Progression of Art
Visitation of the Virgin and St. Elizabeth
Typical of Visitation scenes, this work shows the moment when St. Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist) visits the Virgin Mary (pregnant with Jesus) thus symbolizing the future importance of the relationship between the two unborn children. This early painting is in fact one of two Visitation scenes Pontormo painted, the second completed a little over a decade later. Comparison between the two works demonstrate the significant shift made by Pontormo from Renaissance modes of representation toward Mannerism.
In this earlier version we see the influence of Pontormo's master Andrea del Sarto, in the solidity of the figures, the simplicity of their gestures, and the variety of poses. Pontormo also follows the Roman-Catholic Renaissance tradition of depicting Elizabeth bowing in reverence to Mary (as is also seen in earlier Visitations, such as that painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1491, and that sculpted by Lucca della Robbia around 1440).
Pontormo's earlier Visitation also demonstrates adherence to other principles of Renaissance painting. For instance, the figures stand at just under half the height of the painting, in a classicized architectural setting. Art historian Jack Wasserman notes that this backdrop "endows the painting with monumentality, controls the distribution of the figures, and leads the eye of the beholder from the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth upward to the Sacrifice of Abraham [represented in the inscription in the top of the architecture]". However, even at this early stage in his career, Pontormo is already beginning to break away from tradition and develop his own style. This is most evident in the elongated, seemingly weightless figures, their more serpentine poses, and the haunted expressions they wear, as well as the crowding of the composition with figures.
Fresco - Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, Florence
Joseph in Egypt
This painting depicts the biblical episode in which Joseph reunites with his family. It is one of a series of fourteen paintings (by Pontormo, as well as Andrea del Sarto, Francesco Granacci, Bachiacca and Franciabigio) that trace the life of Joseph, painted for prominent Florentine banker and patron Pier Francesco Borgherini to commemorate his 1515 marriage to Margherita Accaiuoli.
The series was originally set into the wall paneling and furniture in the couple's bedroom at the Borgherini palace in Florence. As art historian Allan Braham notes, the story of Joseph was selected as the central theme, as it "bears upon material and spiritual success [...] the subjects of chastity and dreaming, and one that has a deeply moral purpose insofar as the life of Joseph is shown as a pre-figuration of the life of Christ".
Here, Pontormo continues to challenge the High Renaissance artistic principles of calmness and balance, by using vivid colours, and by creating a striking, restless, asymmetrical composition, in which not only the figures themselves adopt serpentine poses, but also their placement within the scene - creating a sort of S-shape for the eye to follow. Pontormo thus makes, as art historian Frederick Mortimer Clapp asserts, "a rather self-conscious effort to escape from old formulas by distributing his figures and arranging them in little groups, on planes that are defined by the various parts of an architectural setting".
Pontormo's complex composition presents several separate scenes simultaneously: 1) Joseph presenting his family to the pharaoh (left foreground), 2) Joseph sitting on a triumphal cart pulled by three putti, leaning down to hear a petition (right foreground), 3) Joesph leading one of his children by the hand up the staircase toward his mother who embraces his other child at the top of the stairs (center), and 4) Joseph presenting his children (Ephraim and Manasseh) to be blessed by his dying father, Jacob (top right).
The influence of Northern European painting can be seen here in the clothing, the expressions and features of the figures, as well as in the style of the castle and trees in the background. Pontormo drew heavily from Dutch painter and printmaker Lucas van Leyden in designing the landscape, in particular, Leyden's 1510 engraving Christ Presented to the People. This setting was later adopted by Salviatti for his fresco of Bathsheba and David, painted in Rome's Palazzo Sachetti in the 1560s.
Oil on panel - National Gallery, London
Madonna with Child and Saints
This painting, commonly referred to as the Pucci Altarpiece (as it was commissioned by Francesco Pucci, a political figure who worked with the Medici family), is Pontormo's largest oil painting, and one of the few works by him which still resides in its original location. It was highly praised at the time of its creation, with Vasari referring to it as "the most beautiful panel ever made by this extremely rare painter".
The painting depicts the Virgin Mary, positioned above St. Joseph who is holding the baby Jesus, and surrounded by (among others), Saints John, Francis, and James (the latter representing a self-portrait by Pontormo) who look on in admiration. Instead of depicting Mary holding Jesus, as was the convention, Pontormo's decision to place the baby in Joseph's hands emphasizes his role as an adoptive paternal figure, and reflects a general rising interest in Joseph, and his role in the Holy Family, during the sixteenth century.
The use of chiaroscuro and sfumato shows Da Vinci's influence, as do the mysterious smiles of the figures and the poses of the Christ child and little St. John. On the other hand, the composition departs from the harmony and balance favored by Pontormo's former masters, and demonstrates rather an attempt to experiment with a novel sort of rhythm, inspired in part by Dürer's woodcuts of the Passion. Likewise, the painting shows further progression toward Mannerism by removing the figures from any sort of recognizable or naturalistic setting, instead placing them in a void, psychological space that lacks perspective. Here, the figures take up the entire frame, adding to the sense of suffocation, compression, and agitation created by the swirling composition and twisting body positions.
