Saper vedere: Knowing how to see

One of the most exciting aspects about art is the pleasure we get from learning about what we are looking at. “Allegory of Passion” painted by Agnolo Bronzino  (circa 1545) contains a cornucopia of symbolic characters whose meaning is no longer familiar to us. Understanding who they are and what they mean, enriches our brain, heart and soul, adding a little spark of fun to the banality of our daily lives.

Let’s set the scene: In 1525, a German genius, Albrecht Dürer, describes in a book the perfect human proportions: a head fits seven and a half times in a body. The Italians, as always”over the top”, prefer an idealised version of proportion: a human head fits twelve times in a body. Abandoning any possibility of verisimilitude and liberating form and movement, they invent Mannerism. Think of Michelangelo‘s (Renaissance’s temperamental Leather Queen) ever twirling sculptures, the fabulous elongations of Parmigianino, or Pontorno‘s impossible contortions.

But, let’s add a little gravitas to our discourse and quote from those who took the time to enlighten us: “…The Antique male nude is like a Greek temple, the flat frame of the chest being carried on the column of the legs; whereas the Renaissance nude is related to the architectural system that produced the central-domed church; so that instead of the sculptural interest depending on a simple, frontal plane, a number of axes radiate from one center.”

 Sir Kenneth Clark – “The Nude, A study in Ideal form” – Princeton University Press, 1953 

Aha ! “a number of axes radiate from one center.” Let’s keep that in mind as we look at this particularly busy and convoluted flesh-a-thon: “An Allegory of Passion” also known less romantically as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.  In it we see this really white chick who’s nipple is being squeezed by this weird looking kid with a funny looking butt. She is surrounded by these scary looking guys who don’t look all too happy. Ok, but if you were to take a pencil and place it at the nipple squeeze, then, clockwise start drawing bigger and bigger coils, you would see that the position of every arm, leg, face and eyes radiate from that central action. To understand who these characters are and what they are doing, we need help from a fundamental luminary of art history: Erwin Panofsky.

“Iconographically the picture does show the pleasures of love ‘on the one hand’ and its dangers and tortures ‘on the other’, in such a way, however, that the pleasures are revealed as futile and fallacious advantages, whereas the dangers and tortures are shown to be great and real evils…

In the main group, Cupid is shown in bracing Venus who holds an arrow and an apple. The apple is tendered to the eager boy and the arrow concealed, perhaps implying the idea ‘sweet but dangerous’…. This impression is sharpened by the fact that Cupid is shown as a quasi-sexless being, although the myrtle plant appearing behind him is the classical symbol of love, and the two doves at his feet signify ‘amorous caresses’.  …The picture shows an image of ‘Luxury’… This is corroborated by the fact that Cupid kneels on a pillow,  a common symbol of idleness and lechery…

On the left of this exquisitely lascivious group appears the head of an elderly woman madly tearing her hair. She is the symbol of ‘Jealousy’…. On the right is a Putto throwing roses who on his left foot wears an anklet adorned with two little bells, to him the terms ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Jest’ may be applied. However his promised pleasures are signalled as futile and treacherous by the ominous presence of two masks, one of a young woman, the other of an elderly and malevolent man. Masks that symbolise worldliness, insincerity and falsehood…

Emerging from behind the playful Putto is a girl in a green dress; ‘Deceit’. The dress cannot fully conceal a scaled, fish-like body, panther’s claws and the tail of a dragon. The entire group is unveiled by ‘Time’ and ‘Truth’. Time characterized by his wings and hourglass, and the female figure on the left who helps to draw the curtain from the whole spectacle is none other than ‘Truth’ ‘ Veritas filia Temporis’ “

Erwin Panofsky – “Studies in Iconology” – Oxford University Press, 1939

I told you, riveting stuff  : )

 

All images ©The National Gallery, London

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