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Venus, Cupid and Time (Allegory of Lust), Oil by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572, Italy)
This work was probably created at the Tuscan court of Duke Cosimo de' Medici for presentation to the King of France. It was designed as a puzzle, and incorporates symbols and devices from the worlds of mythology and emblematic imagery. It would have made the perfect present for the French king, known for his lusty appetites, yearning after Italian culture and magnificence, and with a liking for heraldry and obscure emblems.
The goddess of love and beauty, identified by the golden apple given to her by Paris and by her doves, has drawn Cupid's arrow. At her feet, masks, perhaps the symbols of sensual nymph and satyr, seem to gaze up at the lovers. Foolish Pleasure, the laughing child, throws rose petals at them, heedless of the thorn piercing his right foot. Behind him Deceit, fair of face, but foul of body, proffers a sweet honeycomb in one hand, concealing the sting in her tail with the other. On the other side of the lovers is a dark figure, formerly called Jealousy but recently plausibly identified as the personification of Syphilis, a disease probably introduced to Europe from the New World and reaching epidemic proportions by 1500.
The symbolic meaning of the central scene is thus revealed to be unchaste love, presided over by Pleasure and abetted by Deceit, and its painful consequences. Oblivion, the figure on the upper left who is shown without physical capacity for remembering, attempts to draw a veil over all, but is prevented by Father Time - possibly alluding to the delayed effects of syphilis. Cold as marble or enamel, the nudes are deployed against the costliest ultramarine blue, and the whole composition, flattened against the picture plane, recalls Bronzino's contemporaneous designs for the duke's new tapestry factories.