parts of the brain dealing with memory, are missing. Beneath Oblivion a screaming figure clutches its head. The presence of this figure is obscure; it may represent Jealousy or Despair. However, another theory proposes the figure as the personification of Syphilis which had recently arrived in Europe and was therefore a very powerful contemporary example of the down side of lust. If this interpretation is accepted then the tussle between Time and Oblivion might be seen as a reference to the fact that the most terrible symptoms of syphilis develop over considerable time.
This wonderful painting, so full of mystery and so finely wrought is a fitting testament to one of the most gifted artists of the Late Renaissance.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1540 Hans Holbein the Younger: Henry VIII Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
1543 Lorenzo Lotto: Husband and Wife St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1546 Titian: Pope Paul III and his Grandsons Naples, Museo di Capodimonte