Disparaged masters of the late Renaissance

Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino created some of the most graceful and beautiful, and also some of the weirdest, images in Italian art. The whole range of their work is on display at an exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence — and if you love painting, then you should go to this show, because there are items here which are as remarkable as anything created anywhere.

The exhibition is entitled Divergent Paths of “Mannerism”. The quotes around Mannerism are certainly intentional: the curators don’t believe that the word picks out a coherent style. And in this they are surely right. “Mannerism” has become a term of abuse, a way of denigrating the artists who followed in the backwash created by the gigantic supertanker of Michelangelo’s genius. The “Mannerists” imitated, it is said, the twisted, unnatural poses of Michelangelo’s nude figures and the strangeness of his colours and compositions, without managing to generate the spiritual power of his pictures, with the result that when their creations succeed in escaping downright ugliness, they end up looking silly.

When Michelangelo was viewed as the apogee of Renaissance art, there was a certain logic to the view that the only way for his successors was down. Unable to equal Michelangelo’s vision or his skill, the painters who followed could only produce works which were a sort of parody of the great man’s output.

The show at the Palazzo Strozzi should dispel that myth once and for all. If anyone needed reminding that Michelangelo’s paintings are not the last word in 16th-century Tuscan art, this exhibition provides it. Many of the images you see here have a subtlety and refinement that Michelangelo never achieved, at least when he was painting. They can also be delicately beautiful in a way that Michelangelo’s colossal and intimidating frescoes never are.

Yes, both Rosso and Pontormo were powerfully influenced by Michelangelo: every Tuscan painter or sculptor in the 16th century was. But it is not easy to define or even to detect the effects that Michelangelo’s pictures had on their work.

Giorgio Vasari, who knew all three men personally, said that Rosso had learned how to draw by copying Michelangelo’s cartoons for his unexecuted fresco of the Battle of Cascina. You search in vain, however, for direct quotations from Michelangelo’s work in the paintings by Rosso that are in this show, or even for anything that has the same tone and style as Michelangelo. The very few of Rosso’s drawings that survive are not Michelangel-esque: the male figures are cruder, less detailed and less anatomically accurate than anything by Michelangelo — and the female ones are better.

Rosso Fiorentino, “Study Of A Seated Nude”, 1525-27 (image courtesy of the British Museum)

What about Pontormo? His drawings are phenomenal. There is one of a man pointing directly at the viewer that makes you gasp, such is the virtuosity of the foreshortening. Vasari maintained that Pontormo’s late paintings were spoiled by his inability to come to terms with Michelangelo’s influence and a failed attempt to outdo the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel. It is hard to assess that claim, which until recently was accepted without serious scrutiny. The fresco cycle of which Vasari thought it was most obviously true — a series of Biblical scenes from the Creation to the Last Judgment and Apocalypse that Pontormo painted in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence — no longer exists. It was destroyed in 1742 because its images came to be thought of as heretical. Don’t ask me how a picture can be heretical, but apparently it can: Pontormo’s frescoes in San Lorenzo were alleged to have celebrated the Lutheran doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, which was and is inimical to Catholic orthodoxy.

Was Pontormo oppressed by the need to imitate and to surpass Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel? As far as we know, Pontormo visited Rome only once, in 1511, when he was in his teens. The Sistine ceiling had not yet been finished. Michelangelo was doing his best to make sure that no one was allowed to view it. Was Pontormo able to get a sneak preview? Perhaps, but no one knows. As for The Last Judgment, Michelangelo’s huge fresco on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, it wasn’t started until 1536 and wasn’t finished until 1541 (the year, incidentally, after Rosso died). There is no evidence that Pontormo ever saw it. While Pontormo certainly executed at least one painting (a Venus and Cupid), and possibly two, based on drawings by Michelangelo, his paintings have a sweetness and lightness, indeed a grace, which is quite foreign to the terribilità characteristic of Michelangelo’s paintings.

Most of Pontormo’s, and all of Rosso’s, formal training was with Andrea del Sarto. While still his apprentices, they each executed a fresco for the church of Santissima Annunziata. These frescoes, detached and newly cleaned and restored, are the first things you see in the exhibition. Each is, in very different ways, stunning.

Pontormo’s picture is a severely classical Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, a beautifully simple composition that must have been influenced by his having seen Raphael’s School of Athens while on his trip to Rome. The colour harmony has unfortunately been destroyed by over-restoration. But the majesty of the work survives. This is an extraordinarily precocious picture: Pontormo was only 19 when he began it, and he never surpassed the beauty and the grace of its figures.

Pontormo could have stayed painting in the classical style for the rest of his life, and perhaps his posthumous reputation would have been higher if he had: Andrea del Sarto, who was only eight years older, never varied from it. In his lifetime, del Sarto was celebrated for painting pictures “without error” and he was consistently appreciated by art historians, artists and art-lovers for the next 400 years — unlike Pontormo, who although highly rated in the 16th century, was, by the end of the 17th, being scorned for his “fantastic” images which failed to “imitate nature” and broke all the rules of classical proportion. By the 19th century, Jacob Burckhardt was describing the forms characteristic of Pontormo’s religious pictures as “repulsive and deviant”.

