BRONZINO'S CHIMAERA

Etruscan influences on mannerist art

By Ugo Bardi, 2001

In mid 16th century, the Florentine painter Agnolo Allori, nicknamed Bronzino, painted the "Triumph of Venus and Cupid", now at the National Gallery in London. Refined in its sophisticated erotism and its eerie symbolism, this painting is still widely known today. One element which has been much discussed is the creature with a girl's face in the background. No renaissance artist had ever painted anything like that: it was something wholly alien to the world of beautiful bodies which were the norm of the time. This break with tradition may be linked to the excavations of Etruscan artifacts which were being performed at that time. The main discovery and the focal point of this Etruscan revival was the bronze statue known as the Chimaera of Arezzo, dug out of the ground about at the same time when Bronzino was painting his Venus. Bronzino's dark creature may have been influenced by this Chimaera or by other Etruscan artworks.

This is a personal interpretation of Bronzino's art and it does not pretend to replace or to be in contrast with the previous works of distinguished art historians. However, as somebody said "no interpretation of a painting can be wrong", there should be space in the wide web also for these notes, which maybe someone will find interesting or a source of further pleasure in looking at these ancient works of art. You are free to copy, use, integrate, transcript, insert, appropriate parts of this text or the whole of it, if you quote me I will appreciate, if you do not quote me ... enjoy. We do not own ideas, they own us. [A quote and an attitude from Lorenzo Matteoli on which the author fully agrees]

The author is grateful to ms. Giselle Tiu for having suggested to him the possible relation of Bronzino's painting with the Etruscan Chimaera.


The Italian renaissance, beginning in 14th -15th century, saw the start of the rediscovery of the Etruscans. Out of the ground, out of ancient Etruscan tombs there appeared a wealth of vases, statuettes, urns, inscriptions, and manufacts of all sorts. The Tuscan intellectuals who examined these objects found that the Etruscan world was one of the precursors of the classical world which they valued so much. They also found that the Etruscan world could have a political meaning and as such it helped to create a Tuscan "national" heritage that the dukes (and later grand-dukes) of the ruling Medici family used to legitimate the existence of the Tuscan state. The high point of this seriers of discoveries was the Chimaera of Arezzo, dug out of the ground in 1553, something both unexpected and impressive, surely impossible to ignore. 

Nevertheless, the encounter of the living Renaissance culture with the dead Etruscan one was not an easy one. No matter how interested the Tuscans of the time were in their Etruscan ancestors, it was hard for them to penetrate a world so ancient and so remote. They had successfully assimilated Roman and Greek classical art, where they had found a fertile ground in a vision of the world that paralleled theirs in its refinement and concern about human beauty. But the Etruscan vision was different, less refined, more oriented towards religion and rituals, much more interlaced with a symbolic view which involved creatures and subjects which were not at all "beautiful". Refined and sophisticated as they were, renaissance thinkers lacked the cultural tools that would have permitted them to understand the basic tenets of the Etruscan way of thinking, their civilization defined by their contemporaries the "most religious one" and yet religious in a manner that was difficult to understand two millennia afterwards.

Mid 16th century, when the Chimaera of Arezzo was discovered, was in several ways the apotheosis of Renaissance, perhaps its last great season. In mid 16th century, the "mannerist" school of painting was fluorishing. The great masters of the time, Pontormo, Bronzino, Vasari, Rosso Fiorentino, and others had refined the painting techniques developed in earlier times: they had perspective, they had color, they had expression, they had anatomy, everything they needed to reproduce reality in perfect detail. But they had little interest in expressing concepts which went beyond the representation of the human body in its various aspects. It was in this period of delicate refinement that roaring monsters such as the Chimaera started to appear, the product of a very different civilization. Renaissance artists were interested, of course, for instance both Vasari and Cellini report the discovery of the Chimaera of Arezzo in their books. But they had no way to integrate these creatures in their artwork, there was no place among the finely crafted bodies they painted for these rough, screaming monsters.

 For instance, here is how the two civilizations interpreted the same myth, that of Medusa. On the left the head of Medusa from an Etruscan temple perhaps from the 6th century b.c. On the right, Medusa in Cellini's interpretation of mid 16th century. The interpretation of Cellini is is typical of the Renaissance age and it is centered on the beauty of the human figure. Not only the head of Medusa is fully human, but also the body, lying at the feet of the winning hero Perseus, is shown as that of a finely formed (and of course headless) woman.

