Thursday, September 27, 2018

Pontormo's Four Magnificent Women

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum

The appearance in New York of Jacopo da Pontormo's masterpiece, the Visitation
 as well as the painting's only existing preparatory sketch in the exhibition Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters at New York's Morgan Library & Museum, is a special occasion.  This is the first time the painting and sketch have been seen in the United States. The Visitation has never left Italy before and when it returns to its church in Carmignano, Italy, it is unlikely to ever leave again.  Such is the work's value and importance.

Church of Santi Michele e Francesco, Carmignano, Italy
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Webside

Pontormo's Life

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), born Jacopo Carrucci and simply referred to as  Pontormo, may not be a household name but at one time in the sixteenth century he was well-known and regarded as the greatest painter in Florence.  Considering that Florence's artistic talent in the same period included Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), who esteemed Pontormo's work, this was no small accolade. 

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
black chalk, traces of white chalk, squared with red chalk, paper, 
12 4/5 × 9 1/2 in. (32.6 × 24 cm)
Uffizi Galleries, Florence
Photo:  Uffizi Galleries Web site 

Pontormo was a leading painter of the artistic style known as Mannerism.  Mannerism was Modern Art in the 16th century. Following the High Renaissance, Mannerists abandoned the Renaissance's realistic perspective of space and its idealized proportions of the human body.

Pontormo's training included a brief stay in the studio of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), then with the painter Mariotto Albertinello (1474 - 1515), after which he entered the workshop of Andrea del Sarto (1486 - 1530). The latter was thought of as the best painter in Florence until his death, when Pontormo was accorded this title.  

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528), Four Naked Women, 1497,
signed with monogram and dated, engraving,
sheet: 7 1/2 in. × 5 in. (19 × 12.7 cm)
Photo:  Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site

Pontormo and Dürer

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) was a strong influence on Pontormo who knew his work through extensive prints that were circulated throughout Italy including Florence. Pontormo's Carmignano Visitation and Dürer's 1497 engraving Four Naked Women are likely connected.  The print is known to have been available in Italy by the early 16th century.   Both works show four impressive women with elaborate hair and head coverings that are positioned in a rhomboid-like geometric shape against a plain background.  The figures occupy almost all of the picture space. 

Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574), painter, sculptor, writer and chronicler of artists' lives and their works, included Pontormo in his second, 1568 edition of the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.  He criticizes Pontormo for relying too much on Dürer, and having a disagreeable character.  Vasari, however, does not mention the Carmignano Visitation:  he may not have seen it. At the time Vasari was gathering his material on Pontormo, the painting was probably in a private villa. 

The Visitation - Background and Meaning

The Visitation shows the momentous occasion when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist.

Pontormo's painting includes two attending women who stand behind their respective mistresses.  As was the custom among patrician Florentine families, when a woman got married she would obtain a servant of her own age who remained with her as she went through life. No respectable 16th-century woman would go outside without an attendant.  The painting's Mary and her attendant both seem young just as Elizabeth, who conceived late in life, and her attendant are older.  The scripture does not mention maidservants at the Visitation but there was a tradition, that Pontormo would have known,  showing them at the scene.  For example, the Florence Baptistry vault has a 13th-century mosaic of the Visitation with Mary and Elizabeth embracing as in the Pontormo painting with two female attendants.  

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of the Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum

In some Visitation scenes, Elizabeth is shown bending towards Mary implying her own lesser status but Pontormo depicts the women close to the same height.  Their holiness indicated by a scarcely discernible thin gold halo.  They look into each other's eyes while the attendants direct their gaze out into the spectator's space inviting devotees to feel part of the sacred event.

The painting is thought to have been intended for the Franciscans who encouraged their parishioners to imagine the holy figures depicted as people they would know creating a more personal response to religious imagery. 

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of the Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum

Details of the Painting

The four women are nearly flush against the picture's surface with the background receding precipitously behind them.  With the exception of Mary's attendant who is more idealized than the others, the faces of the women could be modeled on real people.  They are serious, stately, strongly-built women.  Drapery is abundant and sculptural as if carved out of marble on a relief.  In spite of their solidity and seeming weightiness, the women appear to float off the ground, their feet in a gravity-defying dance-like configuration. 

