by Roderick Conway Morris

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Retrospective Shows Two Renaissance Masters on Different Paths

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 3 April 2014
Pieve di San Michele, Carmignano
The Visitation, 1528-29, by Pontormo



The last time a large number of works by the Florentine Renaissance painters Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino could be seen together was at the Palazzo Strozzi in 1956. So a new show at the same venue of over 90 oils, frescoes, drawings, prints and tapestries, is a timely opportunity to rediscover these idiosyncratic artists whose works still have the power to surprise.

'The exhibition is not just the culmination of the three years that it took to organize, but of over 20 years of our study and publications on these two artists,' said Antonio Natali, the director of the Uffizi, who curated the show with Carlo Falciani, a lecturer in art history.

'Both artists were born within weeks of each other in 1494 and have tended to be labeled as two 'Mannerist' painters, and as though linked by some kind of umbilical cord - but in reality they were very different and their work diverged early on. By showing them in parallel we are able to bring out the particular qualities of each of them,' Dr. Natali said.

Such an exhibition could only be held in Florence, because so many of the works are still here, added Dr. Natali. The Uffizi has provided the largest number of works, while other museums have also loaned generously.

Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, was born near Florence, and Giovan Battista di Jacopo, known as Rosso Fiorentino, in the city itself. Both gravitated to the studio of the leading young master Andrea del Sarto. The trio worked together at the Santissima Annunziata when Pontormo and Rosso were still in their teens. Three enormous detached frescoes from this Florentine convent open the exhibition and show early signs of their own individual style.

Further evidence is provided in the next sections: 'In the Workshop of Andrea del Sarto' and 'Diverging Paths,' which reveal, for example, Pontormo's engagement with Northern prints as compositional paradigms and Rosso's return to 15th-century Florentine models as a source of inspiration.

That the three were soon producing unmistakably distinct works is illustrated by the juxtaposition of three large panels: Andrea's 'Madonna of the Harpies' (1517), Pontormo's 'Pucci Altarpiece' and Rosso's 'Spedalingo Altarpiece' (both from around 1518). The last, while still unfinished, was rejected by Leonardo di Giovanni Buonafede the Spedalingo (superintendent) of the religious institution that had commissioned it. According to the 16th-century art historian Vasari, Buonafede thought that the saints in it 'seemed like devils.'

Pontormo was to spend the rest of his career working for the Medici and their allies. Rosso never received a commission from the city's de facto ruling family, but was taken up by the Florentine aristocrats who had supported the hellfire Dominican preacher Savonarola. Although he was executed for heresy in 1498, the friar's austere religiosity continued to be influential, and Rosso too embraced it.

These associations were to have a decisive effect on the two artists' careers. Pontormo never left Florence, save for a probable trip to Rome with Andrea del Sarto and Rosso. Unable to make a living at home from the patronage of the Medici's defeated enemies, in 1519 Rosso embarked on a peripatetic life that was to take him to Volterra, Rome, Perugia, Sansepolcro, Arezzo, Venice and eventually on to the court of Francis I in France. There he won wealth, fame and international recognition as the founder of the Fontainebleau School. In stark contrast, Pontormo was to end his days indifferent to the financial rewards that the Medici could still offer him, a frugal, pious eccentric.

Both Pontormo and Rosso produced powerful portraits, as a striking line-up of them bears witness, including works from Liverpool, London and Washington. Fewer survive by Rosso and nearly all now attributed to him, including his only known signed one, can be seen here.

Pontormo and Rosso developed as artists with access to the supreme graphic works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo and Raphael, and both became outstanding draftsmen. Nearly 400 drawings by Pontormo have survived, telling examples of which are displayed here, including a wonderful nude self-portrait (from the British Museum) and a study of one of the boys in his studio asleep on a step. Not nearly as many by Rosso survive, but some of these are unforgettable - such as his amazing study of a seemingly pregnant woman (from the Uffizi). While in Rome, Rosso became a prolific and inventive supplier of virtuoso drawings for prints, a fine array of which are featured in the exhibition.

Vasari wrote of Rosso that: 'He was so rich in invention, that he never had any space left over in his pictures, and he executed all his work with such facility and grace, that it was a marvel.' A superlative example of this horror vacui is represented here by Rosso's 'Ginori Altarpiece' (from the San Lorenzo Basilica in Florence).

Vasari's comment could equally be applied to some of Pontormo's work and to his masterpiece, the so-called 'Deposition,' which can be seen in situ in the Santa Felicita church close to Palazzo Strozzi. The grace, rhythm of line and pitch-perfect orchestration of its dazzling blues, pinks, reds, saffrons and greens lend this complex but immediately readable composition a unique freshness and emotional force.

From the same period (1528-29) and making use of similarly swirling draperies and arresting colors (their brilliance regained by meticulous cleaning in preparation for the show), is Pontormo's most mysterious great work, 'The Visitation,' on loan from a church in Carmignano. Here, the Virgin and St. Elizabeth are seen in profile and behind them two 'alter ego' figures, clearly identifiable with those in the foreground, gazing directly at the viewer - an unparalleled compositional device, the meaning of which continues to defy explanation.

Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Through July 20.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024