Jacopo Carucci (May 24, 1494 – January 2, 1557), usually known as Jacopo da Pontormo, Jacopo Pontormo or simply Pontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine school. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity.
Movements: Renaissance, Mannerism
Jacopo Carucci was born at Pontorme, near Empoli, to Bartolomeo di Jacopo di Martino Carrucci and Alessandra di Pasquale di Zanobi. Vasari relates how the orphaned boy, “young, melancholy and lonely,” was shuttled around as a young apprentice:
Jacopo had not been many months in Florence before Bernardo Vettori sent him to stay with Leonardo da Vinci, and then with Mariotto Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo, and finally, in 1512, with Andrea del Sarto, with whom he did not remain long, for after he had done the cartoons for the arch of the Servites, it does not seem that Andrea bore him any good will, whatever the cause may have been.
Pontormo painted in and around Florence, often supported by Medici patronage. A foray to Rome, largely to see Michelangelo‘s work, influenced his later style. Haunted faces and elongated bodies are characteristic of his work. An example of Pontormo’s early style is The Visitation of the Virgin and St Elizabeth, with its dancelike, balanced figures, painted from 1514 to 1516.
Many of Pontormo’s works have been damaged, including the lunnettes for the cloister in the Carthusian monastery of Galluzo. They are now displayed indoors, although in their damaged state.
Perhaps most tragic is the loss of the unfinished frescoes for the church of San Lorenzo which consumed the last decade of his life. His frescoes depicted a last judgement day composed of an unsettling morass of writhing figures. The remaining drawings, showing a bizarre and mystical ribboning of bodies, had an almost hallucinatory effect. Florentine figure painting had mainly stressed linear and sculptural figures. For example, the Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel is a massive painted block, stern in his wrath; by contrast, Pontormo’s Jesus in the Last Judgment twists sinuously, as if rippling through the heavens in the dance of ultimate finality. Angels swirl about him in even more serpentine poses. If Pontormo’s work from the 1520s seemed to float an a world little touched by gravitational force, the Last Judgment figures seem to have escaped it altogether and fly through a rarefied air.
In his Last Judgment Pontormo went against pictorial and theological tradition by placing God the Father at the feet of Christ, instead of above him, an idea Vasari found deeply disturbing:
But I have never been able to understand the significance of this scene, although I know that Jacopo had wit enough for himself, and also associated with learned and lettered persons; I mean, what he could have intended to signify in that part where there is Christ on high, raising the dead, and below His feet is God the Father, who is creating Adam and Eve. Besides this, in one of the corners, where are the four Evangelists, nude, with books in their hands, it does not seem to me that in a single place did he give a thought to any order of composition, or measurement, or time, or variety in the heads, or diversity in the flesh-colours, or, in a word, to any rule, proportion or law of perspective, for the whole work is full of nude figures with an order, design, invention, composition, colouring, and painting contrived after his own fashion, and with such melancholy and so little satisfaction for him who beholds the work, that I am determined, since I myself do not understand it, although I am a painter, to leave all who may see it to form their own judgement, for the reason that I believe that I would drive myself mad with it, and would bury myself alive, even as it appears to me that Jacopo in the period of eleven years that he spent upon it sought to bury himself and all who might see the painting, among all those extraordinary figures… Wherefore it appears that in this work he paid no attention to anything save certain parts, and of the other more important parts he took no account whatever. In a word, whereas he had thought in the work to surpass all the paintings in the world of art, he failed by a great measure to equal his own (past) works; whence it is evident that he who seeks to strive beyond his strength and, as it were, to force nature, ruins the good qualities with which he may have been liberally endowed by her.
Let’s now enjoy his most celebrated works:
Critical assessment and legacy
Vasari’s Life of Pontormo, depicts him as withdrawn and steeped in neurosis while at the center of the artists and patrons of his lifetime. This image of Pontormo has tended to color the popular conception of the artist, as seen in the film of Giovanni Fago, Pontormo, a heretical love. Fago portrays Pontormo as mired in a lonely and ultimately paranoid dedication to his final Last Judgment project, which he often kept shielded from onlookers. Yet as the art historian Elizabeth Pilliod has pointed out, Vasari was in fierce competition with the Pontormo/Bronzino workshop at the time when he was writing his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. This professional rivalry between the two bottegas could well have provided Vasari with ample motivation for running down the artistic lineage of his opponent for Medici patronage.
Perhaps as a result of Vasari’s derision, or perhaps because of the vagaries of aesthetic taste, Potormo’s work was quite out of fashion for several centuries. The fact that so much of his work has been lost or severely damaged is testament to this neglect, though he has received renewed attention by contemporary art historians. Indeed, between 1989 and 2002, Pontormo’s Portrait of a Halberdier (at right), held the title of the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master.
Regardless as to the veracity of Vasari’s account, it is certainly true that Pontormo’s artistic idiosyncrasies produced a style that few were able (or willing) to imitate, with the exception of his closest pupil Bronzino. Bronzino’s early work is so close to that of his teacher, that the authorship of several paintings from the 1520s and ’30s are still under dispute—for example the four tondi containing the evangelists in the Capponi Chapel, and the Portrait of a Lady in Red now in Frankfurt (at left).
Pontormo shares some of the mannerism of Rosso Fiorentino and of Parmigianino. In some ways he anticipated the Baroque as well as the tensions of El Greco. His eccentricities also resulted in an original sense of composition. At best, his compositions are cohesive. The figures in the Deposition, for example, appear to sustain each other: removal of any one of them would cause the edifice to collapse. In other works, as in the Joseph canvases, the crowding makes for a confusing pictorial melee. It is in the later drawings that we see a graceful fusion of bodies in a composition which includes the oval frame of Jesus in the Last Judgement.