Light falls down from the upper left as if it were coming from above and in front of the panel.  One side of Elizabeth's and one side of each of the attendant's faces are illuminated.  The strong light creates prominent highlights like the diagonal formed on the lower part of Elizabeth's orange outer garment draped over her left leg. Shadows bring forth elaborate patterns in the bends and creases of the billowing clothes.  Curiously, the face of the most sacred figure, Mary, remains in shade.

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of the Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of  Morgan Library & Museum 

On the left of the panel is a palace facade which resembles an actual palace seen in the right background of a 1493 - 95 altarpiece in the Church of Santo Spirito, Florence, by Filippino Lippi (1457 -1504).  
Filippino Lippi (1457 - 1504), Nerli Altarpiece, 1493 - 95, oil on wood, 
63 x 70.9 in. (160 x 180 cm)
Church of Santa Spirito, Florence 
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Webside

The palace belonged to the patron of the work who is portrayed in the altarpiece's main scene as well as in a small background scenario in front of his palace embracing his daughter while his wife looks on.  A woman with a white head covering leans out of a second story window above the palace's entrance. Beyond is a city gate with other buildings and further on a church.  

Pontormo would have gone by the palace en route outside of the city but most likely referred to the facade from the altarpiece in his Carmignano Visitation since he included a woman leaning out of the window just as the one in the Lippi painting.  This woman was revealed along with the head of a gray donkey at the palace's corner when panel's earlier overpainting was removed during the recent 2013 - 2014 restoration.

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of the Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum

Behind Elizabeth and her servant is an unadorned building.  The structure's source may have been an actual building in Florence, a prison since demolished.  It may also refer to a building seen in a 1522 fresco by Andrea del Sarto, the Madonna Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist. This work is now destroyed but is known through surviving copies.  It was painted on a wall of a tabernacle just outside of one of the city's gates.  

Unknown Italian Artist after a lost fresco by Andrea del Sarto (1486 - 1530), 
Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist (Porta a Pinti Madonna)
early 16th century, oil on wood, 21.8 x 15.4 in. (55.3 x 39 cm), 
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England
 Photo:  Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England, Web site

Andrea del Sarto's painting was considered so beautiful it was spared destruction when, in preparation for the siege of Florence (1529 - 1530) by the Imperial troops of Charles V, all buildings outside but closeby the city's walls were destroyed to prevent the enemy from using them to mount attacks.  During the siege, Pontormo was working on the Carmignano Visitation.  It is theorized that the painting was intended for a church that was demolished during the scorched-earth defense tactics of the Florentines.  It may have ended up in the villa of the commissioning patron while another church or monastic location was found.  By the early 18th century, the villa was sold and about the same time the work was recorded in the Carmignano church. 

Pontormo, like many major artists, made references to earlier paintings by other artists as a form of homage.  Pontormo never followed the exact example of others but obtained ideas for his own creations. Whatever the genesis, the Carmignano Visitation sand and gray colored regional architecture serve to set the scene in a contemporary Tuscan cityscape.  

The Painting's Coloration

The striking coloration of the Carmignano Visitation remains remarkable today after almost 500 years.   Intense saturated hues are startlingly vibrant.  From Elizabeth's orange cloak against her lime green undergarment to Mary's blue mantle and pink robe's sleeve with a matching cloth entwined in her hair, colors draw attention.  Mary's clothing colors are shown in reverse in the garments of her maid who is dressed in a pink cloak and blue-green dress with matching fabric twisted on top of her head and down her back. The head cloth of Elizabeth's attendant reflects that of her mistress.  

These bold colors may bring to mind Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Whether  or not Pontormo went to Rome and saw the ceiling is not established but he would have been aware of it.  Anyway, Pontormo had other models such as the Venetian masters to stimulate his  color creativity. 

