The work is painted in grisaille, which means monochrome, a colorless technique, based on a skillful use of chiaroscuro.
The identification of the subject is not easy. It is almost certainly the scene of a sacrifice, as interpreted by someone. Perhaps it is the sacrifice of Noah after surviving the Great Flood, or a ritual of adoration of a pagan god, perhaps linked to the sun, most likely to the duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici.
There are many interpretative hypotheses of the work. One popular hypothesis suggests that there is an alchemical key, which celebrates the light through fire, representing both the Sun and God. Fire is also an alchemical element and it is known that Pontormo was very interested in the “science” of alchemy, like the Medici family as well, in particular Francesco, the firstborn son of Cosimo, who was not born yet at the time of the painting. At the center of the composition there is an altar, decorated in the lower part with a garland with an inverted triangle in the upper part, which reads “TIBI SOLE DEO SO”, translated as “to you only one God” or “to you God Sun”. There are two animals on the altar, a crouching panther in front of a goat. Behind them you can see a fire spreading like a sunburst. On the sides there are two groups of figures with agitated expressions and extreme and “anticlassical” features, typical of Pontormo, put together in a small space, creating crowded groups. The old men on the right side with restless expression include the painter himself, as the old man in profile on the far right, and Duke Cosimo de’ Medici with a beard, dressed in black. On the left there is a group of young women and a child with much more delicate looks, inspired by classical features and influenced by Michelangelo’s examples. Among them you can probably recognize Maria Salviati, Cosimo’s mother, whose head is covered and who is looking directly at the viewer.
The grisaille painting comes from the Farnese collection, as proved by the stamp with the incised lily, symbol of the family, and it was located in the second room of paintings in their Roman palace, identified as a work by Raphael. It probably came from Margherita de’ Medici. The canvas was probably commissioned by the Medici family, given the presence of Cosimo and his mother. This hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that the same scene was painted by Agnolo Bronzino in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, in one of the apartments of Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici.
Jacopo’s father was a little-known painter, a student in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop in Florence. After his parents’ death Jacopo was entrusted to his grandmother and he was sent to Florence when he was around thirteen years old. He frequented the workshop of Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo and Piero di Cosimo, who were the most famous painters in Florence in the beginning of the 16th century. In Andrea del Sarto’s workshop he truly began to find his own style, defined as “eccentric” and he made his first works, such as the decoration of the equipment made for the visit of Pope Leo X Medici to Florence in 1515.
Between 1512 and 1515, under the guidance of Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and his other student Rosso Fiorentino worked on the decoration of lunettes of Chiostro dei Voti at the Basilica of SS. Annunziata in Florence, with the Stories of the Virgin. Pontormo painted the Visitation, which shows that he had assimilated the principal features of the master’s painting, linked mostly to Michelangelo’s examples but also to Leonardo da Vinci’s sfumato.
Around 1515 Jacopo was in Rome, where he deepened his studies on Michelangelo and Raphael’s Rooms, whose influences are evident in the works of this period, such as the paintings for the bedroom of Borgherini family, which he made with Andrea del Sarto and Francesco Granacci. However, in the early 1520s’ Pontormo was already developing his own personal style, inspired by Nordic prints and characterized by dramatic and crowded composition, bright and brilliant colors, figures with restless expressions, as seen in the frescoes in the villa of Poggio a Caiano, with Vertumnus and Pomona from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which were commissioned to him 1519 by pope Clement VII Medici. In the same years the Nordic influences started to dominate his style, which became more harsh, as seen in the frescoes for the Certosa del Galluzzo, painted between 1522 and 1523, when the artist took refuge in the convent to escape the plague epidemic that hit Florence.
He returned to the city in 1525 when he painted the Deposition for the Capponi chaperl in the church of Santa Felicita and the Visitation for the church of Santi Michele e Francesco in Carmignano, near Prato, establishing himself as an artist inspired by Michelangelo, which is evident in many of his drawings. However, the artist was always independent in the interpretation of the figure, especially in expressions and colors, which were always bright, and which would change at times.
Jacopo’s eccentric lifestyle and strange habits are remembered by Vasari in the life of the artists, as well as in his diary, Libro Mio. In 1540s’ he worked on the frescoes of the choir of San Lorenzo, which were completed by Agnolo Bronzino after his death. The paintings were destroyed in 1738 during renovation works. Pontormo died in Florence between the last days of 1556 and the first days of 1557.
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.
In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.
The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.
The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.
In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.
Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.