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Thursday, May 05, 2005



i'm just back from two weeks in italy, having spent the first week in florence and after in rome and the tuscan countryside. my first visit to florence, capital of renaissance humanism. the magnificence and intensity of the place is impossible to describe, and probably unnecessary. if one loves the art of western civilization, there are few places to prefer.

michelangelo is rather the (deserving) star of the renaissance, having forged mannerism from the rebirth of antiquity and set representational art on its distinctly modern course. but i am amazed at the relative inattention that has befallen his contemporaries, even in mannerism -- men who surely influenced michelangelo just as michelangelo influenced them. ghirlandaio, his mentor. his friend, pontormo. and pontormo's apostle, bronzino.

the sweeping power of pontormo's gift was driven home to me with the clarity of a spearpoint upon visiting his masterful works in the church of santa felicita. it's impossible, i think, to recreate the thunder of these works outside of their place and context. housed in brunelleschi's beautiful silent twilit temple to christian humanism, largely unvisited and unlighted, pontormo's deposition adorns a gated chapel in the front of the nave, near the door. a small donation sprays light on his work for just a few minutes -- but what minutes! the fainting pain of mother mary, the heaviness of the lifeless christ, the transient and twisted poses of those supporting his form. only in florence can such regal mastery be underappreciated -- elsewhere, whole cities would be focused to its admiration.

but in florence it stays.

i stood in open-mouthed silence before this capponi chapel -- as i did under ghirlandaio's massive fresco cycle at the high altar of santa maria novella, aside donatello's erotic bronze david, before michelangelo's brazen doni tondo and the palestrina pieta, in brunelleschi's perfect san spirito and under bronzino's kinetic martyrdom of san lorenzo. the sheer impact of florence on the sensitive and artistically concerned mind in incalculable; a lifetime of visits would not be enough to fully absorb it. it was everything that might have been implied by the lyrics of burckhardt and more -- elegant and powerful, overwhelming and intimate.

congratulations on spotting pontormo's depostion. it is truly the greatest neglected work in florence, maybe in all of europe.

best, howard

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If you're interested, Pontormo and Bronzino are both characters in my latest historical novel, Cupid and the Silent Goddess, which is set in Florence in 1544-5.


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