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
black chalk, traces of white chalk, squared with red chalk, paper, 
12 4/5 × 9 1/2 in. (32.6 × 24 cm)
Uffizi Galleries, Florence
Photo:  Uffizi Galleries Web site 

The women's voluminous garments nearly obscure a round object held by Mary's attendant.  What she carries is more clearly seen in the sketch.   Although not confirmed, it could be a birth tray or bowl. These were decorative gifts given to new mothers to celebrate the successful birth of a child and were very popular in 15th- and 16th-century Tuscany.  An excellent example is a 1526 - 1527 birth bowl by Pontormo showing the naming of St. John the Baptist.

The Preparatory D
rawing and the Painting

Comparing the preparatory drawing, which has been trimmed on the left, to the painting shows changes Pontormo made from this final sketch to the finished work.  Of particular note are facial expressions. The drawing's two attendants evince much sadness whereas, in the painting, they communicate thoughtfulness. Other modifications include the redesign of Mary's and her attendant's hair and head coverings along with their garments' folds and contours.  Also prominent is the alteration of Elizabeth's left hand, noticeably the thumb's position.  

The artist used a squaring technique not a cartoon to transfer the drawing design to the panel's surface.  Square by square he enlarged the composition freehand maintaining the drawing's proportions. Scientific analysis conducted during the panel's restoration demonstrated that the artist made revisions not only on the painting's charcoal underdrawing but also while he painted.  

The use of the squaring method instead of a cartoon may have been necessitated by circumstances. Cartoons, needing to be the size of the final work, used lots of paper which may have been in short supply during the siege of Florence.  The squaring transfer technique would use only one sheet.  No evidence of incising or pouncing that would denote a cartoon was observed during the panel's examination.

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Detail of the Visitation, 1528 - 1529,
oil on wood, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in. (202 × 156 cm)
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons 
Photographer:  Sailko

The Everyday in the Painting

The  painting's two tradesmen, which were cut off from the drawing, emerged clearly in the course of the panel's cleaning.  Dressed in tights with codpieces, they casually sit on a stone bench in front of the palace and seem to be engaged in conversation. These men go about their business oblivious to the significant meeting taking place.  A housemaid at a palace window and a beast of burden at the corner of the building could indicate that everyday life went on while sacred events were occurring.  This is very much like Crucifixion imagery where beyond the hill of Golgotha farmers plow their fields, shepherds guide their flocks and town activities continue.

Some suggest the two men may represent Joseph and Zechariah, the husbands of Mary and Elizabeth but they are costumed in contemporary garb  and not at all like biblical figures.  In contrast, the four women are draped in ancient-like mantles.  

The Carmignano Visitation will no doubt delight viewers.  Appreciated on many levels, whether simply enjoyed as a visual representation of four magnificent women or looked at in terms of its iconography and history, the panel is just simply gorgeous.  

Jacopo da Pontormo (1494 - 1556), Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (Carlo Neroni?), ca. 1530,
oil on wood, 36.3 × 28.7 in. (92.1 × 73 cm)
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Tomilson Hill
Photo:  Courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum

Additional Works in the Morgan Exhibit

Almost as a bonus, the Morgan show includes two other Pontormo drawings (a self-portrait and a study of a portrait of a man) in addition to a splendid painting of a man from a private collection.   The painting has never before been exhibited in the United States.  The sitter wears a tight-fitting cinched doublet with complex pleats and slashes and a red cap, the costume of the Florentine voluntary militia who fought against the Imperial forces attacking their city.

The exhibition's excellent catalogue edited by Bruce Edelstein, professor of art history and the coordinator of graduate programs and advanced research at New York University’s campus in Florence, Italy and Davide Gasparotto, the J. Paul Getty Museum's senior curator of Paintings, is worth obtaining.  This essay is derived from the catalogue and a lecture by Professor Edelstein.

Please bear in mind that Pontormo's self-portrait drawing will only be on view until October 18, 2018 and the male portrait study will leave November 30, 2018.  Most important, the Visitation sketch will be here only until November 2, 2018.  Replacements are coming but catch these three before they depart. 

Pontormo:  Miraculous Encounters
September 7 - January 6, 2019
225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Tuesday through Thursday: 10:30 am to 5 pm
Friday: 10:30 am to 9 pm
Saturday: 10 am to 6 pm
Sunday: 11 am to 6 pm

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