The exhibition Miraculous Encounters: Pontormo from Drawing to Painting at Palazzo Pitti reunites, for the first time, two of Pontormo’s most important paintings with their preparatory drawings conserved in the Uffizi. The exceptional loan of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Halberdier, last seen in Italy in 1996, is met by the Visitation from Carmignano, which, after this summer in Florence, will travel to the States for its first ever international tour, promising to delight visitors in New York and Los Angeles. We spoke with curator Bruce Edelstein, Coordinator for Graduate Programs and Advanced Research at New York University Florence about what makes this a don’t miss show.
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Alexandra Korey: This exhibition is “a series of firsts” – first “miraculous encounter” between paintings and drawings, first voyage of the Visitation to the USA. Tell us about the idea and process behind creating a show of this dimension.
Bruce Edelstein: The origin of this exhibition was first and foremost to do something to bring to peoples’ attention to the importance and richness of the artistic patrimony that is contained in the area outside of the major urban centers in Italy. Areas like Carmignano attract a much smaller number of tourists but it contains some extraordinary objects and architecture. In fact, at the very heart of this exhibition is the desire to preserve a work of architecture: the historic friary attached to the parish church in Carmignano is in grave danger of collapsing. The parish asked me to organize an exhibition around their greatest masterpiece, Pontormo’s Visitation, which also lends its name to the show. The painting itself represents a miraculous encounter and the exhibition is the product of miraculous encounters between paintings, and between paintings and drawings.
My first thought was “what can I do that is new about this work of art that is so famous” – it’s inspired historians to study it over centuries and even contemporary artists like Bill Viola to create magnificent video art (his famous video The Greeting was inspired by Pontormo’s masterpiece). So I went back to its very origins. The very first reference to the existence of the painting is a description of the drawing that was made for it; my desire was to bring these two works of art together, which has never been done before.
Scientific analysis in 2013 revealed that Pontormo had not used a cartoon when transferring the composition to the large panel. This is surprising for this period, especially for such a complex work. Normally the artist would make a full scale drawing, or cartoon, and then transfer the compositional idea onto a layer of gesso on the panel. But that’s not what Pontormo did: he used the squaring technique, which is visible on the drawing in the Uffizi, and the same grid is visible in the underdrawing of the painting. This is a remarkable discovery and it shows Pontormo’s constant creativity in the use of materials, techniques and working methods.
We thought about how to extend these thoughts to other works Pontormo made at the same time. Having established that it would be possible to secure the loan of the preparatory drawing from the Uffizi, we started reaching out to American museums who might host the exhibition. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles houses the Halberdier, the most famous Pontormo in America, a probable portrait of Francesco Guardi. It generally does not travel – it was only moved once, in 1996, when it was lent to Florence – but curator Davide Gasparotto was enthusiastic about the idea of hosting the exhibition of the Visitation alongside its drawing, and suggested that we bring it together with their piece. This meant that we would be able to say something new about both of these paintings and the creative processes that went into developing these two highly original compositions; ideas that changed the history of devotional and portrait painting in Florence.
AMK: The two stars of the show are the Halberdier and the Visitation; one secular, one religious, yet – if one accepts the dating you propose in your catalogue essay – both painted during the same intense moment when Florence was under siege, 1528-30. What do the works have in common?
BE: I’m kind of like one of those parents who doesn’t want to play favorites so I’m not sure that I would say that there are only two stars of this exhibition; the third star in this show is the recently rediscovered a portrait of a young man in a red cap, not seen here in Florence for over 200 years, and that will travel to America for the first time.
So let’s talk about what the three works have in common. All three of these works were in fact painted in the period of 1528 to 1530, an extremely dramatic moment in Florentine history. The Medici were expelled in 1527 and a Republic was declared under renewed principles inspired by the preaching of Savonarola, intersecting faith and political systems. In 1529 the city was under siege from Imperial forces who were seeking to reinstate the Medici in Florence – they would succeed the following year and become the city’s noble rulers for the next 200 years.
They also have in common technical aspects of how they were executed: we hypothesize that the portraits may have also been made without a cartoon, although we don’t have scientific analysis to prove this in either case because the type of exam carried out was inconclusive to this regard.
Stylistically, they were made at the height of Pontormo’s powers as a painter, but going into a phase in which we know very little about him. Following the siege of Florence and after the death of his teacher Andrea del Sarto, he became the uncontested master of painting in the city, and he executed many commissions after 1503, but only a few survive. In particularl, three major fresco cycles for the Medici Dukes in this period were subsequently destroyed, leaving a massive gap of our understanding of the mature painter. It would be like trying to understand Michelangelo without the Sistine Chapel and the Pauline Chapel – we would know nothing about him as a fresco painter without these works.
