Jacopo da Pontormo - Biography and Legacy
Pontorme, The Republic of Florence
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.
Education and Early Training
At the age of eighteen, Pontormo was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci, and then to Mariotto Albertinelli and Piero di Cosimo, before, in 1512, he came under the tutorship of Andrea del Sarto. None of his apprenticeships lasted very long, most likely due to Pontormo's "difficult" personality. Indeed, having gained such an eclectic range of influences in such a short time, and being quite naturally gifted and creative, Pontormo was often the object of ridicule amongst his less talented, less audacious, fellow apprentices. However, it is believed (although unconfirmed) that around 1511, Pontormo took a brief trip to Rome with a fellow apprentice of del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, in order to undertake a close study of Michelangelo's works at the Sistine chapel.
The influence of Da Vinci and del Sarto are most evident in Pontormo's early works, notably the altarpiece in the Church of San Michele Visdomini, Florence, completed in 1518. At the same time, however, Pontormo's early works (such as the San Michele altarpiece, as well as the series titled Joseph in Egypt, also completed around 1518), were already exhibiting an individual style that moved away from the serene balance that had come to define High Renaissance painting. Pontormo's painting was already starting to show a more energetic and restless style. His work featured elongated and floating figures, ornamentation, distorted perspective, a focus on emotion and the psyche, and a preference for more vivid coloring. These features were to become the hallmarks of Mannerism. In addition to religious paintings, Pontormo also began executing portraits around this time.
Around 1517, Pontormo had taken on a pupil, Bronzino, who, having adopted his master's style, developed into one of the greatest Mannerist painters. Student and master would develop a lifelong friendship with Vasari reporting that "so great were the patience and lovingness of [Bronzino] towards Pontormo, that [Pontormo] was forced always to look kindly upon him, and to love him as a son" (Vasari even tells us that Pontormo included Bronzino in his series on Joseph in Egypt, depicting young Bronzino as a child seated on a step in the foreground). Bronzino accompanied and assisted Pontormo with commissions wherever he went, until about 1527.
In 1521, Pontormo was hired by the Medici family to decorate their villa at Poggio a Caiano with mythological paintings, and he would receive a number of other important commissions from the Medici in the following years.
In 1522, Pontormo and Bronzino entered the Certosa di Galluzzo, a Carthusian monastery just outside of Florence, in order to escape the outbreak of the plague (although the introverted Pontormo no doubt took to a tranquil setting in which monks followed a vow of silence). For the next three years, Pontormo (and his young partner) worked at the Certosa on a series of frescoes - The Passion Cycle - for which he drew inspiration from the woodcuts and engravings he had seen in the work of the German artist Albrecht Dürer. Writing about The Passion Cycle, art historian Frederick Mortimer Clapp observed that, "Suddenly we are witnesses of the curious spectacle of an Italian painter of great attainments seeking to escape from the tyranny of Michelangelo's canon of form by flying to that of Dürer. This choice, the strangest that an Italian ever made, was for [Pontormo] the craving of an instinct, and quite apart from his strangely modern susceptibility to novelty, he was, we may believe, swayed by an intimate compulsion, for there was in Dürer's designs an intense metaphysical quality that Pontormo was born to understand".
Pontormo seems to have solidified his unique Mannerist style soon after returning to Florence, when he painted his masterpiece Entombment (Deposition from the Cross) (1525-28) at the Santa Felicità church. Throughout most of the 1520s, he lived in lodgings at the parish of San Giovanni, and was extremely active in this period. His achievements were formally acknowledged in 1526 when he was enrolled into the Guild of the Medici e Speziali. By 1529, Pontormo had the means to purchase two lots on the Via Laura (now the Via della Colonna), where, five years later, he finished constructing a small house as well as a second-floor bottega (workshop) accessible only by ladder. He was known to pull up the ladder while he was working, in order avoid the risk of interruption or distraction.
After 1530, Pontormo worked almost exclusively on commissions for the Medici family. It was also around this time that he met Michelangelo in Florence and the two developed a personal relationship. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Pontormo was not content to merely emulate the Great Man of Renaissance art. As Clapp argues, "To Pontormo [Michelangelo's] canon, once thoroughly studied, became what all other canons had been to him - the crude material of a new form of decoration". Clapp argues that the late phase of Pontormo's career "proposed nothing less than to use Michelangelo's superhuman giant in a new scheme of mural painting, in which he would audaciously employ that monstrous nude to create a novel and more fantastic beauty".
