Thursday, May 29, 2014

Art as it was Meant to be Seen

The last time we were in Florence I had grand plans to write a series of posts about works in situ (in their original locations) and the power of those experiences, particularly for the viewer, and especially the modern viewer, as many of us are used to experiencing art in the sterile, environmentally and culturally removed spaces of museums. Ultimately, I made only one post on this topic in 2012 and that about the experience of seeing all the Caravaggios of Rome in one magical, unforgettable day that June (see post June 2012, "The Power of Painting #1"). Truthfully, I think it was such a moving and intellectually stimulating experience that it zapped my ability and passion to write about anything in situ in Florence afterwards.

SO, it seemed only fitting to start my 2014 posts with a work that is always on my mind when I return to this city, and is usually the first piece I visit, as I did today, namely the Deposition of Jacopo Pontormo. The large altarpiece dates to about 1528 and is located in the unassuming church of Sta. Felicit√°, inside the Capponi Chapel (note the family coat of arms topping the gate below, marking the space). The piece hangs in the spot where it was made to hang and has hung (with the exception of the interlude of WWII when it was hidden in the Italian countryside) for nearly 500 years.

For me this is a personal piece, not because of what it depicts but because of my experience of it.
While it may sound cliche it's no less true that this painting changed the course of my career as a young art historian. Without seeing this I might have studied Tintoretto or (gasp!) Titian for my dissertation and subsequent decade of research. My lasting love affair with this piece all started on a blazing hot, sunny Florentine summer day in June of 1995 when I made a phone call from a nearby pay phone to check in with my graduate advisor/mentor in the US. He noted I was right around the corner from Pontormo's Deposition and that I should take a look. I had never heard of the artist or the work, but determined to see anything and everything of artistic note in Florence I hung up and walked the 2 blocks where I was greeted by this rather plain church facade set well back from a (then) major thoroughfare.

I entered into the small dark, wooden foyer and naturally turned to my right, pushed open the door, and entered the church proper. My eyes were adjusting to the change in light and as they did I felt suddenly and simultaneously giddy, amazed, honored, mesmerized; like a witness to the electric "presence" created by a work. I've often thought back on that day and what made the experience so powerful and lastingly resonant, and a large part was the setting. The church was and is quiet, unassuming and yet, like so many buildings in Italy, holds treasure waiting to be found. The space was cool compared to the June heat outside and I immediately felt refreshed in the space. The sun was raking through the upper windows and beams of light shown down, hitting the marble floor and wooden pews in bright bursts. The cacophony of dozens of Vespas and cars whizzing by just outside were silenced as the doors shut. It was me. It was Pontormo. Both of us inside the space where this work was intended to be seen.

Then I put a few lira in the light machine and the painting vibrated on a whole other frequency. Color combinations I had not seen before sprang to life amidst a swirling composition simultaneously moving forward, backward and upward in space. Light was at once blue (see bottom figure) and white. Figures both floated and sank under heavy bodily weight. The whole diamond composition apparently teetered on the tip toes of a single person in a barren landscape, with a puff of cloud overhead, while Pontormo himself looked on from the painting's far right.

From that day forward this work has been my favorite painting. It's had many rivals, but no usurpers.

Over the intervening years since 1995, Pontormo's painting has only grown more meaningful as I've learned more about the artist (one of my dissertation topics), lived with the work in reproduction, analyzed the image for students and saw the painting with visiting friends, artists, students and family members, who have each in their own way showed me another new way to see Pontormo. I never tire of this painting and like all "great" works the piece continues to grow in resonance with each visit, each viewing, each experience, and in this case that experience is intimately bound to its place. Sure, it would hold up in a museum just fine, but it draws part of its power from the fact that it's one piece of a larger ensemble AND it's in its original location.

Ultimately, as I said about viewing Caravaggio two years ago--this is why we travel--to see and experience works of art on their own terms, in their own space. Florence here we come...

To the right of the Deposition is a fresco of the Annunciation by Pontormo containing perhaps the most beautiful single figure in all of Western art (in my humble opinion). Note how the architectural elements above both Gabriel and Mary's heads are painted to look like the arch higher up, which is real.

As you can see in the very first image, the dome of the chapel is supported on pendentives, which each contain 4 paintings of the Apostles, also by Pontormo with help from his student Bronzino. Below is Luke with his ox.


  1. Wonderful! You realize, don't you, that you could charge admission to this blog? Thanks for sharing!

  2. I so, so love this post! I thank you for my own introduction to this painting...the experience ranks as one of the highlights of my artist life....