Oil on panel - San Michele Visdomini, Florence
Portrait of Cosimo di Giovanni de' Medici il Vecchio
In 1512, following 18 years of political exile, the Medici family was welcomed back to govern Florence. Cosimo (who died in 1464) was once considered a wise and learned Florentine patriarch and the new Medici government saw an opportunity to present Cosimo as a dynastic symbol of a family that would restore prosperity and peace to the city. Executed more than fifty years after his death, Pontormo's painting was based on nothing more than a medal cast shortly after Cosimo's passing. Yet from this single source, Pontormo succeeded in communicating the patriarch's wisdom and stateliness.
The stately red robe lined with fur was typical of republican Florentine citizens who were qualified to hold office. The three-quarter-length format, uncharacteristic of private family portraiture at the time, was strategically selected to recall the 1476 portrait of scholar Vittorino de Feltre by Justus of Ghent, as well as the 1511 portrait of pope Julius II by Raphael. Allusion to these portraits would have strengthened the idea of Cosimo as a sagacious and saintly elder. His pose also recalls common depictions of the figure of Florentia, symbolizing him as the embodiment of Florence.
To the left side of the painting stands a laurel tree around which is knotted a white banderole (another atypical feature for portraiture from this period). The text on the banderole appears upside-down, indicating that it is intended to be read by Cosimo rather than the viewer. The text, adopted from the Aeneid, reads "Nunc Avulso non Deficit Alter," which translates as 'When one is torn away, the next will not falter". Yet, as art historian Mary Hogan Camp notes, "Though the portrait is clearly encomiastic and reinforces the idea of the inevitability of Medici rule, a quiet undercurrent of reserve and doubt, injected by the artist, can be detected in the elements of design". For instance, the aging banker's finely modelled hands appear, as Clapp writes, "tightly clasped before him for fear some violent animation in them betray his stealthy calm".
Oil on panel - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The Deposition from the Cross
In this masterpiece, we see Pontormo's Mannerist style fully realized. Here he adopts vibrant, saturated hues to illuminate figures in serpentine poses. His characters are removed from any sort of naturalistic setting, being placed rather within a shallow, flattened space. Pontormo has also removed the cross from the scene, instead merely suggesting its form through the arrangement of the figures. The focuses here then is on the dramatic emotions of the scene rather than one more Deposition narrative. Gone too are other markers of reality, such as blood, dirt, or the crown of thorns. The only indication of Christ's death is the slight grey pallor that affects his skin, noticeable in contrast with the clear, crisp colors used in the rest of the work. This palette was most likely inspired by that used by Michelangelo for the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Likewise, Christ's twisting body recalls Michelangelo's 1498 Vatican Pietà.
The whirling, twisting composition of elongated figures creates a confusing mass, possibly alluding to the complexity of life. The figures appear unbound by the laws of gravity, and the feet of the two figures carrying Jesus seem to barely touch the ground. These figures have been interpreted by many as angels, carrying Christ to heaven. The single, small white cloud at the top left is commonly understood as representing the presence of the Holy Spirit (replacing a ladder included in a preparatory drawing, which would have carried the same association but functioned less harmoniously in the image due to its solid, straight form).
The overwhelming sense of loss and anguish of the figures is strongly conveyed in their expressions, and is strengthened by the absence of any figure at the center of the composition, where instead, the hands of several of the figures come together, as do the legs of Mary and Jesus. This space has commonly been understood as representing Mary's sense of emptiness upon losing her son. The figure at the right edge, whose drab, earthy-colored clothing, makes him seem out of place, is a self-portrait by Pontormo, a single earthly being bearing witness to this spiritual scene.
Oil on wood - Church of Santa Felicita, Florence
The (Carmignano) Visitation
In this, the second of two Visitation scenes painted by Pontormo, we see an interesting Mannerist reinterpretation of his earlier much work. Here, Pontormo disposes of the crowd of people, instead bringing the viewer up close to the intimate meeting of the two pregnant women who almost entirely fill the frame, situating the in-utero Jesus and John at the centre of the image.
Unlike Pontormo's earlier Visitation, in which Elizabeth bows to Mary Pontormo now paints Mary and Elizabeth embracing as equals, standing at the same height as one another. This compositional choice indicates sympathy with the Lutheran (Protestant) ideals that were spreading throughout Europe at the time. Standing immediately behind the embracing protagonists are a second Mary and Elizabeth pairing who gaze directly toward the viewer with haunted expressions. These two companions thus implicate the viewer further into the intimate scene, using eye contact to force the viewer to adopt a more active role. Furthermore, the companions appear to be idealized doubles, with Elizabeth's double in particular appearing more youthful suggesting perhaps that they are spiritual companions.
Other Mannerist trademarks are visible in this painting, such as the crisp, brilliant colors of the figures' billowing drapery, and the serpentine positions of the foremost Mary and Elizabeth. Mannerist in nature too is the distorted perspective and the ambiguous setting, in which only a hint of urban architecture is visible.
Oil on panel - Santi Michele e Francesco, Carmignano, Italy