Jacopo da Pontormo (1494-1557) painted his Deposition around 1526. It is one of the early achievements of the Mannerist style, which easily took over the Renaissance style in the following decades. Pontormo’s piece already contains all the defining elements of Mannerism: the apparent randomness of the composition, the brilliant (almost acid) colours, and the unconventional approach to an otherwise traditional subject. In this post, I would like to delve into some of these aspects and show how the new Italian manner substantially differed from the Renaissance one, thus aspiring to an artistic status on it own.
Deposition – Jacopo da Pontormo – 1526-28
The paintings of the great Renaissance masters, from Masaccio to Rapahel, present their narrative in a real space. Clearly, Pontormo’s approach is quite different. The figures orbit around the corpse of Christ, unnaturally long and statuary. It is not clear where their feet are resting. Looking at the first level, one would say onto the ground, yet the women in the back seem to fly over the scene. Indeed, their gracefully light bodies contrast with Jesus’s heavy limbs, falling from the carriers’ arms. Furthermore, these two are standing on the top of their toes, as if they were not carrying an inert weight. They do not show the struggle, the effort of movement as, for example, their counterparts in Raphael’s Borghese Deposition. The artist’s aim, quite obviously, is not a naturalistic representation.
Borghese Deposition – Raphael – 1507
At the first glance, the subject may seem obvious: the lamentation over Christ’s body. The weeping women, the saddened men, the Virgin about to faint, everything fits gently into this arrangement. On the other hand though, there is no geometrical focus, and our eyes find no rest in the composition. A whole sense of upheaval is transmitted through the flowing drapery, the contrasting colours, the gazes of each character moving in a different direction. Moreover, we have not considered the most obvious question. Where is the cross? In a deposition scene, we would expect the body of Christ being transported from it to the ground, as in the earlier painting by Rosso Fiorentino. Nobody would ever define Rosso a conventional Renaissance artist, yet he respects the iconographical features of the subject. Pontormo, on the contrary, transforms the narrative scene into an almost mystical vision of Christ’s death.
Deposition – Rosso Fiorentino – 1521
The colours are capricious. Pontormo employs violently bright shades of blue and pink, creating a halo around the figure of Jesus. The painting’s surface is great, and Pontormo exploits it by adding flat layers of paint. While his pupil Bronzino favoured modulating light in order to express three-dimensionality, Pontormo enjoys crowding the space with figures in an ambiguous spatial composition. Colour favours this effect. The Renaissance praised a rational construction of the pictorial space through perspective and composition. Organised groups of figures are set throughout the composition in a symmetrical arrangement. Mannerism is the negative response to these rules, and the attempt to find a new inventiveness by subverting the traditional aesthetic.
Works like Pontormo’s Deposition probably appeared odd to the contemporary viewers, but also surprising and innovative. As Arnold Hauser notices, Vasari once wrote that Raphael and Michelangelo achieved so much in the imitation of nature that artists should only imitate them, rather than nature itself. In such view, art becomes the copy of a copy, and the individual effort is brutally neglected. Mannerism is the cry of a generation of innovative artists and thinkers, whose aim is cutting their own space into the fabric of history. Indeed, it is the attempt of going beyond the great masters and their manner to generate a new one. The revolution did not lead to anarchy, but to a new, well-codified era of taste.