Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 1999
Elizabeth Cropper Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier Los Angeles: Getty Trust Publications, 1997. 132 pp.; 21 color ills.; 32 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (0892363665)

The picture painted in Florence sometime in the second quarter of the 16th century by Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, and known for most of the 20th century as The Halberdier, burst out of the comfortable obscurity of the Frick Collection in New York, where it had been on indefinite loan when Christie’s sold it at auction in the winter of 1989 to the J. Paul Getty Museum for more than $35 million. Since very few 16th-century paintings of secure provenance by major masters come on the art market now, specialists found the sale of The Halberdier by the private foundation that owned it almost as remarkable as one very striking aspect of the Christie’s catalogue essay: the presentation of the painting as the Portrait of Duke Cosimo I.

This reidentification of the sitter by Janet Cox-Rearick, the uncredited author of the Christie’s catalogue essay and the leading authority on Pontormo’s drawings, had precedent, as Elizabeth Cropper carefully notes in her study of the Getty picture, written for the museum’s Studies on Art series. Though Cox-Rearick had taken issue with the notion that the picture might represent Duke Cosimo at the time of his rise to power in her catalogue raisonné of Pontormo’s drawings, she reversed herself in the Christie’s catalogue, accepting an argument put forward in 1959 by Herbert Keutner. (The Drawings of Pontormo, 2nd ed. New York, 1981, p. 270). To do so, she urged a dating of ca. 1537, departing from her previous dating of ca. 1527–28. In consequence, she rejected the only serious alternative for a positive identification of this sitter, Francesco Guardi, a young man known only because Giorgio Vasari mentioned him as having sat for Pontormo in abito di soldato (dressed as a soldier) during the siege of Florence by imperial and papal troops.

Pontormo’s career twisted and turned in a remarkable sequence of stylistic innovations, experiments, and changes, owing to an intellectual restlessness Vasari found deplorable. Cox-Rearick’s record in making sense of Pontormo’s tumultuous creative history stands as a great achievement, and so her change of mind carried great weight. From the moment of the catalogue’s release, Pontormo scholars divided, particularly over the implications of redating a major painting by nearly a decade.

Cropper’s current study is the most ambitious treatment of this image since the Christie’s sale; one can fairly characterize her approach as quite deliberate and systematic. She delivered an early version of this manuscript as a lecture at the Getty in 1990 and at Yale University in the spring of 1991, where this reviewer heard it. Though she had not yet assembled her whole argument, she already disputed the date of ca. 1537, preferring one substantially earlier, and certainly no later than about 1534, a position she has now refined to 1529–30, about where the consensus had stood before the auction of 1989. Cropper begins her book by considering the Cosimo theory and rejecting it on several grounds. If Pontormo did indeed portray Cosimo in this image, the youthfulness of Pontormo’s subject requires a date early in Cosimo’s public career, particularly since the sitter holds a pike and wears no armor, peculiar for either a prominent young aristocrat or for a head of state whose legitimacy and power were under severe attack. Cropper raises serious objections to assertions that Pontormo’s figure resembles other portraits of Cosimo. She makes a very sound case for a date of 1529–30 on stylistic grounds by comparing the pose and morphology of the sitter to other pictures by Pontormo from the late 1520s, notably the Capponi Chapel Deposition, the Carmignano Visitation, and the Pitti Martyrdom of the 10,000, all securely datable within the half-decade 1525–30.

Cropper then moves on to the possible alternative, Francesco Guardi, who, as we know from Vasari, sat for Pontormo during the siege of Florence in 1529–30. Thanks to Cropper, we now know considerably more, both about Guardi and his family. She organizes her argument around section headings derived sequentially from Vasari’s reference to the Guardi portrait; though potentially artificial, the device succeeds by underscoring the plausibility of both the statement itself and its applicability to this picture.

Cropper’s most important contributions come in the examination of the history of Florence in the years 1529–30. Pontormo scholarsLuciano Berti being the major exceptionhave been only spottily interested in the history of the siege, particularly the question of the militia of Florentine youth, a concept championed strenuously by Machiavelli a quarter-century earlier as an alternative to the defense of the city by mercenaries. Pontormo’s figure does not correspond to our notion of what soldiers look like, but two Florentine historians who belonged to the militia in the 1520s—Benedetto Varchi (“they were no less usefully armed than pompously dressed”) and Jacopo Nardi (“[t]hey were sumptuously adorned both in vestments and in weaponry”)—explicitly call attention to the elaborate appearance of the militia’s attire (Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence. New York, 1980, p. 538).

Cropper’s argument weaves together a daunting number of threads. She establishes Francesco Guardi’s eligibility for the lesser of the two components of the home guard at age fifteen in 1529. Her explication of the centrality of the earthworks about S. Miniato to Michelangelo’s plans for the fortification of Florence and S. Miniato’s proximity to a substantial Guardi property convincingly explains both the sitter’s curious equipment and his placement in front of a moss-colored rampart.

Cropper’s investigation of the Guardi family leads her to an interesting if not entirely conclusive proposal for how the picture made its way into the Riccardi collection by 1612 as a Medici portrait. She concludes with a very reasonable acceptance of Bronzino’s Pygmalion and Galatea as the cover for the Getty picture and a somewhat less compelling consideration of the influence of The Halberdier on the portraiture of Bronzino and his contemporaries.

One of the chief virtues of this book lies in the sensible economy of many of its interpretations. Take, for example, her handling of the issues raised by the figure’s cap brooch, with its representation of Hercules lifting Antaeus off the ground to deprive him of his strength. Cropper, well-versed in Renaissance emblematics, understands both the ambiguity and the ubiquity of the Hercules reference. She wisely rejects the notion that the presence of Hercules might provide a clue to the identity of the sitter, particularly in the apt context of a military assault on Florence by a combined papal and imperial power.

As with much of Cropper’s work, this study utilizes a hybrid set of methodologies. It will appear to some rather conventional in its monographic treatment of the picture. It certainly serves the Getty well as a thorough critical study, but it goes considerably beyond that function. Cropper has long been an astute reader of symbolic language and a careful observer of gendered social and representational codes; those skills allow her to decrypt the complicated network of gender cues and pressures operating in the Getty’s picture. Add to that her wisdom in examining the political tensions between the older and younger generations of males in the Florentine Last Republic, an issue Richard Trexler raised nearly twenty years ago. In taking on every significant issue attendant on our understanding of this painting, Cropper has produced an estimable book, worthy of her record, the Getty, and, most importantly, Pontormo, Francesco Guardi, and the Florentine Last Republic.

Peter Lynch
Randolph-Macon Woman’s College