These are complicated days for everyone. Days of patience, of waiting, of hope, of anger, of expectation, of boredom. Days when you have to dabble in other activities. Who reads (I hope this blog too), who writes, who sees films, who has transferred life online. These are days when news is also heard about the horror of people who put an end to their own life or that of others, in a sometimes striking way.
I don’t know why, but my brain in reading certain news, has made a curious mental association, an iconographic pirouette. Between the general mood of the news of these days and a work of art recently seen in London, her face appeared; my favorite detail is always Her.
A witch, a disturbing figure. A serene representation with hands in hair, twisted face and open mouth in a graceless moan. The equivalent in Japanese culture is calledo “kijo”, although not with the same meaning. The image of a bad endurance, hysteria in certain cases, having not certainties in a period like this. In short, all that you breathe now, has reminded me, for a very brief moment, of this wonderful (artistically) and semi-hidden figure, present in a larger picture, but with a dense and articulated iconographic meaning.
And we will talk about Her, only Her: The person in the background, will be your protagonist! She will surpass the grace of naked Venus, everytime protagonist.
The work is: “Allegory of the Triumph of Venus and Cupid” dated between 1540 and ’45, painted by one of my darlings in the history of art, half Renaissance, half Mannerist, Agnolo Bronzino. The artist is famous, the work even more. At first glance is an extraordinary iconographic representation of the goddess of love in the company of her favorite son, the god Cupid, this time in adolescence instead of the usual tender and pink cherub. It is an allegory or one, or a series, of abstract concepts represented in realistic form, for example human. We have Venus, Love and Cupid, falling in love.
The brilliance of the colors and the decidedly unusual shapes already make it an interesting image to see, instead of the seraphic images of saints, blessed and sweetened divinities that cloaked the whole territory of the Renaissance for a century. But in truth this allegory represents an intricate game of interpretation, with characters of multiple meanings; represents, in its well-known sense, a sort of warning to everything that is hidden behind Love and its physical and mental implications, revealed only completely by Time.
This work was commissioned by Cosimo I De ‘Medici – the last duke of Florence – who at the time sought to attract favors from neighboring rulers such as Francis I of France (to whom he sent the painting) and the viceroy of Naples (of whom he married her daughter, Eleonor of Toledo). It wanted to be an allegory with a refined meaning, capable of being understood by people of culturally high rank.
The figures around the protagonists are all allegorical references to the effects that Love and Sex can provoke for the man who lets himself go completely: deception, madness, injury, bewilderment. These in particular represented by the cherub with rose petals in hand and the pretty little girl who actually hides a monster body.
The figure behind Venus, the old screaming with greenish body, has been commonly interpreted as Jealousy: of the fact that She is now ugly and falling behind the shoulders of the wonderful Venus; the fact that jealousy often makes people furious, blind and completely disorganized. As a union of image and concept, it works very well. In some of his charcoal studies, the artist was immediately convinced of depicting her like this, in the grip of despondency.
It is well known that Bronzino was a follower of the Neoplatonic movement: and this work is rich in references. Meanwhile, aesthetic beauty was relevant for the achievement of a consistent ontological dimension (the idea, the logos, the thinking being, the cogito ergo sum); hence the connection between what is beautiful and what is good (good interpreted as sensible and wise) by taking up the Greek kalos kai agathos (what is beautiful is also good). So, also an abstract and negative feeling, such as Jealousy, was represented in the “bad” version was very common, even in the history of not-Neoplatonic art.
She represents an opposite of all that can be considered Love: She is ugly, while Venus is beautiful; She is old, where V. is young, desired and desirable. The opposite of balanced love can very often be crazy jealousy.
The revelation of doubles, of opposites (we love so much here!) was also part of the Neoplatonic ideal. Through high-caliber actions and behavior, the background and dark sides of everything could be revealed. So the unhealthy side of Love could have been jealousy or something more. Let’s say, whatever allegorical figure it is, it is not something healthy.
The greenish complexion does not fully justify her malice. Bronzino could have used the position, the face and the attitude to make the idea of evil, but also give her of a pink complexion like all the other characters. Even the winged figure who pulls aside the blue cloth, although old, reveals a rather healthy complexion. For the record, that’s Father Time with an hourglass on his back. So why do you have such an unhealthy color?