AMK: In your catalogue essay about the Visitation, you speak of some “mysteries” that surround the painting and propose a plausible new hypothesis of how and when it arrived in Carmignano – with a Florentine origin at its heart. Can you sum that up for us in brief?
BE: The Visitation is a work that has been seen as containing many mysteries, chief amongst these the fact that it was not mentioned by Giorgio Vasari, the “first art historian” who wrote a Life of Pontormo. This has led to conjectures that it contained some secret political message or reason that Vasari would not mention it in order to protect the artist against Vasari’s own patron, the Medici Duke. I contend that this isn’t true, as Vasari mentions plenty of other works that were made in periods against Medici rule. So we lack information from Vasari about the painting’s commission and original location. There are some archival documents and references, but nothing has securely tied the painting to Carmignano in the 16th century. Thinking about how difficult it would have been to transport a painting made in Florence to the countryside of Carmignano in this period during which the city was under siege, I put forth a suggestion (also made by other scholars before me) that the original intended location was a church in Florence. The Pinadori, who are the likely patrons, came from Carmignano but were resident in Florence, and this altarpiece corresponds to the size often used for lateral altar paintings in Florentine churches of this time. It is possible that Bartolommeo Pinadori, after the fall of the Republic, no longer wished to adorn an altar in a city that did not correspond to his political interests, or that the altar for which it was painted was no longer available, since all the buildings within a mile of the city walls were destroyed by the government in 1529 to prevent them from being used by troops during the siege.
AMK: The restoration carried out by Daniele Rossi for the 2014 exhibition of the Visitation at Palazzo Strozzi clearly revealed the two tiny figures at bottom left of the panel. Who are these two men and what are they doing there?
BE: The restoration brought back to life the extraordinary colors and, as you’ve noted, also some remarkable details that have been lost through previous overpaintings. Small figures on the palace bench, a woman hanging laundry above and a donkey peeking his head around the corner of the building were intended to reinforce the composition but had hidden from view for a decade or longer.
We don’t really know who these figures are. My strongest hypothesis is that the two men represent Zacharias and Joseph, the saintly husbands of the saintly women who are the protagonists of this painting. According to the Gospel of Luke, the only source for the subject of the Visitation, Mary was accompanied by Joseph to a city in the hill country of Judea, where she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth and given hospitality in the home of Zacharias. It would be logical that the two men represent their husbands who are similarly greeting each and waiting for the women to enter inside the palace. The donkey in this case would be transportation for Mary during her pregnancy.
The figures on the palace of course also suggest everyday life in a city like Florence; the architecture recalls standard Florentine typologies and materials, which for me reinforces the hypothesis that the Visitation was intended for an altar in the city itself. The inclusion of architectural details of that sort would have heightened the experience of viewers in the 16th century who would feel that the biblical story was taking place in an environment like their own, facilitating their devotional practices through personal identification to the protagonists.
AMK: The Visitation has a particular, almost inexplicable draw, to the point that it greatly inspired contemporary video artist Bill Viola to recreate it in his own medium. What do you think makes this work so exceptional and still relevant today?
BE: The Visitation is in every way characteristic of its time: a devotional painting, related to historical devotional practices… and yet there is an exceptional draw about this work. It has inspired contemporary artists like Bill Viola and others, and I think that there are a number of reasons why. One is the extraordinary composition used in this painting. Pontormo abandoned the traditional strategy of Florentine painters up until the beginning of the sixteenth century, the creation of a believable deeply receding three-dimensional space using the one-point perspective system to create a simulacrum of the natural world, in favor of a rapidly receding, intuitive kind of perspective that heightens our sensation of the main protagonists. We have an extraordinary, palpable sense of the physical presence of the four women are at the heart of the composition. The two women who are not part of the Biblical narrative – handmaidens who would accompany respectable Florentine women during Pontormo’s time – look directly out at us and a draw us into the world that is magically created by a Pontormo’s paintbrush.
The other thing that I think is so extraordinary about this painting are the extraordinary colors. After restoration we see the colors Pontormo intended; for sixteenth-century viewers this would have been truly stupendous as they were less used to it. This may be a specific result of patronage since we believe that it was commissioned by Bartollomeo Pinadori, who was a merchant of art supplies, in particular of pigments. We know that both Bronzino and Pontormo were Pinadori’s clients, and this patron would have been particularly sensitive to the artist’s chromatic inventiveness.
Finally, I think the architectural sitting is also something that speaks to the modernity of this work for us. We can’t help but associate the background with metaphysical painting like the works of Giorgio De Chirico. Pontormo of course could not have foreseen the inventions of early twentieth-century art, but we as viewers see this work through filters of what we know, and that these points of visual reference contribute to our powerful reception of this thoroughly modern work.