Cellini was hardly an exception. Renaissance artists seem to have had little familiarity with animals and monsters, and even less with those composite creatures made out of different animals (the Chimaera, for instance) which were typical of much more ancient times. Think for instance of Michelangelo, who seems to have never sculpted an animal. And this is valid not just for figurative art. Think of Boccaccio's Decameron, hundreds of pages of what is perhaps the masterpiece of Renaissance literature. Practically the only animal which ever crosses its pages as a protagonist is a falcon which has, in any case, a definite "medieval" flavor, one where the medieval concept of the value of birds of the food for humans is the basis of the story. 

One of the reasons for the lack of familiarity with the animal world was perhaps that the culture of the age of Renaissance was an urban one, much more than the previous medieval one and perhaps even more than our own. In a world which had only modest means of transportation and no way to record images, those who lived in cities lived also in an artificial, human made, context, even more artificial than today's one. In the Renaissance, as it had been in the middle ages, the contrast between "town" and "country" was sharp and physically marked by the town walls. What was outside remained outside, wild creatures and monsters haunting fields and woods. Inside it was a wholly human world made out of stone: no concept there was of "green spaces".

But Renaissance artists not only had no familiarity with animals in general, they had no familiarity with animals as symbols. Medieval painters had filled their works with animal symbols, they had the knowledge and the mastery of a world of myths expressed by graphic icons: animal images had a meaning that could be read just as we read printed words today. So, out of medieval architecture there sprouted out a lively bestiary of animals and monsters: gargoyles, dragons and chimaeras. Think of the way the evangelists were represented in medieval iconography: Mark, Luke and John, they all had their "animal spirit": lion, ox and eagle. Often, just the image of the animal was sufficient to indicate the evangelist without any need for writing a name. Christ himself could be represented as a lion, or a panther, and sometimes as an eagle. And the medieval attitude was just a modern version of a much more ancient one, that of hunters and gatherers, people who saw the animal world as a reflection of their own. Stories and paintings from these societies are full of animals changing into men and women and of women and men changing into animals. It is a world of animal spirits, of changelings and tricksters which assume different shapes to beguile humans. It is a world where the great forces of nature, storm, wind and thunder are the emanation of the storm beast, the mythical creature pulling God's chariot. A creature of many names, one of which is known - sometimes - as the Chimaera. A creature which has nothing human, but one that generates symbols all over. Symbols which are graphically explicit and which were surely readable and had a clear meaning at the time when the chimaera of Arezzo was cast, back perhaps to the 5th century b.c.

By the time of the Renaissance, the meaning of these symbols had been lost, so Etruscan art was difficult to decipher and its effect on Renaissance art remained small. Art historians of today believe to have found some evidence of this influence, for instance in Donatello's David and in Michelangelo's Vatican Pietà. That is surely possible, but these influences remained marginal and only related to features such as somatic traits of the figures and the way the composition was laid out. Nothing, or almost nothing, of the complex symbolism of ancient Etruscan art seems to have resurfaced during the Renainssance. However, these two different worlds, remote from each other as they seem to be, may have met briefly in one of Bronzino's paintings, in what is perhaps his best known work: the "Triumph of Venus and Cupid".

The Florentine painter and poet Agnolo Allori (1503-1572) is better known with his nickname "Bronzino" (because of the bronze color of his skin). He was perhaps the most refined and accomplished of all mannerist painters. He is well known today for his fine portraits, figures painted with great mastery and effect. Some have seen a deep meaning and an "inner tension" in Bronzino's portraits, but if these portraits have a symbolic meaning it is not at all explicit and it remains nowadays very difficult for us to penetrate. However, in his mature years, around mid 16th century, Bronzino painted a few very different paintings: not portraits but mythological scenes with plenty of symbolic content. Of these, one stands out as a true masterpiece: the "Allegory of Venus and Cupid".

As a painting, the "allegory" is indeed impressive. As you look at it, first you notice the bright figures in the foreground. There is love, there is sex, there are beautiful bodies dancing, interlaced in a hug. But there is more, this painting is teeming with symbols, something wholly new and unusual for a Renaissance work of art. Here, objects of symbolic value are scattered around or held by the figures: two masks (man and woman?) lie on the ground. Venus herself holds a pomegranate (a symbol of fertility) and an arrow (a symbol of death and of love at the same time). Old age and young age look at each other in the upper area, while the hourglass marks the passage of time. Youth and old age appear also as masks at the botton left, with a curious reflection in the empty head of the young man on the upper left. Sadness screams on the left while happiness dances on the right. The dove of peace on the bottom left contrasts with Venus and Cupid who seem, instead, to be fighting each other. The painting is actually full not only of symbols but of couples of symbols each opposing the other. And an evident theme of the painting is that the joy of love is contrasted with sadness, pain, and old age incoming

And then, there is the dark creature in the background. What is it, exactly? The position and posture of the creature seem to have been designed expressly to stir curiosity. You need to look carefully, almost you are tempted to look from a side of the canvas in order to get a better glimpse of the creature - a girl? - behind the young "putto". Yes, a girl, with a lion's body, snake's scales and tail and curiously inverted arms. She is holding objects which critics have recognized as a honeycomb and a sting (again, two opposite symbols, sweetness and pain).

