What was the purpose of God’s creation? Let us begin by imagining the young Jacopo da Pontormo standing on the Cosmati marble floor of the Florentine Baptistery of San Giovanni (fig. 1). There, amid the celestial Signs of the Zodiac, illuminated by the eye of the large oculus, he would have beheld a breathtaking vision unfolding above him. Dazzling his eyes would have been late duecento mosaics adorning the octagonal dome: scenes showing the Angelic Hierarchies, Scenes from Genesis, Scenes from the life of Joseph the Patriarch, Scenes from the life of Christ, Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, and the Last Judgement, presided over by a majestic seated Christ (fig. 2).
Venetian craftsmen labored for many years over the designs, conceived by the likes of Coppo di Marcovaldo, Meliore di Jacopo, the Magdalene Master, and Cimabue, the forefather of Tuscan art. Peering across the Genesis cycle winding around the dome’s third narrative ring, diagonally above the enthroned Christ, Pontormo would have alighted on an especially dramatic scene: the Expulsion of Adam and Eve (fig. 3). Spade and distaff already in hand, the two naked figures trudge ashamed from Eden’s gate, driven out by a giant Cherubim. His fiery wings in cross-formation, the angel wields “a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). Bending across a corner of the cupola, Adam and Eve next use their tools to weave and to till the rocky soil, a multicolored tree swaying fan-like above the seated Eve while Adam looks heavenward to bear witness to God’s next commands. Many feet below, her own nakedness hidden by her impossibly long hair, streaming down in braids and tangles to her calves, Donatello’s life-size Mary Magdalene once stood in penitence – and exhortation. The embodiment of redemption in spiritual and bodily surrender, her cavernous eyes burning with purpose, her lips parted to intone words of repentance, she stood as warning and invitation to meet her on her spiritual path. Upon stepping outside through the east doorway and into the daylight, Pontormo would have encountered another Story of Genesis, famously by the hand of Lorenzo Ghiberti. Raising his eyes again almost twenty feet to the top row of the Gates of Paradise (1425–52), the young Florentine would have revisited there the twin tales of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel (fig. 4). In the upper left corner of the second panel, in low relief and thus barely visible from the distance below, Adam and Eve now sit peacefully atop a hill, outside their thatched hut. Engrossed in their patient work, they do not pay the viewer any heed.
No doubt returning time and again to the city’s sacred site of baptism – a space of religious and, in this case, artistic conversion – Pontormo must have been awestruck by the synesthetic spectacle inside and just beyond the building’s walls. Walking just a short distance to Giotto’s Cathedral bell-tower, he would have encountered Adam and Eve for yet a third time, shown at work after the Fall (1334–37) by the hand of Andrea Pisano, Ghiberti’s venerable predecessor and Master of the Cathedral Works (fig. 5). Occupying the third hexagonal frame amid the first row of reliefs on the tower’s west face (and so facing the Baptistery), Andrea’s first humans are not entirely alone, shown accompanied by a bear pawing at a fruit tree and a monkey hiding amid the oak branches. Gazing down from his niche two levels above once stood a grey seer with no patience for such play: Donatello’s figure of the ravaged Prophet Habakkuk, to whom we will have cause to return. Even before his formal studies with Leonardo, Mariotto Albertintelli, Piero di Cosimo, and Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo already had recourse to many teachers, plying their craft in glass, bronze, and stone. A nexus of civic pride and communal piety, the Piazza del Duomo thus also doubled as a creative incubator, an open-air academy reclaimed by every proceeding generation.
In his Roman Dialogues of 1548, the Portuguese painter-theorist Francisco de Holanda (1517–1584) purportedly quotes Michelangelo opining on “talented artists,” who “are unsociable not from pride, but because they deem only very few spirits worthy of their art: … and in order not to debase the elevated imagination that keeps their mind in perpetual ecstasy.” Censured by Giorgio Vasari in the Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550; 1568) for his anti-social behavior and melancholy temperament (making him particularly susceptible to stylistic promiscuity), Pontormo, if indeed largely solitary, nonetheless would have primed his imagination precisely in the way that Michelangelo and Leonardo prescribed: looking, reflecting, recording, inventing, alone with one’s thoughts (fig. 6). It was among the central square’s speaking stones that Pontormo would have repeatedly stopped to observe and study, at once anchoring him to Florence’s artistic past and inspiring future invention.
And invent he did, in unprecedented ways. Just into his twenties, Pontormo was to imagine his own Old Testament scene of humankind’s progenitors. An astonishing survival, his Labors of Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel has been rediscovered in a private North American collection (fig. 7 ). Inscribed with the artist’s name on its top stretcher bar, the painting is painted on linen and measures the smallest in dimension of the painter’s now-seven surviving works on canvas. The latter range widely in meaning and purpose, from the cryptic Sacrificial Scene, likewise executed in grisaille, to the dramatic Supper at Emmaus for the Carthusian monks of the Certosa del Galluzzo (fig. 8). From his earliest works, Pontormo proved himself to be a painter without limitations. An artist of the most fluid artistic intelligence, Pontormo did not seem to be content with achieving anything less than radical stylistic change. The effects are often improbable – and thus all the more exciting for their ability to activate multiple senses. Pontormo’s first man and woman are at once stony and spectral. As we shall see, the elimination of color allowed the young painter to concentrate on the way that light and shadow play across the surface of a figure, thereby eliciting the material qualities of form with the greatest force. In assuming the substance of clay or stone by Pontormo’s brush, Adam and Eve are momentarily returned to the elemental stuff from which they were formed: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Pontormo’s figures are clearly already enlivened.
An in-depth look at Pontormo’s Adam and Eve, in all of its own immediate material realities, grants further valuable insight into the master’s intensely experimental problem-solving process. In this instance, albeit an early effort, Pontormo’s pictorial solutions are already beginning to both define and defy standards of beauty, past and present. Painting in monochrome was believed to have an ancient history. According to Pliny the Elder in Book 35 of his Natural History (77 CE), once the art of painting was invented by the Egyptians or the Greeks, the second stage of representation “was done in a single color and called monochrome [singulis coloribus et monochromaton], a method still in use at the present day.” It is worth noting that the books directly preceding the one in question in Pliny’s text are devoted to accounts of minerals and mining. Book 33 addresses the properties and uses of gold and silver, while the subsequent book deals with base metals (bronze, copper, zinc, iron, lead), a topic that eventually shifts into the Roman author’s discussions of Greek and Italian sculptors. While the history of sculpture thus comes first among the arts, Book 35 itself, though ostensibly devoted to the history of painting and its greatest practitioners, takes as its starting point not the great Zeuxis, Apelles, or Protegenes but the grinding of various minerals into pigments: that is to the say, the very stuff of painting, colors distilled from the earth (fig. 11).