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Grey Matters 11

Living Sculpture

More than any other example in his oeuvre, Pontormo’s Story of Joseph series effectively erases the boundaries between flesh and stone. In the Joseph in Egypt panel, it is difficult not to see the dead young son of a baker, said to have perished in the aftermath of Carnevale in 1513, haunting the figure of the sprightly, laurel-wreathed putto, striking a Marilyn Monroe pose atop a column rising from Joseph’s chariot (fig. 74). Although a supporting rod is visible behind him, the figure is clearly a figura viva: a living figure. Might this be the departed child miraculously restored to life through the power of art?[119] On the steps of the pharaoh’s palace, meanwhile, sits a shy-looking, flesh-and-blood boy in contemporary dress. Protectively clutching a basket, he is approached by a rather bossy, bordering on pugnacious, blonde youth (fig. 75; recorded in a vibrant study in the present show), who points to the arriving chariot. Looking overwhelmed by the tumult swelling all around him, this bemused youth, Vasari tells us, is the fourteen-fifteen-year-old Bronzino. The culmination of the multi-panel Joseph cycle, Pontormo’s Joseph in Egypt permits no pause to the roaming eye, our gaze distracted by the prominence of two more seemingly animate statues, here in grey stone: that of a double-pointing male nude at far right (fig. 76) and, slightly behind him and to the left, a swaying female nude in profile atop the swinging staircase (fig. 77). Deliriously imagined as a continuous narrative, the story’s four different incidents vector in different directions, unfolding on multiple spatial and temporal planes. The overall impression is that of a fever dream. Once again, the divinely-endowed artist has devised an impossible universe populated by strange figures of eccentric grace, dressed in hybrid costumes and moving among soaring staircases and magically inspirited statues.

Figs. 74-77

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Displayed alongside one another in the National Gallery, all three of Pontormo’s remaining spalliere for the Borgherini cycle contain moving marbles. Joseph Sold to Potiphar features at once the most complex and dynamic sculptural group, showing the figure of Charity accompanied by a trio of children who are all restless motion, the middle marble putto seemingly reacting in real time to the human passerby as he tugs on his mother’s cloak to direct her attention below.[120] In the subsequent Pharaoh with his Butler and Baker, Pontormo positions an imposing bearded saint or prophet pointing to his book atop a column near the foot of the stairs upon which the pardoned butler and the doomed baker descend – seemingly reading out the pharaoh’s judgment. The rectangular Joseph’s Brothers Beg for Help, meanwhile, is inhabited by a fictive supporting putto emerging in relief from Joseph’s triumphal chariot, while at right the twisting statue of Dovizia (Plenty), bearing a large bundle of grain atop her head, sits triumphantly upon a prostrate male figure (signifying famine or hunger?) within what appears to be a circular grain dispensary.  

Fig. 78 Filippino Lippi, Saint Philip Driving the Dragon from the Temple of Hierapolis, 1497-1502, fresco, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence © Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

In his dialogue Il Disegno of 1549, Antonfrancesco Doni imagines Baccio Bandinelli as describing the artist exercising preternatural powers of invention by creating “imaginative genii and the fantasies of them, even of dreams, and given life to the art of figuring and many angelic forms of spirits and souls with many other impossible things, too numerous to recount.” Highlighting the artist’s powers of illusion, Doni earlier claims that “painting comes from shadows and sculpture from idols.”[121] In the sixteenth century, the conflicted attitude adopted toward the strange, the monstrous, or the grotesque can be said to have been embodied in a particular type of artifact: the idol (fig. 78).[122] Devotional manuscripts prominently feature pagan idols as monochrome sculptures standing atop – and, more commonly, falling from – high columns placed by the roadside in landscapes showing the Holy Family on the flight into Egypt. The popularity of this scene was derived from apocryphal legends, which tell of all the false gods crashing from their pedestals and lying shattered on the ground upon the Holy Family’s arrival in the Egyptian city of Sotinen, in the region of Hermopolis.[123] Rather than showing the statues tumbling from their supports, a number of examples capture the effigies jumping to their own destruction (fig. 79)![124]

Fig. 79 French (?), Flight into Egypt (with Fall of a Pagan Idol), Book of Hourrs (use of Bourges), ca. 1470-80, manuscript illumination, fol. 100r, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford
Notes 119 – 124
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Grey Matters 12

Doing Violence to Nature

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