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February 2022

Bronzino’s (slightly upsetting) Allegory with Venus and Cupid part 2

By Bronzino, Elevenses, Greek mythology, Renaissance Art, Talking art

So we’ve established that Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid is rather disturbing, not least because Venus and Cupid, who are mother and son, are kissing with tongues. But what’s it all about? Well, as the name ‘Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ suggests, the cast of characters in this work all have meanings that transcend the confines of the work.

Father Time

In the top right corner is Father Time with wings and an hourglass on his back. He is either pulling back this gorgeous blue cloth to reveal the scene or is desperately trying to cover it up. Either way, it adds to the theatrical artificiality of the painting.

The mischievous little fellow below him is Pleasure or Folly. He is gaily about to throw blossoms over the embracing couple but in doing so he’s also about to tread on a thorn.

And then we have the figure behind Folly. She is another indication that things are perhaps not all as they seem, or at least that they aren’t straight forward..

allegory with venus and cupid

Folly stepping on a thorn



This figure is usually identified as deception. She has a gorgeous face, but the body of a serpent, legs of lion, and a scorpion’s tail. In one hand she’s holding a honey-comb which signifies pleasure and temptation, but then in the other hand she’s holding the sting from her tail. So we are beginning to get a sense of the tone of the work. You can’t have pleasure without pain perhaps, or that it’s dangerous to take things at face value? We certainly can’t take her at face value. Her hands look anatomically distorted which they are because they’ve been swapped and her right has become her left and her left her right. Could things get any stranger?

Bronzino Folly and Deception

Folly and Deception

Bronzino Allegory Syphilis and Night

Syphilis and Oblivion

Masks also often signify deception; the figure in the top left corner is very strange and seems to be wearing a mask, but stranger still is that there’s nothing behind it. This is one of the most contentious figures in the work and has been identified as oblivion, fraud, or night.

And finally, we have the figure on the left which for centuries was referred to as jealously. Now, this title is already problematic because allegorical figures are generally gendered. And jealousy is feminine. I don’t, however, feel that this is a woman. The suggestion is that it’s in fact a representation of syphilis.

In 1545 syphilis was rife and the symptoms were well documented. They included headaches, discoloration of skin, gnarled hands, decayed teeth (because of the mercury used to treat syphilis) and disfiguration. Does this figure look as though they are suffering from any or all of the above? I think they do.

With this in mind, the other figures now have context. Time (Father Time) is ticking as life ebbs away although as many sufferers experienced, the disease would seem to disappear only to burst forth with a vengeance after a year or so. Just as night (Oblivion or Night) follows day. To avoid suffering, be careful where you take your pleasure as it’s legacy may bring pain (Deception); perhaps it’s best to avoid the folly of sexual promiscuity in the first place (Folly).

But what of Venus and Cupid?

Well, that kiss and the nipple tweak alludes to the belief that syphilis could be contracted in the womb and passed from mother to baby through breast milk. As for the proffered bottom, it’s an insinuation that the homosexual community were as much to blame.

So ultimately this is a moral tale about the cost of pleasure. And it’s also an intellectual puzzle, unlike most earlier Renaissance works that celebrated balance and structure and harmony, here your eyes are going crazy – it puts you in a bit of whirl just like the throws of passion that can lead to the sort of situation in which you might catch something nasty.

But who on earth would commission such a strange painting? Bronzino worked in the Medici court and this work was gifted by Cosimo I de Medici to Francois I of France (in around 1545). Fortunately no diplomatic incident was recorded. Who’s to know whether Francois ever managed to unpick the complexities of this curious piece?

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Bronzino’s (slightly upsetting) Allegory with Venus and Cupid part 1

By Bronzino, Elevenses, Renaissance Art, Talking art

Bronzino’s SLIGHTLY upsetting painting An Allegory with Venus and Cupid? It depicts a very saucy incestuous kiss. I’d say it’s upsetting!

Bronzino was a mannerist painter. Before we go on, let’s quickly address mannerism: throughout the Renaissance, the highest artistic attainment was to successfully paint the human body. From the 1520’s it became the fashion to exaggerate and sometimes even distort the body, to create a more artificial composition to show off techniques and skills. So, Cupid’s protruding bottom is just to show off a technique? Maybe not but we’ll come onto that.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid

Bronzino, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, 1545, National Gallery, London

If Bronzino was going for artificial, he definitely achieved it. The light source is bright white. The colours are bright and each individual subject or item in the painting has been carefully outlined and equally prioritised. The overall effect is a bit like enamel because the brushstrokes are completely invisible. The overall effect, before you get into any detail (!), is luxurious and visually appealing. Indeed, Bronzino has made abundant use of ultramarine blue, made from the  semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which weight for weight was more expensive than gold.

Bronzino Venus and Cupid

When you get up close to this work, however, it really is quite disturbing. Let’s address the fact that it involves an incestuous kiss because, yes, there is a little bit of tongue action, not to mention the nipple tweaking, and these ‘main’ characters are Venus and Cupid who are mother and son.

