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From eccentricity to genius: the pioneer of Florentine Mannerism

The creator of works considered eccentric in their time, Pontormo was among the pioneers of Florentine Mannerism. With his bright colours, the contorted poses of his figures, their staring eyes, almost hypnotising the viewer, every detail of his works captures our attention and requires careful, patient observation, essential in order to understand the final message.

Training and early years

Jacopo Carucci was born in 1494 in Pontorme di Empoli – hence the name he is known by – the son of Bartolomeo di Jacopo di Martino Carucci, a painter who trained in the workshop of Ghirlandaio, yet by whom very few works are known. Having moved to Florence when he was only thirteen, by then already an orphan, he trained in the workshop of Mariotto Albertinelli, then that of Piero di Cosimo and finally that of Andrea del Sarto. In the latter he worked from 1512 together with Rosso Fiorentino and produced his very first works, including a predella unfortunately destroyed in the flood of 1557, created for the altarpiece of the Annunciation of San Gallo (c. 1513–1514) by Andrea del Sarto and Rosso Fiorentino, now housed in the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti.

His debut as an independent painter came at the age of twenty, in 1514, when he frescoed the Visitation for the cloister of the Church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence, as well as the figures of Faith and Charity in the entrance archway. Another major commission followed: the decorations of the Papal Hall in the convent of Santa Maria Novella (1515), testifying to his profound knowledge of Michelangelo’s models.

It is widely assumed that in 1515 the artist stayed in Rome and admired Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes and one of the Vatican chambers frescoed by Raphael. Characteristic traits of Pontormo’s style – such as his use of serpentine motion, of contrapposto in his figures and his choice of very bright colours – can be seen in his works of this period.

His rise to fame

Having achieved notoriety thanks to the Visitation, in the year 1515, together with other artists, he took part in the production of the fourteen panels featuring Stories of Joseph, destined for the wedding chamber of Pierfrancesco Borgherini and Margherita Acciaioli, now in the National Gallery in London.

It was precisely at this time that Pontormo began to break the traditional patterns of the Italian style by creating more crowded scenes, no longer organising the image around a single central fulcrum, but instead placing his figures freely in the painting, yet still able to attract the viewer’s gaze also thanks to their unusual poses.

From 1519 to 1521, Pontormo participated in the decoration of the salon of the villa at Poggio a Caiano, commissioned by Ottaviano de’ Medici on behalf of Pope Leo X. Here he produced the lunette with Vertumno and Pomona, an allusion to the serene life brought back by the restoration of the Medici and the pontificate of Leo X.

Later, between 1523 and 1525, while Florence was in the grips of the plague, he found refuge in the Certosa del Galluzzo, where he painted frescoes featuring Stories of the Passion, with his favourite pupil, Bronzino, at his side. It is precisely in these works that we perceive a sort of homage to Dürer’s engravings: the profiles are lengthened and the expressions filled with pathos.

Once the frescoes were completed, he began work on the very large canvas of the Supper at Emmaus (1525), originally conceived for the guest quarters of the Charterhouse and now in the Uffizi Gallery. This splendid painting depicts the moment when Jesus, blessing the bread, manifests his divine nature to the disciples, who have not yet recognised him: faces and gestures do not betray surprise or wonder, and perhaps only one face expresses curiosity.

The surprisingly naturalistic details, the attention to everyday objects, the truthfulness of the faces (Leonardo Buonafè may be recognised, then prior of the Charterhouse) coupled with the surprising touches of light and the choice of the dark background, seem to anticipate seventeenth-century painting.

In 1526, Pontormo’s formal research culminated in the decoration of the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence. Once again he collaborated with Bronzino, who worked on the roundels in the pendentives, while he concentrated on the Annunciation, on the east side of the chapel, and the remarkable altarpiece of the Transporting of Christ (sometimes erroneously called the Deposition ) for the altar: here, having eliminated all spatial references, the emphatic gestures and mournful faces of the eleven protagonists give the work an almost surreal atmosphere charged with emotion. Even the choice and drafting of the colours, iridescent pastel shades, contribute to the spectacular nature of the scene, which appears to be bathed in dazzling light.

