Some artists achieve fame and recognition during their lifetime, while others achieve it only after their death. Some never do. Luckily, painters like Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1557), a Medici family favorite, was not entirely forgotten by history, however his name does not ring a bell quite like the other Italian Renaissance greats.
The question may be raised: why bother talking about him now if he had little popularity during his lifetime? The answer is: Pontormo is contemporary. Perhaps his stylistically “modern” tendencies that led to his alienation during the 1500s are exactly the reason why his work now deserves attention. His unorthodox artistic approach, characterized by an eerie psychological presence, emotional use of color, and an enigmatic manipulation of space, caused many of his contemporaries to look at him unfavorably. Seen as strange and reclusive, Giorgio Vasari depicted him as such in his Lives of The Artists, which could have contributed to his inability to achieve significant recognition.
Pontormo and De Chirico
Pontormo’s treatment of color, intensely pigmented and shockingly contrasting, are especially apparent in his 1528 masterpiece the Visitation which has been the focus of popular and critical interest in recent years. His enigmatic and supernatural compositions foreshadow the work of the 20th century Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. De Chirico’s “metaphysical” pieces evoke a sentiment of being simultaneously tangible and supernatural. Through depicting a vast voided space alongside recognizable and static architectural elements, De Chirico makes viewers uneasy in his manipulation of psychology and emotion.
The Visitation achieves a similar effect. The scene of the visitation is easily understandable, but Pontormo’s depiction invites a feeling of uneasiness. This apprehension is achieved through an architecturally developed yet blank environment featuring minuscule, barely visible figures, adding even more mystery of the encounter. Although there is no evidence of a definite connection between Pontormo’s construction of space and that of De Chirico’s, the stylistic parallels between them serve to underscore Pontormo’s strikingly modern approach.
Pontormo in the Spotlight
In the past decade, Pontormo has been revisited through his inclusion in major art exhibitions. In 2014, he and his Mannerist counterpart Rosso Fiorentino enjoyed the spotlight at Palazzo Strozzi in the show Pontormo and Rosso: Diverging Paths of Mannerism. The exhibition put their resistance to conformity front and center, giving them the attention they lacked during their lifetimes.
Palazzo Strozzi welcomed Pontormo back inside their walls in 2017 during a retrospective of Bill Viola’s work, entitled Electric Renaissance. One of Viola’s most compelling video works reenacts the scene of Pontormo’s Visitation, where Mary and Elizabeth embrace to share the exciting news of their respective pregnancies. Viola’s reformulation is called The Greeting and was originally presented at the Venice Biennale in 1995. The interaction was recreated by two actors and then slowed down over a ten-minute period, heightening the emotional intensity of the encounter. It demands the viewer’s appreciation of its vibrant colors, physical gestures, and tangible psychological presence; details that are often overlooked in viewing static works. The original Visitation was placed in the same room as the video, allowing for visitors to compare the two, both for their artistic similarities and for the way they connect the same experience carried out almost 500 years apart from one another.
Pontormo’s Pop Culture Presence
In recent media, Pontormo has also seen a glimmer of the limelight. The Visitation was shown behind the headboard of television’s most famous (or infamous… you decide) Mafia family, the Sopranos. Professor Franco Ricci at the University of Ottawa, who studies television and media, analyzed the painting’s presence in this episode. He remarks that it represents the omertà, or code of silence, that Mafia families are strictly held to. The women in the painting represent a mutual understanding (their respective pregnancies) that is communicated without speaking, almost as if doing so would endanger them. In this way, the painting becomes a metaphor for such omertà while simultaneously bringing great publicity to the work.
Pontormo’s Lasting Legacy
Among others recently moved by Pontormo’s work have been artists like the Florentine Paolo Parisi, whose 2003 Casa dell’Arte at the Rocca di Carmignano pays homage to the great Mannerist. Parisi refers to the influence of the Visitation in terms of its spatial planning, revolutionary subject matter and awe-inspiring colors. Doctor of philosophy, visual artist, activist, and author G. H. Rabbath also cites Pontormo as inspirational to his ongoing art project called Life Uninterrupted. Finally, mixed media artist Guido Nosari references Pontormo as greatly informing his personal style.
Although his name lacks popular resonance, Pontormo’s presence in contemporary society is rich and inspirational in the artistic community and outward. His vivid colors, evocative themes, and inventive and enigmatic compositions have led to a robust and newfound interest in ensuring the preservation and appreciation of his work.
Words by Natura Sant Foster