Wednesday, March 16, 2016



JACOPO CARRUCCI, known as PONTORMO (1494-1557), paints an entire chapel between 1525 and 1528 for the Capponi family in Florence on the other side of the Arno, the Oltr'Arno, in the small church of Santa Felicita.
As you enter the central door of the church, on the right is the funerary chapel of Ludovico Capponi, a famous Florentine banker of the 16th century.

His son, Ludovico Junior, is the handsome fellow painted in 1533 by Bronzino (Pontormo's pupil) in the Frick Gallery in New York. His descendant, Count Niccolo Capponi, bears a family resemblance today.


In the 16th century the family wealth came from banking and from connections with high-ranking members of the government. According to Giorgio Vasari, in his life of Pontormo, Ludovico was friends with an Italian knight of Rhodes, Messer Niccolo Vespucci, who recommended that Ludovico hire Pontormo to paint his chapel. Pontormo walled up the chapel while he worked on it so that no one could see it until it was finished. Vasari says, "fatta una turata che tenne chiusa quella cappella tre anni" (he made a tower around the chapel that kept it closed off for three years - my trans.) The suspense after three years was well rewarded.
         The chapel has the oil on panel altarpiece of the Deposition,
a side wall fresco of the Annunciation,
and spandrel roundels of the Four Evangelists, Mark,
 and Matthew with the angel and artist's board, probably by Bronzino, Pontormo's pupil.

Above was an image of God with patriarchs (now destroyed.) We can get some idea of the dome painting from the surviving drawings in the Uffizi, discovered by Janet Cox-Rearick but given shape by Leo Steinberg in his article in the Art Bulletin in 1974:

God's foreshortened arm greets his son on arrival in heaven.
The Deposition below is the central subject of the room.

The body of Christ is being transported to his burial tomb from the cross where he died. The only indication of landscape is some brown ground and a single white cloud in the upper left. We don't see the tomb or the cross. The light source seems to come from the front since the shadows of the feet appear behind them. But what a depositing this is! 
         The colors are extraordinarily bright and jarring.  Pinks, greens, oranges, yellows, 
and in some cases, iridescent, as though glowing!

The colors are juxtaposed with the somber quality of the scene. Instead of joy that is expected with such beautiful colors, we find a wrenching sadness pervades the scene, along with an anxious chaos
in the movement of all the figures. Somber anxiety.
Who are the people in this DEPOSITION?  Certainly we can identify Christ, the dead body, and his Mother, Mary, in blue, with her right arm extended towards her Son.
Christ is the nearly naked body that rests in the arms of one follower and on the shoulders of another. Steinberg pointed out the influence of Michelangelo's St. Peter's Pieta on this painting, where the body of Christ is lying on his mother's lap:

As Steinberg shows, however, the bodies which are united in Michelangelo's block of marble, are
separated in Pontormo's image, with the Madonna's lap indicated under the drapery near the center:
The taking of the body from the Madonna's lap in the painting only adds to the wrenching she feels as a mother seeing her son dead. She raises her right hand in a gesture of farewell but also in a desire to hold onto him one more moment, to even look at him one more minute, and with that separation we sense the depth of her sorrow, the loss of a child that is the worst sadness any parent could feel.
While Michelangelo's Mary is serene, knowing that her child's destiny is taken care of by God,
Pontormo's Mary, has palpable longing and tears are visible on her face:

Her mouth is open in a moan and her eyelids are closing, as if in the next moment she will faint, as she is shown doing in other Crucifixions. 
         Her son may look like Michelangelo's Christ, but we have the preparatory drawing that Pontormo did for his figure and the model in that looks more like a contadino, a farmer:
In comparison Michelangelo's Christ looks like a courtly aristocrat.
The other figures in the scene are only vaguely familiar. There seem to be two young John the Evangelists, one at the head of Christ, the other at his feet. Mary Magdalene's face is not visible, but the wayward strand of her red hair seen from the back seems to mark her as the wayward woman; she reaches up with a cloth in her left hand to wipe the tears from Mary's eyes.

