Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Bronzino and the wages of sin

Frank Gonzalez-Crussi
Chicago, Illinois, United States

No one knows who first conceived the idea of using a wig or precisely when this curious idea came into being. Wigs were known in Greco-Roman antiquity, as one can see in Ovid’s “Art of Love” (Ars Amatoria: book III, verses 165–168), where the poet upbraids a woman for wearing someone else’s hairs, which she bought in the market in plain day and “without blushing.” But the popularity of the periwig did not begin to generalize until the beginning of the Renaissance, reaching a ridiculous extreme in the 17th century with the enormous perukes sported by Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” The custom extended into the following century, but the Enlightenment brought with it sufficient good sense to do away with a usage as impractical as it was unhygienic.

The historical evolution of this usage raises interesting questions. For it so happens that the popularity of wigs rose in striking coincidence with the spread of syphilis. It is well known that this sexually transmitted disease, also known as lues, starts by producing lesions in the genital organs or “primary” lesions. These heal, and after some time, when the malady had seemingly disappeared, new lesions of greater severity make themselves manifest in various organs. The skin and the scalp are not exempt from the renewed devastation, and “secondary” luetic lesions were a well known cause of hair loss. It is therefore not idle to ask whether the striking temporal association between the increasing use of wigs and the rising frequency of syphilis bespoke cause and effect. For not only wigs, but also hats, caps, berets, calottes, toques, and all kinds of headdress enjoyed an unprecedented boom. It is inevitable to suspect that men were trying to conceal bald spots injurious to masculine vainglory—hence the uncharitable conjecture that venereal disease was the true cause of the new fondness for fashions of capillary concealment.

Artists, statesmen, scholars, warriors, and even popes were affected by syphilis in those times. Take King Francis I of France (1494–1547). A polished man, patron of the arts, lover of knightly romances, epicurean, sensual, amiable, and an incorrigible womanizer, his compatriots have idealized him as the epitome of refined French galanterie and Gallic power of seduction. A tradition says that one day, when the king enjoyed a pleasure outing in one of the many fairyland castles that he owned in the placid countryside of La Douce France, a burning torch came loose from the brackets that held it on the wall, fell on his head, and burned his scalp. Since then, according to this story, the monarch always covered his head with a big beret; hardly ever was he seen without it. This, in fact, is how we see him in the portraits that Titian and Jean painted of him (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Francis I of France
, c. 1530
Jean Clouet
Oil on oak panel, 37.8” x 29.1”
Figure 2
La belle ferronnière
, c. 1490
Leonardo da Vinci
Oil on wood, 24” x 17”

There is, of course, a less innocent version that says the king lost his hair because he had syphilis, which he got through his dalliance with a beautiful woman known by her nickname, La Belle Ferronnière (the beautiful she-blacksmith). In French, the word ferronnier means an ironworker or blacksmith, but it is also a surname. Presumably, the lady in question was the sister or the wife of an ironworker, or of a man of such name. The gossipy and malicious version of the story pictures the king as a victim of a jealous husband. This one, incapable to confront the powerful king, conceives a machiavellic plot. First, he contracts syphilis voluntarily, he then passes it on to his wife, who in her turn gives it to her seducer. A new twist in the ways of washing a man’s soiled honor!

There are two famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci that have been said to be portraits of La Belle Ferronnière: one is the masterpiece known as Portrait of an Unknown Woman, in the Louvre Museum; the other one is the exquisite Lady with an Ermine, which is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Figure 2), a most beautiful woman who was the lover of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan (1451/1452–1508). It scarcely needs to be said that the story of La Belle Ferronnière and her supposed affair with King Francis I is pure fabrication: there is absolutely no historical evidence to support such an intrigue.

Figure 3
An allegory with Venus & Cupid, 1545
Agnolo Bronzino
Oil on wood, 57” x 46”

What is well confirmed is that Francis I, an extraordinary king, a supporter of Rabelais, an admirer of Erasmus, a strong advocate of religious tolerance in times of violent fanaticism, and a great Maecenas of the arts, was also a syphilitic man. He died tormented by the grave lesions that this malady can inflict. A wit, ignorant of the terrible, long-term devastation that this disease causes, said that the cost Francis I paid for his lechery was “only fifty écus, the uvula, and the hair, but he made up for it by speaking in a low voice and covering his head.”

In 1547, only a few years before his death, the king received a magnificent gift. It was a superb painting by the Italian Renaissance master Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572), offered to the French king by Cosimo I de Medici (1519–1574), Duke of Florence and later Grand Duke of Tuscany. This painting may now be admired in the National Gallery of London and is known as An Allegory of Venus and Cupid or Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time (Figure 3). Apparently, it was a gift of good will from the Italian prince to the French king. But in reality there are reasons to suspect that it was a veiled mockery, a cruel allusion to the syphilis that was killing the Gallic sovereign, which the Italians used to call “the French disease” and the French “the Neapolitan illness.”

This painting contains disconcerting elements. Apart from the unexcelled craftsmanship and sublime esthetic qualities—Bronzino was one of the great masters of all time—we sense something sinister or macabre. Lasciviousness, incest, treason, and madness are all represented here.

