Jacopo da Pontormo
Pontorme, The Republic of Florence
Summary of Jacopo da Pontormo
Pontormo was one of the most radical individuals in the history of Italian Renaissance art. Recognized primarily as a religious painter, he received widespread praise too for a number of perceptive portraits. Rubbing shoulders with some of the great masters of the High Renaissance, including his friend Michelangelo, Pontormo (unlike his esteemed compatriots) looked towards the art of northern Europe where he found inspiration in the engravings and woodcuts of German and Dutch art. The hallmarks of his mature Mannerist style were evident in the spiritual, rather than physical, presence of his figures; in his vivid use of color; his fluid contoured lines; and in his ambiguous approach to pictorial space. During the last decade of his life Pontormo became increasingly reclusive and troubled, leading him to refuse the company even of the great Bronzino, who had been like an adopted son to him.
- Pontormo's early work demonstrates his mastery of the principles of control and compositional distribution that characterized the Renaissance style. Yet even early on, when Pontormo carried forward the chiaroscuro and sfumato effects he took from his early master Leonardo da Vinci, Pontormo's elongated "floating" figures hinted at a new dawning for Italian art that would see it move towards a less naturalistic, more expressive, style.
- Leaving behind the compositional disciplines of his former masters, Pontormo introduced a rhythmic quality to Italian art that took its influence from Northern Europe and specifically Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts and Lucas van Leyden's engravings. The advance towards a full Mannerist style was further enhanced by Pontormo's refusal to situate his figures in naturalistic settings. His swirling, serpentine, figures occupy the whole of his frame bringing a heighted psychological aspect to his painting.
- In addition to his religious paintings, Pontormo proved a highly accomplished and adept portraitist. His sophisticated depictions, most notably those he made for Florence's ruling Medici dynasty, are packed with subtle departures from the current "heroic" conventions for portraiture. His sitters possess a rare psychological dignity that is enhanced by the artist's fine eye for symbolism (which, in the case of the Medici's, alluded to their political and economic power).
- Pontormo's mature works were brought to life by his crisp, sumptuous, palette which served to give drapery and clothing a vibrancy all of their own. His non-naturalistic style also extended to his ensemble of twisting elongated figures none of whom seemed tethered by the rules of gravity. This later Mannerist phase is seen as the forebearer of the Baroque period.
Biography of Jacopo da Pontormo
Jacopo Carucci (later known as Jacopo da Pontormo) was born in Pontorme, near Empoli, in Tuscany to the painter Bartolomeo di Jacopo di Martino Carrucci and his wife Alessandra di Pasquale di Zanobi. He is known to have had one sister. Pontormo was orphaned at a young age, losing his father, mother, and grandfather in rapid succession. Having already been raised to appreciate the values of the High Renaissance by his father, Pontormo came into the care of his grandmother Mona Brigida who educated the boy in reading, writing, and rudimentary Latin. At the age of nine, he was taken to Florence and placed in the care of a distant relative by the name of Battista. Given these early upheavals, it is little surprise that Pontormo's contemporary, the art historian Giorgio Vasari, described Pontormo as a "young, melancholy and lonely" boy.
Important Art by Jacopo da Pontormo
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jacopo da Pontormo
- Pontormo's DiaryOur PickBy Rosemary Mayer
- Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, his Life and WorkOur PickBy Frederick Mortimer Clapp
- Maniera: Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici FlorenceOur PickBy Bastian Eclercy
- Pontormo, Bronzino, and the Medici: The Transformation of the Renaissance Portrait in FlorenceOur PickBy Carl Strehlke and Elizabeth Cropper
- Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of MannerismOur PickBy Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali
- PontormoBy Doris Krystof
- Review: Pontormo's 'Visitation,' a Renaissance masterpiece of extreme imagination, visits the GettyBy Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times / February 7, 2019
- Pontormo and Rosso at the Palazzo Strozzi, FlorenceBy Rachel Spence / Financial Times / March 14, 2015
- Jacopo Pontormo and Influences from the Renaissance TheaterBy Frederick A. Cooper / The Art Bulletin / September 1973
- The Drawings of Pontormo: AddendaBy Janet Cox-Rearick / Master Drawings / 1970
- Pontormo and Bronzino at the CertosaBy Elizabeth Pilliod / The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal / 1992
- Jacopo Pontormo's Florentine "Visitation": The IconographyBy Jack Wasserman / Artibus et Historiae / 1995
- Pontormo in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita in FlorenceBy Jack Wasserman / Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz / 2009
- Pontormo's Capponi ChapelBy Leo Steinberg / The Art Bulletin / September 1974
- Pontormo and the Influence of Northern Art in Sixteenth-Century ItalyBy Allan Braham / Journal of the Royal Society of Arts / September 1982
- Pontormo's Early StyleBy Irving L. Zupnick / The Art Bulletin / September 1965
- Pontormo's Cosimo il Vecchio, a New DatingBy John Sparrow / Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes / 1967