Neglected for centuries and belittled by the biographer Vasari, the Tuscan artist known as 'Pontormo' is a discovery worth making. Ignore the Renaissance bad press, seek out his works and judge for yourself.
If the crowds at the Uffizi overwhelm you, head to the parish church of St. Michael in Carmignano, about 20 km. west of Florence to discover the early work of Jacopo Carucci (May 1494 – January 1557), better known as ‘Pontormo’.
An Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist, he worked with Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto and Piero di Cosimo and was often supported by Medici patronage, yet was given short shrift by the famed biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari.
Born in the town of Pontorme, near Empoli, and orphaned at an early age, he apprenticed to several of the leading painters of the day. Vasari remarked that as a boy he was "young, melancholy and lonely", a tone perhaps seen in the haunted faces in many of his later works. He also snipes at his preference to "do things his own way... without his friends being able to point anything out to him", which might imply that Vasari's opinions were not highly valued by the artist.
No matter what his immediate contemporaries thought of him, Pontormo’s work represented a profound shift from the perspectival regularity associated with the Renaissance.
As in ‘The Visitation of the Virgin and Elizabeth’ in St Michael’s (1516), his figures float in an uncertain environment and do not shy from brilliant colors.
He painted primarily in and around Florence, including the unusual, but much appreciated, pastoral frescos in the Villa Medicea in Poggio a Caiano.
In 1522 the plague swept Florence and the artist retreated to the cloistered Carthusian monastery of the Certosa di Galluzzo. His 'Supper at Emmaus' canvas painted there includes several of the monks with whom he lived
Vasari's biography of Pontormo portrays him as 'withdrawn and steeped in neurosis', yet art historians point out that Vasari's own workshop was in fierce competition with Pontormo's at the time of his writing of 'Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects'.
For several centuries Pontormo was out of fashion and sadly, much of his work has been lost or damaged. That said, from 1989-2002 his 'Portrait of a Halberdier' acquired by the Getty Collection was deemed the world's most expensive painting by an Old Master.
In the Uffizi Gallery you will find several portraits, including that of Cosimo de'Medici the Elder, founder of the Medici fortune.
A visit to the small Brunelleschi-designed Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence to see the ‘The Deposition from the Cross’ (1528) and the adjacent 'Anunciation' gives you a chance to decide if Vasari’s judgment may not have been skewed by professional rivalry.