Written by Paige Hudson
October 22, 2020
The painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is an especially spicy piece, filled with hidden messages and drama that has left people contemplating the real meaning since its creation in 1545. It is layered in parables that have been questioned, theorized, and debated over the centuries. It is a work of art that holds symbolism prevalent throughout society and time.
Along with the formal analysis there will be personal and psychoanalytic point of view as well. In order to fully develop and elaborate on the potential of this painting, the article will be split into sections. Each figure is a parable in itself and will be most comprehensive in a subsection of their own. My effort here is to leave you with fundamental knowledge on this piece and to also wonder for yourself how it all ties in together and what you think it could mean.
Before diving into the analysis of this painting, there are some important details from the Mannerist era that went into shaping this piece.
Mannerism blossomed from the Renaissance somewhat rebelliously. This new movement broke the rules held carefully by renaissance artists. Instead of looking toward nature for inspiration, they turned toward art itself and past masterpieces.
The term ‘Mannerist’ comes from the first known art historian, Giorgio Lazatti Manierd (‘Manierd’ meaning ‘style’). This new style of painting presented figures from religion as well as mythology and held characteristics like twisted postures, ambiguous scales, distorted perspective and rich colors. All of these characteristics will be discussed along with deeper hidden messages and interpretations throughout the article.
Our master artist behind this painting is Agnolo di Cosimo, or more popularly known as Bronzino. He was thought to have been commissioned by Consimo I de’ Medici as a gift for King Francis I of France.
Each artwork veils its unique motifs through the formal elements of art. This painting in particular holds peculiarities within its colors, lighting, space, and composition.
The title alone has proved to be the first enigma of this piece because An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is not necessarilythe real title. It has also been titled Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, as well as A Triumph of Venus. Thus, further adding mystery to the unconfirmed collection of visual allegories.
Not surprisingly, this is not the only secret behind the painting. In this part of the article I will break down the piece through its foundations in effort to unveil its truth and establish its structure.
Venus & Cupid
Upon first viewing this painting, the blatant eroticism between Cupid (young boy in the left foreground) and Venus (woman in center foreground) is evident. The scene tone shifts from romantic to uncomfortable when realizing this soft sexual pose is held by mother and son. They create this pose with Venus’ legs draped across the ground, framing the bottom of the piece, and her body upright. The positioning of her arms and body create a twisting motion. Cupid is sculpted around her, and with this, the two figures adopt the figura serpentinata pose that is classic for Mannerism style paintings. The two are highlighted with bright flush tones that contrast the Ultra Marine and Phalo blues of the background and the coldness of the other figures.
Venus is positioned as the central axis. She holds a golden apple from The Judgement of Paris in her left hand that confirms her identity for us. Cupid holds an awkward pose to pleasure Venus with one hand on her breast and the other holding her head, while also kissing her. If we look at the lower half of his body he is partially kneeling and almost kicking two doves away, this will be discussed more later on.
The two figures hold the first point of attention among many and are the forefront attention of this painting. Although Venus and Cupid are the center staple, Venus, by size comparison, is much larger than any other figure in the painting. This could be Bronzino’s way of using a hierarchal scale in his painting, showing that Venus is in control and therefore the most powerful.
To avoid this initial form of detached passion, or maybe to get a clearer answer for it, the eye travels to each of the other figures.
The little boy beside them is in movement as if to shower them in flower petals. His expression is joyous and unbothered by the many things going on behind him—as well as the thorn piercing his right foot.
I would also like to note the lighting in this painting, along with the layered bodies, there is a definition of shadow that adds depth and mystery to the underlying figures. The longer you look at it, the more chaotic things become.
Behind the young boy is a girl in a green dress. She seems calm and emotionless but looking a bit closer we see her body tells a much different story. Under her gown she has the body of a serpent, the legs of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. Her right hand holds a honeycomb while her left hand twists in a strange position to hold the stinger at the end of her tail. Below these two figures is a pile of masks that will be theorized later on.
Above these two figures is a bearded man who we can assume to be Father Time or, Chronos, due to the hourglass hidden behind him. His skin is more vibrant with color which makes him look more human-like but his highlighted wing reinforces his godly status. We can also see that his grey beard and baldness shows age, therefore reinforcing Time, but his skin and muscle show youth.
