Doing Violence to Nature
We end our journey by coming full circle. In the final years of his life, Pontormo returned to the story of Adam and Eve in what was to be his greatest visual testament: a grandiose fresco cycle adorning the choir of San Lorenzo (figs. 80-81). Screening the space off from probing eyes, Pontormo worked there in seclusion for a little over a decade, leaving the project unfinished at his death on New Year’s Day 1557. The designs that were completed in that time unsettled Vasari and later commentators like no other, their twisting, tumbling bodies growing exaggerated, haunted by a restless energy (fig. 82). The cycle occupied Pontormo night and day, even when he was not up on the scaffold, as attested by a remarkable surviving document.
Counting thirty-seven written sides, Pontormo’s diary corresponds with the final three years of his life and, thus, the final years of his unfinished final project (fig. 83). Page after page attests to the rhythms of the everyday, recorded with disarming earnestness and, often, worry. Some physical setbacks are the result of excessive artistic labor, be it dizzy spells, aches and pains, some nagging but others more severe (“On the 7th, a Sunday evening in January 1554 I fell and hurt my shoulder and arm and felt badly and stayed in Bronzino’s house for six days,” leaving the painter unable to work), while others are the products of advancing age and an anxious mind. Like many (all?) of us, he holds grudges, such as the time when his live-in pupil and artistic heir Giovanni Battista Naldini does not return to care for him one evening. Other scares ranged from toothaches and hoarseness to a minor accident with a cart. Dominating the accounts of his days are Pontormo’s typically frugal meals, whether taken at home, in a tavern, or, more often than not, those of a more indulgent variety at “Bro”’s, the visits to his dear friend almost always marked by camaraderie but sometimes marred by a minor quarrel. His diet is governed by changes of seasonal weather or the phases of the moon – and, not infrequently, bouts with indigestion. In the context of his work in San Lorenzo, it is essential to note that the Diario also doubles as a worklog, many of its pages populated with marginal doodles attesting to the master’s painstaking weekly progress – a completed arm or head one day, a torso or a grey or blue ground on another. Its descriptions of Pontormo’s daily rhythms inscribe art into the everyday – and vice versa.
It would appear that Pontormo had now resolved himself to aspire to and even outdo Michelangelo’s awesome forms in his recently completed Last Judgment in Rome. He did so, in Vasari’s judgment, to disastrous effect. Writing in 1584, Giovan Paolo Lomazzo describes artists becoming almost “ill,” losing their force (forza) under the influence of Mantegna’s art. And forza was a quality that Michelangelo possessed in overabundance above all others. Admitting utter incomprehension and defeat in the face of Pontormo’s visionary design, Vasari declares that
it does not seem to me that in a single place did he give a thought to any order of composition, or measurement, or time, or variety in the heads, or diversity in the flesh-colors, or, in a word, to any rule, proportion, or law of perspective; for the whole work is full of nude figures with an order, design, invention, composition, coloring, and painting contrived after his own fashion, and with such melancholy and so little satisfaction for him who beholds the work, that I am determined, since I myself do not understand it, although I am a painter, to leave all who may see it to form their own judgment,
The biographer’s chief criticism is not simply that Pontormo’s scenes were thematically incomprehensible to him, a fellow painter no less. More specifically, Pontormo, according to Vasari, does violence to the central organizing principle – the quintessential core – of the Florentine tradition: the human body, as championed by Michelangelo’s example. In his avalanche of figures, Pontormo appears to disassemble and reassemble the human anatomy at will, thereby mutilating its organic whole by means of his “violence to nature.” One thing is certain: In his last visual imaginings, Pontormo’s protean forms constituted a radical break from the sanctioned conventions of disegno.