LONDON.- At the end of November 2012, Pontormos altarpiece, depicting a Sacred Conversation with the Madonna and Child, St John the Evangelist, St Francis and St James, was removed from the church of San Michele Visdomini for restoration in preparation for the exhibition Pontormo and Rosso. The Diverging Paths of Mannerism, at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, from 8 March to 20 July 2014.
During its removal, an interesting discovery was made: a charcoal drawing of a male figure, wearing a long tunic belted at the waist and bending over a work table, is clearly visible at the top of the altarpiece. Pontormos hand is identifiable in the rapid and unhesitant definition of the figure, seen from behind, in a style that is compatible with the preparatory drawings for the altarpiece, painted in 1518. This drawing from life, depicting an apprentice probably at work in the artists studio, highlights Jacopo da Pontormos freedom and skill as a draughtsman and represents both an addition to the corpus of his drawings and an interesting discovery which will be explored in greater depth in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue.
The altarpiece was commissioned by Francesco di Giovanni Pucci for the church of San Michele Visdomini , where it has remained to this day. Modern critics have often highlighted the innovative aspects of the work, for which several preparatory drawings still exist both in Italy and abroad. Yet this approach does not seem to have been shared by the artists contemporaries, if we consider that Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was struck most of all by the colouring, so vivid that it seems almost impossible to credit it, and praised its execution in so beautiful a manner. The tendency to see the Pucci altarpiece as a work still linked to the circles in which Pontormo first trained appears to be more pertinent, and indeed one can still detect echoes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto. However, the restless disposition of the figures and their psychological isolation suggest that the breaking point was fast approaching, and that this altarpiece marks the peak of Pontormos first period of activity.