His right arm frames the top half of the painting while his hand is bent backwards. This suggests that he is either holding up the blue sheet or trying to tear it down. It is difficult to decipher the meaning of the movement. This detail will become important in later discussion.
The person, or illusion of a person, in the top left corner has a mixed look of surprise and possibly disgust by Father Time’s actions. This character has been given the name of Oblivion by past art historians which will be analyzed later on, for the sake of convenience I will refer to it by its name. Oblivion’s head is only partial, with the back half missing, much like a head that was cracked open, or a mask attached to a body. The position of the hands show Oblivion is clearly holding up the blue sheet.
The screaming woman is likely the most debated over because she seems out of place compared to the coolness of the rest of the painting. Although it seems she is hidden, she is impossible to miss. Her colors are dull in comparison to the rest of the figures skin tones. She is the epitome of suffering. She faces away from the carnal scene in a world of her own.
What does it all mean?
Venus & Cupid
Venus and Cupid are a dichotomic representation of female and male sexuality. Another name for this is man vs. nature. I.e mother nature, chaos, and divine feminine vs. humanity, order, and divine masculine. The two are in a constant opposition, which requires balance to maintain stability. This reflection of balanced primordial energy has many names and comes in many forms throughout the expansion of life.
Female and male energy are like yin and yang. Female energy is loving, caring, and cyclic like a circle. The male energy is aloof but direct, like a straight line (phallic). Together these form a spiral, similar to the figura serpentinata (spiral) pose that Venus and Cupid create in the painting.
Venus’s facial expression is relaxed, nearly lazy in passion and her lips are slightly parted. Even though she is entangled with Cupid she does not seem to be completely focused on this affair. I believe this is because in her right hand she is taking Cupid’s arrow from its sheath as if to disarm him. Cupid seems too entranced with Venus to notice or even care that she is doing this. This could be viewed as an analogy of man vs nature.
Man becomes pleasure-obsessed, as Cupid is with Venus, which can make people become ignorant or naïve of nature and cause them take advantage of what they are given, i.e Cupid’s arrow. That is, until something happens that reminds humanity (Cupid) that we are defenseless against Mother Nature (Venus). This constant balance of order in a chaotic world is necessary for our survival, but when we become power hungry, we will be put into check by the powers that be.
Contrasting this is the pinkness in her and Cupid’s ears and cheeks. Blushing is an involuntary psychological response to a few different things, including romantic stimulation. The positioning of her hand tells one story while her body and face tell another.
In the bottom left corner are two doves, one is almost completely hidden. Historically, this bird is a symbol for innocent love and the divine. It is difficult to decipher whether they are included in this painting to be exclusively symbolic, or to show that Cupid is pushing them away.
If Bronzino painted them in to represent the purity and divinity of the two, it could mean that this affair is normal and common among gods, and that they really do love each other. However, if it is the latter, it represents the opposite. It would show us that this rendezvous is not of purity. It is not godly. It is not moral, and Cupid is trying to hide that.
Moving on to the right-hand figures, the young boy has been thought to represent Folly by previous art historians. He is so caught up in the passion between lovers that he is indifferent to the thorn piercing through his right foot. He does not register the pain because his mind is engrossed in excitement and pleasure by watching them.
I believe this is a connection to man vs. self. Once a person becomes overtly obsessed with their own pleasures, they become gluttonous. They no longer are filtering their actions through morals but justifying it through satisfaction. It seems, at the peak of this obsession, the person is no longer aware of themselves. They give up themselves and their power to attain something else, whether that be a feeling, person, or thing. The thorn in this situation could be an expression of morality, the one thing consistently grounding people in their humanity.
The young girl carries a slew of meaning on her own and has been named Deceit/ Fraud. She portrays innocence in her youthful face but hides a mutated body of three combined animals. The first is the serpent. Snakes have held many forms of meaning throughout time but specifically for this painting it is seen as fraudulence or deception, as well as wisdom. She is cunning and holds truths unknown to others.
