Celebrating 500th Anniversary
of an Artist of the Erotic

  Venus, Cupid and a Satyr in black and White version
Venus, Cupid and a Satyr in color version
Bronzino’s “Venus, Cupid and a Satyr” in its “polite” state (top), and restored to its original (bottom).
Agnolo Bronzino was the leading artist of mid- 16th-century Florence and an official painter at the Medici court. Cupid was often on his mind. A number of his most important paintings represented erotic subjects, and one of them is seen here, “Venus, Cupid, and a Satyr,” from Rome’s Galleria Colonna.

Bronzino painted the large panel in 1553-54 as one of a series celebrating Venus, Goddess of Love and Beauty, which adorned a room in the house of a Florentine patrician and connoisseur of erotic tableaux representing pagan deities. “Bronzino’s scene suggests the imminent erotic interaction between Venus, who reclines on a luxuriously draped bed, and her son Cupid,” says CUNY Distinguished Professor of art history Janet Cox-Rearick. “They play with the boy’s bow and arrow, and a leering satyr leans eagerly into the scene, directing his gaze at the adolescent—just as Bronzino hoped viewers would gaze at his goddess.”

In the 19th century, the prudish owners of many such risqué paintings, including others by Bronzino, ordered them to be overpainted. The Colonna Venus was subjected to just such a cover-up, as seen here, and only in 2002 was her period of literally false modesty brought to an end. Conservators using infrared reflectography discovered the original composition, and the beauty of Bronzino’s eroticism was soon restored to view.

Like his great contemporary, Michelangelo, Bronzino was also an accomplished poet. Some of his burlesque poems were blasphemous and transgressive. Under the pretext of describing an ordinary object, such as a paintbrush, Bronzino would employ a coded vocabulary to obscene effect. Such poems are a tour de force of sexual innuendo and raucous allusion.

Last April, the erotics of Bronzino’s paintings and poetry came under close scrutiny at a Graduate Center colloquium, “Eros at the Court of the Medici,” that celebrated his 500th anniversary (he lived from 1503 to 1572). It was organized and chaired by Cox-Rearick of the Graduate Center’s art history department. Since 2000 she has headed up a new specialization in Renaissance and Baroque art, which offers six courses a year on Italian and North European topics, among them, for example next fall’s “Duccio to Holbein: The Interaction of Italian and North European Renaissance Art,” “Velasquez: Painting as Making and Discourse in 17th-century Europe,” and “Trecento Painting and Sculpture in Italy, 1250-1400.” The Renaissance/ Baroque specialization website is http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/arthi/prog_info/requirements.html#special.

The colloquium was held in Elebash Hall under the auspices of the Renaissance Studies Certificate Program. Art History is but one of several Ph.D. programs at the Graduate Center that are collaborating on the Renaissance Studies Certificate Program (RSCP), whose Coordinator is Martin Elsky. Others are Comparative Literature, English, French, Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures, History, Music, Philosophy, and Theatre. Students and faculty in these programs come together in courses, colloquia, lectures, and dissertation seminars. The Renaissance certificate is added to the Ph.D. for students who take required and elective courses emphasizing interdisciplinary research and teaching in Renaissance and Early Modern subjects. The RSCP website is gc.cuny.edu/ renaissancestudies.

The RSCP is also affiliated with the Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance, also based at the Graduate Center, which sponsors national conferences and a monthly speakers program.

Such a confluence of academic resources has made the City University, and the Graduate Center in particular, one of the most active sites for Renaissance studies in the nation. This eminence was underscored in 2002 when—thanks to the good offices of the RSCP, CUNY’s Renaissance scholars, and Provost William Kelly—the Renaissance Society of America chose to make the Graduate Center its new home.

With more than 2,600 members worldwide, the Society is the most renowned Renaissance organization in the world, and its Renaissance Quarterly is likewise the most distinguished multi-disciplinary journal in the field.

The Society’s arrival at 34th and Fifth Avenue is a very timely homecoming, for it is now celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding in New York, mostly by scholars from Columbia and several of CUNY’s predecessor colleges. Over the decades, CUNY faculty have been extremely active in the RSA. One of these, Hunter College and Graduate Center historian emerita Nancy Siraisi, a former RSA president, will soon be receiving one of its most prestigious awards, The Paul Oskar Kristeller Lifetime Achievement Award. Some 60 CUNY faculty are members of the Society, an extraordinarily high number for a single institution.
And CUNY will have a high profile at the annual RSA conference next spring, to be hosted by the Graduate Center. Some 30 sessions on art history, literature, history, music, philosophy, and theater in England, France, Italy, Spain, and the Americas will be organized by CUNY faculty members and students.

The nearly 1,000 attendees will also be treated to an exhibition in the Graduate Center Art Gallery, whose curator is Diane Kelder, an art history professor emerita at the Center. Titled “Splendors of the Renaissance: Princely Attire in Italy,” it will consist of 15 spectacular reconstructions of courtly clothing from the late 15th to the early 17th century worn by Duchess Eleonora di Toledo of Florence, Marchesa Isabella d’Este of Mantua, and other members of the Medici and Gonzaga families, such as Vincenzo I Gonzaga, fourth Duke of Mantua. Seen below is the ceremonial costume of gold-embroidered white satin with an ermine cape he wore on his elevation to the dukedom in 1587 (based on a state portrait of him by Giovanni Bauhet).
Costume of Vincenzo I Gonzaga

The exhibition of carefully researched and executed reconstructions of court costumes is the creation of Fausto Fornasari of Mantua. Since 1994 the exhibition has toured major cities in Italy and Spain, as well as five Latin American capitals. The exhibition’s curator is Prof. Cox-Rearick, who has also organized two RSA conference sessions on Italian court attire to complement the show, which will be open to the public from March 10 to April 24.

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Celebrating 500th Anniversary of Artist of the Erotic