(National Gallery, London)

    On a rainy summer day in London, I took shelter in the National Gallery and walked from Venus to Venus, thinking about great artists’ various versions of the goddess of love. For Velasquez she is a rare nude. Recumbent on her couch with her lovely back to us, she is more woman than goddess. In a typical passage of Velasquezan naturalism, the curve of her hip, which any other artist would have drawn with exaggerated smoothness, is slightly sharpened by its almost visible bone structure. Such boniness is not a problem a few galleries away, among the Flemish fleshpots of Peter Paul Rubens. Amidst the glorious lushness of his late Judgment of Paris Venus stands flanked (and that is the word) by two other big-assed women as Paris awards her a golden apple that we shall see again soon. Across the museum and a century and a half before Rubens, Botticelli shows us the goddess half-reclined and beautifully gowned. She looks across the long, rectangular panel at Mars, whose pose mirrors hers even though he’s far gone in post-coital sleep. We don’t ordinarily associate Botticelli with explicit sexual imagery, but a couple of passages in this painting border on bawdy. The war god’s right hand is placed tastefully over his crotch, but his fingers are positioned less tastefully, so that they resemble the limp penis and scrotum they are intended to conceal. Venus’s left hand is similarly sexualized: her thumb and forefinger with a fold of gown between them resemble female genitalia. This play of hands is Botticelli’s way of signaling that the goddess of love is ready for another round, while Mr. Macho can’t even wake up, let alone get it up.

    The past was less prudish than we might think. A reading of the Earl of Rochester’s poems or of the far superior erotic passages in Shakespeare and Donne will bring this point home, as will a glance at our fourth and ultimate painting, Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid. To walk from Botticelli to Bronzino is to pass from the optimistic late morning of the Renaissance to its Mannerist late afternoon. (In between, Michelangelo and Raphael presided over high noon; at century’s end, Caravaggio will take us into evening darkness.) It is also to move from a work of implied eroticism to one in which sexuality is blatant and transgressive. The Mannerism of Bronzino, Pontormo, Parmigianino and their contemporaries is the decadent late style of the Renaissance, and like all late styles (the late prose of Henry James, for example) it tends toward excess. It is more artificial, more ornamented, more self-conscious, more explicit than the work of its principal precursor, Michelangelo. And Mannerist paintings hold all this excess together by an excess of stylization. Bronzino’s shallow space, cool palette and intricate system of formal rhymes lock his composition into place and constrain the wild energies of his subject matter. But for all its cold beauty, the Allegory remains an extremely sexy work. Today we might call it pornographic (a word I use in a purely descriptive sense, without a hint of moral censure), and it seems rather incredible that the painting entered the National Gallery in 1860. Maybe even the Victorians were slightly less prudish than we think.

    We know from the shiny golden apple in her hand that the woman posing elegantly at the center of the painting is Venus. She is being embraced by her son Cupid, identifiable by the quiver that hangs from the jeweled sash across his back. The baldheaded graybeard who reaches across the top of the painting is Father Time, as the hourglass perched on his shoulder tells us. These three are the only characters in the painting who can be positively identified. The identities of the other figures can be hypothesized with varying degrees of certainty, but their intended significance is really any interpreter’s guess. It seems clear that the young boy winding up to pitch a handful of rose petals at the embracing couple represents Pleasure or Joy. The figure behind him, though, is more complex and surprising. At first we see a face that seems to protrude out of Pleasure’s side, and we read the figure as an innocent little girl, perhaps the boy’s companion. Then we notice that she has the lower body of a scaly, reptilian creature and a long snake-like tail. Our first impressions are intended to deceive us here, for this creature is a personification of Deception. In one hand she holds a honeycomb or wasp’s nest and in the other an object Erwin Panofsky describes as "a poisonous little animal."1 In his interpretation of this work, Panofsky also notes that the girl’s hands are switched (her right hand attached to her left arm and vice versa–something I didn’t notice in all the time I spent looking at the painting), and he calls her "the most sophisticated symbol of perverted duplicity ever devised by an artist..."2

    The two figures on the far left are much more mysterious. In his 1939 Studies in Iconology, Panofsky identifies the woman in the top left corner as Truth and sees her as assisting Time in unveiling this scene of luxurious lewdness. Later, though, Panofsky became convinced that the woman represents Night and opposes Time’s attempt to lift the veil. Given the mutual antagonism on the two characters’ faces, this later reading is more convincing, but Panofsky’s change of opinion points out yet another ambiguity in the work: if one of the twentieth century’s most highly-respected art scholars can’t say with certainty whether the drapery is being raised or lowered, whether the two figures at the top are in the act of concealing or revealing, how can we be sure? And if we can’t determine exactly what the woman in the corner is doing, we certainly can’t identify her on the basis of her actions. The other figure on the left is even more problematic. Who or what is this howling, hair-tearing apparition? Is it male or female, or is its gender deliberately ambiguous? What can be the reason for such pain or rage or despair? Why is this figure placed so close to the embracing couple? And the larger question, which contains all the others: What the hell does this painting mean?

