Where do you go after perfection? That was the dilemma that confronted the artists who followed Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo, the titans of the High Renaissance.
Such nirvana could have spelt painting’s endgame but the best of the new generation devised escape routes. For Titian in Venice, liberation arrived through colour. In Florence, Jacopo Pontormo turned into a painter so arrestingly peculiar that art historians are stumped by him to this day.
Other artists, however, get him immediately. Some contemporary practitioners cite him as an inspiration, most famously Bill Viola, whose video “The Greeting” (1995) is based on Pontormo’s “Visitation” (1528-29). Viola’s video has found a spot in a new exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence devoted to Pontormo and a painter who was his contemporary, Rosso Fiorentino. Both born in 1494, the pair studied under the same master, Andrea del Sarto, before developing very different styles. Their pairing makes for an illuminating encounter, and certainly dispels any doubts that Pontormo was a true original. But Rosso, whose greatest masterpiece, a “Deposition” from 1519, is absent, suffers by comparison.
The show opens with a trio of frescoes, including one by the protagonists’ master Andrea del Sarto, made for the atrium of the Florentine church, the Basilica di Santissima Annunziata. Already the two young painters are carving out their own territory. Rosso’s “Assumption of the Virgin” (c1513) sets the Madonna floating in a cloud of angels above a row of apostles whose flattened perspective and staccato movements gives it the air of a classical frieze.
In contrast, Pontormo’s “Visitation”, which depicts the moment of recognition between Mary and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, is a wonder of rolling, curvaceous rhythms that swell and flow across the tilted hips and opulent head-dresses of the posse of figures, most of whom are female, and the half-moon chapel that embraces them.
Those sensual undulations are a taste of the masterly version of this scene that Pontormo would paint nearly two decades later. So, too, are the citrus shades – lime, tangerine, blood orange – of the women’s robes. Most striking are the faces: from the two young women on the steps who gaze beyond with Delphic intensity to an old crone twisting behind, everyone is caught in the act of looking somewhere else. Only Mary and Elizabeth, staring at each other with emotion, are contained within the frame.
It is no surprise that the teenage Pontormo thrilled to spiritual revelation. Melancholy and introspective, he was, according to Giorgio Vasari, “solitary beyond belief” and terrified of death. Rosso, on the other hand, was “most handsome … rich in spirit and grandeur”. He kept an ape as a pet and was drawn to the Kabbalah and magical rites.
For both painters the challenge was to find a path through a culture whose Quattrocento blend of classicism and Catholicism had been rocked to the core first by Savonarola, the apocalyptic puritan Dominican friar, and subsequently by murmurings of reform beyond the Alps. By 1512, the Medici had ousted the republic to take back Florence. Yet, post-Savonarola, nothing would be the same again. Priests, patrons and painters were all aware that it was necessary to offer the faithful a more personal rapport with Christ. The result was an art that ramped up emotion with exaggerated postures, turbulent scenography and moody lighting. It was christened mannerism, although scholars now dispute that term’s usefulness, pointing out that its expressive origins are already rooted in the works of the High Renaissance painters it is supposed to surpass.
For both Pontormo and Rosso, the influence of Michelangelo (who said he heard Savonarola as a “living voice” throughout his life) was immense. It is likely that together with Andrea del Sarto, they made a trip to Rome in 1511. Certainly, the acidic hues and twisting torsos of the Sistine Chapel ceiling haunt many paintings here.
Yet, as two monumental altarpieces painted in 1518 make clear, they pursued radically different paths. Rosso’s panel shows the Madonna crowded by saints into a shallow space. There is an eccentric beauty here: in St Jerome’s grotesque withered nakedness; in the delicate profile of the John the Baptist. But the painting falls victim to Rosso’s reliance on the now-archaic style of the Quattrocento sculptor Donatello. It is stiff and awkward, neither real nor ideal.
Pontormo, by contrast, paints his sacred conversation as if it was unfolding in front of his eyes. Babies wriggle; saints gaze upwards in despair; the Madonna’s outstretched finger vibrates with eloquence. Yet the classicism remains; his cherubs are from a pagan era; his figures enjoy Hellenistic substance.
When the Medici needed an artist, Pontormo’s ability to innovate without sacrificing the dynasty’s humanist roots made him their man. Rosso, on the other hand, was championed by the Medici’s republican enemies, who read the painter’s rediscovery of early Quattrocento Florentine artists as a statement of faith in the city’s glorious, aristocratic past.
By 1519, Rosso had cut his losses and gone travelling. Liberated from Florentine pressures, he tapped into a taut, uncanny imagery that had its finest moment in the “Deposition” he painted for a confraternity in Volterra. Sadly, Tuscan politics prevented its presence for this show. Another “Deposition” of 1527-28 shows his empathy for the choreography of grief summoned through a lurid, predatory fever of mourners reeling about Christ’s blue-tinged corpse.
Even here, the painting lacks the soul-shaking tension of a Pontormo. Rosso’s mannerist tendency heightened emotion and melodrama so acutely that it tipped into the affected. Pontormo, on the other hand, remains tethered in the human and true.
A magnificent section devoted to the artists’ drawings shows that both were prodigious draughtsmen. Yet Rosso, oscillating between Herculean classicism and figures made odd by freakish details – a curling toe, a pot-bellied, possibly pregnant female nude – is always making images. Instead, Pontormo is revealing reality. From a red chalk study of a man in profile pointing angrily out at the spectator, which may be a self-portrait, to the image of one of his apprentices sleeping, his drawings weave us into the texture of his world.
His capacity for discovering strangeness without sacrificing honesty is the key to the power of his 1528-29 “Visitation”. Distilling the Annunziata fresco down to its essence, Pontormo has retained those transfigured gazes but confined them to just four women. Their faces possessed of a charged, photographic clarity, the quartet meet on a city street in a cloud of billowing, sulphur-bright dresses. Mary and Elizabeth look into each other’s eyes as if they held the secret of ages. One of the other women looks directly at us; the other stares over Mary’s shoulder at some invisible mystery.
Such doublings, the stuff of dreams, would be at home in a 20th-century surrealist canvas. Little wonder the painting has mystified scholars for centuries. It is interesting that Rosso, a painter who strained for the bizarre and mystical, would remain anchored to his time. Yet Pontormo, who cleaved to the truth of what he saw around him, travelled far beyond it.
‘Pontormo and Rosso: Diverging Paths of Mannerism’, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, to July 20. palazzostrozzi.org