The nude body of Venus, goddess of erotic love, occupies a great deal of the canvas; she is painted in a cold chromatic tone that makes her look as if made of marble. She holds a golden apple in her left hand and an arrow in her right. The meaning is clear: love entices but also wounds. Her son, Cupid, shown here as an adolescent, embraces her lovingly and ventures a caress that is far from filial: he kisses her on the mouth, and at the same time plants a hand on her left breast, trapping the nipple between his index and middle finger. This is the first troubling detail: the viewer is shocked by the incestuous gesture. To the left of Venus, a naked, plump baby goes about strewing rose petals. We tend to think this is to create a soft, erotic atmosphere. But if we look attentively we realize he is treading on thorns, and one of these (apparent only on close inspection) has pierced and traversed the baby’s foot.

Between Venus and the baby, behind them, we discover the face of a monster (Figure 4). It is the pretty face of a maiden (or is it only a mask, like the two lying on the lower right corner of the painting?). But on closer examination its monstrous features are revealed: the body is scaly, like a reptile’s; the feet are hairy paws, like those of a lion; the right hand, which holds a honeycomb in an offering gesture, is incongruously joined to the left arm; and the left hand, which comes off the right arm, holds a curved and pointed object that looks like a scorpion’s tail or perhaps is the monster’s own tail. The symbolism of this figure is clear: erotic love is sweet as honey, but it can also sting most painfully, like a scorpion. Under an appearance of innocence and beauty there lurks a repugnant monster of betrayal and heartache.

In the upper right corner of the painting is an old, muscular man. He is Time, as suggested by an hourglass behind him and he has wings. He looks angrily toward the upper left angle of the painting, at his daughter, Truth (Veritas filia temporis). Time extends his brawny arm trying to stop his daughter from drawing the blue curtain that serves as background to the scene. In other words, Time tries to efface all actions, even the most perverse, whereas Truth insists that they be brought out in the open.

Figure 4
An allegory with Venus & Cupid, Detail
Figure 5
An allegory with Venus & Cupid, Detail

Beneath Time, on the left of the canvas, is a tormented personage, traditionally interpreted as the representation of jealousy (Figure 5). However, the Italian painters used to represent jealousy by a female figure. This is because in Italian the word jealousy, gelosia, is a noun of feminine gender; and it was an ancient convention that the pictorial representation of the passions had to accord with the grammatical gender of the noun expressing them. There is no reason to think that Bronzino disregarded this old custom. But the figure in this painting is a male, as suggested by the sinewy arms, the shape of the thorax and the angular features, poor in adipose tissue, that contrast with the roundness of the body of Venus and that of her prepubescent son.

One is therefore compelled to think that the mentioned personage represents something other than jealousy. A scholar, J. F. Conway,1 has persuasively proposed that this is a representation of syphilis. Indeed, X-ray imaging of Bronzino’s painting has shown that the artist initially depicted the traditional female figure, but later changed his mind and painted over the tormented male personage that we see today. Weightier arguments advanced by Conway are within the medical domain. The dark color of the skin was called “rupia” by the Renaissance physicians, and was one of the features of syphilis. Late onset lesions of this disease involved the oral cavity, and we can see that the mouth of the personage, widely open, lacks some teeth. Loss of hair, a common feature of lues, is suggested by loose locks of hair, but cannot be seen, because the hands are pressing tightly against the head. The fingers are knotty, and another feature of syphilis was involvement of periarticular structures causing nodosities at the joints. Perhaps carried away by clinical enthusiasm, Conway spots the absence of a nail in a finger of the personage. I cannot see this detail at all, but anonychia, absence of a nail, was well known to physicians as a feature of both congenital and acquired syphilis.

Another scholar sees in Cupid’s gesture another reference to syphilis. According to Margaret Healy,2 the hand of Cupid on Venus’ breast is not only an allusion to incest, but to the transmission of syphilis through suckling, a manner of contagion on which Renaissance physicians expounded abundantly.

There are many descriptions of the excruciating pains that syphilitic patients endured: unbearable pain that kept them awake at night, forced them to adopt a “fetal” posture, and drove them to madness, as shown by the mysterious personage on the left described earlier in Figure 5. All this was well known to Bronzino and his patron, Cosimo I of Medici. At that time, educated persons could boast of knowing as much medicine as the physicians, since medicine was not too distinct from philosophy. Therefore, it is not impossible that Cosimo I may have intended a cruel mockery of Francis I, whom he distrusted, as French troops had made war against his dominions. The Italian prince knew that Francis I, a sophisticated art connoisseur, would enjoy the sublime artistry of Bronzino and his unsurpassed allegory of love. But at the same time, he knew that the French king was in his last years, devastated by the ravages of lues—he had to be taken on a stretcher when he traveled from chateau to chateau. Shrewd Medici that he was, Cosimo may have used the painting to sneak a veiled reminder of the miseries of syphilis, the very disease that had Francis I at death’s door.


  1. J.F. Conway, “Syphilis and Bronzino’s London Allegory,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 49 (1986): 250–255.
  2. Margaret Healy, “Bronzino’s London Allegory and the Art of Syphilis,” The Oxford Art Journal 20, no. 1 (1997): 3–11.

Further reading

FRANK GONZALEZ-CRUSSI, MD, is an emeritus professor of Pathology at Northwestern University. Since 2001, he has retired from his post as head of laboratories at the Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago. He has written over 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, briefly became chief editor of Pediatric Pathology, and authored two books on the pathology of specific types of pediatric tumors. In the literary field, he has written 16 books (five in his native Spanish), most in the essay genre. Translations of his work exist in ten languages. Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fellowship of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. His latest book is Carrying the Heart (Kaplan Publishers, New York, 2009).

Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3

Summer 2012



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