A Mannerist master at the Morgan

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  • Jacopo da Pontormo, "Visitation," 1528 – 1529, Oil on panel, 79 1/2 × 61 7/16 in., Carmignano, Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo. At the Morgan Library & Museum through Jan. 6, 2019. Photo by Antonio Quattrone.

  • Portrait of a Man (Carlo Neroni) by Jacopo da Pontormo, 1529 – 1530, Oil on panel, 36 1/4 × 28 3/4 in. Photo by Adel Gorgy

A recent restoration of an outstanding 16th century painting by Jacopo Pontormo created an opportunity to revisit the innovative artist’s oeuvre.


New York is enjoying a rare visit of a “Visitation” by Jacopo Pontormo. The Mannerist masterpiece has been temporarily liberated from its home in Carmignano, near Florence, and stars in a small but unforgettable exhibition, “Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters” at the Morgan Library & Museum through Jan. 6. The show, organized with the Uffizi Gallery and the J. Paul Getty Museum, presents a handful of drawings and two spectacular Pontormo paintings, the “Visitation” and “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap (Carlo Neroni?)” for the first time in the United States. After their debut in the Uffizi and their visit to New York City, the works will travel to Los Angeles.

The occasion of this noteworthy “Visitation” is a restoration. This included the removal of old varnishes and repainting, as well as some 500 years of candle smoke and incense, breath and the effects of cold, hot, dust and weather. Once lifted, they’ve revealed a moving portrayal of a significant moment. It’s the meeting between two cousins, Saints Mary and Elizabeth, in which each shares the news of her pregnancy – Mary with Jesus and Elizabeth with John the Baptist. Under Pontormo’s hand, the subject becomes more than a recounting. It’s resplendent in carnation pink, cornflower blue, apple green and sunflower gold (with a broad swath of tangerine shadow) as bunches and folds of fabric, unconcerned with such trifling realities as the forces of gravity or volume, bunch, float, pool and swirl with energy.

After the artists of the Italian Renaissance had solved so many thorny pictorial issues – perspective, naturalism, realism, space, volume and harmony – painters that followed had to come up with something new. Jacopo Pontormo (born Jacopo Carucci in Pontorme, in 1494) was one of the innovative founders of a new style. Replacing the solid, three-dimensional, naturalism perfected by Renaissance artists with elongated, elegant shapes, unnatural, torquing poses, and strangely indefinite backgrounds, Pontormo, after stints with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, started painting in a “new manner” which we now call Mannerism. The altered vision is evident in the “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap.” Elegant, branch-like fingers emerge from billowing sleeves covering what seem like miles of arms. The subject’s right hand, sharply angled away from his wrist, grasps a letter. The method of physically holding a paper that way is unclear, but the balance of that long pale hand against the shiny black and gray outfit is undeniably striking. And that was the point.

For his “Visitation,” Pontormo took an even greater stride away from realism, and to stunning effect. The four female figures, Mary, Elizabeth, and two attendants, are life-sized and pushed right to the front of the picture’s space. There’s no foreground; Mary’s robe gets cut off by the frame, she’s so close. Behind the women is a patch of empty blue sky; around them are pavements and snippets of buildings that suggest a city. But the sloping lines of perspective that Renaissance artists had struggled to align in order to create a perfect illusion of receding space are disjointed here and refuse to line up. Pontormo rejects the staid seated pose of the past and puts his vividly hued figures into a compressed, irrational box where they hover on tiny toes, unable to hold up their own weight. It creates a sense of tension – a buzz of energy.

And then, into that vigorous swirl, Pontormo threw a curve ball. Traditional altarpieces or devotional images were typically constructed as a scene in three parts. In the center, the main characters were presented – Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, the Deposition, the Nativity – while flanking them, offstage, are saints and often, at a smaller scale, the patrons who paid for the painting. In Pontormo’s composition, all that is changed.

Four women populate the painting. Two thin gold bands create halos over Mary and Elizabeth, otherwise, each woman looks of this earth – no angelic wings, no dazzling crowns. Mary and Elizabeth, one old and one young, face and touch one another. The other two women, also old and young, look directly outwards, at the viewer. It’s a paradigm shift.

If there’s a stage left and a stage right, both of which should face the center and be filled with witnesses to a sacred moment, then where’s the other side of the stage and the other group of witnesses? By rotating the space and having the attendant figures make eye contact with the audience, it’s as if Pontormo has invited you, the viewer, into the picture to participate in and witness a holy moment. The entire scene extends into the audience’s space. It’s a pretty radical choice – far more than elongating figures – and presages a challenge to the flatness of pictures that other artists wouldn’t take up for hundreds of years. At the same time, the artist makes a profound statement about the holiness of the faithful in Pieve dei Santi Michele e Francesco, the church built in 1330, for which Pontormo’s “Visitation” was commissioned. See for yourself, during this brief but beautiful visitation.

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