They’re the only two characters universally agreed on by art historians. How do we identify them?

This central character has pearls in her hair and is holding a golden ball, which is actually a golden apple – if you recall the story of the Judgement of Paris, he awards Venus the golden apple thereby inadvertently kicking off the Trojan war. The doves to the bottom left are also symbols of Venus. Where there’s a kid with wings and arrows in the vicinity of Venus, we can be fairly sure it’s her son, Cupid.

Why are they kissing that way? We’ll come onto that but no wonder it was considered a bold move when the National Gallery’s first director Charles Eastlake bought the work for the National Gallery in 1860 from a dealer in Paris. Apparently, its last French owner kept it concealed behind a veil. Although Charles Eastlake thought the picture perfectly moral, he knew “clergymen & others” would not, so he asked his restorer to paint out Venus’s searchingly protruding tongue and the nipple peeking between Cupid’s fingers.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid had, however, actually been censored even before it came to London (unbeknown to Eastlake and only revealed by the 1958 restoration when they were removed). Earlier moralists had added a veil over Venus’s lap and a myrtle branch covering Cupid’s bottom.

They weren’t the first to make alterations. Bronzino himself overpainted earlier postures for Cupid…but this was to increase rather than obliterate the eroticism.

The question is WHY????? I’ll update the blog with a surprising theory next week…

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Duchamp’s ‘hot arse’ (L.H.O.O.Q)

By Conceptual Art, Duchamp, Elevenses, Talking art

Marcel Duchamp is perhaps most famous for submitting a urinal signed R. Mutt for display in an exhibition in 1917 but this work comes hot on its heels. A cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa complete with a scribbled in moustache and a goatee and the letters L.H.O.O.Q written beneath it.

LHOOQ Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa with added moustache, goatee, and title, 1919, Private Collection, Paris

What does it mean???

Firstly, Duchamp was playing with phonetics; when you read the letters quickly in French it sounds as though you are saying ‘elle a chaud au cul’ or to translate, ‘she’s got a hot arse’, although Duchamp himself gave a loose translation as ‘she’s got a fire down below’.

There are several ways that this can be interpreted.

  1. The feminist reading

‘She’s got a hot arse’, or ‘she’s got a fire down below’ are undeniably sexual comments that invite allusions to the male gaze which isn’t great. It empowers men and objectifies women. Women are reduced to becoming the passive objects of a man’s desire. So the poor Mona Lisa is a dignified woman who is now merely reduced to a sex object.

But that doesn’t really account for the moustache and goatee.

  1. The school boy reading

Duchamp’s work does often have more than a whiff of the playground about it. It’s such a juvenile thing to do to whack facial hair on a sedate lady – he did this in pencil but then added some word play which is admittedly pretty witty. The thing is that then Duchamp passed the work off as an original work of art. He called these works objets trouvés or found objects; basically every day things that he modified in some way. So, yes, playful and silly but there’s thoughtful intent behind his actions… so not totally school boy.

  1. The anti-establishment reading

Let’s just talk about the fact that he chose to ‘enhance’ a postcard of the most famous painting in the world. He may have had his friend Apollinaire in mind when he chose the Mona Lisa. Apollinaire had wrongly been accused of having a connection to the theft of the painting in 1911 but was later acquitted.

Whatever his motive for selecting this work, he’s taking the world renowned masterpiece down a peg or two. He’s poking fun at something sacred! That’s no slight to the lady herself but more of an insult to the madness of the art world and to the swarming masses who blindly worship certain works because it’s the done thing. He’s also, I think, making a little point about the merit – or not – of cheap reproductions.

That would be quite a reasonable reading of LHOOQ but there’s more.

  1. The Freudian reading

With her moustache and beard the Mona Lisa looks more than a little masculine. Duchamp argued that she doesn’t become a woman disguised as a man here but that she actually becomes man. Freud had something to say on the subject of the original work declaring that he believed da Vinci to be homosexual (what a bombshell!!!!) and that there is always male within his portraits of women because he couldn’t identify with the feminine. Essentially their femininity was a flimsy veneer. At the very least he was working with androgyny mused Freud. So, Voila! Who knew that the Mona Lisa was actually a man until Duchamp stuck a moustache on her?!

Duchamp did like playing with gender. He had an alter-ego called Rrose Sélavy, pronouced ‘Eros, c’est la vie’ (‘Eros, that’s life’). I think this was more about exploring ideas of identity and representation than trying to trick anyone or illicit cheap thrills.

Marcel Duchamp_Man Ray 1920

Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1920© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015

Whatever his motive in choosing the Mona Lisa, Duchamp was probably aiming, rather successfully as it happens, to pick apart and challenge everything that art represents. Actually, he dedicated a career to that. With this work he’s also elevating a banal reproduction to something that others wanted to copy in their own right. Duchamp himself also made several replicas, including one that he adapted from his friend Picabia who was so eager to publish a version in his magazine that he knocked a version out himself forgetting the beard. Duchamp later added the goatee and labelled it ‘Moustache par Picabia / barbiche par Marcel Duchamp / avril 1942’.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.