Bronzino had never painted anything like that and no renaissance painter ever had, either. What we have here is an interpretation of one of the ancient mythological creatures made out of mixtures of human and animal bodies. It seems that Bronzino had in mind something related to the sphynx, more precisely to the Greek sphinx: a creature with wings, lion's body and woman's head and torso (the Egyptian sphinx: male head on lion's body, was something very different). The relation of Bronzino's creature with the Greek myth of the sphinx has already been noted (see p. 214 of D: Parker's "Bronzino, renaissance painter as Poet, Cambridge 2000" with the references to the work of J. F: Moffit in "Renaissance Quarterly").

But if it is a sphynx, it is a curious one that Bronzino is painting, for the classical Greek sphinx always had wings and sometimes woman's breasts, both not appearing in Bronzino's image. Then, the classical sphinx had no scales on the back and only rarely a snake's tail, both things instead well visible in the painting. And it is not just a question of anatomical details appearing or missing. Also in terms of posture, shape and setting, we have here something completely different from the classical Greek sphinx. In general, this is hardly surprising, at Bronzino's time archaeologists were just beginnig their excavations which - over a few centuries of work - were to lead to the rediscovery of the way a sphinx was depicted in ancient Greece. But then, supposing that Bronzino had in mind to paint a sphinx, what could have been his sources of inspiration? And, besides, are we sure that what he painted was really meant to be a sphinx? There is no doubt that Bronzino had access to literary descriptions (Apollodorus, for instance) of the sphinx and of other ancient creatures as well, but in terms of images he had basically no other sources than those coming out of escavations from Etruscan sites. Today, it is extremely difficult to say what exactly could have inspired him. Our museums are stocked with objects found over at least 5 centuries of excavations. The dating of many of them, especially of early finds, is often uncertain. Which ones could have passed in the hands of a renaissance painter is almost impossible to say. We can only say that the sphinx, although not a very popular motif in etruscan art, does exist in a few artifacts we have. We can also say that the way the Sphinx was represented in Etruscan art seems to be about the same as in the Greek art we are more familiar with. But, as we said, the Greek sphinx is a winged creature, rather different than the wingless one Bronzino painted in his "Venus".

At this point, we could explore the idea that for his painting Bronzino was mixing up elements of more than a single mythological creature and that the dark creature in the painting was inspired not just by the sphynx, but also by the classical Chimaera concept. The Chimaera seems to have been more common than the sphinx in Etruscan art and, as we all know, it did not have wings. The Chimaera had a snake's tail and in all the representations we have the snake's scales extend all the way to the lion's body. The Chimaera is also, normally, wingless. So we can say that there are at least some chimaeric elements in Bronzino's creature.

There is a curious coincidence here: the closeness of the date when the Venus painting was made and when the Chimaera of Arezzo was discovered. The possibility that Bronzino's creature was actually inspired by the newly discovered Etruscan sculpture is intriguing. Note also that when the Chimaera was discovered the tail was not found attached to the body, but broken nearby. That fits very well with the tail of the creature in the Venus painting, which seems not to be attached to the body. So, we know that the Chimaera of Arezzo was discovered in 1553 and taken to Firenze perhaps in that same year. Did Bronzino have a chance to see the it while it was in the Duke's studio in Firenze? Almost certainly yes, it is at least unlikely that such an accomplished and renown artist as Bronzino would be kept away from such a treasure just discovered. Did he ever have a chance to see it before he had completed the "Venus"? Of course that depends on when the Venus was exactly made.

Something about the dating of the painting can be desumed from the brief mention given by Vasari in his "lives" published in 1568. We have here just a sentence where Vasari says says that the painting "fu mandato al re di Francia, Francesco.", "it was sent to the king of France, Francis". Now, whose Francis was Vasari referring to? Art critics normally associate the painting to King Francis 1st who died in 1547. If he is the king to whom the painting was sent, clearly Bronzino could not have been inspired by the Chimaera of Arezzo, which was discovered at least 6 years later. However, there was another king Francis in France in that period, Francis II, grandson of the first, who reigned from 1559 to 1560. Bronzino was alive and still active during the brief reign of Francis II, so he could well have been the Francis Vasari was referring to. In this case Bronzino would have had plenty of chances to see the Chimaera of Arezzo in Firenze much earlier on.

