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Few works of art have elicited more heated speculative debate than the erotically charged allegories by the 16th-century Florentine court painter and poet Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, better known as Bronzino. All three depict Venus and Cupid, all are evidently inspired by the love poetry of the age and treat the theme of carnal love. Best known is that in the National Gallery in London, commissioned by Cosimo de’Medici, who presented it to François I. In this picture, an impish Cupid embraces his goddess mother and tweaks her nipple, the frigidly icy, almost lapidary hardness of their nude bodies a striking contrast to the painting’s provocative sensuality.

Least known is the “Venus, Cupid and Jealousy (or Envy)” belonging to the Szépmuvészeti Museum in Budapest. The effective “unveiling” of this no less compelling panel painting proved one of the revelations of the spectacular Bronzino exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This damaged work had been repainted in part and retouched in 1958, and all these interventions had discoloured. Completely repainted areas – Venus’s blue mantle and the vase behind her – had turned a yellowish hue, while the retouchings had turned its surface into a patchwork.

Not only was the painting transformed by “correcting” these areas with more colour but infrared analysis by the conservators revealed the presence of a further figure which Bronzino subsequently painted out. The discovery promises another chapter in the interpretation of these enigmatic images.

The decision to fund this conservation, and that of two other works in the exhibition, marked the launch of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s innovative Art Conservation Programme this spring. The bank’s charitable foundation is expecting to grant at least $1m a year (this year it is $1.6m) to non-profit museums and institutions for a wide range of conservation projects. Rena Desisto, the bank’s global arts and heritage executive, explains: “This is a place where we can make a real difference. Museums around the world are full of treasures that either represent significant cultural value to that region or play their part in the history of art internationally.

“It is extremely important to preserve these treasures.”

The criteria for selection are that the work of art – which can be of any age or medium – should be considered a national treasure or hold an important place in the history of art or in that nation’s culture. It must also be part of the institution’s core collection and return to public view. In this pilot year, applications were invited from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but the plan is to expand the programme globally. Ten institutions will receive funding this year. The Courtauld Gallery in London is one of the recipient institutions, for its “Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens. Other works in the conservation programme show a range of media and periods: the Louvre’s marvellous Greek marble “Winged Victory of Samothrace” (c190BC), the National Gallery of Ireland’s “The Marriage of Aoife and Strongbow” by Daniel Maclise, and Picasso’s “Woman in Blue”, in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. The full list is to be announced on Wednesday at the Courtauld Gallery in London.

The programme is a bold and innovative move in a time of increasingly straitened public museums. As James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo Strozzi, puts it: “Sponsorship is the lifeblood of any cultural institution now.” For the Strozzi’s Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici, for instance, more than 30 works of art required time in the conservation studio and accounted for 75 per cent of the installation costs. Without sponsored exhibitions – or sponsored restorations – such work may never be undertaken. Conservation has become one of the enduring legacies of a major exhibition and, according to Bradburne, one of its justifications. For Desisto, part of the appeal of supporting the Strozzi project was that the works of art conserved on behalf of the bank would return to locations across Europe, from Nice to Budapest.

The latter’s Venus and Cupid neatly highlights the complexities as well as the rewards of the conservation process, and its role in enhancing our understanding of works of art. Chiara Rossi Scarzanella and Francesca Ciani Passeri, who undertook the first part of the painting’s conservation in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, explain how Bronzino had added two planks to his panel, to expand his picture surface. Later, the panel was extended again on three sides to allow more breathing space for the figures. But problems have arisen because these new panels are against the grain of the original timbers and the consequent tension is producing stress in the wood, which could easily result in further pigment loss.

After the show, the painting returns to the Opificio for more remedial work. All of these procedures are reversible, and a panel of leading conservators advising the bank is ensuring appropriate techniques are used.

Every conservation project begins with a preliminary analysis of the work of art that includes imaging techniques. In this case, x-rays refuted the hypothesis that the original painting had been cut down before it was extended. Infrared analysis revealed the under-drawing, which shows numerous changes – pentimenti or “repentances” in Italian – made by the artist as he worked. It was not unusual for Bronzino – or many another Renaissance or later artist – to make adjustments to his composition. What proved a surprise, however, was the appearance of a leering satyr where there are now two children playing.

It could be argued that the removal of this satyr changed the whole meaning of the painting. If Venus had been pointing the arrow that she has stolen from Cupid at a satyr, it may well have suggested her preference for carnal love rather than the heavenly love to which Cupid may be alluding by pointing his arrow above his head. (The National Gallery Venus and Cupid explicitly treats the differences between sacred and profane love.) The lecherous faun seems to have been accorded a more minor role in the guise of one of the masks – symbols of illusion or deceit – about to be trampled by one of the children. Instead, the arrow that Venus holds so perilously close to her son’s genitalia is teasingly close to wounding her. The grotesque figure of Jealousy or Envy flees in the background.

Along with Michelangelo, Bronzino was the most learned painter of the day, and his poetry ranged from the academic style of Petrarch to the bawdy and burlesque. One of the achievements of the Florence exhibition is to demonstrate the entwined relationships between the painting and sculpture of the day and the poetry produced in the circle of humanists around Bronzino. It is tempting to view these elusive allegories depicting Venus and Cupid as a form of poetry in paint, and as open to endless interpretation as the verses they resemble.

‘Bronzino: Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici’, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, until January 23; www.palazzostrozzi.org

‘Bronzino: Restoring Genius’, a documentary commissioned by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, will be premiered at the Festival dei Populi International Documentary Film Festival tomorrow at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

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