Then she has the legs of a lion or otherwise strong animal, powerful and ruling. And finally, the tail or a scorpion, venomous and therefore dangerous. The girl is a hidden figure, but she symbolizes the truth behind Mother Nature. She is beautiful and full of life, objectively innocent upon first look, but a bit closer and we see she is wicked and unexpecting with great power.
A honeycomb in her right hand is an emblematic form of temptation. In her left hand she holds the stinger of her tail. It is turned away from the viewer in effort to partially hide it. Between both hands she holds ambidextrous power. You can have the sweetness of the honeycomb, but it comes with the price of her venom. Just as we accept the fruit and harvest that nature provides, we also have to deal with the powerful misfortunes that can be laid upon us at any moment.
Additionally, the foot that is pierced with the thorn (of the boy) is encircled by the girls’ venomous tail. This connects back to the root human nature, the side of us that is entrapped in the threshold of chaotic feminine, a direct line to our animalistic tendencies. This is why his facial expression does not align with his suffering, because it is masked by appetence and consummated by mania.
The girl is in shadow because when people encounter deceit in their lives, it is usually hidden behind something or someone they were too trusting, hopeful, obsessed or infatuated with. Folly could be any one of us at some point in our lives with someone or something. Failing to objectively consider all sides of a situation could easily let us fall victim to deceit or fraud. When unguarded by the possibility of pleasure in some form, humans fail to see an important truth or possibility.
Dante’s Inferno Connection
An interesting connection is the resemblance between Bronzino’s and Dante’s personification of “Fraud.” Dante named his character “Geryon”, who resided at the eighth circle of Hell (Fraud.) He seems to resemble a dragon overall, but Geryon had the face of an innocent and happy man, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and the tail of a scorpion. The girl in An Allegory with Venus and Cupid seems to be a reference to Dante’s Inferno.
To the top right of the piece we see Father Time. The positioning of his hands, after much consideration, left me to believe that he is trying to hold up the sheet instead of taking it down. This is because his left hand is holding onto the fabric and the sheet is draped over his right hand.
If Bronzino wanted Father Time to give the appearance of tearing it down, I would like to think his hands would be gripping the sheet, rather than holding it up. His expression seems concerned with the figure to the far left, as if not sure if they will also continue holding it up or maybe out of concern for the situation taking place in front of them. Father Time is helping cover the truth.
So who is the other figure hiding this lewd affair? They have never been given a confirmed identity. However, we assume this to be Oblivion for the following reasons. In Greek mythology, he is known as Lethe. The word ‘lethe’ means forgetfulness/oblivion/concealment. This is also related to the Greek word aletheia, which means ‘truth’.
With these things in mind it would make sense why Bronzino chose Oblivion to be in opposition of Father Time. Time is holding up the fabric, trying to hide the erotic scene, and is shooting a worried look towards Oblivion in fear of him uncovering the truth. Oblivion holds a shocked expression with vacant, empty eyes. His head is partially broken and missing, this is an allusion to his names true meaning, “forgetfulness.” He is also helping to conceal the love affair taking place.
Last but not least is the figure with the greatest mystique. The woman (or thought to be woman) hidden behind the couple. She pulls her damp hair with clenched hands and screams in agony. The tones of her skin portray sickliness. At a closer look, the fingers are red and swollen, the gums are toothless, and there is pain reflected in her expression. These are all symptoms of syphilitic alopecia. This one figure is what lead theorists to believe that this painting was actually meant to portray the various signs of syphilis. The toothless gums are also an indication of mercury poisoning, which was common in Renaissance times for trying to provide therapy for syphilis.
An Allegory with Cupid and Venus was created fifty years after the discovery of syphilis. It spread throughout Europe and caused a widespread panic as the “new plague” and venereal disease. This woman figure solemnly convinced people that the true meaning of this painting was that “unchaste love comes with great consequence.” This theory could be elaborated, but I do not believe it to fully justify the deeper and hidden messages given to us by Bronzino.
Another theory, one I agree with, is that this woman is Jealousy. She is suffering in undeniable agony and holding her head. Jealousy is an ugly feeling, especially when acted upon and she was meant to portray that emotion. She was not meant to be pretty or even likeable, especially among all the other attractive characters in this painting.
