Nightsong by torch light
To best understand the technical and conceptual power of rilievo (relief) in the entire arc of Pontormo’s varied career, we must return to the early years to which Adam and Eve belongs. In its monochromatic rilievo, Pontormo’s Adam and Eve most immediately recalls the aforementioned ephemeral decorations for Carnevale. The fact that it was Pontormo’s designs for such a celebration that won him great prestige early in his career comes as something of an irony, if we are to believe Vasari. At the conclusion of Pontormo’s biography, we read that the retiring master “never went to festivals or to any other places where people gathered together, so as not to be caught in the press; and he was solitary beyond belief.” Be that as it may, Vasari also announces that
Pontormo’s love of spectacle, coupled with a dislike of loud noises and the crush of crowds, again would have found precedent in Piero di Cosimo. On Shrove Tuesday, March 11, 1507, the populace of Florence would have witnessed the most extraordinary of sights: the Piero-designed Carro della morte (Car of Death), commissioned by the Strozzi family and staged by the city’s Company of the Glovemakers. Pulled by black oxen and featuring performers dressed as skeletons, who would arise from coffins to sing their lines from the Canzona de’ morti, the cart would have been led in procession through the streets of Florence to music – and many gasps and cheers (figs. 31-32). Vasari’s Life of Piero is dominated by his lengthy description of the master’s macabre conceit for Carnival, as is Pontormo’s by an account of his own synesthetic spectacle. It was in their ephemeral designs that both artists’ imaginations were afforded freest rein – and earned them arguably their greatest fame. Public performances lived on in Florence’s collective memory for generations, talked about in the local piazze, shops and street corners, reminding us of the importance of oral traditions. The original experience of ephemera was decidedly mobile, ambulatory. As such, public performance is hardly incidental to understanding painting in this period. Rather, it is essential to seeing painting – and its elements of staging – as something very different than a static medium.
From its beginnings, the experience of trionfi (allegorical triumphs) was meant to astound, rousing the imagination and sparking conversation. Music and dance were a vital element of the elaborate celebrations. Chants would have accompanied the moving masquerades, further stimulating the senses. The charisma of Renaissance cities was most memorably expressed by the dozens of carnival, tournament, parade, and feast-day celebrations – none as highly anticipated in Florence as that of Saint John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint – that punctuated their local calendar. Florence was arguably without equal in this regard. The city’s festivities were intensely communal affairs, offering a precious window into the psyches of early modern spectators. Themes by turn learned and popular were captured in tableaux vivants, set to raucous canti carnascialeschi (carnival songs), often laced with vernacular humor and double meanings.
Carnevale arrived forty days before Easter and amounted to a city-wide party before the sobrieties of Ash Wednesday and Lent. The Carnevale of 1513 carried special political significance, as it marked the first such occasion since the return of the Medici house to power after eighteen years in exile. The restoration of the city’s de facto ruling family simultaneously spelled the end of civic republican rule. Pontormo’s pair of Ovid-inspired painted poems (poesie), preserved in the Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) and Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA) collections and, together with Adam and Eve, constituting the nucleus of the present show, were jointly conceived for the elaborate ritual as part of a much larger program of painted and sculpted ephemera (figs. 33-34). Together, the carefully choreographed decorations served to mark a particularly charged political as well as social event. The turn in political fortunes, already signaled during Carnival, was strongly reinforced just a month later, with the election of Giovanni de’ Medici as Pope Leo X in Rome.
Only aged eighteen at the time, Pontormo was entrusted with a project that would have been the envy of any aspiring young master. Though fleeting in function, Pontormo’s decorative scenes clearly were prized enough as works of art to have warranted their safekeeping. According to Vasari (born only two years earlier and thus piecing together all of the events from oral recollections), the paintings came into the possession of the well-established goldsmith Pietro Paolo Galeotti, called Romano (1520-1584), a one-time pupil of Benvenuto Cellini who designed medals for the future Duke of Florence and Grand duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici. The commission as a whole was exceptionally ambitious: to decorate all three wooden cars celebrating the Compagnia del Diamante (Company of the Diamond), overseen by Giuliano de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours and younger brother to the new pope as one of the three sons of the celebrated Lorenzo “il Magnifico” de’ Medici. Giuliano adopted the diamond as his impresa, or personal device. Raffaello delle Vivole, Il Carota the woodcarver, and the painters Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini and Andrea del Sarto designed the cars themselves, while Andrea Dazzi, lecturer in Greek and Latin, was responsible for the allegorical invention, whose beautiful conceit – “painted with rich and beautiful art” – represented the Three Ages of Man and captivated onlookers with tales of metamorphosis.
