Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time is an allegorical painting by Agnolo Bronzino in the style of the Renaissance Mannerist period. Symbolism is the use of objects, events, and actions to represent certain ideas and/or qualities.
This painting is a very controversial piece of art; notwithstanding its obvious sexual connotations, there is no expert consensus on a specific interpretation for Bronzino's piece. Mannerist art tends to be shocking in terms of its portrayal of sexuality (and its possibilities) and its unconventional distortions of space, anatomy, and color.
Bronzino's masterpiece is no exception to this style; its incestuous portrayal of forbidden love is characterized by Cupid's sexually explicit gesture toward his mother, Venus. Indeed, its erotic qualities would tend to excite the imaginations of the Medici and French courts of Bronzino's time. Many Mannerist paintings explore forbidden sexual topics under the guise of a Classical background.
So, how is symbolism used in this interesting piece? Some symbols include:
1) The apple in Venus' hand.
The apple here represents the apple won by Venus in the Judgment of Paris. Paris, the handsomest man in the world (and a Trojan prince), is tasked with choosing the fairest of the goddesses. To win, Hera offers Paris political power, Athena bribes him with the offer of success in war, and Venus promises Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Venus emerges the eventual winner of the golden apple. The apple is used to symbolize love, fertility, and beauty.
2) Cupid and the putto.
Cupid is also known as the Greek god, Eros, the god of love. Here, Cupid's incestuous sexual gestures toward his mother are evident in the kiss and the possessive hand on Venus' breast. This secular, erotic representation is further reinforced by the image of the putto. Putto are the Renaissance nude little boys who tend to grace paintings highlighting often profane and/or forbidden sexuality. The religious counterpart to the putto would be the cherubim.
The inclusion of the putto (instead of a cherubim) further highlights the non-religious, erotic passion at play.
The presence of the putto is used to symbolize forbidden, obsessive, and even frustrated love. Bronzino's preoccupation with Petrarchan love sonnets is evident in this piece (during his time, Bronzino was both an artist and a poet). Petrarchan love sonnets often highlighted the subject of unapproachable or unattainable beauty, as in Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time. The putto in this painting may also symbolize foolish pleasure. Right behind him is:
3) Deceit, symbolizing the utter hopelessness of indulging in forbidden pleasure.
Deceit holds a honeycomb in one hand and in the other, a scorpion. Here, Deceit is used to symbolize the consequences of indulging in forbidden passion. Her disjointed body presents a pictorially grotesque caricature of the ugliness of deceit. Again, distortions of anatomy and individual bodies are a characteristic trait of Mannerist art.
Jealousy is one of the most interesting figures in this painting. She is represented as the woman who is clutching her head, to the left of Cupid. Her facial expression is frozen in an obscenely grotesque grimace. Some experts contend that forbidden lust (and the subsequent suffering from that lust) can be connected to the Renaissance fear of syphilis. Syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease, was first encountered in 1495 in Renaissance Europe.
This was before antibiotics had been discovered; this early form of syphilis was virulently powerful, its symptoms extremely painful, and its outward manifestations ugly and frightening. Genital ulcers were often accompanied by high fevers, and large, painfully abscessed sores all over the body. The physical suffering endured by early sufferers of syphilis was excruciating. Thus, Bronzino's use of this frightening figure may well have served as a warning (in Renaissance Europe) against forbidden lust or wanton sexual activity.
As with all art, the use of symbolism is often subjectively interpreted; yet, this often precipitates a rich exploration into the hidden meanings behind the masterpiece and encourages a deep appreciation for artistic expression.