    I seriously doubt Panofsky’s argument that this is an ultimately moralistic anti-vice allegory "in harmony with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation."3 Bronzino may have intended to paint such an allegory, but as Blake said of Milton, Bronzino is a true artist and "of the Devil’s party without knowing it."4 The mystery, ambiguity and obvious eroticism of this work burn through any attempt to contain it in a moral package. The power of Bronzino’s Allegory is inseparable from its sexual content, and while neither I nor anyone else can present a complete, entirely convincing interpretation of the painting, the work’s eroticism is where any attempt at interpretation should begin.
    Venus slips her tongue between Cupid’s lips while he holds his mother in a lover’s embrace, one hand in her hair, the other cupping her breast. An erect nipple peeks out between his pinching fingers. While Venus is posed as an object of male heterosexual (or lesbian) desire, the sexuality implied by Cupid’s pose is considerably less normative. There is much more than a hint of homoeroticism here. Kneeling on a cushion with his legs apart, Cupid sticks out his firm, boyish buttocks for admiration and penetration. His emerald green quiver seems like an ornate, oversized dildo angled into his anus. And if this looks painful, we should consider the arrow that Venus holds so carefully in her elegant, Mannerist fingers. On one level, the arrow symbolizes Cupid’s power and the fact that Venus has overcome and captured him, but Venus seems to grasp the arrow only so she can drive its sharp point into pale, unblemished flesh (whether her own or Cupid’s isn’t clear). The arrow in the flesh and the quiver in the anus are equally powerful symbols of the implicit violence of sexual penetration, and they are also, not less importantly, a touch of sado-masochism to further spice up the proceedings. And so this single image worthy of the Marquis de Sade combines incest, pedophilia, bisexuality, hetero- and homosexual acts and even S-M. It is a vision of astounding perversity, as transgressive and multifaceted as desire itself.

    And desire is, I believe, the point of it all. Bronzino’s painting is an allegory of polymorphous desire unveiled and unmasked (hence the drapery in the background, hence the discarded masks beside Venus’s foot) and ringed round with its complexities. We see personified Pleasure accompanying love, but Deceit crouches behind him, symbolizing the deception (including self-deception) that lurks behind our greatest joys and haunts our most carefree moments. Time looms over love as over all our activities, and the ambiguity of his gesture, both revealing and concealing the scene, reflects a dual aspect of Time. He is both human time, in which truth is revealed, and the much longer duration in which all secrets and all who know them are eternally buried. The woman in the top left corner might indeed be Night, the night of love, opposing the inexorable movement of Time that will bury her in the light of day. And the horrible, howling figure? A representation of the pains of love, perhaps, of desire terribly frustrated. It might also be an image of despair and grief at the inevitability of death, the end of all desire. Or possibly, as others have suggested, it is a personification of Syphilis, a relatively new scourge in the Europe of the 1540's. Throughout the painting, Bronzino shows us the many faces of desire with all its complex contradictions, but he does not judge. One of the most surprising things about this work is the cold, analytical eye the artist casts on a subject so commonly associated with emotional heat. Art historian Arnold Hauser connects the worldview of Mannerism with the cynical realism of the period’s most influential political philosopher, Machiavelli, whom Hauser considers "the first master of exposure, the forerunner of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud."5 It does seem that something of Machiavelli’s non-moralistic, descriptive approach to the realities of Italian politics can be found in Bronzino’s view of the sexual world. Bronzino comes neither to celebrate nor to condemn desire. His goal is objectivity. He remains detached.

