Pontormo, Bronzino, and Allori: A Genealogy of Florentine Art. .
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. x + 289 pp. index. illus. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-300-08543-5.
Elizabeth Pilliod's Pontormo, Bronzino, and Allori: A Genealogy of Florentine Art is really two books in one. One the one hand, the book is a valuable study of Pontormo, along with Bronzino and Allori: the author challenges Vasari's accounts of their lives, especially that of Pontormo, and offers up a great deal of new information, culled from the archives. But at the same time, this book is very much about Vasari himself, whose honesty and credibility are called into question--not only with regard to the three artists named above, but also mote generally and more directly. Vasari stands accused of altering the facts, and suppressing information, in order to advance his own position.
As has long been recognized, Vasari's account of Pontormo is quite critical, emphasizing his eccentric and solitary nature. While Vasari is full of praise for Pontormo's early efforts, he is more negative about the rest of his career. In discussing the frescoes in the cloister of the Certosa di Galluzzo, for example, he faults Pontormo for falling too much under the influence of Durer and the German style; when he turns to the choir of San Lorenzo, he questions both the style and the subject matter, as well as the artist's reluctance to let anyone monitor his progress. In general, Pontormo is presented as a melancholy outsider who was indifferent to money, and Vasari's view, as Pilliod points out, has colored much of the subsequent scholarship on the artist.
Pilliod rejects this interpretation of Pontormo and is at pains to place him in a more central and influential position. She calls into question Vasari's characterization of the artist, and brings out his ties to the Medici court. For example, she takes issue with the assertion that Pontormo kept visitors away from the choir of San Lorenzo, which she shows to be untrue since, according to the artist's diary, the duke visited on more than one occasion (although the diary does not specify that he actually inspected the frescoes). So too, she goes beyond Vasari, using documents she herself has uncovered, to establish Pontormo's financial ties to the Medici and to prove that Pontormo received a generous salary during the years he was at work in San Lorenzo. Indeed, according to Pilliod, Pontormo "becomes with the sculptor and architect Baccio Bandinelli one of the earliest court artists recognized by and on salary to the Medici dynasty" (23). This is something that, according to Pilliod, Vasari deliberately supp resses.
One factor that has led to the common notion that Pontormo was a disturbed individual is Vasari's characterization of his house, which he describes as "having the appearance of a building erected by an eccentric and solitary creature" (67). As Pilliod points out, this has become a metaphor for Pontormo's anti-social tendencies, and she provides a corrective. She makes a derailed study of the building, its location and layout, and demonstrates quite convincingly that, far from being the sort of oddity Vasari suggests, it was not at all unusual. It may not have been the stately home Vasari would have considered appropriate for a court painter, but it was not especially bizarre or run-down: it was a typical dwelling for an artist-craftsman. So too Pilliod shows, in contrast to Vasari, that Pontormo did not live there alone, for he had the company of Giovambattista Naldini (who would later become part of Vasari's team).
Pontormo's social contacts are brought our more fully in the chapter that follows. Here Pilliod explores, in impressive detail, the artist's ties to Florentine confraternities and the Accademia Fiorentina. This further counteracts the notion that Pontormo was solitary and anti-social, and brings out the true extent of Pontormo's literary interests and other cultural pursuits. Indeed this discussion goes along way toward giving us a sense of the texture of the lives of these artists and their associates, their personal relationships and activities, and it provides a vivid picture of Florence at mid-century. And the same could be said about the next chapter, on the makeup of Bronzino's household, where Pontormo was often a guest. Here Pilliod supplies a good deal of new information, which brings out the artistic and personal connections between Pontormo and Bronzino, and between Bronzino and Allori--linkages that Vasari had omitted or downplayed.
One of the most fascinating sections is the discussion of the dispute over Pontormo's estate, which remains something of a mystery. Vasari makes no mention of the episode--although he must have been aware of it. But Pilliod has uncovered extensive documentation which has allowed her to reconstruct the general outline of what happened. Her account is a revealing microhistory which sheds a good deal of light on the circumstances and on the behavior of those close to Pontormo--who do not always appear to have acquitted themselves well. Unfortunately, some gaps remain, and it is still unclear why, in the end, the decision went against Bronzino, especially since there seems to be little question that his adversary, a weaver called Chiazella, invented a false genealogy and perjured himself. Nevertheless, the entire episode makes it clear that Ponrormo was more prosperous than Vasari allows.
Throughout the book, as Pilliod revises our understanding of Pontormo and his artistic heirs, Vasari is often used as a point of departure, or even a straw man; but by the end, he becomes the main subject. Of special importance is Vasari's role in the newly formed Accademia del Disegno, and how his involvement with that institution shaped the second edition of the Lives, and in particular, the book's organization. In revising and adding to his original text, Vasari decided to group many of the biographies of his contemporaries, starting with Bronxino, in a special section devoted to the Accademia. This may seem a perfectly reasonable way to proceed, but Pilliod is not altogether comfortable with this approach and calls Vasari's motives into question. Above all, for Pilliod, this new structure has the effect of blurring the lines of artistic lineage. The life of Bronaino, for example, is widely sepatated from that of Pontormo, and as a result, the links between them are weakened, as is the role of Allori. Thi s, in turn, has the effect of diminishing the importance of their almost dynastic position in Florentine art. The new institution takes precedence over Florentine tradition, of which Vasari was never entirely a part.
Many have recognized Vasari's lack of objectivity, how quite a few of the lives are colored by personal preferences or animosities and other biases. While some have noted his sometimes fawning devotion to the Medici, others have remarked on his somewhat uncomfortable position among Florentine artists, or on his ties to Rome. Just recently, for example, David Franklin, in Painting in Renaissance Florence: 1500-1550 (New Haven and London, 2001), has made a plausible case that Vasari's links to Raphael's followers were decisive. Along with Salviati, Vasari brought a distinctly Roman flavor to Florentine art and was critical of those Florentine artists who remained oblivious to or uninterested in Roman influences. Pontormo was one of those, and one could well see Vasari's criticism of him, and Vasari's artistic judgments generally, in that light.
But Pilliod prefers to see Vasari in a more cynical terms, as "cunning and calculating" (272). Vasari is guilty of suppressing some contemporary painters and reassigning others to the wrong bottega, which has had the effect of breaking apart the link between artists and their proper masters and pupils, and, in Pilliod's view, enhancing Vasari's position at the expense of others, such as Pontormo, Bronzino, and Allori. Vasari was obviously wrong about many things, and may have distorted others; his unusually harsh criticism of Pontormo is certainly curious, but a question remains as to what extent Vasari is expressing deeply-felt convictions or true animosities, and to what extent he deliberately and cynically slandered his rivals in order to solidify his professional position. Pilliod clearly favors the latter position, but many scholars would be unwilling to take things quite that far.
As Pilliod herself would acknowledge, Vasari's version of the Renaissance remains an essential point of departure for any study of the period, but she is alarmed at the extent to which Vasari's views continue to predominate, considering how inaccurate and how misleading his information often is. At times she can barely contain her indignation; she wonders why there has not been an organized outcry among contemporary historians against such an unreliable source. Her concerns on this score are a bit overstated, perhaps, and few scholars of Renaissance art would now accept Vasari at face value, but at the same time, she has given us many reasons to question his veracity. Moreover, she brings a good deal of new documentary evidence to the table, which greatly enriches our picture of Pontormo and his successors, and which broadens our understanding of the world of Florentine artists in the middle of the sixteenth century. Indeed, that is greatest strength of this remarkable book.