Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


Agnolo Bronzino

Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time

Bronzino, Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, c. 1545
Oil on panel, 5 ft 1 in x 4 ft 8 3/4 in
(London, National Gallery of Art)

The following includes edited excerpts from Frederick Hartt, Art: A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), and Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art (Madison: Brown and Benchmark, 1994)

Around 1545, Agnolo Tori, called Bronzino (1503-72), painted a complex verbal allegory usually referred to as Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. It displays the ambivalence of the Mannerist period in life and art. It also illustrates the Mannerist taste for obscure imagery with erotic overtones.

The painting had been ordered by Cosimo de' Medici, the Duke of Florence, and given by him as a diplomatic gift to King Francis I of France. Presumably the imagery appealed to the sophisticated and playfully erotic taste of both the Medici and French courts at this time.

The attention to silky textures, jewels, and masks is consistent with Bronzino's courtly, aristocratic patronage. The figure of Venus appears as a precious object in a luxurious setting, perversely seductive by virtue of her very unapproachability.

Crowded into a compressed foreground space of the airless setting are several figures whose identities and purpose have been the subject of extensive scholarly discussion. The painting appears to be about lust, fraud, and envy. It has also been called a "Triumph of Venus". Its meaning, however, remains elusive.

Venus and her son Cupid are easily recognizable as the two figures in the left foreground. Both are nude, and bathed in a white light that creates a porcelain skin texture. Cupid fondles his mother's breast and kisses her lips. To the right, a nude putto with a lascivious expression dances forward and scatters flowers.

All three twist in the Mannerist "figura serpentinata" (a 'serpentine' or spiralling) pose. But only the putto's pose seems required by his action. The undulating forms of Venus and Cupid are rendered for their own sake rather than to serve narrative logic. Bald, bearded Time at the upper right, assisted by Truth (or is it Deceit?) at the upper left, draws aside a curtain to reveal the incestuous transgressions of Venus and the adolescent Cupid, pelted with rose petals by a laughing boy (Folly). At the lower left are Venus' doves.

The identity of the remaining figures is less certain. The old hag tearing her own hair has been called Envy (or Jealousy), and the creature behind the putto at the right, with a girl's face but whose body ends in the legs of a lion and a scaly serpent's tail and who extends a honeycomb with her left hand attached to her right arm, has been identified as Fraud (or is she Deceit? or perhaps Pleasure?). There is, however, no consensus on their identification.