Bronzino - An Allegory with Venus and Cupid. (c.1545)
Sometimes a piece of information comes your way that irrevocably changes the way you look at a work of art. Take for example Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers; stand behind some gallery visitors admiring it in the National Gallery and you’ll inevitably hear one of two things.
First that Van Gogh was a lunatic who cut off his own ear. People look for clues in the work and usually come the conclusion that you can somehow ‘see’ this madness in the painting; it’s fevered brush strokes and it’s obsessive yellowness seen somehow as a means of diagnosing the mental state of the artist. Of course this is a clumsy connection to draw – if thick impasto brushstrokes were a symptom of mental illness then Frank Auerbach would have been sectioned long ago.
The other thing that is commonly heard in front of the Sunflowers is discussion of the vast price that was paid for the work at auction – even though it was in fact a different version of the painting that set records in 1987.
Both these pieces of information, although not entirely accurate, affect the viewing of the painting by being part of the Van Gogh myth. The myth plays as much a part in the creating the meaning of the painting as do the historical facts of its manufacture.
Sometimes though, these snippets of information can be so far removed and apparently irrelevant to the work yet still change the way you see an artwork forever.
I’d always been intrigued by Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, amongst all the nudes in the National Gallery, this strange depiction of Venus and Cupid in a lover’s embrace seemed a bawdy and shocking painting and it’s worth considering what headlines might be produced if a contemporary artist created a work depicting a similar subject. Even at the time of it’s acquisition by the National in 1860, Charles Eastlake, the then director of the gallery, took steps to make it ‘safe’ for public viewing by having certain details hidden by the addition of strategically placed branches of myrtle and by deleting, by overpainting, Venus’s tongue, which contemporary viewers can see slipping into her sons mouth. There was even much discussion about how the painting should be titled, An Allegory with Venus and Cupid finally being chosen as a neutral designation that would avoid drawing too much attention to the incestuous scene.
But more than that, what continues to fascinate about Brozino’s canvas is the sheer lack of information that exists about it. All that’s known is that it was commissioned as a gift for King Francis I of France, most probably by Cosimo I de Medici. Beyond that we know practically nothing and consequently the symbolic meaning of the painting and its strange cast of characters is something that art historians will enthusiastically disagree with each other about from now until doomsday.
The haggard, screaming figure to the left of Cupid, for example, has variously been identified as Despair, Jealousy or even in some account a personification of the ravages of syphilis. The female child to Venus’s right, who attempts to hide her scaled and feathered body behind the boy throwing rose petals and offering a dripping honeycomb to the lovers, may be Pleasure or Fraud. Everything in the painting is loaded with symbolism and meaning, the fact that Venus is grabbing one of Cupid’s arrows, the Golden Apple that she holds and the masks of comedy and tragedy that lie abandoned at her feet.
It’s a great puzzle of a painting, and one that more than likely will never be solved. But there’s one piece of information about the painting that has nothing to do with its life in 16th century Florence or France, that has nothing to do with the riddle of its symbolism or the negotiations that Eastlake and his team of restorers went through to avoid its display bring about the moral collapse of Victorian gallery visitors.
When I stand in front of this painting the first thing I notice now is Cupid’s right foot in the bottom left hand corner of the picture, seemingly about to trample on a dove. Take a close look – have you seen that foot before somewhere? Do you find yourself humming the opening bars of Sousa’s Liberty Bell? Perhaps you start thinking of dead parrots and transvestite lumberjacks.
It’s the foot that squishes down in Terry Gilliam’s opening animation sequence for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Of course it’s got nothing to do with the meaning of the work in any rigorously academic way, but it does add to my enjoyment of the painting. It’s cheeky little detail in an already cheeky image; a subversive little footnote (sorry) to an already subversive painting and one that goes to show that the story of an artwork doesn’t end once it’s hung in a gallery.