As with Adam and Eve, Pontormo’s haunting renditions of the tragic legend of Apollo and Daphne take place in a nocturnal setting: neither bucolic Arcadia nor Thessaly, but a shadowy nowhere land. His figural pairings are inseparable in meaning. In both mythological scenes, the human figure is conceived as a protean phenomenon. Not only are the chiaroscuro forms living sculptures of a sort – an especially pertinent topos to which we will return – but those of Apollo in the Bucknell canvas and Daphne in its Bowdoin partner are about to undergo irrevocable change. From the ancient poets Hesiod, Catullus, and Ovid to Petrarch and Poliziano, Cupid (or Eros) was shown to be an extremely powerful figure – and a terrible troublemaker. Typically represented as a playful yet dangerous child, frequently blind or blindfolded, the deity is a paradox: boyish, languid, even blind, yet capable of commanding overwhelming desire, alternately creating unity and division. His bodily form may appear as smooth and perfect as marble, but he burns with fire.
The Bucknell canvas portrays the dialogue between Apollo and Cupid as described in the Metamorphoses, just prior to the moment when Cupid shoots his gold-tipped “love dart” at Apollo in retribution for a slight, causing him to fall in love with Daphne at first sight, his eyes “gleaming like stars.” The Bowdoin canvas depicts the aftermath of Cupid’s mischief, showing the love-struck Apollo chasing Daphne – shot with a blunt leaden shaft, inciting antipathy – and losing her forever. Daphne was the most beautiful of the Naiads, the nymphs that inhabited rivers, springs, and waterfalls. Her peaceful pastoral existence is shattered upon her rejection of Apollo. Growing exhausted from his relentless pursuit, she implores her river god father (Peneus or Ladon) – or, in other accounts, more appropriately her mother, the primal earth goddess Terra – to save her. The chaste maiden’s prayers are answered. Just as Apollo is about to overtake her, she is changed into a laurel tree. In Pontormo’s rendition of the fable, we witness the initial instant of Daphne’s transformation, branches springing upwards from her arms, while the rest of her body still retains its human form. Here, in short, we witness an especially unnatural cosmic transformation: energy turning into solid matter. The grieving god of music and poetry adopted the laurel as his sacred plant in memory of his beloved, and the crown wreathed with its leaves came to be appropriated in celebration of poets and public triumphs since the time of ancient Rome.
What would have been the larger significance of the evergreen laurel’s symbolism in early sixteenth-century Florence? Its meaning and that of the diamond are, in fact, intimately aligned. A laurel branch sprouting new leaves appears in Pontormo’s own medal-inspired Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder of ca.1519 (fig. 35), signifying the regeneration of the Medici family, as personified in Pontormo’s time most famously by Cosimo’s namesake, the future Cosimo I (his youthful likeness featured in the present show). If a branch is cut, a fresh one springs forth – or, if the Medici clan is exiled, it too shall always return. Signifying eternity itself, the diamond is a still clearer reminder of resilience and endurance.
The spectacle glorifying the Compagnia del Broncone (Company of the [Laurel] Branch), staged four days earlier on February 6, was headed by Giuliano’s nephew Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. One might imagine the subject of the Bowdoin canvas to be still more appropriate to the Compagnia del Broncone’s decorative cycle, in fact, as Daphne’s fateful transformation into laurel (Piero de’ Medici’s impresa) echoes the popular moniker of “Lauro” for Piero’s father Lorenzo the Magnificent, himself a poet worthy of Apollo’s laurel wreath. Jacopo Nardi was charged with this still-more elaborate thematic program, doubling the number of cars of the rival Company of the Diamond. The six-car train – pulled by sets of oxen, horses, buffaloes disguised as elephants, gryphons (in the form of winged horses), and richly draped heifers – paid homage to ancient history’s most illustrious periods, the latest being the Return of the (Medici-initiated) Golden Age. Together, the triumphs did not simply entertain with pagan fables but once again conveyed veiled messages of a dynastic return to glory. All of the accompanying painted decorations were again entrusted to Pontormo, of which two canvases showing two pairs of all’antica warriors likewise survive. The surface effect here is more that of bronze rather than marble (fig. 36).
