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Greek mythology

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.

Scylla and Charybdis

By Elevenses, Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, Talking art

Today we are between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. In times past folks may have been more worried about being between Scylla and Charybdis which, to be honest, is a pretty terrible place to be as anyone who has ever passed through the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily will know.

Who or what are Scylla and Charybdis?

This is a fresco from a cycle of works about Ulysses or Odysseus who had the journey of all journeys home from Troy, and as part of this nightmare had to pass through the Straits of Messina.

Ulysses fresco Scylla nd Charybdis

Alessandro Allori, Scylla from the Ulysses Cycle, 1575, Palazzo Salviati, Florence

Charybdis is depicted on the bottom right of the fresco and was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon, the Sea God, and Gaia, the Earth Goddess, which is funny because I always thought of her as a man; she definitely looks like an old man here.

As with many stories in Greek mythology, Charybdis had a better start in life which, thanks to Zeus, has now somewhat gone down the drain.

Being the daughter of Poseidon, she was closer to him than she was to her uncle Zeus and so when Poseidon requested that she help him increase the size of his realm by flooding large areas of land with seawater, she acquiesced only to incur the wrath of Zeus. No one wants the wrath of Zeus because he’s nothing if not inventive. As Charybdis’s punishment, she was turned into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.

Scylla may have had an even more dramatic and terrible transformation as she was a beautiful nymph, possibly or possibly not the daughter of Lamia, who got herself turned into a terrible monster, destined to be trapped in the rocks opposite Charybdis. Her monstrosity took the form of six ravenous heads that yapped like dogs and had three rows of sharp teeth to tear apart any sailor that came within reach. Unfortunately, six of Odysseus’s men were lost to her as we see here. You have to love the fact that the remaining men simply seem mildly curious at the fate of their fellow sailors.

The Strait of Messina is, by the way, extremely dangerous so who knows, perhaps the legends were created to fit the geography rather than the other way round?! Controversial!

Here Scylla is again on this krater from classical antiquity. I’m not sure those dogs look particularly terrifying?! It’s curious that she has a serpentine tail and carries a fish knife. Arguably depictions of her altered after Ovid’s Metamorphosis became widely known and most artists took their cue from his description:

She frantically felt for the flesh of her thighs, her legs and her feet,
but all that she found was a cluster of gaping hell-hounds.
She’d nothing to stand on but rabid dogs whose bestial backs she was holding
in check beneath her truncated loins and protuberant belly (trans. David Raeburn)

Louvre Krater, Scylla

Krater from Classical period, circa 450-425BC, Louvre, Paris

Let’s go back to the story of Scylla because you would imagine that she must have done something truly horrific to have such a grim destiny.

The truth is that she did absolutely nothing wrong except attract the wrong man. Here he is. This is Glaucus, at least as Rubens imagined him, and I find it very hard to believe that Scylla wasn’t interested but she wasn’t.

Glaucus Rubens

Glaucus was extremely interested in her, however, oh yes! So much so that he went to the witch Circe to ask her make him a love potion to give to Scylla. But what does Circe do instead? She gives him a draft that turns Scylla into a monster. Why? Because Glaucus is irresistible to at least one lady in this story! Circe doesn’t get her man, however, she gets exiled instead and wreaks havoc elsewhere.

Circe isn’t in this image but here is the lovely Scylla who looks as though she’s just taken all her unruly dogs for a walk by the sea wearing only a transparent wisp of material and hopefully a lot of SPF 50. The model was Rubens’ second wife Helen Fourment who was 37 years his junior and to his evident delight, very happy to pose nude.

Rubens, Scylla and Glaucus, 1636, Musée Bonnat-Hellau, France

If we know what Rubens’ main concern was (he painted Helen as often as he could and absolutely adored her), Turner’s is also obvious. Same scene, completely different focus! Look at that sun – the light is just fantastic as you would expect from Turner. BUT although we know that he excelled at painting dramatic light effects, the sun is sort of part of the story. Guess who Circe’s father was? Helios the Sun God. Circe’s presence can be said, therefore, to radiate throughout this work. Apparently, although it’s square, it was also intended to be framed in a circular frame making the reference to the sun even more implicit. This was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 where it was ridiculed for being indistinct and lacking detail.

Glaucus and Scylla Turner

J. M. W. Turner, Scylla and Glaucus, 1841, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

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