In Pursuit of Pontormo

A little story about obscure art controversies and … singing!

There’s a minor art controversy involving a painting of a young man wearing a red hat, by a relatively obscure Italian Renaissance artist named Pontormo (aka Jacopo Carucci – 1494 to 1557). His artistic output wasn’t huge, and most of it is in the form of frescoes. However, this particular painting is one of the few that is on canvas.

Pontormo Portrait

The controversy around the painting (which is widely regarded as a masterpiece) involves a US hedge fund type, Tom Hill, who purchased the painting for 30 million pounds from an English earl. The National Gallery, who want to keep the work in England, have raised the required money to buy it back from the American, but in the meantime the UK voted to leave the European Union, the pound fell in value, and so the hedgie is, quite naturally, asking for a further $10 million US before he will sell the picture. And that’s where it sits today.

Why is he telling me all this, I hear you ask? Well, because this controversy led us into an amusing little incident here in Florence. You see, Robert has become somewhat fascinated by this work and its story, and so he has been doing some research into Pontormo and his works. It transpires that there are several of his frescoes in various places in Florence. And so, one sunny afternoon, off we trot to have a look at one of them, at the Church of Santissima Annunziata, a place hitherto unknown to us.

After a quick gaping admire of the frescoed cloister that fronts the church itself, in we went to the dim interior. Finding the fresco we were after, however, didn’t turn out to be straightforward, since the work we were looking for was not important enough to be highlighted among the rather sparse signage dotted around the building. After a fruitless hunt in and out of the little side chapels that line each side of the nave, Robert decided that he would ask a rather bored looking monk who was sitting at a desk near the entrance how to find it. Since Rob has no Italian at all, I was summoned over to translate (a triumph of optimism – my Italian is hardly fluent!). The monk’s directions came out in rapid-fire Italian, accompanied by a rather impatient frown, but I got the general idea that the chapel we were after, called the Capella degli Artisti, was somewhere a sinistra – on the left side of the building. So off we went for a second search – but despite looking into every nook and cranny (bar one, as it turns out) we still couldn’t find it.

This is where Robert’s methodology for problem solving and mine part company. I decided to go off and spend some time searching on my phone to see what references I could find to the Capella degli Artisti, thinking that maybe it is in an adjacent building. Robert is more direct and less patient, so he went off and tackled the priest, by now positively grumpy at our inability to understand simple instructions, and literally grabbed him by the arm, insisting that he be personally escorted to the chapel, which, it turned out, was off another cloister accessed through a door covered in a  curtain – none of which was signposted.

Having released the poor priest, Robert then came and found me (still fruitlessly searching for information on Wikipedia), and off we went, back into the church, through the secret door and out into a beautiful little cloister. But to our consternation, the entrance to the chapel had in the meantime been closed, our way to the door blocked by a little chain across the colonnaded path that led to its entrance.

It was then that we encountered the Old Man. Of indeterminate age – but I’d guess seventy or more – he was one of those men who you just know was very handsome when he was younger. A strong, very Italian face, surmounted by a full head of stiff grey hair, a neat moustache above stubbled cheeks, and lively dark eyes. His clothing was what one would call vintage; an old-fashioned dark jacket, much frayed at the cuffs, clean but shabby tracksuit top underneath, and black pants and shoes that had seen better days. Clearly not a rich man, but he carried himself with an upright dignity that was immediately both appealing and commanding.

“The Capella is closed”, he said, in fairly clear but accented English. Then, sensing our disappointment, he looked quickly around the cloister, as if checking to make sure that no-one was watching, and gestured for us to follow him, removing the flimsy chain as he did so. He walked with a kind of quick shuffle, talking all the time in a mixture of Italian and English, and then, to our astonishment, breaking into song – the familiar refrain of “O Sole Mio” !! He must somehow have intuited that we were music lovers, because as he unlocked the doors of the chapel, he started talking about its acoustics and how he liked to sing in there.

So in we went, to discover one of those little gems that one finds only by fluke or through persistence. Now hopefully you’ll remember that the original object of the exercise was to find a picture by Pontormo. And that we did. But the chapel also contains an array of wonderful works by the likes of Vasari, Luca Giordano, and Giovannangelo Montorsoli. And rather casually, our guide pointed to a burial tablet in the middle of the floor and told us that this was where Pontormo, Montorsoli, and most surprisingly, Benvenuto Cellini were interred (and hence its name – the Chapel of the Artists).

Cappella degli Artisti

And yes, there, on the side wall of the chapel, was the Pontormo Virgin and Saints that we had come to see.

IMG_2445 (1)

So much for the art. But the best bit was yet to come, for the Old Man, having shown us the treasures of the chapel, opened his arms and gathered us towards him.

“Now”, he said, “we sing. Dilegua, o notte. Come, you sing”. And so, a few moments later, we found ourselves, to our great bemusement, accompanying him in the last verse of Nessun Dorma ! He had a great voice, which ours could not really match, particularly in that last great phrase – all’alba vincera! – which he belted out with all the sang-froid of Pavarotti on a good day.

And then it was time to go, for we were well past the chapel’s closing time. The Old Man insisted on walking us through the church and back to the entrance, where the monk who had been so unhelpful earlier sat half-dozing at his little desk. Quite what the formal status of the Old Man was, we never discovered, but I suspect he was one of those volunteers without whom many such places would not function. He was also pretty good at extracting money. In no time at all he had the monk jumping up and finding us a copy of the English language version guide book to Santissima Annunziata – something that I am sure he would not have bothered to do otherwise, for which we paid ten euros, so that, including the five euro donation that we felt compelled to make, the whole visit cost us some fifteen euros. Not a lot in the scheme of things, particularly for the entertainment value.

So there you are. We set off to find a particular painting, and found ourselves singing Nessun Dorma with an ageing Pavarotti in a gorgeous chapel over the gravestone of some of the most remarkable artists of the Renaissance. That’s life in Florence!



4 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Pontormo”

  1. What a wonderful story!! Very evocative
    … could picture you so clearly belting out your Opera in the secret chapel, surrounded by lovely art!


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