UNDERRATED / Ancient and modern

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A QUITE conscientious tourist who visits the 10 main sites in Florence might never discover the beautiful, disturbing works of Jacopo Carucci. Yet for three decades until his death in 1557, Pontormo, as we now know him, was the greatest painter working in the city.

If you want to get to know him, now is the time. He was born in 1494, and a quincentenary show begins next month in Empoli, the city of his birth. A further exhibition of his drawings will open next year in the Uffizi in Florence.

There are impressive smaller canvases in the Louvre, the National Gallery and elsewhere, but most of his best works are still in and around Florence, on the walls of little- visited churches, cloisters and country villas. The cycle of Last Judgement frescos for the church of San Lorenzo, perhaps the most prominent site for any of Pontormo's works, were destroyed in a subsequent remodelling of Brunelleschi's masterpiece. Thus has half a millennium slipped by since his birth and the painter remains all but a secret to the millions who are much more familiar with the stern, glassy portraits of his pupil, Bronzino.

Perhaps he wanted it that way. Pontormo lived in a house that was only penetrable by a ladder that he would always haul up after him. His diaries reveal little but a record of a spartan diet. With few material needs, he required only the smallest remuneration from his patrons, but he demanded the greatest privacy: the nobleman who commissioned his most impressive painting, the Capponi altarpiece in the church of Santa Felicita, was forbidden to see it until completion.

The swirling mass of rotting pastels in the Capponi altarpiece says everything about the confusion of a painter working in the wake of the High Renaissance masters. That confusion is now called Mannerism but, with the painting itself, naming is not so simple: in the absence of a cross or a tomb, scholars are unable to decide if it's an Entombment or a Deposition. Pontormo passed on his sense of bewilderment to others.

You can glimpse the artist himself in that soulful, nameless work, hugging the edge of the panel in monastic robes and staring mournfully straight at you. He has ripe lips and haunted eyes - features so common in Pontormo's works that you could almost make a case for his career being one long, agonised self-portrait. His saints, like St Anthony Abbot (pictured), seem to suffer as much as the master who painted them.

Pontormo's unorthodoxy first surfaced in an early fresco: in an otherwise formal Visitation, a nonchalantly naked urchin scratches himself. In the jumbled narrative of Joseph in Egypt (at the National Gallery) Pontormo's rebellion deepened into a vision of chaos.

Although he had been apprenticed to Andrea del Sarto, and had studied with Leonardo, during the plague of 1522 he retreated for two years to a charterhouse on a hill south of Florence and produced a fresco cycle of the Passion that revealed the jagged, dissonant influence of Durer. Vasari, the historian of the Renaissance who worshipped Michelangelo, loathed it. 'Even I do not understand it, though I am a painter myself.'

In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy describes the Mannerist outgrowth, with Pontormo to the fore, as 'the first modern art, in the sense that it was incomprehensible to the artist's contemporaries, who in vain sought a rationale for what seemed a wilful violation of the accepted canons of beauty'. Even 500 years later, people haven't quite got the hang of him.