Another clue is the fact that She, with mouth open, shows her teeth. Showing teeth, tongue and in general an open mouth, in classical iconology was a characteristic of the mentally ill or in any case of individuals who had no control over their mimesis and reactions. In the same picture, the little putto with the flowers in his hand (which should represent Madness) shows his teeth with a semi-obtuse smile; Venus herself is kissing her son (and already that is not a sign of so much balance …) but even with a sensual and not too hidden tongue.
She may also be Jealousy, but she is certainly a sick, livid jealousy (perhaps the chromatic choice from them), out of her mind. A few years earlier, between 1514 and ’16, the painter Dosso Dossi had created an original work entitled “The Quarrel“, presenting it as an allegory of Wrath. Two women are portrayed in anger in an attempt to strangle themselves, discomposed and with their mouths open, screaming and cursing. Another character chuckles mischievously, with a behavior very similar to that of Bronzino’s ruddy madness. Finally, a last character, just like Her, twists her mouth, shows her teeth, pulls her hair and twists her face in an expression of insane loss of control.
Was it possible that Bronzino had seen this work and liked the strong expressiveness of these characters? Maybe! One thing is for sure that when distributing attributes, iconology rarely lets them go and for centuries, in the history of art, showing the oral cavities would have immediately provided you with a tag saying “crazy”. Just think of Messerschmidt’s “Heads of Character“.
Another reference, very close, can be a beautiful engraving by Enea Vico, numismatic and contemporary engraver of our Bronzino, which represented a scene of “Calamity“, the personification of a misfortune. In the engraving, dated 1545-50 (therefore very close temporally to our painting) it is written abandoned and left without clothes and shelter while the female figure complains of her problems with an attitude very similar to Her, with her mouth open and prey to drama. Since the date is almost the same, it could even be that Vico was inspired by our Her for his engrave. This nevertheless implicates She expresses the pain of having lost important things, of being left with nothing.
So we talked about illness, strong emotions and unhealthy complexion. In the 1500s, as well as up to the 1900s and beyond, a plague terrified the patrons of love: syphilis. French sickness, venereal disease, associated with prostitutes and illicit love and for this reason branded as a disease of transgressors of demure conjugal love (ergo, transgressor against the Church). Do you want to know which one of the most popular iconographies has been to represent this lowest, feminine, deceiving disease?
An emaciated, disheveled and greenish-looking woman. Note that he holds out a flower while the other hand holds a snake; like the pretty little girl in our painting who offers a honeycomb, while with her other hand she holds a stinger ready.
Now, this type of representation is decidedly anachronistic, but even in Bronzino’s time there are those who began to see Her as a figure of the disease linked to physical love and no longer just as Jealousy. Something far less neo-Platonic but very physical. After all, “venereal disease” means that the thread that binds her to her partner with white skin is very strong. As if behind the lewd love (remember the tongue…?) There was a risk of finding yourself face to face with Her.
Without wanting to hinder the centenary work of iconographers and historians, since I studied this work and its complexity at the University I saw it as the allegory of a disease, rather than a mental concept such as Jealousy. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked it so much.
I believe it was a true, raw and carnal representation in perfect contrast with the ethereal Venus. I have always been an avid fan of the grotesque, of the repulsive in art.
Maybe that’s why in the days we are living, thinking about an illness and the scenes of desolation that her face appeared to me. And I had to write about Her.
Illustrations: Agnolo Bronzino: “Allegory of the Triumph of Venus and Cupid” detail of Jelousy ca. 1540.45, National Gallery London Agnolo Bronzino: “Allegory of the Triumph of Venus and Cupid” 1540.45, National Gallery London Agnolo Bronzino: Study for an head, 1545, Museum J. Paul Getty, Los Angeles Dosso Dossi: The Quarrel , 1511-1516, Fondation Giorgio Cini, Venice Franz Xaver Messerschmidt: The Yawner, 1770-1781, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava Enea Vico: Calamity, 1545-50,
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