Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid

Agnolo di Cosimo Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, c. 1545, oil on panel, 146.1 x 116.2cm (National Gallery, London)

This passage by Vasari is most likely related to this canvas:

And he painted a picture of singular beauty that was sent to King Francis in France, wherein was a nude Venus, with a Cupid who was kissing her, and Pleasure on one side with Play and other Loves, and on the other side Fraud and Jealousy and other passions of love.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, volume 10, trans: Gaston du C. De Vere (London: Medici Society, 1912–15)

[0:00] [music]

[0:05] We’re in the National Gallery in London, looking at one of the most curious, puzzling paintings in all of art history.

[0:13] One of the most disturbing paintings. It’s by a Mannerist painter, Bronzino, who worked in the Medici court.

[0:19] In Florence.

[0:20] It goes by the title “Allegory of Venus and Cupid.”

[0:24] Sometimes it’s called “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time,” but it’s interesting that the National Gallery label only mentions Venus and Cupid, because really those are the only two figures they can identify with any certainty.

[0:37] This painting is a great reminder that art history has a lot of work ahead of it. You can see the primary figure, the largest figure, the female nude that faces us. That’s Venus. Her son, the figure that wraps around her, that kisses her, is Cupid.

[0:50] I find it disturbingly erotic and incestuous. The two figures embrace and kiss, but in a way that is also emptied of any overt eroticism. There’s a kind of icy coolness here at the same time.

[1:07] The coolness that you’re speaking of, the aloofness of those figures, is made even more powerful because her ear and their cheeks are the only things that have any warmth. The rest of the figures are a kind of cool gray-white.

[1:19] But the other figures aren’t. They all seem to express an idea, to stand for something.

[1:26] Well, that’s why this must be a kind of visual poetry.

[1:30] Or a pun, or a riddle.

[1:32] We know that the Court of Cosimo de’ Medici loved that.

[1:35] We think that this was likely a present from Cosimo de’ Medici to King Francis I of France, a great art collector and patron.

[1:43] OK. We’ve established that we have no idea what this painting is about, but let’s spend a moment really looking at the painting carefully, and describing what we do understand.

[1:51] We know this is Venus, in part, because she’s a nude female, front and center. Also, by the fact that she holds in her left hand a golden apple. This was a prize that she had won from Paris; that is a part of the great ancient Greek myth of the Trojan War.

[2:08] In her right hand she holds an arrow that she’s stolen from Cupid, as though disarming him, a subject that we often see in art history.

[2:14] These are typical traits, and so these are two figures that are easy to identify.

[2:18] Although I’ve never seen them shown embracing like this.

[2:21] No. If you follow the zigzag of Cupid’s body, you end at his foot. Just below that, in the very corner of the painting, is a dove, which is another attribute or symbol of Venus.

[2:31] Now, you used the word “zigzag” for Cupid’s body. I think that’s also a term that we could use for Venus’ body. We go from her right hand holding that quiver, across her shoulder, down her torso, and then across her legs.

[2:46] Maybe that’s a metaphor for this whole painting, this kind of zigzagging, this back-and-forth of, “What does this mean?” and “How do these things relate to each other?”

[2:55] Oppositions that construct this painting. If we follow that zigzag down Venus’ body and we move across the legs to the bottom right corner of the painting, we find two masks. We have no idea what they are there for.

[3:08] Masks generally refer to deception, a kind of hiding.

[3:12] Just above the masks, we see another nude figure, a young child, who seems as if he’s about to throw blossoms on the couple.

[3:21] Art historians have speculated that this figure represents pleasure, or folly.

[3:26] Well, he looks incredibly mischievous, doesn’t he?

[3:28] Dr. Harris. He does, and he has bells on his left ankle.

[3:31] More troubling, just behind him is the head of a girl, but on the body of a serpent with the legs of a lion and with the tail of a scorpion.

[3:41] Her face is in shadow, and in her right hand she holds a honeycomb. Her left hand, which is illuminated, tilts back away from us in this way that looks almost anatomically distorted. She seems to hold her tail, but has at the tip of it a stinger.

[3:58] So, on the one hand, she’s holding a honeycomb, which is a traditional symbol of pleasure, and of course, of sweetness.

[4:04] Of temptation.

[4:05] Then there’s the price.

[4:06] Exactly. Above this, a figure who seems to be Father Time, or Chronos in ancient mythology. He’s identifiable by the hourglass that’s on his back.

[4:18] You can actually see that there’s sand pouring through that hourglass if you look very closely. You can also just make out a wing that’s coming out from his body. He helps to frame the upper part of this canvas. At the bottom, Venus’ legs, and then at the top, his arm.

[4:34] I’m interested in the way that his right hand is bent around, so that we see the back of his hand, very much like the young girl/serpent.

[4:42] It’s hard to tell what he’s doing with that hand. Is he pulling this blue cloth away? Or is he seeking to hide it from that figure in the upper left who he’s looking anxiously toward?

[4:54] The figure in the upper left is one of the most contentious. We really don’t know what that figure is. That figure seems to be painted as a mask.

[5:03] Some people have described that figure as “oblivion.” Some people have described that figure as “night.” Some people have described that figure as “fraud.”

[5:11] Below that, we have a figure who is grasping its head with its hands.

[5:16] And screaming.

[5:17] Art historians think this, perhaps, could represent syphilis, the venereal disease. Is this some moral about the cost of pleasure, perhaps, that time reveals? Hard to know.

[5:33] On one side, we have folly. Perhaps, on the other, insane regret. There is this series of oppositions, this lasciviousness, this crossing of boundaries, deeply uncomfortable.

[5:45] We feel uncomfortable. It’s hard to know what Cosimo de’ Medici thought, or the Medici Court, or Francis I, for whom it was likely a gift. It does seem as though it’s a kind of intellectual puzzle, something that had multiple meanings.

[5:59] Unlike the Renaissance paintings that have a sense of balance, harmony, and structure, this painting doesn’t give us any one thing to look at but gives us many things, so our eye moves around the edges, and one thing leads to another. There’s never a conclusion.

[6:15] For me, this painting is a reminder that the conceit that we have, that technology, that our society, that our culture gains more and more, that we learn more and more…it’s a reminder that we’ve also lost, that we’ve forgotten, that the past and its meanings have slipped out of our grasp.

[6:32] It’s quite likely that we’ll never recover what this painting really means.

[6:36] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid," in Smarthistory, December 11, 2015, accessed June 21, 2024,