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In My Good Books

In my good books

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
15 April 2006

Pontormo, the great painter of Florentine Mannerism, lived from 1494 to 1557, and in the last two years of his life he kept a diary. This short document was found to be so curious that it was preserved, and even copied in the 17th century. Pontormo in his day was known as a melancholic, miserly, reclusive character.

It was his habit, when he set to work on some great project such as the chapel in the Santissima Annunziata church, to have the site entirely barricaded off, and to refuse to allow anyone at all to see what he was up to. At the end, when the screens came down, there would be general astonishment, admiration and some consternation, and sometimes plain incomprehension and disappointment.

Speaking of his final work in the church of San Lorenzo, Vasari is determined, "since I myself do not understand it, although I am a painter, to leave all who may see it to form their own judgment, for the reason that I believe that I would drive myself mad with it and would bury myself alive, even as it appears to me that Jacopo [Pontormo] in the period of eleven years that he spent upon it sought to bury himself and all who might see the painting, among those extraordinary figures".

It was while he was painting this last fresco cycle, which he never completed and which has since been destroyed, that he kept his diary. For most of the time he saw nobody, except occasionally the young men who were studying Michelangelo's sculptures in the sacristy nearby, and would climb across the roof, remove some tiles, and peer down at his work. This sent the artist into a rage.

What obsessed him in his solitude was his diet, and this is what the diary is all about: his diet, his deteriorating health, his bowel movements, the weather. There were terrible cold spells in the middle of good weather, and if you were caught being careless about exercise, or your clothes, or sexual intercourse, or overeating - in a few days you could be dead. That was in autumn. In February you should live moderately in all ways, "because pockets of mucus and phlegm open up in February, March and April, because in the winter the cold congeals them".

One March, "when you could feel a venomous cold fighting silently with the air warming in the season of longer days, it was like hearing fire sizzle in water, so that I was very frightened". He would eat a borage salad and an omelette made of two eggs, and so many ounces of rosemary bread. When he dined with his friend and fellow painter, his former pupil Bronzino, he might indulge a little: blood pudding, slices of liver and pork.

Work and food come in the same sentence: "On the 20th Thursday I did the head that's screaming and at night I had veal ... " "Saturday I did one thigh and they celebrated the truce and at night I cooked a piece of goat." Sometimes he hides at home: "15th Sunday Bronzino knocked at my door and then during the day Daniello; I don't know what they wanted." Vasari says Pontormo had a ladder to his bedroom which he would draw up after him.

"In his last years," says Vasari, "he kept in his house, as it were to bring him up, Batista Naldini, who took such care of Jacopo's life as Jacopo would allow him to take." The diary charts this sad affair of the heart. "At night I was uneasy waiting for the meat because Batista was [late], and it's the first time he hasn't slept here, and when his father was sick he didn't stay with him, and this time it's because he has a bed to sleep in at Rotella's."

Then: "My Batista went out that night and he knew I was sick and he didn't come back, something I mean to remember always." "At night I ate a little meat that did me little good since Batista had said that I would have to manage for myself because he had been scolded for no good reason."

They seem to have patched it up, for Batista comes and goes, while Pontormo consoles himself with a plate of innards. Then "Thursday I had mutton, that was the night of the divisions." The next night, Friday 13, "Batista locked himself in his room." Finally: "Friday night I had fish for supper with Piero, and Batista left the note which said he wasn't coming back, that was when he borrowed the fish net."

"Borrowed the fish net"? It seems to have been an idiom. Batista, a young and rather good artist, can't take any more. Pontormo succumbs to dropsy and dies soon after.

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