Saturday, 10 June 2006

The Bronzino Code cracked!

Bronzino - beastie with cherub removed
I've removed most of the petal-throwing cherub in order to concentrate on the beastie: little Miss Medici (Bia or Maria) as the Sphinx. Girl's head, yes. Lion's hind leg, yes. Snake? Ah! Think "Sphinx's Mum". Two possible candidates, the favourite being Echidne: half woman, half snake. Now, what is the blacked-out cherub stepping over? A sloughed snakeskin. The young Sphinx is emerging from her mother's sloughed skin. This is symbolic birth: Sphinx out of Echidne. Significance? The Sphinx set travellers a riddle and ate them when they failed to solve it. She is the only character in the picture who is looking at us. She is inviting us to solve her riddle: Bronzino's allegory. Bronzino would have known that King Francis, for whom this painting was intended as a gift from Cosimo de' Medici, was a scholar. So, give the king a present that is not only lewd and beautiful, but also has a neat little puzzle to test the mind. A humanist scholar of the day would have known all the symbols to "read" this painting and to understand it. Lack of education or excess of religious puritanism would block the message. This is the whole point. Bronzino is saying on behalf of his patron "Look, we're both cultured men, we know our Greek myths and appreciate art and sex; so let's be buddies". There's even a subtle threat conveyed by the Sphinx: "Mess with Cosimo I de' Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany and we (the powerful Medici's) will gobble you up"!

Dismissed by Peter and Linda Murray (A Dictionary of Art and Artists, Penguin) as a work of "icy obscenity" and defamed in ignorance by Wikipedia as a portrayal of mother-son incest (Aphrodite was Eros's mum, not Venus), Bronzino's painting is in fact a brilliant piece of diplomacy as well as a truly great work of art.

The historical outcome? King Francis invaded a number of Italian states in his campaign to become Holy Roman Emperor. He failed and bankrupted France in the process. The Medici's continued their social climbing and attained the top job - Pope -, but with none of that celibacy nonsense; the Medici Pope enjoyed fornicating with young girls. His niece, another Maria de' Medici, married King Henry IV of France, took with her a huge Medici dowry to get hubbie out of debt and founded a dynasty which survives to this day. Hint: Rule Britannia!


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