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  • Omnia Vincit Amor:The Sovereignty of Love in Tuscan Poetry and Michelangelo's Venus and Cupid
  • Rebekah Compton

Between 1532-33, Michelangelo Buonarroti designed and Jacopo Pontormo painted a Venus and Cupid (Fig. 1) for the private Florentine residence of the merchant banker Bartolomeo Bettini. In the painting, an armed Cupid perches upon the recumbent body of Venus, leaning in to kiss her. Flaxen-feathered wings spring from the boy-god's sturdy shoulders; golden curls frame his cherubic face. Fully nude, the goddess reclines brazenly upon a palette of blue drapery: her full bosom,

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Figure 1.

Michelangelo Buonarroti and Jacopo Pontormo, Venus and Cupid, c. 1532-33. Florence, Galleria dell'Accademia. Photo: Polo Museale Fiorentino.

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erect pink nipples, broad hips, and open legs suggest a ripe fertility. Venus brushes her nose and lips against her son's pouty profile; she gazes boldly down into his eyes, but Cupid does not return her gaze. Rather than look to his mother, the boy-god sharply averts his eyes, glancing back at his quiver, where a subtle theft is taking place. Extending her right arm, Venus attempts to seize one of Cupid's arrows, clasping its shaft between her fore and middle finger. Incidentally, the other arrows within the quiver have begun to slide out and four sharp tips aim for Venus's naked thigh. The goddess of love will be wounded, vanquished by her own son's weapons. Indeed, Love Conquers All.

In his Lives of the Artists (1568), Giorgio Vasari describes Bartolomeo Bettini's project, stating that Michelangelo "made for his very good friend a cartoon of a nude Venus with a Cupid, who kisses her, to be executed as a painting by Pontormo and placed in the center of his chamber." According to Vasari, Bettini also commissioned Agnolo Bronzino to fill the lunettes of this chamber with portraits of "Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, with the intention of having there all the other poets who have sung of love in Tuscan verse and prose."1 In combining portraits of the Tuscan poets with a mythological poesia of the goddess and her son, Bettini conceived of an original decorative program for his chamber (Fig. 2): a virtual third realm of the heavens—the planetary domain of Venus and Cupid—where the poets, after transcending the mortal world, gather with one another in the divine spirit of love.

Interestingly, Michelangelo's Venus and Cupid has not been discussed within the poetic context of Bettini's decorative program.2 Instead, scholars have opted to locate it within the philosophical discourses of Neoplatonism, interpreting the painting as an allegorical triumph of either amor caelestis or amor vulgaris.3 Such readings adhere to a binary, antithetical model of Neoplatonic desire, which assumes celestial love to be licit and terrestrial desire to be illicit, with Venus or Cupid embodying one or the other form. A common interpretation of Michelangelo's painting, for example, sees Venus as the incarnation of ideal, spiritual love conquering Cupid, a personification of the sensual, carnal appetite.4

In this article, I question the moralized, binary reading of Neoplatonic love, which separates Venus and Cupid into conflicting forces of good and evil. I focus instead on how Michelangelo's painting and the writings of the Tuscan poets reveal love to be an [End Page 230] extremely complex power, which instantiates various degrees of desire. This enchanting force wounds and torments the lover, but it also inspires his ecstatic ascent to the third realm of the heavens. In Tuscan poetry, Venus and Cupid hold sovereignty over all forms of love, being praised for their majesty and beauty, scorned for their all consuming and deceitful natures, and invoked for their aid in love and poetic composition. Michelangelo's Venus and Cupid, in the tradition of this poetry, celebrates and laments the power of love, which extends not only over the poets and the sixteenth-century viewer, but also, ironically, over Venus and Cupid themselves.

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Figure 2.

Reconstruction of Bartolomeo Bettini's camera with Venus and Cupid by Michelangelo Buonarroti and Jacopo Pontormo beside Agnolo Bronzino's Dante...


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