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Video transcript
(piano playing) Female voiceover: We're in the National Gallery, in London, looking at one of the most curious, puzzling paintings in all of art history. Male voiceover: One of the most disturbing paintings. It's by a Mannerist painter, Bronzino, who worked in the Medici Court. Female voiceover: In Florence. Male voiceover: It goes by the title, "Allegory of Venus and Cupid." Female voiceover: Sometimes it's called, "Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time." It's interesting that the National Gallery label only mentions Venus and Cupid, because really, those are the only two figures we can identify with any certainty. Male voiceover: This painting is a great reminder that art history has a lot of work ahead of it. You can see the primary figure, the largest figure, the female nude that faces us. That's Veuns. Her son, the figure that wraps around her, that kisses her, is Cupid. Female voiceover: I find it disturbingly erotic and incestuous. The two figures embrace and kiss, but in a way that is also emptied of any overt eroticism. There's a kind of icy coolness here at the same time. Male voiceover: The coolness that you're speaking of, the aloofness of those figures, is made even more powerful because her ear and their cheeks are the only things that have any warmth. The rest of the figures are a kind of cool, gray-white. Female voiceover: But the other figures aren't. They all seem to express an idea to stand for something. Male voiceover: Well, that's why this must be a kind of visual poetry. Female voiceover: Or a pun, or a riddle. Male voiceover: We know that the Court of Cosimo de' Medici loved that. Female voiceover: We think that this was likely a present from Cosimo de' Medici to King Francis I of France, a great art collector and patron. Male voicover: Okay, so we've established that we have no idea what this painting is about, but let's spend a moment really looking at the painting carefully, and describing what we do understand. We know this is Venus, in part, because she's a nude female, front and center. But also by the fact that she holds in her left hand, a golden apple. This was a prize that she had won from Paris, that is a part of the great Ancient Greek myth of the Trojan War. Female voiceover: In her right hand, she holds an arrow that she's stolen from Cupid, as though disarming him, a subject that we often see in Art History. Male voiceover: These are typical traits. These are two figures that are easy to identify. Female voiceover: Although, I've never seen them shown embracing like this. Male voiceover: No. If you follow the zig-zag of Cupid's body, you end at his foot. Just below that, in the very corner of the painting, is a Dove, which is another attribute or symbol of Venus. Female voiceover: Now, you used the word "zig-zag" for Cupid's body. I think that's also a term that we could use for Venus' body. We go from her right hand, holding that [quiver], across her shoulder, down her torso, and then across her legs. Maybe that's a metaphor for this whole painting, this zig-zagging, this back-and-forth of what does this mean, and how do these things relate to each other? Male voiceover: Oppositions that construct this painting, if we follow that zig-zag down Venus' body, and we move across the legs to the bottom right corner of the painting, we find two masks. We have no idea what they're there for. Female voiceover: But masks generally refer to deception, a kind of hiding. Male voiceover: Just above the masks, we see another nude figure, a young child, who seems as if he's about to throw blossoms on the couple. Female voiceover: Art historians have speculated that this figure represents pleasure or folly. Male voiceover: Well he looks incredibly mischievous, doesn't it? Female voiceover: He does. He has bells on his left ankle. Male voiceover: More troubling, just behind him is the head of a girl, but on the body of a serpent, with the legs of a lion, and with the tail of a scorpion. Female voiceover: Her face is in shadow. In her right hand, she holds a honeycomb. Her left hand, which is illuminated, tilts back away from us in this way that looks almost anatomically distorted. She seems to hold her tail that has, at the tip of it, a stinger. Male voiceover: So, on the one hand, she's holding a honeycomb, which is a traditional symbol of pleasure, and of course ... Female voiceover: Of temptation. Male voiceover: Of sweetness. But then, there's the price. Female voiceover: Exactly. Then, above this, a figure who seems to be Father Time, or Cronus in ancient mythology. He's identifiable by the hourglass that's on his back. Male voiceover: You can actually see that there is sand pouring through that hourglass, if you look very closely. You can also just make out a wing that's coming out from his body. He helps to frame the upper part of this canvas. At the bottom, Venus' legs. Then, at the top, his arm. I'm interested in the way that his right hand is bent around, so that we see the back of his hand very much like the young girl serpent. Female voiceover: It's hard to tell what he's doing with that hand. Is he pulling this blue cloth away, or is he seeking to hide it from that figure in the upper left, who he's looking anxiously toward? Male voiceover: The figure in the upper left is one of the most contentious. In other words, we really don't know what that figure is. That figure seems to be painted as a mask. Some people have described that figure as oblivion. Some people have described that figure as night. Some people have described that figure as fraud. Female voiceover: Below that, we have a figure who is grasping its head with its hands. Male voiceover: And screaming. Female voiceover: Art historians think this perhaps could represent syphilis, the venereal disease. So, is this some kind of [maul] about the cost of pleasure, perhaps, that time reveals? Hard to know. Male voiceover: So, on one side we have folly. Perhaps, on the other, insane regret. There is this series of oppositions, this lasciviousness, this crossing of boundaries, deeply uncomfortable. Female voiceover: We feel uncomfortable. It's hard to know what Cosimo de' Medici thought of the Medici Court, or Francis I, for whom it was likely a gift. But, it does seem as though it's a kind of intellectual puzzle, something that had multiple meanings, unlike the Renaissance paintings, that have a sense of balance, and harmony, and structure. This painting doesn't give us any one thing to look at, but gives us many things, so our eye moves around the edges, and one thing leads to another. There's never a conclusion. Male voiceover: For me, this painting is a reminder that the conceit that we have, the technology that our society, that our culture, gains more and more, that we learn more and more. It's a reminder that we've also lost, that we've forgotten that the past and its meanings have slipped out of our grasp. Female voiceover: It's quite likely that we'll never recover what this painting really means. (piano playing)