Vasari is normally a reliable source, but we can't even exclude that in the great mass of data that he reported in his "lives" he might have made a bit of confusion and refer to still another king, the son of Francis 1st, Henry 2nd, who reigned from 1547 until his death in 1559. And there would seem to be plenty of reasons for Henry 2nd, to be befriended by Cosimo, duke of Tuscany. Among many other things, Henry had married a relative of Cosimo, Caterina de' Medici. We might also think that the painting was initially commissioned for Henry 2nd but that the death of the king had caught Bronzino with his painting still unfinished. Then the painting was sent to the next king, Francis II. About the problem of dates, we can also mention that some sources maintain that the Chimaera of Arezzo was actually discovered much earlier than officially reported but that the discovery was kept secret (or even the Chimaera re-buried) because of some "superstitious terror" that had overtaken the discoverers. If that had been the case, there would have been a chance for Bronzino to see the statue much earlier than in 1553

So, all these possibilities and the coincidence in the dates are suggestive hints but, unfortunately, we will never be able to prove that Bronzino was influenced for his painting by a specific Etruscan piece, and in particular by the one we call "Chimera of Arezzo". Nevertheless, the line of reasoning we have been following does not critically depend on a specific chimaera image. We said that Bronzino could have found inspiration only in Etruscan art when he painted his creature in the "Venus", and for that he may well have had other Chimaeras around. For instance the one shown here is at present at the Archaeological museum in Florence. It is a little sister (just a few cm tall) of the one found in Arezzo; but it has everything the large one has, except for the snake head, lost over the centuries. Of this piece, as of many others, we can say nothing certain about the date of discovery. It may well have been around much before 1548 and have been seen by Bronzino.

So, we have this creature in Bronzino's painting which we may take as in part as a sphinx and in part as a Chimera. We may ask at this point what it was supposed to mean. As a dark monster, whatever it may be, it could be taken as generic symbol of death. But the creature that Bronzino painted is so detailed and so evidently deeply thought out that it has to be linked to some very specific idea. If it was a Chimaera -or at least it had elements of a Chimaera - what was it supposed to be a symbol of? And here we arrive to a surprise. Yes, there is a logic in having just a Chimaera in this painting, and to have it exactly where it is. To arrive to understand this point will take some reasoning.

First a question: in general what is that a Chimaera symbolizes? Answer: it depends. It depends on the age you are considering. The Chimaera is a very ancient myth, perhaps one of the most ancient occidental myths. Originally conceived perhaps as early as in Sumerian times, it had been a symbol of the power of destruction and of fertility of storms. For classical Roman writers, such as Plautus or Servius, the ancient Chimaera had become already something baffling, something to be explained as a naïve representation of a volcano. But the concept had enough inner power and fascination that it simply could not be explained away. It survived middle ages as a demon and - sometimes as an allegory of woman as an evil creature. And, of course, there is the meaning that we all know: Chimaera, a figment of the imagination, something that can't exists but in our dreams. But all this does not help us much in interpreting the Venus painting, the question we must ask is another. What did the Chimaera mean for Bronzino? The answer may lie in Bronzino's own words in the complex allegoric poem that he wrote around 1552-1555 titled "Il Piato".

The relation of Bronzino's poem with the Venus painting has been already noted by Deborah Parker in her book on Bronzino. The "Il Piato" (the title meaning "The quarrel") is a long poem describing the dream voyage of the main character, Bronzino himself, over the body of the giant Arcigrandone (the Great Large one). In the final chapter of the Piato we have a description of an encounter with a "great woman" who turns out be a monster, something which under many respect may describe the girl creature of the Venus painting. But the fact that the text corresponds to the painting still does not tell us what exactly Bronzino had in mind, for this we must try to understand the inner meaning of the "Il Piato". The poem is full of complex allegories, many of which have a clear sexual (and specifically homosexual) content. And, yes, the Piato does mention Chimaeras, and specifically mentions the concept in verse 163 of chapter 8 where Bronzino says that only after the end of all quarrels it is possible to get to the "Chimera". What does that mean? Simple, for Bronzino, and in general during the renaissance, the concept of Chimaera had a double meaning. It could be used with the meaning of "grotesque", more or less as in our times, but there was another meaning to it, and it was homosexuality. And we know that Bronzino was homosexual, actually for almost all of his life he was a lover of his teacher Pontormo.

