Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi is hosting until July 20th an exhibition which brings together the paintings and drawings of two of Italy’s most unusual renaissance painters: Jacopo Carucci, better known as Pontormo, (1494-1557) and Giovan Battista di Jacopo, nicknamed Rosso Fiorentino (1495–1540).
What makes these two unusual is that they chose to paint in a radically different way from that “perfection” which earlier in the sixteenth century had been reached in Raphael’s ethereal harmony, Michelangelo’s energetic musculature and Leonardo’s mysterious chromaticism.
Even their lives were differently unconventional with Pontormo living as a reclusive in a Bohemian-style garret and Rosso’s menagerie, especially his monkey, getting him into some trouble with the monks who were his neighbours and then subsequently starting a new life in France where he was supposed to have committed suicide.
In his book, “le vite dei più eccellenti pittori”, Giorgio Vasari recognises the unconventionality of the two and refers to their stylistic “modern manner” while, at the same time, not particularly enjoying it and going in for some heavy criticism.
Both painters came out of the “faultless painter” Andrea del Sarto’s workshop when it was the custom to spend years of apprenticeship filling in small details of the great master’s work before launching on their own independent career. Indeed, the exhibition, excellently curated by Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali, starts off with three works by Sarto, Pontormo and Rosso (so-called because of the colour of his hair) which come from the chiostrino dei Voti at Florence’s great shrine of Santissima Annunziata.
The exhibition continues with sections dedicated to large religious canvases, some of which have been specially restored.
drawings (both artists were brilliant draughtsmen)
and, (what I felt was my favourite section) portraits.
There was also a smattering of mythological paintings including an exquisite death of Cleopatra.
Although both Pontormo and Rosso followed unconventional paths they diverged considerably with regard to their patronage. Pontormo was taken up by the restored Medici dynasty after the Savonarolan and republican interlude and became extremely popular with them, decorating the great villa at Poggio a Caiano, for example. Rosso, however, remained republican in sentiments and was befriended by Savonarolan sympathisers which lead to some confusion as to who is represented in his portraits as the families of the sitters were ruthlessly evaded under the Medici. Furthermore, Rosso, because of lack of commissions, fell into debt and was, thus, very pleased when he was recommended for the post of court painter to King Francis I of France at his wonderfully expanding palace of Fontainebleau and where he helped to establish the very influential “Fontainebleau” school of painting.
What distinguishes the “new manner” of these two out-of-the-ordinary painters then? Apart from going to the exhibition and finding out for yourself here are a few suggestions:
1. Reaction against the too-perfect harmonies of the high renaissance painters with their perfectly balanced forms, placidity leading, in the worst cases, to an utter lack of inner tension.
2. Influence of German wood prints, especially those of Durer coming from a completely different northern school with greater emphasis on expression and distortion of the human shape to represent pain, anguish and ecstasy.
3. Cabalistic and esoteric influences entering their work to such an extent that one whole series of paintings by Pontormo (which must have been his masterpiece) in the apse of Florence’s San Lorenzo basilica was eventually destroyed by ecclesiastical order in the eighteenth century.
4. A different and strangely unbalanced method of painting composition when compared with the previous high renaissance – mass of bodies in odd places, eccentric lacunae, weirdly asymmetrical arrangements etc.
5. A strong reaction to the difficult times they were living in. If there is a Christian BC and AD then there is also a Roman Catholic BC and AD centred on the sack of Rome in 1527 – an event which both painters had to live through by hiding in monasteries and surviving not only the Emperor’s troops but also the plague which followed.
I am no art critic and will not venture any profound analysis on what I saw except to say that it affected me very much and that the exhibition which I entered into out of curiosity rather than anything else since mannerism (the name given to the movement which included Rosso and Pontormo) has never previously enthralled me, completely captivated me instead and gave me a quite different perspective on Florentine art following its first high points after Botticelli, Lippi and their immediate followers.
Clearly, it became a disturbed time in the first part of the sixteenth century – Savonarola, the Church V Empire clash and, ultimately, the reformation and succeeding Counter-Reformation all worked their unbalancing work on the minds of the previously highly contented thinkers of Florence’s neo-Platonist academies.
But isn’t that dialectic between certainties and doubt what affects our human intellect and helps development into different directions, new questions, and innovative answers?
If you seek a visual representation of the great ideological battles waged in sixteenth century Florence (and indeed in the rest of Europe) and a pictorial demonstration of the highest intensity and drama then there is no more significant place to experience it than at this remarkable exhibition.
One word of warning, however. If you have been grabbed by Rosso’s and Pontormo’s brush then you will want to make a feast of it and visit those places in the Tuscan region where more of their works can be found but which, for technical and other reasons, could not be brought to the exhibition.
I would start with the easiest to find (and one of the best of them) Pontormo’s frescoes in the cappella Capponi in the church of San Felicita, just off the south side of the Ponte vecchio, and then work your way further afield to other amazing sites such as the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano and other more secretive treasures.
Certainly, bringing together the two painters at Palazzo Strozzi’s current exhibition was a stroke of calculated genius.
PS If you can read Italian then Pontormo’s diary at
makes the most fascinating reading of the daily life of a painter back in the sixteenth century down to his diet and maladies.