For the obvious reasons, February is associated with love and nothing seems more appropriate than to finish the month discussing a piece of art that simultaneously reveres and ridicules love. The Allegory of Love, or Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time was executed by Agnolo Bronzino in 1546. Vasari wrote that the finished canvas was given to King Francis I (of France), although by whom we cannot be sure — potentially Cosimo I de Medici or Mannerist painter Francesco Salviati. Either way, it is apparent that it was in an attempt of flattery to the king, with its dense iconography, detailed narrative, and complex composition.
On the surface, this work is aesthetically enticing due to the focus on tonal modelling, facial expression and radiant white light in which the central figures are bathed. We are drawn to Venus, who sits with legs pulled to her left hand side in a failed attempt at modesty. Her torso is twisted in a serpentinata pose, hand gently placed on Cupid’s head. Her face is seen in side profile, looking up to Cupid, who bends down before her, tenderly addressing her. They are identifiable from their respective attributes: Venus holding the golden apple that was bestowed upon her at the Judgement of Paris in her left hand, whilst Cupid has his quiver of arrows slung over his back. There is a putti on the right of the scene, modelled in sculptural detail, throwing a bunch of roses over the back of the pair of Venus and Cupid. This figure can be identified as Folly, with his mischievous glare at the pair in the centre introducing an air of playfulness to the work. Folly, with blushed cheeks and frivolously curly blonde hair, has a thorn in his right foot, which he seems entirely oblivious to. The only muscular form we see is an old man, recognised as Time, who appears to be drawing a deep blue curtain over the two main figures. His attribute of the hourglass can be spotted over his right shoulder.
As one works their way around the scene, the eroticism of the work starts to jump out at us. Looking back to the facial expressions of the mother and son, their eyes are locked, and their mouths too. Venus’ tongue is slyly slipping out of her own mouth and into that of Cupid. We now also become aware of the profoundly detailed right hand of Cupid, which fondles his mother’s breast. Moving clockwise around the work, we see a grotesque figure that looks away from the scene, screaming and grasping her hair. Her skin is a sickly green, which potentially identifies her as Jealousy, although in the context of the work, we might believe she represents syphilis, a disease that is often the result of unprotected, unwise or frivolous intercourse. At the top left, our eye is drawn to a mask-like face and eyeless sockets — suggested to represent Oblivion because of the absence of facial character. She has a laurel leaf in her hair that alludes to Bronzino’s alternate profession as a poet, and his work is justified. Additionally, she is placed facing Folly (with the thorn in his foot) on the same diagonal, like one is the reflection of the other. In other words, recklessness and mischief easily translate into obliviousness to safety, health and morality.
We are aware that Cupid is Venus’ son, and therefore cannot ignore the incest that Bronzino has placed before our eyes. It may have appealed to the French and Italian courts that it was intended for, but somehow the appeal to us is not apparent. The title of the work includes ‘allegory’ due to the painting’s lack of representation of actual human beings, but in fact, ‘weirdly phantasmagorical embodiments of what they represent in the scale of good and evil.’ Michael Glover compares them to the figures in Edmund Spenser’s poem The Fairie Queene, where the figures of Una and Gloriana don’t represent human beings, but instead they are embodiments of moral matter. This rings true for the figures of Syphilis, Folly and Time, who all contribute to the ultimate meaning ensued by the two central figures. The work is so pleasing to the eye, in the gorgeous billowing fabrics, rich colours, and beautiful modelling, that the viewer is drawn into the deceit, and it can be tempting to ignore the potential morals presented by Bronzino: It is folly to encourage the incestuous, immoral acts that we see and the consequences of these mistakes are rupturing and lifelong. The last moral that is conveyed in this work is to always be mindful of what is happening behind one’s back.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.