Disegno, defined as both drawing and ideation, is fundamental to understanding Pontormo’s paintings as intricately conceived objects. In a letter penned to the Florentine historian and man of letters Benedetto Varchi on February 28, 1547 (modern calendar), Pontormo submitted an especially thoughtful response to the paragone question, addressing the relative merits of painting and sculpture. Pontormo writes after the introductory pleasantries: “The thing in itself [the competitive trial between the two arts] is so difficult, that one cannot debate nor even decide it, because there is but one thing that is noble, which is fundamental to it, and this is disegno. All other considerations are wanting with respect to it (and bear in mind that whosoever has [disegno] can do one and the other well).” Later in his letter, he lauds Michelangelo – the only artist he cites by name and with whom he collaborated on at least two occasions – as a universal master. Yet Pontormo proceeds to claim that “il Divino” “was not able to show the depth of his design [la profondità del disegno]… in [those] superb figures that he made in relief, but rather in the miraculous works of the many diverse figures, beautiful gestures, and foreshortenings found in his paintings – yes. As he has always loved [painting] more for being the more demanding and more fitting to his supernatural genius [più difficile e più atta allo ingegno suo sopranaturale].” While Pontormo’s last claim may come as some surprise to contemporary readers, he touches here on a central tenet of his own art: the willful seeking out of variety and difficultà.
Outward expressions of the mutable workings of his disegno interno (intellectual conceptions), Pontormo’s more than 400 surviving drawings most evocatively attest to his working methods. Nothing speaks more eloquently to Pontormo’s will to beauty but also strangeness (fig. 41). One example after another reveals him testing poses and finding new, manifold solutions to any single problem. It is a complex, hybrid process, uniting that what is directly observed, recalled, and invented. A single sheet, datable to the early 1520s and one of the standouts of the present show, embodies the technical variety and emotional range manifest in much of Pontormo’s draftsmanship. On one side of a drawing from the Morgan Library & Museum, a striding male nude is arrested in percussive motion, his arms raised to deliver a blow. Turning the sheet over, we encounter a starkly different assortment of bony bodies, no doubt belonging to three studio models (both seated figures, like the muscular nude on the verso, wear kerchiefs typical of garzone, shop boys) (fig. 42). Together, the four figures attest to the diversity of Pontormo’s bodies, at times listless and tired, at others restless, forceful, vibrating with energy and intent.
Pontormo’s representations of children are as distinctive as the unmistakable modeling of his eyes (fig. 45). In the grisaille, it is in Pontormo’s rambunctious child, barely revealing his large oval eyes, which peek out from above his bent arm, that we find one of the artist’s most characteristic figures, also glimpsed in the Frankfurt study: the restless putto or Christ Child. Like the spry putti pervading the works of young Sarto, Pontormo’s mischievous babes become something of our painter’s figural signature. While no surviving sketch reveals a one-to-one likeness, those recording young boys from life around the years of the San Michele Visdomini commission and the Vertumnus and Pomona lunette are especially reminiscent of Pontormo’s little Cain (?) both in form and in spirit (fig. 46).
In something of a statement of intent in its own right, Adam and Eve signals a temporary renunciation of the intense, often surprising color which had already elicited early fame for Pontormo. Their nuanced differences of facture aside, the most striking commonality between all of the painter’s grisailles is their illusion of life being generated out of non-life, a fiction suggested not only by light but, above all, all by movement. There is a palpable sense of multisensory potential to Pontormo’s group of greys, not in spite but rather because of their affinity to sculptural (or, given their modest scale, also cameo) relief. The potential for inner life is especially palpable because the figures’ motion is arrested – their actions still unfolding, captured in mid-movement, stepping, rotating, pivoting. Potential energy turns kinetic as we imagine a moving flame illuminating and thus animating Pontormo’s forms.
In the context of enlivened bodies, it is all the more regrettable that Pontormo’s Raising of Lazarus has been lost to us. Commissioned on behalf Francis I, the King of France, this painting, Vasari recounts, “proved to be one of the best works that [Pontormo] ever painted…. For, besides that the heads were most beautiful, the figure of Lazarus, whose spirit as he returned to life was re-entering his dead flesh [ripigliava i spiriti nella carne morta], could not have been more marvelous, for about the eyes he still had the hue of corruption, and the flesh cold and dead at the extremities of the hands and feet, where the spirit had not yet come.”