Pontormo, Persimmon and Gamboge

Given the time of year (Easter) and the Renaissance turn of mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about a visit I made years ago to see the frescoes by Jacopo Carucci, better known as Pontormo, a key painter of the Mannerist period, in the cloisters of the Certosa di Galluzzo.  Mannerism is a somewhat contested site in Italian Renaissance art historical studies, but it essentially refers to a period of exaggerated elegance and luxurious colouration that supplanted the vaunted naturalism and classicism of the ‘High’ Renaissance – the age of Raphael and the ‘height’ of Michelangelo.  

My favourite thing about the Italian Mannerist painters (besides everything) is their palette – a range of colours that are more commonly identified with dreams and visions.  The frescoes at the Galluzzo are devoted to the Passion Cycle, the sufferings of Christ leading the Crucifixion, central object of meditation for the Carthusian friars who originally lived there.  If you drive outside of Florence you can be admitted to the cloisters and wander through the cool Carthusian white-washed cells, each with a tiny window framing a perfect green vista, ever beyond. Eighteen cells from which the monks emerged only for mass and simple meals.

Pontormo’s colours deserve their own particular names.  Here, in the Agony in the Garden, which has faded to a tinted whisper, as all the frescoes have, I see a riot of gamboge – gold/yellow/brown (a resin pigment that wasn’t used here, but the colour that remains is evocative of that) and punctuated with persimmon – orange/red/pink (like a blood orange, torn open and sparkling in the sun) and a grey/blue green (malachite?) sky.  There are no words, really – perhaps a world of saffron sun and lilac light – 



About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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