PALAZZO STROZZI, FLORENCE | MARCH 8 – JULY 20, 2014
Both born in 1494, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino were apprenticed to the High Renaissance master Andrea del Sarto, and yet their careers proceeded very differently. Pontormo remained in their native Florence and, with the support of the city’s Medici rulers, developed Sarto’s visual language, while Rosso Fiorentino moved to Rome where he fell victim to the 1527 sack of the city and then to France, where he died in 1540. Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism presents this history, telling the story through skillful juxtapositions of paintings.
At the start of the exhibition we see Pontormo’s “Sacra Conversazione (Pucci Altarpiece)”(1518) and Rosso Fiorentino ’s “Madonna and Child with Four Saints (Spedalingo Altarpiece)” (1518) displayed alongside del Sarto’s “Madonna and Child between St. Francis and St. John the Evangelist (Madonna of the Harpies)”(1517). Like the majestic works by del Sarto, these altarpieces by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino are self-consciously lucid compositions, centered on the Virgin, with accompanying saints displayed symmetrically on either side. But towards the show’s conclusion, we need only compare and contrast two paintings completed just a decade later—Rosso Fiorentino’s “Deposition”(1527 – 8), which evokes the pathos of the trauma of the sacking of Rome, and Pontormo’s “Visitation”(1528 – 9)—to recognize them as products of relatively distinct visual cultures.
Rosso Fiorentino’s dark-hued picture, which anticipates Caravaggio’s late altarpieces, shows the Virgin, numerous figures holding Christ’s body, and other bystanders in a crowded scene that is difficult to unpack. In the background, an evil-looking soldier holds a spear, but it is impossible to determine where exactly he and the multitude of onlookers stand in relation to the crosses. At the right foreground, Mary Magdalene weeps, hiding her face from the odd figure clad in turquoise who helps support Christ’s body. In Pontormo’s “Visitation,” the Virgin embraces St. Anne, their bodies turned at right angles to the viewer, while two additional female figures who face us are set in the background against a mysterious architectural setting reminiscent of de Chirico. Here, too, the lucidity of de Sarto’s classical style has disappeared, and, as with “Deposition,”it is surprisingly difficult to imagine reconstructing the space in which the figures stand. Although the paintings done in the style of del Sarto present their subjects in compositions oriented towards the viewer’s eye, the later works find Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino turning many of their actors inward, away from the spectator. These compositions seem to exclude our presence, as if the reality of the scenes they show is too painful to be seen.
How do we understand this change—and how do we explain this radical divergence in the dismantling of the High Renaissance stylistic synthesis? The scenes these Mannerist artists depict may be sacred, but their presentations seem to reflect a more personal experience of contemporary everyday life. Formalist historians like Sydney J. Freedberg appeal to the need for a shift in an established visual language to explain this change. In Mannerism, he declares, “what was least easily transmitted of the classical synthesis was its character of content; it was its formal language—its immediately visible data—that was more accessible to imitation or paraphrase.” Alternatively, as in the exhibition catalogue suggests, we may think of this change as the product of novel political circumstances. Roman artists had to deal with what Pope Clement VII called “the Lutheran calamity,” which was one cause of the sacking of Rome, and when Rosso Fiorentino studied the prints of Albrecht Dürer, he was surely aware of that Germanic challenge. Pontormo, on the other hand, lived in Florence, a city still under Medici control, and therefore remained unaffected by this radical upheaval.
In any event, when an artistic style has been perfected, what happens next, often under the pressure of the need to respond to a felt social crisis, is the subsequent deconstruction and reconstitution of that style. Historians of recent American art can learn from this exhibition, for if we imagine Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko as our High Renaissance masters—our Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael—then Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, and Andy Warhol could be cast as our Mannerists. In art “after the High Renaissance,” Freedberg says, what was new “was either a consequence drawn from it or had to be reconciled in some way with its tradition.” Of course the modernist works of art look very different from the paintings of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, but the social conflicts faced by these early 16th century artists and the terms in which they chose to respond to them are not entirely unfamiliar to us. This surely is one reason why Mannerist painting speaks right now to contemporary viewers, and why we might benefit from seeing more cogent, historical exhibitions such as this one.