Allegories of Fire and Water

Bassano Paintings

Jane Peterson. 2000

The two paintings are from Gallery 6 and by Francesco Bassano (1549-1592) who worked in collaboration with his father, Jacopo. They are The Allegory of Fire and The Allegory of Water , both of which offer some interesting insights about Renaissance iconography.

The physical elements of the world in the l6th century were considered to be earth, air, fire and water. These elements were popular subjects for painting, usually done in sets of four. (For information about other sets and the two missing from the Ringling collection, see Peter Tomory's Catalogue of the Italian Paintings before 1800).

The Allegory of Fire shows a balding, plebeian Vulcan hammering at his anvil while and assistant heats a metal object in the furnace behind him. In the near foreground, Cupid is playing with a dog, while Venus, her back to the viewer, attends to her own matters. The foreground is strewn with pots, candlesticks, jugs and pieces of armor. In the middle ground a woman is busy gathering objects into a large barrow, while other more distant figures are at work collecting tinder and wood and tending hearth fires. The flames of Mt. Etna shoot up in the background. Streaking across the nighttime sky is a robed figure in a chariot pulled by wolves.

In the lower left corner of the Allegory of Water, one sees a burgeoning fish market where two gentlemen haggle with a vendor. On the right one woman is drinking at the well, and a second carries a bucket of water. In the middle ground kneeling at the river bank two women tend to their laundry, while a boat can be seen leaving the opposite bank to travel down the river. A bridge crosses the water in the background. Again a bearded figure in a chariot, this time pulled by two horses, crosses the sky.It is these two figures flying through the heavens that offer a problem in iconography. A serious study of Renaissance iconography runs into a knotty question. How did the pagan gods survive in the Middle Ages? For a thousand years, the Christian church dominated the thought and proscribed interest in the classics and the mythology of the ancients. The Renaissance, of course initiated a new interest in the study of ancient literature.

These classical gods are reintroduced in Renaissance art and literature in a number of ways although many changes take place.

One of the ways in which these gods survived in the dark ages was through astrology. Heavenly objects, stars and constellations were named for mythological beings, and the planets were named for gods. In astrology, the planets were thought to hold sway over earthly life, and influences of the planets were imbued with attributes of those gods for which they were named.

It is the planet Mars which is seen charging through the sky in The Allegory of Fire. This planet was thought to influence those natures which were hot-blooded and aggressive. It incited fiery emotions and quarrelsome attacks. It controlled the feverish diseases.

The modern mind leaps to the conclusion that Neptune must be the guiding force in the Allegory of Water. However, since the planet Neptune was not identified or named until the middle of the 19th century, it could hardly appear in a 16th century painting. It is rather the planet Saturn which influenced the phlegmatic humors. That planet was responsible for the cold-blooded, frigid, sardonic natures. It induced teary emotions and controlled the watery rheumy diseases. It is Saturn which streaks through The Allegory of Water.

This is a superficial discussion of a fascinating and involved subject. If it has piqued your interest, there are several good books for reference. Studies In Iconology by Erwin Panofsky discusses Father Time and Blind Cupid in Chapters 3 and 4, and the Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec treats the matter in great depth.