Shot in the Heart: Decoding Bronzino’s Allegory

Gods, goddesses, and creatures, oh my! Bronzino took advantage of such mystical figures to create an intellectually pleasing (and eye-catching!) allegorical painting. Let’s decode the many interlocking secrets hidden throughout An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1545).  

Agnolo Bronzino, painted by unknown artist

First, let’s have a quick meet and greet with the man of the hour: Agnolo di Cosimo, better known as Bronzino (1503-1572)! This man was pop-u-lar in Florence during the mid-16th century. He was the pupil and assistant of Pontormo and he drew fame as the official portrait guy for the Florentine court. Many commissions were for Duke Cosimo de’ Medici and his family. Although, you’ll also see him painting religious compositions and altarpieces! As a court painter, Bronzino is considered a Manneristor paintings that are highly refined, stylized, and figurative. You might say that court goers wanted paintings that were pleasing to look at but also intellectually compelling.  

This style is mirrored in today’s painting, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid. It contains pale, marble-like figures that stand out in their erotic beauty against a rich blue cloth. Some characters have wings or creature-like features. But, most importantly, the figures and objects scattered around the painting work together to present a moral message. This is an allegory, a way to reveal truths about human life through symbolic figures! Still, what message could this painting have? 

Love Deceives

Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, about 1545, © The National Gallery

After looking at the painting, you probably first noticed the intertwined, erotic figures. The nude woman is none other a than Venus, the Roman goddess of love. She is identified by her doves (lower left corner) and the golden apple which, in myth, was given to her by Paris as a symbol of her unmatched beauty. The man holding and kissing her is Cupid, the Roman god of love. Wow, love already seems to be a central theme! What’s striking here is how, despite their loving, lust-filled embrace, both are attempting to deceive the other! Cupid has his sneaky hands around Venus’ fancy crown while Venus has snatched up one of Cupids arrows! Notice the masks by Venus’ feet? Well, as they are gazing at these deceptive lovers, might the masks represent this ability to use lust to disguise deception?  

Pain Follows Pleasure

Close-up of Syphilis Figure

The deception doesn’t stop with the lovely Venus and Cupid, though. If you look to the right, there is a grinning boy about to toss rose petals upon the embracing couple. He is Pleasure. When viewing his feet, you’ll see that he is ignorant of the thorn stabbing his foot! Hmmmm, Pleasure is ignoring the pain that follows him. Might this be another warning? Behind him is Deceit who has a beautiful face but monstrous body. In one hand, Deceit holds a sweet, delicious honeycomb while the other conceals the stinger on her tail. Sweetness can sting (literally!). Again, we are met with a message alluding to the consequences of pleasure and deceit.  

There are painful consequences to acts of love (or lust), pleasure, and deceit. With that, I now draw your eye to the tormented figure behind Cupid. This dark figure has many debated identities. Most notably are Jealousy, Suffering, and Syphilis. By the 1500s, Syphilis was a European epidemic brought from the New World. As a sexually transmitted disease, this suffering figure could be a physical consequence of the erotic couples unchecked love. It’s our very own Public Health message! 

Time vs. Oblivion

Close-up of Oblivion and Time

While all this love, deceit, and pain are happening, the two figures at the painting’s top look to be struggling against each other. The upper-left is Oblivion as shown by a missing brain. Oblivion is attempting to cover the scene, to forget it. But, Time, the bearded man holding back the cloth, won’t let her. PS, we know he is time because of the hourglass near his head! By revealing the scandal, Time is making sure we know that our actions cannot be forgotten or hidden. Although, Time and Oblivion could also reflect the neurological damage of Syphilis (the dementia and the delayed effects).  

In review, Bronzino’s allegory encompasses the consequences of unchecked passion whether through debilitating suffering or deceit. With such rich imagery and meanings, it is no wonder that this painting is still fascinating today!  

What have you found interesting? Any unique interpretations you want to share? Let us know in the comments (I’d love to hear your thoughts!). For a live viewing experience, I encourage you to visit the National Gallery! Want to know about more paintings? Check out some more blog posts! 🙂

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