Sunday, October 28, 2012

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time



                               
Bronzino's masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time is archetypal in its subject-matter and style to the art movement of Mannerism.
  
Mannerism originated in Rome about 1520. The style continued with undiminished vigour and conviction in secular and decorative works in Italy until about 1600, and in the Northern courts of Paris, Munich and Prague until about 1620. The last truly vigorous manifestations of Mannerism in art were in a group of Dutch artists from the schools of Haarlem and Utrecht.

The Florentine artist Agnolo di Cosmi (1503-72) also known as Il Bronzino, depicts in Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  a quartet of allegorical personifications enacting a drama of the psyche. While Cupid, Venus and Time are easily identifiable from their attributes, the personifications of the three characters in the background to the main action are more ambiguous in their identity; it has been proposed they may represent Despair, Pleasure and Jealousy. 

Typically of Mannerist artists, Bronzino employs a complex symbolism taken from classical mythology in order to make an intriguing psychological statement. Nor can one easily overlook the erotic content of Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time another frequently encountered focus of Mannerist art.

Mannerism has been defined as an artificial style, a style of excess and as an art for connoisseurs. Its main thematic concerns, as in Bronzino's work, often feature the infinite varieties of antiquity, in particular, Roman antiquity, with its refinement, elegance and grace. Mannerist art is also characterised by hidden classical references, interlacing of forms, unexpected departures from common usage and symbolism of an esoteric or mythological nature.

According to critic Arnold Hauser, Mannerism was a refined and exclusive style, intellectually sophisticated and even surrealistic in its outlook, it catered for an essentially pan-European cultured class. Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time c.1547) certainly fits Hauser's definition. It was commissioned by a member of the Medici family as a present for King Francis of France. Bronzino's masterpiece has been at the National Gallery, London since 1860.

Mannerist art  is now recognised as having influenced stylistic effects of the modern art movement of surrealism. In a series of paintings Archimboldo (1527-1593) ingeniously exploited the optical trickery of multiple images, a device copied centuries later, in the artist Salvador Dali's own double-images; the unusual perspective of Joachim Wtewael's Perseus and Andromeda is echoed in Max Ernst's Temptation of Saint Anthony, while the receding horizon and vast urban spaces of Mannerist artist Antoine Caron is imitated in Italian Futurist artist De Chirico's eerie cityscapes.

Arnold Hauser noted of  Mannerist art -

'At one time it is the deepening and spiritualizing of religious experience and a vision of a new spiritual content in life; at another, an exaggerated intellectualism, consciously and deliberately deforming reality, with a tinge of the bizarre and the abstruse.'

                              
Although differing in medium, the quaternity of statuettes upon the Layer monument share a number of thematic concerns and stylistic traits to Bronzino's masterpiece. Both art-works allude to the antiquity of the classical era, both involve the interplay of a quartet of allegorical personifications, indeed there's more than a little shared symbolism between Folly, Venus and Time to Vanitas, Gloria and Labor respectively on the Layer Monument. Both artworks are boldly coloured and exhibit lively, if stylized movement and nudity. They even have a near-identical object in colour and geometric shape in common. Crucially, both Renaissance artworks utilize a complex inter-related symbolism of an esoteric nature to make a profound observation upon the human psyche, which ultimately is unfathomable in depth. 

It's often stated that the left foot of Cupid in the lower left corner of Bronzino's work can be seen  in the opening credits of the  British comedy-sketch TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. However, a closer inspection reveals the left foot on Bronzino's Cupid doesn't exactly match up with animator and film-director Terry Gilliam's trademark image below. To be fair, commentary on Monty Python's emblematic foot simply states that Gilliam's animated image is only based upon Bronzino's Cupid.

My own big toes are on the instep of my legs last time I checked. Remembering this fact helps me remember which leg is which.    

Footnotes

Wiki-Links   Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time  -  The Foot of Cupid

An essay on Bronzino's painting  here

Books quoted

John Shearman –Mannerism - pub. Penguin 1967
Arnold Hauser -Social History of Art, Volume 2: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque: pub. Routledge 1951
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