Jacopo Carrucci, better known as Pontormo, was a late Renaissance painter and one of the main representatives of the artistic style often referred to as Mannerism. He was born in the small town of Pontorme, near Empoli in Tuscany, in 1494 to a painter and his wife, but was orphaned as a child and raised by his grandmother in Florence.
As a young man, he apprenticed with famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and then, at 18, he entered Andrea del Sarto’s workshop. It was here that he met, Rosso Fiorentino, who was also a student of del Sarto’s. Pontormo began to develop his own distinct style, taking inspiration from da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, whose prints of the Passion of Christ were popular in Florence. Like his peers, Pontormo painted religious matter, but also excelled in portraits and mythological works, many of which were made for the Medici family.
Later in life, Pontormo is reputed to have become neurotic and reclusive – if we believe what Giorgio Vasari wrote in his Lives of the Artists; he recalls that Pontormo was so afraid of death that he couldn’t speak about the subject, and he avoided festivals and large crowds. The artist kept a diary that is not unlike the food diaries of many dieters today; he wrote down what he ate, meager and low fat meals with a lot of eggs.
Why is Pontormo important?
Pontormo is considered one of the main artists of Mannerism (an art historical term that has recently been contested), a stylistic reaction to High Renaissance art that is characterized by its voluntary disregard for numerous tenets of the high Renaissance, resulting in the use of distorted perspective, exaggerated proportions and intense, often unnatural colors. Pontormo developed an active, emotionally-driven style that deviated from the calm, classicizing art of his contemporaries. As such, he is considered groundbreaking and influential.
This very different style was (nonetheless?) appreciated by his contemporaries and particularly by important patrons. The Medici family, rulers of Florence and Tuscany, hired him to create a fresco in their villa at Poggio a Caiano, not far from Carmignano.
Where to see Pontormo’s major works
Florence: Madonna and Child with Saints (Pucci Altarpiece), 1518, Church of San Michele Visdomini
This painting, made for the Pucci Chapel in the Church of San Michele Visdomini in Florence, shows the Virgin Mary with St. John the Evangelist, Joseph, baby Jesus, St. John, St. Francis and St. James. This early work shows some of the first traits recognized as “Mannerist”. The altarpiece bears similarities to works by Leonardo da Vinci with its smoky, sfumato colors and expressive figures, but the emotional energy is entirely Pontormo’s. The enigmatic triangular composition, recalling works by Leonardo, is destabilized by the twisted, contorted figures; every character looks in a different direction. The space is compressed and claustrophobic, adding to the feeling of restless agitation.
Florence: Capponi Chapel, Church of Santa Felicita
This chapel, commissioned by the Barbadori family and later belonging to the Capponi family, is located in the Church of Santa Felicita, just over the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Gracing the high altar is Pontormo’s Deposition, a work rather close in style to that of the Visitation – this painting was in fact completed in 1528, likely the same year the Visitation was begun. On the entrance wall of the church are two figures, Angel Gabriel and the Annunciate Mary, in fresco, with a similar rotundity of volume that we see in the figure of Mary in the Carmignano altarpiece. This chapel is special since it is an artistic whole – although it changed over the years, its architecture and decoration, which also includes four lunettes in the ceiling represent a moment of Florentine devotion at the height of Pontormo’s career.
London: Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, 1515, National Gallery
This painting, by a young Pontormo, was one of a four-part series of paintings showing scenes from the life of Joseph in the Bible. The panel is divided into four parts: in the left foreground, Joseph introduces his family to the pharaoh of Egypt; on the right, he sits in a triumphal cart and is presented with a petition or message; in the middle ground, Joseph leads a child up the unrailed spiral staircase; and in the top right, Joseph and his sons receive a paternal blessing from Jacob, who is on his deathbed. Pontormo disregards the conventions of depicting space and perspective, pushing all of the action together in a disordered jumble. He uses intense chiaroscuro (light and shadow) and clear, brilliant colors.
Carmignano: The Visitation, 1528-29, Church of San Michele Arcangelo, Carmignano
One of Pontormo’s most famous works, the Visitation was likely commissioned by a member of the Pinadori family, enemies of the powerful Florentine Medici family. The painting tells the story of the meeting between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth to share the news of their pregnancies: Mary with Jesus, and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. The composition may have been influenced by Durer’s engraving depicting Four Witches, but Pontormo deviates from Renaissance idealism and distorts the women’s bodies, making them large and monumental. The background is practically monochrome and abstract, indicating a town with just a few lines, letting us focus on the emotional impact of the scene. Mary and Elizabeth are connected by their gently arched arms and swirling jewel-toned drapery. They gaze at each other intently with meaning, apprehension and affection. Two women in the background look directly at the viewer, inviting us into the scene.
A timeline of Pontormo’s life and works
The Carmignano painting is currently on tour in the United States, on loan to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York and the J. Paul Getty museum in Los Angeles, slated to return to the church in May 2019.
Blog post by Sarah K. Feustle