by Jacopo da Pontormo
Jacopo Carucci (May 24, 1494 – January 2, 1557), usually known as
Jacopo da Pontormo, Jacopo Pontormo or simply Pontormo, was an
Italian Mannerist painter of the Florentine School. His work
represents a stylistic shift from the calm perspective regularity of the art of the Florentine
Renaissance. He employed twining poses and ambiguous perspective. His figures seem to float in
their environment. The Visitation
which Pontormo completed in 1528 and now rests on the altar of a side chapel in a
church, the Pieve di San Michele, in Carmignano a town west of Florence.
|Pieve di San Michele, Carmignano, Italy
The story for this painting is the visitation of the just pregnant Virgin
Mary to her pregnant aged cousin Elisabeth, the wife of Zacharias. The subject
of the painting is taken from Luke I.
39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in
haste to a town of Judah,
40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
42 cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb".
43 "And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord
should come to me?
44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the
infant in my womb leaped for joy.
45 Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Oil on wood, 202 x 156 cm
San Michele, Carmignano, Italy
figures in the painting with their linked arms form a lozenge shape. This intertwining of figures
was one of Pontormo’s trademarks as was the way he makes the characters seem to almost float. The two main characters,
Elizabeth, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace as
they exchange glances of mutual affection. They dominate the canvas as
they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house or, in another view, the walls
The two other figures in the background seem quite unbending and statuesque
as they look at something outside the picture. In the middle ground of the picture, on the left hand side, we can just make
out two small figures seated on a wall looking on at thescene. They are
just specks in comparison to the main figures and maybe Pontormo,
by doing this, is indicating that in comparison to Mary and Elisabeth
onlookers are just mere mortals watching a world changing event.
Probably there are also social and political dimension to this painting.
In 1522, when the plague broke out in Florence, Pontormo left for the Certosa di
Galuzzo, a cloistered Carthusian monastery where the monks followed vows of
silence. There he painted a series of frescoes, now quite damaged, on the passion and
resurrection of Christ. Moreover,
Pontormo painted The Visitation in the immediate aftermath of the Sack of Rome
by the troops of Emperor Charles V, an event which sent shockwaves
The sack roused the citizens of Florence
to turn against their Medici rulers and expel them and to once more declare the Florentine state
a republic. At the height of the rebellion,
Michelangelo, whose forms and vivid palette had influenced Pontormo, was living in the city. In his capacity as military engineer and
architect, he fortified
Florence against reprisals from the wounded
papacy of the Medici Pope Clement VII. Crisis was in the air.
Historical Background of the Times
The War of the League of Cognac (1526–30) was fought between the Habsburg
dominions of Charles V (mainly Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) and the
League of Cognac which included the Republic of Florence and the Papal States.
Charles V gathered a force and advanced on Rome. The Papal armies, proved unable
to resist them and when the Duke of Bourbon was killed, Charles's underpaid army
sacked the city, forcing the Pope to flee. The looting of Rome, and the
consequent removal of Clement from any real role in the war, prompted
action on the part of the French. In April 1527, Henry VIII and Francis signed
the Treaty of Westminster, pledging to combine their forces against Charles.
Francis, having finally drawn Henry VIII into the League, seized much of the
Genoese where it dug itself in for an extended siege. None the less it was
As stated, the Florentines had thrown off Medici rule and established a republic after
the sack of Rome in 1527; the Florentine Republic had continued to
participate in the war on the side of the French. The French defeats at Naples in 1528 and
at Landriano in 1529, however, led France to conclude the war with
the Treaty of Cambrai with Charles V. When Pope Clement VII and the
Republic of Venice also concluded treaties with the Emperor, Florence was
left to fight alone. Charles, attempting to gain Clement's favor, ordered
his armies to seize Florence and return the Medici to power. The Republic
resisted this incursion; but, left without allies and betrayed by many of the
mercenaries in her employ, Florence was unable to keep fighting. Eventually resistance became impractical, and the city
surrendered in August 1530. The Medici returned to power and over the
next few months, many of the Republic's leaders were executed or banished.
Among those fleeing the city may have been the owners of The Visitation.
Siege of Florence by Giorgio Vasari
Now back to the painting. Pontormo depicted the subject in an original way, intensifying
both the physical and emotional intimacy of the encounter between Mary and
Elizabeth by almost filling his composition with their monumental, embracing
forms. In ecclesiastical Latin "Visitatio" denotes not merely a visitation
but "a procedure for becoming aware of something, for examining and experiencing
something." The model of the embrace
might have come from a slippage of meaning in the Greek word "aspasmos", which
means a joyful, warm, and emphatic greeting.
|Giotto, The Arena Chapel Frescos, The Visitation, 1306
Like Giotto, two centuries earlier, Pontormo places the two figures outside and also with two other women in attendance. In the middle ground,
seated on a low wall, a pair of attenuated, watching figures seem tiny by
comparison, human ants observing momentous events from a distance. The
foreground group is completed, perhaps, by the two sisters accorded to the Virgin Mary by
late medieval legend, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome. They look on with calmly
beatific, contemplative faces. Look closely and they seem in fact to look past Mary
and Elizabeth and into the eyes of the viewer, as if to urge
meditation on the sacred scene
|As Mary and Elisabeth look deep
into each other’s eyes with a subtle intensity, the charge of emotion that
passes between them is palpable to the viewer.
The theme of the Visitation, in which the young Mary greets the
elderly Elisabeth, has traditionally symbolized the passage from Old Testament
to New. But in Florence
in the late 1520s, it may also have acquired a reformist significance. Many
Florentines believed that the Sack of Rome was punishment meted out on a
decadent Medici papacy, and felt that the time was ripe for the Church
of Rome to heed the teachings of Erasmus and Luther and to renew itself in a
different form. Pontormo’s Visitation may have been intended to give
visual expression to such beliefs.
The outdoor setting, and the proximity of the principal figures to a
heavily fortified wall, seemingly somewhere in Florence, appears to
create a link between the sacred subject matter and what was at stake at
the time, a fight for the soul of the city. The fact that the picture is no longer to
be found in Florence
implies that possibility. Perhaps, when the Medici retook the city in
August 1530, the owners of the painting fled to a nearby safe haven, taking this
treasured possession with them. -JJ