Grey Matters 10

Sense and Insensibility

Still more essential than color to appreciating the ways that Pontormo’s own grisailles work on the eye and the imagination is their powerful suggestion of animation. The distinction to be made is one between likeness and liveliness. Since antiquity, sculpture has confused and aroused the senses in its illusion of corporeality. The Virgilian expression spirantia signa, “breathing images,” permeated early writing on art, suggestive of mute stone rendered capable of speech and movement, suddenly pulsing with life.[107] In Pontormo’s time, the language of Virgil came to be adopted by the likes of Baldessare Castiglione and Domizio Falcone.[108] Literary references from Pliny and the Bible to Shakespeare likewise abound in references to the carnality of alabaster and marble. Few if any writers, however, can match Ovid in his vivid evocations of stone as living tissue. In Book IV of the Metamorphoses, the poet describes the vision that Perseus sees upon flying with the aid of his winged sandals above the shores of Ethiopia (fig. 67):

There, innocent, by Jove’s unjust decree
Condemned to suffer for her mother’s tongue,
Andromeda was pinioned to a rock.
When Perseus saw her, had a wafting breeze
Not stirred her hair, her eyes not overflowed
With trembling tears, he had imagined her
A marble statue [marmoreum ratus esset opus]. Love, before he knew,
Kindled; he gazed entranced; and overcome
By loveliness so exquisite, so rare,
Almost forgot to hover in the air. [109]

Momentarily, flesh and marble are confused, with almost dire consequences for the love-stricken hero.

Fig. 67 Landscape with the Myth of Perseus and Andromeda, from the east wall of room in the villa rustica at Boscotrecase, 10 BCE, fresco, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920
Fig. 68 Praxiteles (after; Roman copy after Greek original), Aphrodite of Knidos, ca. 350 BCE, marble, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The same suspension of disbelief required in imagining that which is insensate stone to be warm flesh anticipates the kinds of fantasies that permeate ancient descriptions of beholders even going so far as to attempt sexual intercourse with inanimate statues (agalmatophilia), most memorably counting among them Praxiteles’s Cnidian Aphrodite and Lysippus’s Apoxyomenos (fig. 68).[110] We read of similarly visceral, albeit less extreme, displays of viewer response to the spell of inhabited objects in the early modern period: testimonia about the efficacy of damnatio memoriae; townspeople depriving paintings and statues of their eyes with the aim of canceling their invested power; viewers (ranging from worshippers and beholders of portraits to the condemned) kissing paintings; and some taking art objects to bed. All of this to say, objects were always believed to have had private and public social – and psychological – lives of their own.[111] As Caroline Walker Bynum writes:

By the sixteenth and sixteenth centuries, even in learned circles, there was a growing sense that material objects were not merely labile but also alive. Even phenomena such as magnetism came to be conceptualized as animation. Skepticism concerning alchemy and astrology gave way to their enthusiastic embrace. Stories of werewolves and the metamorphoses caused by witchcraft came to be understood by some as literal rather than illusory transformations.

As to be expected, the transmutation of matter, destabilizing the viewer’s senses, was not without its own controversies and anxieties. Bynum adds that “these discussions carried with them increasing anxiety, disagreement, even an impulse to persecute. Behind both the enthusiasm for material change and the hostility to it lay a keen sense that matter is powerful, hence dangerous, because transformative and transformed.”[108]

Fig. 69 Girolamo da Treviso the Younger, A Prostestant Allegory, ca. 1542-44, oil on panel, RCIN 405748, Haunted Gallery, Hampton Court Palace, Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The cult of images could also breed idolatry. In Girolamo da Treviso the Younger’s remarkable grisaille representing A Protestant Allegory of ca. 1538–44 (Hampton Court Palace, Royal Collection), the stone medium – and the life-endowing stony “seeds” of Deucalion and Pyrrha – have turned to weapons. The Four Evangelists hold aloft large rocks, their names inscribed upon them in Latinized form, and are about to cast the stones down onto a sprawled out figure of the pope (presumably intended to symbolize Paul III yet resembling Julius II). He lies atop two female figures, bearing inscriptions of their own upon their dress: Hypocrisy and Avarice. (fig. 69).[113]

