One of the rightly most famous and critically significant passages in Vasari’s lives can be found in the ‘Preface’ that the biographer from Arezzo wrote, towards the middle of the 16th century, for the third and last part of his lucid manual of art history. It is a crucial passage as it expresses with unwavering clarity his belief regarding the origin of one of the highest periods in Italian figurative culture. The period is the one he defined as that of the ‘modern manner’; modern because he was talking about his own time. In that period – which, judging by the Lives, can be said to run roughly from the latter part of the 15th century to the death of Vasari himself (1574) – lived artists of such stylistic calibre and poetic stature that they can be considered unique. And it is not even necessary to pronounce their names, so celebrated are they.
‘After them, indeed,’ says Vasari (and by ‘them’, to be quite clear about it, he is referring to artists like Piero della Francesca and Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Botticelli), ‘their successors were enabled to attain to [that manner] through seeing excavated out of the earth certain antiquities cited by Pliny as amongst the most famous, such as the Laocoön, the Hercules, the Great Torso of the Belvedere, and likewise the Venus, the Cleopatra [Sleeping Ariadne], and an endless number of others [...].’ These were all Hellenistic sculptures; sculptures characterized, that is, by languishing poses, a delicate sentimentality and deep emotions. From this we can draw the conclusion that, in Vasari’s view, it was these sentiments, embodied in the works of antiquity praised by Pliny, that brought about a change in the figurative language used by artists.
And yet it seems to me that the words he employs to describe the characteristics of those marbles could also be applied to the meditations on antiquity of Luca Pignatelli that are on display in the Sala del Camino of the Uffizi as an accompaniment to the image of the painter himself as Mithridates (it too a reflection on classical antiquity) which he has donated to the Florentine gallery’s collection of artist’s portraits. To describe the feelings stirred by those Hellenistic statues Vasari speaks of ‘sweetness’, of ‘fleshy roundness copied from the greatest beauties of nature’, of ‘attitudes which involve no distortion of the whole figure but only a movement of certain parts’, of ‘a most perfect grace’. Pignatelli does not always allude to the languid features of the Hellenistic style but, even when the reference is to sculptures of other Greek or Roman periods, the products of his imagination are always tinged with languorous feelings and a profound passion for the great achievements of the remote past, now faded and yet rooted in the mind and heart of an artist who is their spiritual heir.
I am once again reminded of Vasari’s preface, where he assigns Leonardo the credit for having ‘given a beginning to that third manner which we propose to call the modern’, not so much owing to the great gifts that everyone acknowledges him to have possessed (skill in drawing, profundity of intellect, ability to portray nature in microscopic detail), as because da Vinci ‘may be truly said to have endowed his figures with motion and breath’. And Leonardo really was the first to have imparted to the actors of the dramas he depicted those twisted movements and inspired faces (oblique in their postures and marked by a gentle pathos in their slightly open mouths and eyes raised to heaven). And Vasari is quite right to give him the precedence in this: while by the last years of the 15th century
Leonardo da Vinci, Adorazione dei magi, Galleria degli Uffizi. Particolari / Details
and to an even greater extent the beginning of the 16th it had become the usual practice for figures to give vent to their emotions, Leonardo was expressing his enthusiasm for the stylistic features of Hellenistic art in his works as far back as the early 1480s (in the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi and in the Saint Jerome in the Pinacoteca Vaticana). It was by looking at those ancient marbles that he found the inspiration to lyrically infuse his figures with ‘motion and breath’: motion by twisting the bodies in a spiral, breath by parting their lips.
One gets the same sensation looking at Pignatelli’s heads; heads in which I find it significant that the artist has chosen an illumination that is increasingly able to pluck the viewer’s heartstrings. The way that the light strikes the cheekbones and forehead and, conversely, the dark shadow under the arches of the eyebrows that gives a sunken appearance to the eye-sockets are signs of an aspiration to stir a longing of the spirit in front of beauty and its inescapable transience. Beauty that on the other hand still lives, in spite of the time that has inflicted its disfigurements as it passes; a defacement that, however, only deepens the thrill. It is a sense of melancholy over an ineluctable passing; a feeling that leaves traces in the fissures of the mouths, almost always tightly shut and yet apparently slightly open, precisely because of the light that, pouring down from above,
furrows the upper lip with a marked shadow, thereby creating the impression or the illusion of a sigh of amorous yearning.
Pignatelli’s antique heads are saved from the risks of an overly mawkish tenderness by the rough materials onto which their images are projected. They are pieces of wood that, owing to the fortuitous effects of the grain left visible or of a colouring that is imperfect or worn or damaged by falls, present the appearance of humble and shabby supports. Pieces of wood whose chipped edges and sometimes even cracked surfaces, with fissures running all the way across, display the same earthly fragility as the marbles.
Tempus elevat omnia: these are the words written on a scroll held by a nude woman standing on torn books and pieces of armour in a fine picture by Dosso Dossi in the Uffizi. Time consumes everything and disperses everything: beauty, power, wealth, culture. A message that the wisdom of the Bible hands down with all the poetic force of Ecclesiastes. And humanity redeems itself from the bewilderment that this instils either with faith in a Father who gives meaning to everything or with the vibrant (but no less fleeting) emotions of poetry.
Pignatelli’s Self-Portrait, which is now entering the collections of the Uffizi in the guise of Mithridates, is a lyrical emblem – with its happy mixture of ancient and modern – of one of the ideological notions underlying both the dream to which Francesco I gave concrete expression in the gallery and the museological choices made over time by those who have inherited the responsibility for its care: the coexistence of periods distant from one another. The ancient and the modern do, in fact, live side-by-side in the collections and, indeed, vie with one another. History knows no barriers; and art is no exception.