She is holding her head because jealousy is essentially a mix of intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and insecurity. The woman is letting jealousy take over and losing herself in the process. She is perfectly placed behind the two figures and in shadow because she is an afterthought in her own mind, and therefore is painted that way.
The psychoanalytic side of this piece encourages us to break our minds open even further and work ourselves into the depths of this piece.
Eroticism between mother and son is, in Freudian terms, the Oedipus complex. This complex occurs during the phallic stage of psychosexual development (between 3-6 years of age (keep this in mind when looking at Cupid’s face)). The Oedipus complex is when a young boy becomes sexually attracted to his mother and apprehensive toward his father. There has been much debate over this theorized complex, but this painting portrays it well. Although this painting came long before the study of psychology, it is still relevant to it. If you find this interesting, I encourage you to do further research.
The sexuality between young boy and mother is clear. There is emphasis of childlike features when looking at Cupid’s head, but his body is closer to that of a young adult. As we can see, Bronzino was an incredible artist and clearly understood anatomical proportion, so why would he paint Cupid this way?
To show the love between mother and son at various stages of life, in my opinion. Young boys tend to be closer to their mother than anyone else in childhood (hence the complex) and here we see Cupid’s child-self kissing his mother. The young adult body shows a different situation, it is closer to the Genital stage in Freuds developmental chart. In this stage (puberty to adult) adolescents begin to become sexually experimental. This is evident with Cupid groping Venus’ breast.
Another idea deals with Venus taking Cupid’s arrow of love. This could mean a few things. The first is that even though mothers are (or supposed to be) loving and caring towards their children, they can also be the opposite. When we are young, we don’t understand why our mother might yell at us or treat us poorly. We don’t see her struggles or even realize that she is a real person with real emotions usually until we are well into adulthood.
Our mothers, especially for boys, can be the person who teaches us that love is a beautiful and necessary part of life, or can teach us that love is manipulation, guilt, abuse, or otherwise. In this painting we see the action taking place, but not the reaction. We don’t know what Venus is going to do with the arrow. We don’t know how Cupid will react when he realizes she has stolen it. And we don’t know how this situation as a whole will shape him into an adult.
The second explanation relates to man vs. nature, that although we have no choice but to trust and love her, hence, mother nature, she still carries the authority over us to rid us of any power or control we might think we have. Any plans (order in our lives) we have can be ruined at any moment, and when this happens, we slip into chaos. We slip back into the true identity of nature.
The other detail I would like to discuss are the masks below the boy. The masks represent the personas among people, and even gods. These items connect to Oblivion because he appears to have a mask as a face. The ambiguity of Oblivion is brilliant because it reinforces the idea that we only know what he is on the surface and keeps us guessing at who he might be. It would be ideal to think people are what they seem to be in our minds, but as we’ve learned, that isn’t the case.
The masks also connect to Deceit because she is hiding her truth, just as the masks hide a person’s true form. Each character has been painted with the purpose of making the viewer look closer and think deeper. They have a perfected persona on the outside, and we identify them with our interpretation of this. But then we can see their actions, and this shows us a peek at who they really are. The masks have been included to remind us that no one is who we think they are.
An Allegory with Cupid and Venus is by far one of my favorite Mannerist paintings. It simultaneously consists of qualities taken from artistic masters before its time while still bringing fresh ideas into the art world. It has held my attention every time I have seen it as I’m sure it’s done for thousands of other artists. The longer time goes on and strays further from this painting, and the more society progresses from the state of humanity in the time this was created, I believe the true and original meaning is slowly lost and unrecoverable.
The final and jarring conclusion I have come to is that Father Time is actually holding up the fabric of time. Although we see the painting and can attempt an answer, the answer sits with Bronzino in the grave. It is still hidden behind this blue sheet of time.
The truth is that we will most likely never have a definite answer but rather interpretations. Whether that be our own or those of the ones that choose to chime in. But maybe those perceptions of it are even more important in the long run. Maybe it’s the collection of thoughts from people that keep the painting alive. Maybe the authenticity of the piece sits inside the minds of its viewers and expands itself through time and perspective. In the end, it is the creative observer that has to dismantle this sheet of time to reveal their own truth behind the piece.