Writer Gore Vidal is known for saying, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Most writers and artists recognize this sentiment with a familiar cringe. Even if we are genuinely happy when one of our friends shows his work in a prestigious gallery, there’s still a small part of us that would be even happier if the success had been ours.
It’s a mercy, then, that most of us befriend people who are not, at least in the literal sense of the word, geniuses. When our associates outdo us, they do so by a margin that does not overwhelm us.
And yet, there are exceptions. Rare as they may be, geniuses do exist, and their friends, colleagues and families must learn to flourish even as these extraordinary people hurtle on ahead of them toward successes unfathomable to more ordinary minds.
One artist who faced this challenge was the Mannerist Jacopo Pontormo. Apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci at a young age and friends with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pontormo consorted with some of the greatest men of the Italian Renaissance. As a young artist he was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s work, and there are strong similarities between the two artists’ versions of Leda and the Swan. Though Leonardo's painting has been lost, there are copies of it which can be compared to Pontormo's piece.
One of the things that is often said about the Mannerist movement in general is that these artists had a very tough act to follow. Mannerism emerged in the early 16th century just as the High Renaissance was reaching its peak. During the Italian Renaissance, artists rediscovered the glories of Classical art and brought this newly uncovered ancient knowledge to their work. Looking across the artwork from the Early Renaissance to the High Renaissance, one senses a crescendo. Artists were rapidly becoming better at using linear perspective, at understanding human anatomy, and at modeling the forms of the body with chiaroscuro (light and darkness). All of these were attempts to make things appear as they do in real life, to make drawings and paintings of people who seem to be living in three-dimensional spaces with actual muscles and bones underlying their skin. At the climax of all this progress are the masterpieces of the High Renaissance such as the Sistine Chapel.
But after a crescendo builds to its peak, then what? For Jacopo Pontormo this question was not an abstract one. At forty-two years younger than da Vinci and seventeen years younger than Michelangelo, he was both too close to their age to avoid comparison and too much younger to simply do what they had done. Standing inside the long shadow of their genius, he had to find a way to step forward and cast his own shadow, even if it was a smaller one.
Pontormo could scarcely make his figures more realistic than those of the High Renaissance, nor could he create a more convincing illusion of space than the masterful draftsman before him had already done with their careful use of linear perspective. Instead of trying to improve on their work, he turned to something new. He stopped trying to make everything look as it does in real life and began experimenting with artifice. He and the other Mannerists are called by this name because they worked in a sort of mannered, stylized way. Rather than make space look believable, they made it ambiguous and strange. Rather than make their figures look real, they made them distorted and expressive. Vividly colored, lyrical, exaggerated, and emotive, these pieces contrast strongly with the calm, rational, and realistic images of the Renaissance.
One example of this style is Pontormo’s Descent from the Cross. The figures in this piece are contorted in ways that are completely unnatural, and the sense of space is also difficult to decipher. Are those figures in the back standing on pedestals to make them so high up in the picture plane? Would the two figures in the foreground really be able to support the weight of the dead Christ while standing airily on their tiptoes? And the color – why are so many people wearing brilliant pinks and oranges in what is ostensibly a very sad scene?
For the sake of comparison, it is worth looking at another depiction of the same scene by Pontormo’s slightly older (11 years) contemporary, Raphael. In this painting both the forms of the bodies, and the sense of space are more true to life.
Pontormo’s composition was also unusual for the time. During the High Renaissance artists often put the main figures in the center of the image, but at the center of his image there is an empty void around which the rest of the image seems to revolve in a flurry of confusion. At the time it probably seemed like a strange way to paint the scene, but this composition is not unlike the actual experience of grief, since a feeling of emptiness and absence pervades that as well. Even the overly bright colors create an emotional dissonance which is not unlike the feeling we experience when we see and smell the floral arrangements in a funeral home; everything is so pretty even though we are so sad.
Pontormo was a complicated person for other reasons besides his innovative style and his proximity to genius. He also had personal habits that many people would consider odd. During the later years of his life he kept meticulous records of his food intake, his deteriorating health, and (most regrettably) his bowel movements. During these later years he also became melancholic and reclusive. He had a ladder leading up to his quarters, and he would sometimes pull it up into the building so that others could not visit him for weeks on end. In his Lives of the Artists, art historian Giorgio Vasari described his living situation this way:
Given these aspects of his personality, Pontormo seems a likely candidate for breaking from artistic norms, since he was already something of a misfit. But it is also true that his circumstances pushed him to be experimental. In the wake of the genius of others, he could not improve on what had already been done and was thus forced to do something completely original. In that sense, his awkward position in the timeline of Art History may have been serendipitous, and his oddities not the cause of his innovation but merely a coincidence.
If Gore Vidal is right, the success of others can feel like a death. But Pontormo’s bizarrely effective paintings indicate that the success of others can also be a launching pad into a new and different future, one in which we stop trying to outdo our peers and start finding our own way of doing things. Pontormo’s lifestyle may not be one to which many of us would aspire, but his artwork with all its eccentricities is hopefully something in which we can see bravery – the bravery to continue working even without the hope of being the very best.