Bringing up the rear was a festive cart representing the Age of Gold, featuring reliefs by the hand of the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. This last marvel, likewise graced by Pontormo’s scenes (representing the four Cardinal Virtues), became remembered as much for its tragic consequences as its dazzling artistry. “From the center of the car rose a great sphere in the form of a globe of the world,” Vasari recounted, “upon which there lay prostrate on his face, as if dead, a man clad in armor all eaten with rust, who had the back open and cleft, and from the fissure there issued a child all naked and gilded, who represented the new birth of the age of gold and the end of the age of iron….” The Aretine then adds:
Sharing the keenly personal impulses of Leonardo and Piero, marked by constant improvisation and revision, Pontormo is an especially elusive artist. The subjective quality of his art extends from his often-veiled meanings, deflecting any one reading, to the originality of his stylistic solutions and ways of working. So was the case here in his adoption of the grisaille to simulate sculpted relief. Encountering the two Story of Apollo canvases today, evenly illuminated in their museum settings, one is left to imagine their bravura grisaille effects at nighttime, when the Carnival procession took place, by torchlight. In describing the sixth car (commemorating Emperor Trajan) of the Compagnia del Broncone, Vasari tells of “grooms who carried their torches in great number were scriveners, copyists, and notaries, with books and writings in their hands.” The dramatic play of glimmering light and shadow would have animated the gesturing figures – accentuating their contradictory sense of stony relief and illusion of movement, captured in mid-action – as the cars they adorned rolled down the cobblestones.
Intended for temporary use, both canvases are rapidly yet attentively painted. A number of passages testify to the teenage master’s already evident technical resourcefulness, although many of the finer touches no doubt would have evaded the audience’s shifting gaze as the triumphal cars passed through the city streets. Note, for example, the selective use of flickering white highlights in both scenes that would have flashed out in the torchlight. The positions of the legs of both pursuer and pursued virtually echo one another. Daphne’s right hand, turning into craggy branches before one’s eyes, is a virtuosic passage in its upward-reaching offshoots. A thin strand of her trailing hair is shown slipping through the outstretched second and third fingers of Apollo’s right hand. Other engaging details include the little winged putto head (Cupid himself perhaps?) on the neckline of Apollo’s cuirass, and the lower part of Daphne’s ambiguously textured tunic: part fabric, part animal skin (note the frayed, uneven ends, and furlike underside), or even part bark.
Loud song would have accompanied the masquerades, further stimulating the senses. Fortunately, we can now reconstruct something of the full sensory experience of not only witnessing Pontormo’s reunited myths but also identifying the music that was played during the festivities when they were originally seen. In Pontormo’s biography, Vasari quotes the first stanza of Jacopo Nardi’s Trionfo della compagnia del Broncone in full:
Colui che da le leggi alla Natura
E i varii stati e secoli disponse,
D’ogni bene è cagione,
E il mal, quanto permette, al Mondo dura:
Onde questa figura
Contemplando si vede,
Come con certo piede
L’un secol dopo l’ altro al Mondo viene
E muta il bene in male, e ’l male in bene. 
He who decides the laws of Nature
And to space and time gives order,
(He) is the source of all goodness
And the suffering, as much as he allows, is in the world everlasting:
Thus when looking at this figure
In contemplation one sees
With what firm foot,
Century after century, he comes to the world,
Turning the good into bad, and the bad into good.
A recording of the entire sung canto is available, as are a number of others from the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent onward.
And so, as the late winter day wore on and the Medici-sponsored marvels of Carnevale passed through the streets and piazze, the people of Florence were encouraged to forget that just months before, their city was still a republic, free of single-family rule. For a moment, we in turn can almost hear the music, the singing, the creaking wheels of passing floats – and the excited whispers of the amazed onlookers crowding all around us.