 Five other women encircle the Virgin:
or are there two men in that group?
There is no definite Joseph of Arimathaea whom we often see in Italian Depositions, but we do see
a man in a green turban on the far right

who may be Nicodemus, the follower of Christ who helped out in the taking down of the body. That face is a self-portrait of Pontormo, wide-eyed and helpless, looking like the outsider but feeling the pain of the group and especially the mother on whose side he is placed:
Nicodemus was the follower who visited Christ only at night because he was afraid to be arrested,
but he also was thought to be the first sculptor of an image of Christ.  Pontormo even did a preparatory drawing for this face, as though he knew the importance of placing himself as the first artist to interact with Jesus. In keeping with the tradition of self-portraiture started by Masaccio (see other blog entries on this subject) Pontormo's self-portrait is here, looking out at the viewer and over on the right, like a signature on a document.
The body of Christ is held so that the viewer sees his face, his torso and his legs. He is lifted as if toward the altar in the chapel, as the BODY of the Eucharist celebrated in the mass. The glowing of the skin of some of the figures who touch his body suggests the light he brought into their world and the illumination of their spirit.
          The scene is one of tumult and misunderstandings, bodies running towards the tomb, bodies running from the cross, bodies above the dead man, hand caressing his head, others looking down on the scene as if from the ladder near the cross.

 In the center section there are two curious juxtapositions: a group of crossing hands and an empty space:

Hands rush in to help, but in the center is an empty space to the right of Magdalene's arm. The empty space at the center expresses the emptiness of their lives after Christ has died.

The body seems to bear weight and have volume, but the figures that hold it up are on their toes, as if it were weightless.
The pain of the event is stretched out, as are the bodies and their limbs. The faces are aghast, worried, sorrowful, and in shock. Both the pain of losing a beloved and the chaos that such an event engenders are represented in this painting.
If you compare Pontormo's Deposition with Fra Angelico's of a century earlier (1438), he is giving us
a much more complex view of the same scene:
In Fra Angelico's the scene is orderly, everyone with a job to do to make sure the body reaches the ground safely; the Virgin has fainted and has a group of attendants, Mary Magdalene kisses Christ's feet, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea help the body down the ladder, and an organized group of men on the right hold the symbols of his torture. All is calm and quiet, unlike the disorganized scene
imagined by Pontormo, where several people look out as if to ask for help, where the Virgin is convulsed in agony, where hands reach everywhere as if in desperate search of the life that is gone.
         What makes for the difference in these scenes is partly the disposition of the historical moment and partly the disposition of the artist. Ludovico Capponi has just returned from Rome when he orders his tomb paintings. Pontormo was aware from his patron of the dire situation in Rome during this period, particularly in April, 1527 when Rome is sacked by the French, German, and Italian soldiers of Charles V, who stay in the city until February 1528.  The Swiss Guard, protectors of the pope, are massacred on the steps of St. Peter's, Rome burns, palaces are pillaged, women, even nuns, are raped, and 12,000 people lose their lives in the Sack begun because the soldiers are angry at not being paid. The pope (Clement VII) escapes to the Castel Sant'Angelo through the secret above-ground tunnel that still exists along the Via di Borgo. The Church is under siege until the food runs out. Clement escapes after six months, dressed as a peddler, and sets up a papal court in Orvieto and then Viterbo. 
       The horrors of the Sack and the consequent chaos for the papacy and the city-states in Italy are reflected in Pontormo's sensitive rendering of Christ's death. The anxiety on the faces of these followers of Christ, the fears about where to place the body, the fears about arrest and death, the helter-skelter movement of all the figures around the center, all speak about the anxiety of the world of Pontormo's day about the loss of Rome and the papacy. The fact that Clement was a Florentine Medici, the nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent, contributes to the Florentine worry that their city will be the next to be attacked, and leads to Michelangelo preparing for the siege of Florence in 1530, when the soldiers who sacked Rome are retreating back to Europe.   