Pontormo devoted the last ten years of his life to painting frescoes of the Last Judgment at the San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence. His pace was slowed by his deteriorating health (which Vasari attributed to overwork), and it would seem that at this point, he was only able to work about half of the days in each month. Although these frescoes were unfortunately destroyed about two centuries later by gradual degradation of natural forces, preparatory drawings survive. These drawings show a dizzying, tangled assemblage of sinuous, serpentine, writhing figures that appeared to float ambiguously in space, sharply contrasting against the Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel (1536-41), which is characterized by solidity and stability of the figures. Pontormo's composition was especially daring (both pictorially and theologically) in that it placed God at Christ's feet rather than above him.
According to Vasari, Pontormo had always been withdrawn and neurotic, often shutting himself inside his home for weeks on end, refusing to speak to even his close friends (including Bronzino). Although, from 1549 to 1557, he rather unexpectedly took on another pupil, Giovanni Battista Naldini.
According to the journalist James Fenton, in the last two years of his life Pontormo kept a diary in which he obsessed over, "his diet, his deteriorating health, his bowel movements [and] the weather". He also kept a record of his day-to-day accomplishments in their minutiae. Clapp says of the diary that "It has no literary flavour and betrays no preoccupation except that of setting down for himself, and for their own sake, his daily experiences [...] These pages are full of the flavour of solitude, simple living, and arduous labour".
When Pontormo passed away on January 1, 1557, Bronzino took over work on the San Lorenzo frescoes, staying true to Pontormo's plans by following the preparatory drawings he retrieved from his master's estate. After Pontormo's passing, Bronzino assumed he would be heir to Pontormo's estate (he had never married). However, the estate was ultimately awarded to a man who falsely claimed to be Pontormo's relative.
The Legacy of Jacopo da Pontormo
Clapp writes of Pontormo that, "In so solitary a life, to a nature so intense and lonely as his, the training of pupils was impossible. What was best in his art was too personal to be easily imitated, too subtle and too various to become a canon to young artists. On the other hand, no artist, no matter how talented, could have formed a school in Florence at a moment when all art had become Michelangelesque. As far as their influence on others went, Pontormo's rare gifts were largely wasted".
Nevertheless, Pontormo played a significant role in the move away from Renaissance modes of representation toward the Mannerist style. In particular, he moved away from solidity and regularity, and toward the representation of elongated figures in floating, dance-like poses, as well as ambiguous perspective, vibrant colors, and psychological, non-naturalistic environments that appear to defy the laws of gravity. These Mannerist trademarks can be seen in the work of his famous pupil, Bronzino, as well as that of later principle Mannerists like Parmigianino, Giambologna, Granacci, and El Greco.
Pontormo also influenced Southern European artists by drawing inspiration in his works from Northern European artists like Albrecht Dürer. Art historian Allan Braham asserts that "the influence of Pontormo's work, including the use he made of northern art, upon succeeding generations of painters is particularly clear in his approach to architecture". For instance, the setting for Pontormo's Joseph in Egypt (1517-1518) was directly derived from Lucas van Leyden's 1510 engraving Christ Presented to the People, and this setting was then adopted by Salviatti for his frescoes painted in Rome's Palazzo Sachetti in the 1560s.
Pontormo also influenced portrait painting, imbuing his own portrait work with dignity, elegance, repose, and simplicity. He seemed to have a particular talent for grasping the psychology of the sitter. It is thus not surprising that his pupil Bronzino became famous for portrait painting, becoming employed as court painter for the Medici family, who had previously employed Pontormo. Clapp asserts that "It was [Pontormo] who first transformed portraiture by seeing it in terms of Michelangelo's heroic vision and it was [Pontormo] who, in recording the appearance of his sitters, first sought to combine a massive imaginative simplicity and dignity of presentation with an intangible evocation of individual character". Pontormo's "intuitive intelligence" for portraiture went on to find its way "through certain Italians who worked in Spain, and through Flemish artists like Antonio Moro who worked in Italy, into our general tradition of form".