    Let us consider this detachment. Earlier generations of Renaissance artists, from Masaccio to Leonardo, sought in many of their works to create spaces continuous with the real world. (Leonardo’s Last Supper is the most familiar example.) Theirs was a public art which the public was invited to enter. By contrast, many Mannerist canvases are visions of artificial, enclosed worlds. The spectacles they present are disconnected from the viewer’s reality, unapproachably Other. When we stand before the Allegory and look at these seven figures crowded into a shallow space against a theatrical backcloth, we feel as detached from the pleasures and pains of this scene as Bronzino must have been when he painted it. The artist’s detachment detaches us. Bronzino’s style controls, even freezes, the hot, passionate content of the work, cooling it down for our detached contemplation. This is Dionysian sexuality seen through a hard, Apollonian lens (to invoke the dichotomy underlying Camille Paglia’s marvelous study of decadent art, Sexual Personae). Bronzino’s cramped space and elaborately rhyming composition locks his figures into place like pieces of a puzzle. Time’s long horizontal arm rhymes with Venus’s legs to mark the upper and lower limits of the composition. Venus’s curved right arm is multiply rhymed: with the arm of the howling figure, with Cupid’s identically curved arm and with his curved leg. All three feet along the bottom of the painting are carefully set in parallel, and the angle formed by Pleasure’s forward thigh and rear lower leg mirrors the angle of Cupid’s leg on the opposite side of the painting. The work’s most audacious rhyme, however, is the fact that Pleasure’s torso is a reduced but nearly exact replica of the body of Venus. The two torsos are like the same symphonic chord played once at full volume and then repeated more softly after a pause. In addition to providing a formal armature that contains the work’s sexual power, these rhymes also increase the painting’s detachment (and our own) by making it seem like a completely autonomous thing, a hermetically sealed system referring only to itself. It seems like a purely aesthetic object to be viewed with pure objectivity.

    A very specific subjectivity, however, lies behind Bronzino’s carefully constructed illusion of objectivity. The detachment of this painting parallels the worldview of the aristocratic milieu in which it spent most of its existence. Painted at the Florentine court of Cosimo I de Medici, it was sent to King Francis I of France and apparently spent a couple of centuries in the French royal collection before coming into the possession of the Spencer family. (Yes, those Spencers. The provenance shows that the painting was held for a century at Althorp, the family estate where Princess Diana is now buried.) Aristocracies define themselves through detachment: detachment from the common people, from mundane concerns, even from the forces of history, the rise and fall of Fortune’s wheel. And Bronzino’s Allegory is as detached from the real world as its earliest viewers wanted to be. We see one of those viewers, perhaps, in Bronzino’s portrait of the Florentine poet Laura Battiferra, one of the greatest female portraits ever painted. Dressed in typically exquisite Bronzino finery, she sits against a neutral, airless background, her magnificent head turned away from us in strong profile. She holds a volume of Petrarch open in her hands and indicates a sonnet for our perusal, but our attention lingers on that powerful, hieratic head. More than a portrait of a woman, this is an image of the haughty insularity of her courtly world. Mannerism flourished in the courts of sixteenth-century Europe because it provided its patrons with the elegant, escapist visions they not only wanted but needed to see. At a time when Europe was dividing into armed Catholic and Protestant camps, when overseas imperialism was beginning to draw nations into competition and war, when Rome was sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops and German peasants rose up in armed revolt, the aristocracy filled its palaces with works by Bronzino, Vasari, Pontormo, Rosso and their followers, perhaps finding both solace and self-justification in their beautiful, wish-fulfilling images of a world apart.

    But nothing is truly separate from reality. Even in its exquisite, eternal detachment, Bronzino’s Allegory reflects the anxieties of its age. For in the painting itself, Venus and Cupid are also detached, lost in their incestuous embrace and oblivious to the tumult around them. They might be read against the grain as images of the work’s earliest audience: an oblivious, insular, nearly incestuous aristocracy dreaming of detachment from the world and time, enraptured by visions of elegant hedonism as reality encroaches. More generally, all the social anxiety of the aristocracy in a time of changing fortunes (within living memory, the Medici had been expelled from Florence) is encapsulated here in a single image–an image of the unmasking of desire. Desire is the motive force of human activity and thus the root cause of anxiety. Desire for sex, for power, for love, for money, for celebrity, for anything really. This is why we do what we do. Desire is the fuel of the world, and desire unmasked is the world laid bare. This is as true in our time as in Bronzino’s, not because of any essential element in human nature, but because Bronzino’s culture is a direct ancestor of our own. Imperialism left the stamp of European culture on the entire world. All of us are its inheritors. The power of Bronzino’s Allegory is that it shows us an image of ourselves, of our motivations and their dangers. This is not an allegory in the service of church, state or morality. It is an anxious mirror in which viewers must try desperately not to see themselves.

1. Panofsky, Iconology, 90.

2. Ibid., 90.

3. Ibid., 91.

4. Blake, Poetry and Prose, 35.

5. Hauser, Social History, vol.2, 119.