A masterpiece of Mannerism is the Visitation, painted between 1528 and 1530 for the Church of Saints Michael and Francis in Carmignano, in the province of Prato. The scene is set in a city street: Mary and Saint Elizabeth look at each other intensely and exchange a tender embrace in the presence of two female spectators who instead turn their gaze firmly towards the viewer. The four women occupy almost the entire space of the painting, united by the interplay of gestures and drapery; a supernatural light illuminates them and their robes, with their intense and iridescent colours, enveloping them in a complex weave of references.

Among Pontormo’s most important and well-known works, its strength also lies in its ability to catalyse viewers’ attention and draw them into a suspended, indecipherable and mysterious atmosphere.

Perhaps these are the characteristics that struck the American artist Bill Viola who, in The Greeting (1995), also drew inspiration from the Visitation.

In the Uffizi Gallery, in the Cabinet of Drawings and Prints, a preparatory sketch is to be found in which the painter’s great skill in the rendering of folds and drapery may be seen.

In 1529, Pontormo put down roots, bought a house and set up his workshop there. A new commission from Cosimo I de’ Medici arrived in 1536, for the frescoes in their villa in Castello, unfortunately lost today. According to Vasari, in order to finish all the frescoes without interference, Pontormo covered the scaffolding with a cloth, not allowing anyone to approach and view the work, thus painting alone for a good five years.

The study of Michelangelo’s work

From the late 1920s onwards, Pontormo devoted himself to studying Michelangelo’s paintings: he studied the contortion of bodies, their anatomy, always searching for perfection and the possible surpassing of the great master. Most of these studies are preserved today in the Uffizi Gallery. Some of them, reworked and finished, became complex works such as the Ten Thousand Martyrs (1529–1530, now in the Palatine Gallery of Palazzo Pitti), or the Madonna and Child with St John (1534–1534, Uffizi), which is striking for the emotional transport that binds the three protagonists, as much as for the theatrical rendering of the bright colours surrounded by shadows that become dark. The volumetry and physicality of the bodies are also reminiscent of Michelangelo’s practice.

Venus and Cupid (c. 1533, Galleria dell’Accademia) has a special history because it was produced by Pontormo based on a drawing by Michelangelo in 1534, shortly before his departure for Rome. The influence of the master is evident in the composition and the sculptural forms, here enhanced by the twisting of the bodies of the two lovers, as well as the objects that connote the painting with themes dear to him, such as the masks alluding to the double face of love, the flowers and the puppet that references the transience of passion: central and recurring motifs of Michelangelo‘s poetry.

The theme of the ‘nude in motion’ or the twisting of the body also characterises the preparatory drawings for the frescoes in the salon of the villa at Poggio a Caiano, where he worked from 1532 onwards but never finished. According to Vasari, Pontormo was to depict Hercules and Antaeus, Venus and Adonis but also a group of Ignudi playing Florentine football: an eloquent reference to the recent siege (1529–1530) by Emperor Charles V and in particular the heroic game played under enemy fire in Piazza Santa Croce on 15 February 1530. Some drawings of this project remain, preserved today in the Cabinet of Drawings and Prints in the Uffizi Gallery.

His Last Assignment and Death

The last ten years of his life saw him involved in the decoration of the choir stalls of the church of San Lorenzo. The work was entrusted to him in 1546 but he did not manage to finish it; it was once again his pupil Bronzino who completed the work. All that remains of this masterful opus, destroyed in 1738 following a remodelling of the choir stalls, are written testimonies and, fortunately, his preparatory studies.

Moreover, in 1554 Pontormo began a diary – Il libro mio – in which he jotted down details of his daily life, allowing us to better understand aspects of his highly cultured but also bizarre personality, in addition to his career and works. The autograph copy is preserved today in the National Central Library in Florence (ms. Magl. VIII 1490). The extraordinary artist was buried on 2 January 1557 in the Chapel of San Luca in the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata, where he still rests to this day.

Cover photo: Preparatory drawing by Jacopo Pontormo for the alleged self-portrait of the “Deposition” in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita in Florence

Dove e quando

Pontorme di Empoli, 1494 – Florence, 1557




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