Grey Matters 06

Embodied light

Mystified, in a very different way, by Pontormo’s Deposition altarpiece (1525–28) for the Capponi Chapel in Sta. Felicita (fig. 37) – baffled by its absence of shadows and half tones – Vasari seems almost incredulous about his countryman’s propensity for experimentation, writing that “it is clearly evident that his brain was always busy investigating new conceptions and fantastic methods of painting [quell cervello andava sempre investigando nuovi concetti e stravaganti modi di fare], not being content with, and not fixing on, any single method.”[68] Indeed never satisfied with the most straightforward solution to an artistic problem, Pontormo, like his painted figures, was hardly ever at rest, incessantly brainstorming and revising. True to form, each grisaille that he produced is quite different from the other.[69]

Fig. 37 Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition, ca. 1525-28, tempera on panel, Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence. Photo by Yuan Fang, 2019

Like the Bucknell and Bowdoin grisailles, the Adam and Eve is executed on a finely woven twill textile.[70] While its dimensions measure slightly smaller, the Genesis scene has not been cut down; the original tacking edges have been preserved on all four sides. The forms appear to radiate light, an effect that endows the figures with an incandescent quality. The reddish coloration of the linen’s preparation is also visible in areas of paint loss. It remains difficult to determine whether the linen was sealed with a translucent size or if there is a presence of an additional red ground or imprimatura. If the latter, the reddish preparatory layer had to have been very thin as the linen’s texture is readily visible in the thinly applied dark passages. Pentimenti are several but minor in nature, typically restricted to figural contours, such as the slightly raised right leg of Eve and the silhouette of Adam’s left side proper. Substantial underdrawing is apparent to the naked eye, most likely applied in a liquid medium with the point of a brush, and is mostly clearly visible in the internal modeling of the back of the hunched over child at far left.[71]

While there are clear stylistic parallels between Adam and Eve and Pontormo’s pair of Ovidian fables, a number of telling technical differences emerge upon closer examination. The role played by light is especially important to understanding the original conditions of art making and seeing – and, as we shall see, what we may call the metaphysics of light. The first time that I encountered the Adam and Eve grisaille it was spring evening; the work was illuminated by soft incandescent light, enveloping the image in a warm, almost golden glow. Shadows encroached throughout, subduing the forms’ sense of relief. I saw the canvas again on a crisp late November morning in Dianne Dwyer Modestini’s conservation studio. There, it stood next to a large window, bathed in natural light. Now freed of its thick yellow-brown varnish and overpaints, the effect was nothing less than transformative.

Fig. 38 Conservation photo of Apollo and Cupid in partially (half) cleaned state © Shan Kuang, The Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU

As Modestini’s and her colleague Shan Kuang’s treatment revealed, it would appear that a former owner of the monochrome did not approve of its dramatic black and white effect. The canvas was tinted with a colored varnish that lent the painting a mellow warmth that Pontormo never intended. Consequently, the perceived severity of the chiaroscuro was deliberately toned down, modulating and subduing the cool tones of the figures. Once reddish-brown in hue, the now-restored Adam and Eve has regained at once its marmoreal allure and sense of translucency. Its stoniness countered by a sense of weightlessness, the image appears to be painted in tiers of cool light. Pontormo’s Apollo and Cupid from Bucknell was propped up on a neighboring easel in the lab. Subsequently also cleaned, the latter canvas likewise appears dramatically changed, its figures restored to their original stony pallor (fig. 38). “In the evening (i.e., low light levels), they burst out of the picture plane …,” Kuang observes, “which can be a startling experience when they catch you off-guard in your peripheral vision.”

Fig. 39 Jacopo da Pontormo, Vertumnus and Pomona lunette, 1520-21, fresco, Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano © Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY

Now also freed of the dimming effects produced by its tinted varnish, the Apollo and Cupid nonetheless appears markedly different from Adam and Eve in character. Modestini’s recovery of Adam and Eve’s original sculptural power casts further light not only on the condition and facture of this concrete work but on Pontormo’s actual maturation as an artist. Despite some minor losses and abrasion endured over its lifetime, Adam and Eve works on the mind and imagination with great subtlety. Since producing the Story of Apollo pendants, Pontormo’s brushwork has grown finer, seen especially in the delicate highlights as he fashions a painted fiction from lights, shadows and middle tones. His embrace of asymmetry also speaks to a change in the painter’s spatial sensibility – and an approach increasingly alive to the suggestion of volumes in ambient space. On the whole, the more of Pontormo’s art one encounters, the more insistent the impression grows that his art reveals itself though time, as seen under different conditions and from multiple viewpoints. I found that Adam and Eve’s varying planes of depth and accentuated sculptural effect appear especially convincing when the canvas is approached from the right, highlighting the diagonal recession of figures, from Adam to Eve. To a still greater extent, when viewed from this angle, Adam appears to stand a short distance before his infant sons (rather than parallel to them), his hoe hovering mid-motion in front of, rather than over, them. The back of Eve and the barely visible tree behind and to the right of her continues the movement into the pictorial space along the line of Adam’s powerful left leg. This is, in short, a work of growing sophistication and, when studied beside the Bucknell and Bowdoin canvases, thus speaks for a date between the latter pair and the Vertumnus and Pomona lunette fresco in the Salone of the Villa Medicea at Poggio a Caiano (1520–21), commissioned by Leo X (fig. 39): that is to say, ca. 1515–18, a date range coinciding with the master’s work on the spalliera cycle narrating the Story of Joseph (as told later in Genesis: 37-50), destined to adorn the bedchamber of newlywed banker Pierfrancesco and his bride Margherita Acciaiuoli, and the Pucci Altarpiece for San Michele Visdomini (1518), the artist’s most compositionally and chromatically vanguard large-scale panel to date (fig. 40).[72]

Fig. 40 Jacopo da Pontormo, Pucci Altarpiece, ca. 1518, oil on panel, S. Michele Viscomini, Florence © Scala / Art Resource, NY
notes 68 – 72
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Grey Matters 07

Pontormo’s eyes

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