Art, not just imitating nature
Jacopo Carrucci, called Pontormo (1494 – 1557), was one of the most controversial artists of the generation after Leonardo and Raphael. According to Vasari he studied with Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo, but rather than just imitating his masters he pushed the creative aims of the Renaissance to their utmost boundaries and developed his own idiosyncratic style. This drawing is a prime example of how Pontormo invented complex poses and eccentrically elongated figures to create a highly sophisticated and artificial elegance. The finished painting, for which this is the compositional study, also reveals Pontormo’s vibrant and dramatic use of colours.
The painting is still in its original setting, being the altarpiece of the Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicità, Florence. Ludovico Capponi acquired the chapel in 1525 and dedicated it to the Pietà (the mourning/lamenting Virgin). He also commissioned Pontormo to paint the altarpiece, on which, according to Vasari, the master worked for three years.
Our drawing shows the composition at a fairly late stage in the creative process. It is squared, meaning that it was transferred onto a larger scale cartoon. Even though the composition is finalised in the drawing, Pontormo continued to make numerous changes in the details of the figures and even more significantly in their spatial relationships towards each other.
Most notable is the omission of the ladder from the top left of the finished painting. In the drawing it explains the deposition of the dead body of Christ from the cross, but the painting shows only a grey sky surrounding the group. This creative decision concentrates the composition on the group of figures and also transforms it from a scene depicting the deposition to one showing the lamentation. This last point was more in keeping with Ludovico Capponi’s dedication of his chapel to the Pietà. The scene itself is one of dramatic emotions of mourning, disbelief and sorrow, but the harmonious lines of the intertwined figures seem to convey a stillness which is almost impossible to achieve in regards to the action depicted. The most obvious example is the precariously crouching figure in the foreground carrying the load of Christ’s body on his shoulders. The figure is shown tiptoeing, turning and carrying while the distressed mother is towering over the scene. Nevertheless, Pontormo’s work remains calm, still and measured.
This composition was regarded as the most significant and original of the 16th century, but by the 18th century Pontormo’s overly stylish style had fallen out of fashion and was even labelled ‘degenerated’. Its importance was only realised again at the beginning of the 20th century and stands now undisputed.
Jacqueline Thalmann (Curator of the Picture Gallery)
The Deposition, Pontormo (1494-1557)
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