By Abigail Wafer
On the first floor of the House of Trembling Madness in York hangs a large print of Bronzino’s ‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’, or as it also known, ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’ (1545). The brightly coloured, busy Mannerist painting serves to compound the cosy yet macabre atmosphere the pub, and in some ways it does achieve this – the painting is grotesque, explicit and disturbing.
At the foreground we see mother and son, Venus and Cupid, share a kiss, with Cupid holding his mother’s breast whilst attempting to steal her Crown. In the background we see a creature with the face of a girl and the body of a reptile, a screaming figure to the left of Cupid, and the elderly depiction of Time, frantically trying to conceal the scene. The painting is brightly coloured, pastel almost, and is packed with sin, taboo, and erotica, supposedly alluding heavily to the cultural vibrancy and sexual confidence of Renaissance Europe. In typical Mannerist style, the more one stares at the painting, the more distorted and disturbing it becomes. Each figure is disproportionate and grotesque – their stomach, arms and legs seem to be bulging and round. Cupid’s body is far too large for his head, which twists unnaturally.
Despite this, the painting is undisputedly a masterpiece. Once looking at it, many struggle to look away. The painting has depth, and as we look more closely at the piece we fall into the darkness of the painting. The symbolism, and with it the painting itself, becomes multi – faceted, as the viewer realises that the lizard woman has a right hand on her left arm, and the screaming figure displays physical symptoms of syphilis, an epidemic brought to Europe around 50 years before the painting was completed. It becomes more and more hideous, and yet, we still can’t look away. The painting is jarring yet alluring; it draws you in, and as it does so it reveals the extent of its sin.
We experience the painting over time, after having closely studied it, and it slowly reveals itself to the audience. ‘An Allegory with Venus and Cupid’ is therefore complex, taking Classical ideas of beauty and purposely exaggerating them. In this way, and in many others, the painting is one of contrast and juxtaposition. The National Gallery website notes that this painting is a prime example of Mannerism for doing so:
“Reacting against the ideals of harmony, proportion and naturalism of High Renaissance art, Mannerist art emphasised intellectual sophistication, unnatural elegance, artifice and instability.”
Such ‘unnatural elegance’ is surely at play here. Bronzino’s masterpiece is an enigma. It is difficult to decide whether the painting is beautiful or horrible, elegant or wretched, or whether the painting should be stared at or avoided. It is unsurprising that it fits so well in pub full of creepy paintings and comfort food.