It is easy to see why the artists Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino have long been lumped together under the label ‘Mannerism’: both were born in 1494, just a few kilometers apart; they trained under Andrea del Sarto and became the most famous artists of the second decade of the Cinquecento. But a new exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism, focuses on the differences between the two painters.
Over the past century, most discussions of Pontormo and Rosso have dwelled on the artists’ eccentricity and their deviant, rebellious natures. This approach is undoubtedly a lot of fun, but curators Antonio Natali and Carlo Falciani take a strong stand against this interpretation, which they say ‘affects the very understanding of the artists … and often leads to exegetic distortions about them.’ They posit that the two are like fraternal twins, born of the same master, but who took diverging paths. The works in the exhibition, which represent 70 percent of the two artists’ total output, prove the curators’ thesis.
As the exhibition follows the careers of the two artists, it demonstrates how they differ. Their teacher Andrea del Sarto was referred to in his lifetime as a painter ‘without error,’ and his students reacted to his work and built on their training in differing ways. The curators explain that Rosso was nostalgic and strongly linked to the Florentine tradition, citing Masaccio, Ghiberti and Donatello in his work. Pontormo was closer to the high Renaissance innovations of Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were active in Florence while he was young, as well as to Raphael, whose work he saw in Rome.
The exhibition features comparisons of works that have never been shown together in the same room, and these aid the viewer in understanding the artists’ differences. For example, flanking Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna of the Harpies (from the Uffizi) are Pontormo’s Pucci Altarpiece for the Church of San Michele Visdomini and Rosso’s unfinished Spedalingo Altarpiece (usually housed in the Uffizi). The composition of the three paintings is the most obvious difference: Rosso’s is a staid quattrocentesque sacra conversazione, while Pontormo arranges his figures as if a cyclone had hit them. Yet a close look at Rosso’s work reveals a disturbing rendering of flesh that will later consolidate with an aspiration for abstraction that is modern before its time.
Although the antiestablishmentarianism of these two artists has been exalted in the past, this exhibition negates it by considering their work in the context of the artists’ political and geographic alliances: both worked for powerful rulers, though their patrons were from opposite sides of the political divide. Pontormo was the Medici’s favourite artist; Rosso was the darling of aristocrats loyal to the values of the Florentine Republic and the religious legacy of Savonarola. While Pontormo always worked in Florence, Rosso traveled widely, first to Piombino, possibly to escape financial woes and public humiliation, then to Naples, Volterra, Rome, Sansepolcro, Città di Castello and Arezzo and, in later life, to Paris and Fontainebleau to work under the French king.
Viewers will get the most out of this challenging exhibition if they invest the time and attention to read the texts and look closely at the works to see for themselves the stylistic differences that are clear to the curators. The catalogue is a helpful tool for those wishing greater analysis and contextualization of the works. The curators also point out that the show ‘allows people to take a fresh look at the paintings, most of which have been specially restored for the occasion, and also presents two new works: one by Pontormo that was known only from an old photograph, and a portrait by Rosso that was hitherto unknown.’
As usual, Palazzo Strozzi makes a celebration out of an exhibition, with educational and entertaining activities for families with young children and pre-teens; special in-exhibit conversations for those wishing to look more deeply; the traditional free Thursday Squared events in the courtyard for anyone who likes a good time (second Thursday of the month from 7:30pm); two occasions to taste Pontormo-inspired food; three lectures by scholars; and three free films at the Odeon cinema. Those inspired to venture beyond the walls of Palazzo Strozzi to further deepen their understanding of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino can do so by picking up a map and ‘passport’ to explore other examples of the artists’ works in Tuscany.
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Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism
Palazzo Strozzi - Piazza Strozzi 1, Florence
March 8 to July 20, 2014 www.palazzostrozzi.org