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? 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.
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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. 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.