Of course, the ancient never thought of the Chimaera in terms of a symbol of homosexuality, but it is easy to see the chain of reasoning that led renaissance people to see it that way (occasionally it is still used with that meaning today). About in every time and every place of earth, homosexuality was widely practiced, and the Italian Renaissance made no exception. However, the moral vision of the time considered homosexuality as something "against nature" a monstruosity, something patched up in an unnatural and therefore impossible way. In his times, Bronzino could not explicitly mention, nor represent, homosexuality and so he had to recur to allegories, double meanings, and symbols such as the Chimaera (he also used the owl as a symbol of sodomy and homosexuality).

Now, perhaps, we have the key for the interpretation of the girl-monster and of the whole Venus painting. We have already seen that the painting is symbol-charged and that each symbol seems to have an opposite. So, our Chimaera is symbolically opposite to the main figure of the painting, Venus herself. Note how the Chimaera-girl is placed in an "opposite space" to Venus, the woman. Venus is in full light, the chimera in near darkness, Venus is fully shown, the Chimera half hidden, Venus is beautiful and perfect, the Chimaera is ugly and deformed. And, finally, the Chimaera and Venus stand for two opposite vision of love: gay and straight. This was probably the main meaning that Bronzino saw and meant, even though this subtle meaning probably escaped even his contemporaries.

The opposition Venus-Chimaera makes for most of the fascination and depth of the painting, a fascination that goes well beyond the formal beauty of the bodies shown and beyond the evident, but somewhat banal, dualistic symbolism, pleasure and pain, young age and old age, sadness and happiness, etcetera. As we said, Bronzino was probably well in his 50s when he painted the Venus and this is an age of introspection and soul searching for many men. The whole way of seeing the world for a Renaissance man was to seek beauty, perfection, elegance, sophistication. But with old age approaching, you can't ignore the presence of corruption, death, of that dark part of ourselves that lurks behind and below. That was something which had to be expressed somehow in a painting which was destined to one of the kings of France, rich and powerful as they were, but that at some moment had to reach, they too, the end of their pleasures.

The earlier masters of middle ages had painted dead and decaying bodies but painting such subjects was against the sensibility and the training of a renaissance painter who had spent his life drawing and painting beautiful bodies. So, Bronzino did not paint death and decay but symbols of death and decay. Hence all those double-meaning objects, all meaning, in the end, simply the dual nature of life and death. And with all that, there came the girl-sphinx-chimaera. A symbol deeply complex, something so original and unexpected for a renaissance painting that Bronzino must have placed a tremendous amount of work and of thought in it. Writers, and Bronzino was one, tend to have a character who is themselves in their stories, perhaps this is true also for painters in their paintings. Perhaps this dark creature is a representation of Bronzino himself. Did he see himself as a monster? Perhaps, and in a way this would have been unavoidable in a society that condemned "sodomy" as a sin, as a depravation, as something against God and human nature at the same time. So, this mix of animal and human, of beauty and ugliness. Note how sweet is the face of the little creature, how delicate her hands: an angel locked into a monstrous body. This strange little girl bearing a honeycomb and a sting may be a message passed to us over the centuries, a message telling us of a life of sweetness and pain, of joy and suffering, of beauty and ugliness. A message expressed in symbols, coded in such a way that perhaps Bronzino himself would have had difficulties in expressing it in words. A message, however, that we feel we can still understand after so many years.

Renaissance in Italy was a time of great hopes, but mannerism was its twilight. With the fading of 16th century there came hard times for Tuscany: wars, epidemics, and economic crisis. After Bronzino's generation, the school of the mannerists, the last great one of the Renaissance, faded away. It was replaced with a new generation much concerned with the newly fashionable "grotesque" style, where paintings were full of mythological monsters and weird creatures. Perhaps the new school was influenced by the Etruscan art more than their Mannerist predecessors had been, even though they, too, never managed to grasp the real meaning of the Etruscan artwork they may have been trying to reproduce. As art, it was spectacular but it was far, far away from the depth and breadth that Renaissance art had been. With that, Tuscany was gradually ceasing to be the center of intellectual life it had been and went on to live a quiet life in the suburbs of Europe ever after. Centuries later, both the roaring bronze lion found in Arezzo and the dark creature in the background of the Venus painting are still for us to look at and wonder. They share the fact of having been made (or dug out of the ground) within a few years from each other, perhaps just a coincidence or perhaps they share much more than that. About Bronzino - angel in a deformed body - of whether at the end of his life he had found his Chimaera, we cannot say.
 

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Placed on line on August 2001 - Last revision: December 2003

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