Pontormo can only look on, helpless as an artist to defend the church from chaos.
           But Pontormo has his own personal reasons as well for depicting the loss of Christ in such a sensitive way. Vasari tells us in the beginning of his Life of Pontormo how many early losses Pontormo had suffered in his childhood:
 nacque l’anno 1493 Iacopo, ma essendogli morto il padre l’anno 1499, la madre l’anno 1504 e l’avolo l’anno 1506, et egli rimaso al governo di monna Brigida sua avola, la quale lo tenne parecchi anni in Puntormo, e gli fece insegnare leggere e scrivere et i primi principii della grammatica latina, fu finalmente dalla medesima condotto di tredici anni in Firenze e messo ne’ pupilli, acciò da quel magistrato, secondo che si costuma, fussero le sue poche facultà custodite e conservate, e lui posto che ebbe in casa d’un Battista calzolaio, un poco suo parente, si tornò monna Brigida a Puntormo e menò seco una sorella di esso Iacopo. Ma indi a non molto essendo anco essa monna Brigida morta, fu forzato Iacopo a ritirarsi la detta sorella in Fiorenza e metterla in casa d’un suo parente chiamato Nicolaio, il quale stava nella via de’ Servi. Ma anche questa fanciulla, seguitando gl’altri suoi, avanti fusse maritata si morì l’anno 1512. 

(Jacopo was born in the year 1493, but since his father died in 1499, his mother in 1504 and his grandfather in the year 1506, he was left in the care of Monna Brigida, his grandmother, who kept him several years in Pontormo, and she had him taught to read and write along with the basic principles of Latin grammar, after which he was finally taken at 13 years of age
by the same grandmother to Florence and put in a workshop, so that, according to the custom of that city, his few skills were promoted and preserved, and he was placed in the house of one Baptista, a shoemaker, to whom he was slightly related, after which Monna Brigida went back to Pontormo and sent Jacopo's sister to him. But since not long afterwards Monna Brigida died, Jacopo was forced to give up the said sister in Florence and place her in the house of one of their relatives called Nicolaio, who lived in Via de' Servi. But even this young girl, following his other relatives, before she could be married, died in the year 1512.) (Trans. mine)

He is born in 1493 outside of Florence, says Vasari, and at age 6 his father dies, his mother when he is 11, his grandfather two years later, and his grandmother shortly after she had deposited him in Florence with relatives; then his sister, who had been brought by his grandmother to live with him, has to be placed with other relatives after the grandmother's death; and then the sister, too, dies, in 1512, the last of his immediate family, when he is 19. How many deaths of people close to him from age 6 to 19! How shocking even for the era. But he survived by learning to paint and his painting  here is his way of healing, a type of therapeutic primal scream.
           Christ's head looks much like the head of the painter, too.

It is not that Pontormo sees himself as Christ, it is that he is identifying with the suffering of Christ and understanding it. He wants to be cradled himself in his isolation as Christ's head is cradled in the painting:

He wants his pupil, Bronzino, perhaps the boy on the left who encircles Christ's torso, to take care of him in ways that his family never did. His crying out for his mother, his father, his grandparents, and his sister is profoundly visualized in this empty space between the mother and son in the middle of this painting, in the intensity of the sorrow on the faces of the bereaved around the central bodies, a whole family reinvented to return to the psychological site of the loss.

He sets himself also apart on the right

as if to say, "See what my suffering has been! Now you understand how painful it was and is!"

Small comfort, then, that God welcomes Christ into heaven in the dome and that the Annunciation
appears on the side wall:

They are just reminders of the parents who might have been present, they only
emphasize the center of the emptiness.
And the Evangelists are the witnesses to the pain and write it all down with their styluses, just as Pontormo records it in paint.

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