The eyes are haunting: oval, staring in pain and grief. It is the fresco that initiated Mannerist painting in Florence: Pontormo’s Deposition in the Capponi Chapel of Santa Felicita.
Jacopo Carucci, known as Jacopo da Pontormo or, simply, Pontormo, was born in 1494. A student of the Florentine school, his fresco of the Deposition in the Capponi Chapel of Santa Felicita in the city is considered by many his masterpiece. Brunelleschi, he of the dome and many other architectural splendors for Florence, designed the chapel in which Pontormo worked.
Recently, during a late winter afternoon, I visited the church of Santa Felicita. The nave was empty and through a haze of frosted breath, Pontormo’s work sprang more than ever to life. The fragile odor of incense floated in the darkening space as I approached the gate that protects the fresco. It was, this time more than ever, the eyes of the grief-stricken that most startled me.
When Pontormo was twenty-one he made the journey to Rome with the specific goal of studying Michelangelo’s work. Buonarotti was completing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the effect that it had on the young Jacopo was life-changing. Pontormo had the opportunity to view the mammoth fresco up close, on the scaffolding. Perhaps he studied the faces and eyes of the Delphic Sybil; her large anxious eyes glance to her left, warily.
A similar wariness, balanced with fear and grief fill many of the eyes of the figures Pontormo created for his Deposition.
The work was finish in 1528 after three years behind a tall brick wall that the artists built to keep the curious eyes and mouths of critics at bay.
One of the early artists studies for the Deposition illustrates how the artist used a structure for the fresco without the necessity of reliance on the actual cross. During the Renaissance, the focal point of most other artist’s interpretation of the deposition involved, whether centered or not, the physical form the cross.
Pontormo has created a swirling mass of human form, consumed by grief and loss, fear and trepidation. While the cross is nowhere to be seen, while the body of Jesus is supported and held by men and women whose feet seem to barely touch the ground, Pontormo brings us ‘in’ with the eyes. He has created a scene of intense drama, one that does not rely on the standard interpretation of his time and one that clearly broke with the works of the Renaissance. Mannerism was born.
As I returned to the Borgo San Jacopo on that winter evening, it was the eyes of Pontormo’s vision that haunted me. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Florence, please don’t miss this masterpiece of Mannerist art, one that brought an entirely new vision and freedom to artists of Italy.
IF YOU GO
Piazza di San Felicita, 3
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