Angolo Bronzino – Allegory of love (Venus, Amor and father time)

by Alexandra Tuschka


This is a truly strange painting. In the center of the picture, a naked woman can be seen, taking up the format. The right arm she has raised, in the hand a golden arrow, the left hangs loosely down, here she holds a golden ball in her hand. The body she shows us frontally, the face is seen in profile, here we see that she wears a crown. She is pulled by a young man, almost still a child, to the kiss and touched indecently at the breast, the nipple is twirled by this between the fingers. During these gestures, the boy wants to reach for the crown. His pale buttocks bulge outward and are clearly visible in the left edge of the picture. On his back is a quiver with arrows.


On the right side, a similarly curled boy, only younger, comes into the picture with a handful of rose petals, which he probably wants to scatter, and a bell band on his ankle. He seems to be highly pleased with the sight that presents itself. And what there still everything in the background romps is unbelievable! Below right are a few discarded masks, behind the boy is a female hybrid creature to recognize, she holds a sweet honeycomb in her hand. In the upper right, a muscular old man, apparently angry, can be seen looking out to the left edge of the picture. On his back is a wing and an hourglass. His movement is dynamic, has he just come into the picture angry?


In the upper left, a lady can be seen in profile, her frightened face with her mouth open, and her hand bent into a claw. However, she appears to be like a broken statue, as half of her head is missing. Below her, a sallow person is in madness. He has his mouth open, his hands are tussling his hair.

The woman in the center is Venus. The golden apple, which Paris gave her and distinguished her as "The Most Beautiful", and the pair of doves at the bottom right are her attributes; Cupid with the quiver and arrows is also part of her entourage, so to speak, and makes the subject recognizable. This incestuous love is unusual, however, because Venus is Cupid's mother. She has stolen the golden arrow from her son. It is the arrow with which Cupid normally aims at the hearts of other men and gods, thus making them fall in love. Venus obviously wants to enjoy this feeling and thrust the arrow into her own heart.


What is it about the other figures? The male figure above is well recognizable as "Father Time". He is characterized by an advanced age and the hourglass. Mostly he functions as a reminder in pictures and reminds of transience, so possibly also here. The blue cloth he holds in his hands he could want to put over the lovers, horrified by the forbidden love, or prevent it from being put over the protagonists by the woman on the left. The integration of his figure probably means quite simply: love will not last forever.


We get information about the others from Vasari's note to the "Life of Bronzino" of 1568, where he writes: "He made a picture of singular beauty, which was sent to King Francis in France; in it was a naked Venus with Cupid kissing her, and on one side pleasure and play with other loves; and on the other side deceit, jealousy, and other passions of love."


Thus, a common interpretation is this: the masks below suggest that Venus and Cupid wish to veil, or have veiled, their love; the boy above may embody "pleasure," ready and willing to celebrate the moment exuberantly, but oblivious to the threat of danger. This can be seen here in a small detail, as the boy's right foot is caught in a thorn.


The hybrid creature behind it is reminiscent of two figures. On the one hand, we know creatures consisting of half woman, half snake from the iconography of the Fall. The serpent here sometimes has a woman's head and a snake's body. In this scene, too, the lovers are offered something supposedly tasty, although the sting is already waiting to pounce. Another creature that can be associated is the Egyptian Sphinx, a creature made of half woman, half lion. For here, too, we see the lion's claws clearly at the right edge of the picture. This figure is also a seductress. Therefore, it is mostly interpreted as "deception" or "deception".


The broken woman on the upper left could symbolize oblivion. She is already no longer complete. She is related to Father Time compositionally and through her eye contact. Possibly one of both would like to put the blue cloth over the scene and the other prevent this? If one interprets the gesture of the old man as a prevention, then this results in the subtext: "It is not yet time."


The last, drastic, figure is often identified as "suffering", "jealousy" or even the "syphilis". However, the latter interpretation is questionable, since the painting ended up at the French court and the disease, sometimes known as the "French disease", would have been an insult.


You can only get all the figures under one hat like this with a lot of imagination. It is most likely that Bronzino wanted to bring together the many dimensions of love in one work. That they relate to each other directly or chronologically does not seem obviously intended. Also, the addressee was certainly a major factor influencing the composition of the work: Bronzino was court painter to Cosimo I de Medici. Presumably, the painting was given by him to the ever-lascivious King Francis I of France, who would have taken great pleasure in the tightrope walk between obvious eroticism and yet a deeper layer of meaning.


Angolo Bronzino - Allegory of Love

Oil on wood panel, ca. 1545, 146.1 × 116.2 cm, National Gallery, London