The Italian painter Pontormo (1494-1556) was an innovator of the mannerist style whose works influenced the subsequent development of Florentine mannerism.
Pontormo whose real name was Jacopo Carrucci, was born at Pontorme near Empoli. Apprenticed in rapid succession to several painters, including Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo, when he was about 18 Pontormo became an assistant to Andrea del Sarto. Pontormo's first big commission, a fresco, the Visitation (1514), in Saints Annunziata, Florence, was part of a cycle of scenes from the life of Mary to which Andrea also contributed; it was such a success in Andrea's style that it aroused his jealousy.
The break with the classical style of the High Renaissance came about when the skill in realistic rendering had apparently reached a point in the work of Leonardo and other artists that could not be surpassed. Andrea and his contemporaries rearranged these realistic observations in handsome compositions which thus tended toward academic schemes, smooth and idealized. Andrea's pupils, in turn, formalized these patterns at one remove from nature. The mannerist artist emphasized the figure, as earlier High Renaissance painters had done, but he distorted its proportions and its relationship to space.
Pontormo's Visitation presents grandly robed, symmetrically grouped people in a niche, much as Andrea had done in his art, but in a series of small paintings of Joseph in Egypt (1515-1518) Pontormo scattered the figures over the picture surface, whimsically linked by impossible staircases. In the altarpiece (1518) for St. Michele Visdomini in Florence, black shadows separate the people and hide any spatial coordinates, and in the lunette fresco (1520) of the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano, depicting the pastoral myth of Vertumnus and Pomona, the figures sit and gaze at us, making no gesture that links them in a narrative. All the figures are convincingly modeled, and his countless figure drawings are brilliant.
Of Pontormo's Passion frescoes (1523-1524) in the Certosa of Galluzzo, Christ before Pilate is the most famous. The figures, influenced by Albrecht Dürer, are sharply elongated, and the receding space is titled almost vertically upward. The Deposition altarpiece (1526) in St. Felicita in Florence is the climax of the artist's career, a mound of rising figures in odd shades of pink and green, each crisply drawn. This painting is a masterpiece of early Florentine mannerism.
Little of Pontormo's late work has been preserved. In the 1530s he painted stylized portraits and works closely derived from Michelangelo, another phase of the use of completed art as a tool that is basic to mannerism. Pontormo's last frescoes (1546-1556; destroyed), in St. Lorenzo in Florence, executed with a new style of fluid line, were generally disliked. He died in Florence in late December 1556.
Further Reading on Pontormo
Frederick M. Clapp, Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo: His Life and Work (1916), is excellent but outdated. Janet C. Rearick, The Drawings of Pontormo (2 vols., 1964), is thorough and trustworthy. Pontormo is discussed in Walter Friedlaender, Mannerism and Antimannerism in Italian Painting (1957). □