It’s Saturday night, so I thought I would throw a bit of kink (well as kinky as art from the 1500’s gets) at you. I can’t say I love this piece, but it is fascinating. There is no denying the eroticism presented by Bronzino in this incest ridden picture. I don’t think he intended this as an advert for incest though, rather just used the figures of Venus and Cupid as representatives of the male and female form. We see a fairly passionate kiss between the central couple, with a cheeky bit of nipple play, Venus clasping Cupid’s arrow seductively.
Around them a child throws rose petals at them, while another offers them honeycomb (a symbol of temptation). Father Time (symbolised by the hour glass) in the top right hand corner tries to shroud the couple from Oblivion (the character in the top left), while Jealousy is to the middle left of the couple, screaming.
Venus (being the roman version of Aphrodite) holds the golden apple of discord, a common indicator that the women was Venus… check out the story of the judgement of Paris for the reasons why. At her feet are the masks which look like the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy.
On the surface this looks to be an embodiment of eroticism, gods in human form extolling what they are known for, desire, lust and attraction, but as has all art, this picture has been pored over by experts and there is a theory that there is a much darker meaning.
The suggested allegory of this piece, is said to an an allegory of syphillis. This is the theory we will explore in this article. Physicians of the time were well versed in the symptoms of syphillis and the painful and devestating effects that it had on a person, but they were also powerless against it with little being know about the transfer of bacteria at the time there was no known cure. Syphillis was known as the ‘new plague’ and was so linked with the ‘act of Venus’ so it was also called venereal disease.
Let’s take a closer look. Venus and Cupid still stand for the portrayal of lust and sexuality, their brazen display the central focal point. Look to Father Time in the top right hand corner, where originally I said that he was trying to shroud the act before him, it’s actually Oblivion trying to hide the act and Father Time trying to uncover it, as if saying that these acts will have later repurcussions.
Oblivion is shown with a vacant expressions, an eye missing and no top to her skull. This tries to symbolise that the act is unseen and there is no consequence to their passion.
Jealousy, where before seen as screaming displays the clinical symptoms of the disease.
Where shall I start? The hair…it’s straggly and patchy, syphillis was known to give alopecia in later stages. The fingers are swollen at the knuckles and a finger nail is missing. Teeth are missing and the skin colour is grey, which actually could be put down to mercury poisoning, mercury being the treatment which was given…to no avail I hasten to add. What has been said to be a scream of jealousy can now be thought to be a scream of anguish and pain. This character unveiled by Father Time as a prophecy of things to come.
The child offering honeycomb…take a closer look. She’s actually the head and arms of a child but the body of a serpent and legs of a lion. Well we all know serpents represent bad things…right? So the honeycomb, much like the apple in the garden of Eden, shows the temptation and the serpentine body indicates the deceit and tragedy a foot.
Surely the child with the roses is safe? No, look closer at the feet.
You can see that the foot is punctured by a thorn, probably of the roses he is throwing. But the child’s face is so happy, why isn’t his face contorted with pain, I mean I only have to bang my toe and I’m considering the need for a lie down in a darkened room. Loss of sensation is another symptom of syphillis, so the child dances around with reckless abandon unaware that there is a hole in his foot.
The allegory of the painting is still debated to this day, but to me, Bronzino captures the clinical symptoms of syphillis far too well for this to be a coincidence. This painting being the leaflet of the dangers of free love of its day.
Bronzino does masterfully capture the expressionism in this paining, exaggerating the movements of the bodies and facial expressions, capturing each characters motive in the scene perfectly.
What do you think? Is this the warning poster of its day, or do you have another theory? Why not tell me what you think in the comments…
You may want to know that my historical novel Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544, will be republished in May after having originally been published in 2003.