Pontormo, “Visitation”, 1528-29 (image courtesty of Pieve de San Michele Arcangelo)

It isimpossible to share that view when you look at the Visitation that Pontormo painted when he returned to the subject 15 years after his Santissima Annunziata fresco. It is in a totally different style from that earlier painting. It is astonishingly beautiful, emotionally intense — and deeply puzzling: no one understands why Mary and Elizabeth each have a copy of themselves standing behind them. But “repulsive and deviant” it is certainly not.

Rosso’s fresco for Santissima Annunziata is of the Assumption of Mary. The Virgin, watched by apostles, saints and holy men, is borne up to heaven on a cloud of giggling angels and cupids. Rosso’s style, like Pontormo’s, moved quickly away from the classicism of Andrea del Sarto. Rosso never found favour with the Medicis — and perhaps he did not want to. He had republican sympathies. He left Florence in the early 1520s to wander around Tuscany, finally ending up in Rome. He produced some mildly erotic prints on classical themes. His paintings retained a fundamentally sunny outlook on the world. He painted a lot of images of the smiling, playful baby Jesus with his beautiful and imperturbable mother. In this period, even his depiction of the Deposition from the Cross takes place against the background of a clear blue sky.
Fiorentino, “Madonna and Child with the young St John the Baptist”, 1515 (image courtesty of Stadel Museum)

Rosso’s mood seems to have metamorphosed into something much darker at the end of the 1520s. The smiling cupids and playful bambini were replaced by depictions of death and agony. Even his pictures of the Madonna and Child start to have a perceptibly melancholy tinge.

Given what happened to him, perhaps it is hardly surprising. Rosso was in Rome in 1527 on that terrible day when the Imperial army, made up mostly of German Protestant mercenaries, entered the city. They proceeded to murder, rape, rob and desecrate just about everybody and everything they could find. The horribly brutal violence went on for months and only ended when plague erupted and food ran out. Rome’s population dropped from about 55,000 at the beginning of 1527 to fewer than 10,000 by the end of 1528. Rosso was captured by the Germans, stripped of everything he owned and forced to do heavy labour. He eventually escaped and managed to find his way to Perugia, and then to Sansepolcro, where he painted a very dark and very strange Deposition from the Cross, which, in addition to depicting Mary fainting over the elongated body of Christ, includes a Roman soldier with his face turning into that of a monkey.

Rosso then left Italy and never returned. His international reputation must have been considerable, because Francis I of France immediately put him in charge of the decoration of the palace at Fontaine-bleau. Vasari relates that the king treated Rosso so generously that he lived like a noble, with horses and troops of servants. He also says that Rosso committed suicide, overcome with shame at having falsely accused one of his friends of stealing from him. No one knows whether that story is true. But it is not impossible that Rosso never recovered from the trauma of living through the Sack of Rome. Suicide over a decade later could have been the result.

Pontormo lived more than 17 years longer than Rosso. With the exception of a couple of years between 1523 and 1525, when he fled to a monastery to escape the plague, he spent his whole life in Florence. Two years after they sacked Rome, Charles V’s soldiers surrounded Florence, which had kicked out the Medici and reverted to republican government. Pontormo stayed in the city, and he experienced all the hideousness of the siege. The population was starved into submission within less than a year. The Medici were returned to power. Prominent republicans were executed or exiled. The Imperial troops who had behaved so disgracefully in Rome were comparatively restrained once they got into Florence. But the death toll — the result of starvation and disease rather than murder — was still huge.

Pontormo, “Portrait of Cosimo the Elder”, 1518-19 (image courtesy of Gallerie degli Uffizi)

Pontormo escaped unharmed. Between 1554 and 1556, the last years of his life, he kept a diary. What survives of it reveals him fussing about his health and his diet, and concerned about his work on those now-vanished frescoes in San Lorenzo. An intensely religious man, he seems to have had no political convictions. He was happy to work for the Medici, even for the thug and bully Duke Alessandro who, before he was murdered by his cousin, casually appropriated Pontormo’s Leda and Cupid for himself although it had been painted for someone else.

Pontormo’s portraits, many of which are in the Strozzi show, are works of exceptional psychological insight and acuteness, as well as immense technical skill. The man who is described as “a bishop” stares at you with an intense and unsettling gaze. His hands are almost as remarkable as his eyes. The same is true of the Gentleman with a book. Even the portrait of Cosimo the Elder — a piece of pure Medici propaganda, for its subject had been dead for 50 years, and the purpose of the picture was to demonstrate the continuity of Medici power in Florence — aims at truth rather than flattery: Cosimo looks less like a domineering potentate and more like a banker anxious about his investment portfolio.

If the word “Mannerism” does not describe the art Pontormo and Rosso produced, what does? The variety of works of art in this show, which includes drawings and tapestries as well as frescoes and oil paintings, suggests that no single term can encompass their work. The religious sensibility behind much of what they did is very hard to share, and may not be accessible at all. But the emotions they depict — of kindness and gentleness, as well as desolation and loss — and the supreme artistry that they brought to everything they did, are certainly available to anyone who is lucky enough to visit this magnificent exhibition.

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