An Allegory with Venus and Cupid C1545, 146.1cm X 116.2cm by Bronzino National Gallery, London
Glover, Michael, The Independent (London, England)
Bronzino, son of a Florentine butcher, court painter to Cosimo I de Medici, could be such a tease. The fact is that we seldom know quite know where we are with him. He possesses this quality of brilliantly polished evasiveness. His religious paintings are often almost too erotically glamorous for words. We would die all over again for his dead Jesus. His portraits of members of the court, gorgeously adorned adults or plump-cheeked babes, are too glacially reserved for us ever quite to know what he is thinking about his sitters. Is it liking or loathing? He lacks human warmth, you could say. He doesn't feel for his sitters as Rembrandt felt for his. He is intellectually removed. He scorns or inwardly mocks just as much as he preens and flatters.
But he has so much else by way of compensation. Is it a kind of moral perversity? Perhaps. (He wrote amazingly filthy poetry.) And one of his greatest attributes is this ability to force us to forever be holding our judgements in the balance, never, finally, to go for one thing or the other. This allegorical painting on the familiar theme of the ongoing dalliance between Venus and her naughty son Cupid seems to be pointing a fairly stern moral of sorts, which could be this: always be mindful of what is going on behind your back. Never trust seeming. At the same time, it is offering up to us eroticism on a gilded dish, complete with the billowing of gorgeous fabrics, pink, blue, green, yellow. It is all so pleasing to the eye, every element of this grand, peackockish display. It is also quite slippery and malign. Beneath all the suave sheen of its surface glamour, there are bestial gruntings and heavings.
It calls itself an allegory, and immediately, in our pursuit of the elusive meanings of that word, we find ourselves thinking forward just a few decades to a great literary allegory written by the English poet Edmund Spenser called "The Faerie Queene". That long, unfinished poem teems with allegorical personages - Lady Una, Gloriana and the rest - whom we never really get to know because they are nothing but uncomplicated embodiments of their moral attributes. …