Fig. 70 Agnolo di Cosimo, called il Bronzino, Pygmalion and Galatea, ca. 1530-32, oil on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence © Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy Stock Photo
Fig. 71 Donatello, Prophet Habakkuk (‘Lo Zuccone’), ca. 1423-25, marble, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence

The precursor of Prometheus in ancient myth was Hephaestus, the immortal smith and ingenious maker of objects. Aided by divine fire, the god once even fashioned living statues of women (“handmaidens wrought of gold in the semblance of living maids”), who served him at his forge on Mount Olympus. “In them is understanding in their hearts,” Vulcan tells Thetis in Homer’s description of the automatous creations, “and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods.”[114] The most recognizable example of the incarnation of life from stone and the fusion of techne with life, however, is Pygmalion. And the most engaging cinquecento representation of the quickening power of sculpture belongs to Pontormo’s former student and lifelong companion, Agnolo Bronzino, represented in Grey Matters by an elegant early portrait. In his Uffizi myth, he shows Pygmalion’s prayers to Venus already answered as his ivory statue has come fully to life in the decidedly unidealized figure of a slouching Galatea (fig. 70).[115]

Vasari’s literary anecdote of Donatello and his creation of the previously mentioned Prophet Habakkuk, popularly known uncharitably as “Lo Zuccone” (“Pumpkin Head” or “Dimwit”), for the bell-tower of Florence Cathedral stands as a pious play on the Pygmalion fable (fig. 71).

[Lo Zuccone] was held to be a very rare work and the most beautiful that Donato ever made, and when he wished to take an oath that would commend belief he was wont to say, “By the faith that I place in my Zuccone’; and the while that he was working on it, he would keep gazing at it and saying, “Speak, speak, plague take thee, speak!”
– Donatello [116]

The furrowed brow, the strained neck veins, wide eyes and open mouth, preaching like that of Donatello’s Magdalene…The power and simmering intensity evidenced in Habakkuk’s entire sinewy frame is meant to astound. So real as to be lacking only speech, as the literary trope goes, the prophet nonetheless refused to respond to its maker, who damns his reticence. The prophet who, by contrast, speaks in his Book of Habakkuk, does so with a fiery tongue, warning the people of Jerusalem against moral dissipation – and, perhaps explaining his silent treatment with Donatello, berating sculptors for the making of “dumb idols.” “Woe betide him who says to the wood, ‘Wake up,’ / to the dead stone, ‘Bestir yourself’!,” he warns. He dares to take umbrage with God’s own unresponsiveness to his pleas: “How long, O Lord, have I cried to you, unanswered? / I cry ‘Violence!’, but thou dost not save.” At the destined hour, he presciently vows (in light of his stone surrogate’s place upon the campanile), “I will take up my position on the watch-tower.” While seemingly meant not only to instruct but entertain, Vasari revives the tradition of speaking sculptures – and sculptor as a second Deus artifex, addressing his own creations – while implicitly reminding of the spiritual peril of the same.

Fig. 72 Jacopo da Pontormo, Study of a Male Nude, ca. 1514, black and red chalk, inv. 6564 F verso. Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence © Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi
Fig. 73 Donatello, Pazzi Madonna, ca. 1422, marble rilievo schiacciato, Bode-Museum, Skulpturrnsammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

One of Pontormo’s earliest surviving sketches, now in the Uffizi, may reveal most tangibly the painter’s responsiveness to Donatello, showing as it does a male nude in exaggerated contrapposto that bears a striking resemblance to the older master’s bronze David for the Palazzo Medici (fig. 72).[114] And while one might expected that the vivacità, or enlivening, of an image as “speaking likeness” depends on the presence of color, this was hardly the rule. Witness, for instance, the atmospheric veiling and pictorial effects animating Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna, executed in rilievo schiacciato (flat/squashed relief) (fig. 73). [118]

Notes 107 – 18

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Grey Matters 11

Living Sculpture

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