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Grey Matters 13

Surpassing nature

We are fortunate, however, to be able to give Pontormo the last word. It was not to do violence to nature that was his intention. It was to overcome it: to endow flat forms with vigor and grace beyond that seen on earth. In his earlier reply on the subject of the paragone to Varchi, Pontormo conceded that it was the considerable physical effort of the sculptor that also “keeps a man in better health [più sano] and improves his complexion.”[128] By contrast, Pontormo’s painter has “a poor disposition from the hard work of art, and troubles of ideation/creation [fastidi di mente], rather than a longer life.” Here, we are reminded again of Pontormo’s own versatility as an artist and his work in sculpture, albeit on a small scale: namely, his practice of fashioning clay models to work out the poses and the light effects defining his painted forms. As Vasari would have it, Pontormo died before he could finish the fantastically elaborate project in San Lorenzo, owing to the fact that he was “old and much exhausted by making portraits and models in clay and laboring so much in fresco.”[129] Instead, the real reasons for the painter’s hard lot, Pontormo suggests, are above all psychological: the mental toll of over-striving. The painter aspires to transcend material limitations by his/her unlimited ability to invent things out of the imagination – and, in doing so, to rise to the heights of another god.

Fig. 84 Piero di Cosimo, Prometheus Fashioning the First Man, ca. 1510-15, oil on panel, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich © Alte Pinakothek, CC BY-SA 4.0

Here, we may recall once more not only early modern tropes of God as cosmic artist, but also the ambitions – and, ultimately, punishment – of the other supreme arch-artificer, Prometheus (fig. 84). Unrelenting curiosity and dissatisfaction with limitations to knowledge come with a heavy price, as the provocative and, like Erculiani, deeply controversial fellow-Paduan writer-philosopher Pietro Pomponazzi (1462–1525) reminds readers in De fato III:7. He identifies Prometheus as the archetype of the modern-day philosopher, the latter consumed by his unceasing worries and cogitations in trying to comprehend the secrets of God. In a passage that could just as well be applied to Pontormo’s admission of creative anxiety, Pomponazzi describes how the intellectually-tormented philosopher stops eating, drinking, and sleeping – until he is laughed at and ridiculed by the multitude, taken as a faithless fool, and, worse, persecuted by the Inquisition for his unorthodox investigations.[130]

What follows in Pontormo’s letter to Varchi amounts to a kind of personal theory of art:

Overly bold [troppo ardito], [the painter] is eager to imitate with paint anything Nature has made because for him these are things still to be improved upon and thereby to enrich his work and imbue it with diversity, making … splendors, nights with fire, and other similar lights; the air, clouds, lands near and far, different perspectives of buildings, all kinds of animals in all types of hues, and countless other things. It is so that, there, in a narrative [storia] of his making, he is able to intervene with something Nature has never made, in addition to – as I said before – enhancing, and through art giving them grace, arranging and composing them to where they become better. Further to this, there are various ways of working [in painting]: in fresco, oil, tempera, and size [acolla], all of them requiring much practice to execute the many different colors, learning to understand their effects, preparing the priming [mesticati] in different ways – the lightness, darkness, shadow and light, reflections, and the many countless correlations. Yet, by what I called being overly bold, what is important is to surpass Nature [superare la natura] in wanting to give sprit to a figure, in making it come alive [parere viva], and to do so on a flat surface. For if he were to have at least considered that when God created Man, He made him in relief – being what is easier to bring to life – he would not have undertaken a subject of such artifice and rather miraculous and divine.[131]

Three decades before the publication of Varchi’s text, the young Pontormo took up just such a challenge, creating the first man and woman – not with a chisel but the tip of his brush (fig. 85). And he endowed them and their offspring with spirit and flame, the suggestion of inner life.

Fig. 85 Jacopo da Pontormo, Labors of Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel, ca. 1515-18, oil on canvas, Private Collection, United States © Nicholas Hall
“I think [painting] may be similar to clothing [vestire]…. [sculpture] being the fine cloth [panno fine], as it lasts longer and costs more, and painting is the bad cotton [panno acotonato dello inferno] that lasts less and costs less, and once the thread-loop [ricciolino] is worn there is no longer much regard for it.”
– Jacopo Pontormo

The euphoria of Pontormo’s prose eventually fades. From the above passage’s spirited ardency, the artist eventually shifts his tone to one of seeming resignation. Near the conclusion of his letter, Pontormo makes an analogy between the arts of sculpture and painting to varying qualities of cloth. “I think [painting] may be similar to clothing [vestire],” he muses, “[sculpture] being the fine cloth [panno fine], as it lasts longer and costs more, and painting is the bad cotton [panno acotonato dello inferno] that lasts less and costs less, and once the thread-loop [ricciolino] is worn there is no longer much regard for it.”[132] To the contrary, the survival of Pontormo’s Adam and Eve attests to its once-cherished status. Whatever its original cost and purpose, the work endures, its cloth made of resilient stuff. Part sketch, part painting, part sculpture, the canvas persists as a small marvel of creation.❖

notes 128 – 32
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© Dennis Geronimus and Nicholas Hall
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