31 OCTOBER 1998, Page 54

The art of bathos

In the days when masques were all the rage at the Stuart court before the civil war, with their graceful articulations of bien-pensant propaganda from deities in designer frocks winched down on paste- board clouds specially painted for the occa- sion by Inigo Jones, no such entertainment was complete without a section intended to mock or subvert its grandeur and dignity, known as the `antimasque'. After the graver discourse of embodied abstracts with names like Amphiluche, Eunomia and Entheus, in would rush a party of Red Indi- ans or gypsies, 'a Jewess of Portugal', `Chimney-sweeper and his Wench', Plumporridge' or 'Doctor Almanac', as a sort of circus-act-cum-music-hall turn, 'the opposites to good fame, a spectacle of strangeness'.

The principle, that of solemn conven- tions established one minute, blown to smithereens the next, is an intriguing one. After the antimasque, might we have an anti-drama, in which the playwright consis- tently baulks the audience of thrills and catharsis and the ending ostentatiously cheats us of a denouement? Or an anti- biography, in which the promised life record suddenly gives way to the biogra- pher's hysterical exasperation with his sub- ject's fraudulence and mediocrity? And how about an anti-diary? No, I don't mean the fictional kind, done already and immor- tally by Mr Pooter or by — oh well, all right, if we must — that Jones woman, but a live effort, conspicuous by the absence of the Queen Mother, Mrs Thatcher and absolutely anything which, even uninten- tionally, suggests that its writer might be interesting enough for us to want to sit down to dinner with him.

The perfect model for the anti-diary genre, in all its compelling, hermetic uncommunicativeness, was created in Italy around the middle of the 16th century. No sensible visitor to Florence has ever ignored the beautiful Capponi Chapel in the otherwise rather dull church of Santa Felicita, on the way from Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. The paintings here, a dam- aged yet still radiant 'Annunciation' and a `Deposition' in haunting, luminous pinks and blues, are the work of Jacopo Carrucci, known to the world as Pontormo from his birthplace near the Tuscan town of Empoli. A pupil of Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, and one of the earliest of the so- called Mannerist school, he was perhaps the last truly original artist of the Floren- tine Renaissance.

When Pontormo began what he called 11 libro mio' on 7 January 1554, he had already started work on a monster fresco cycle in the choir of the church of San Lorenzo, featuring the Flood, the Resur- rection, the story of Adam and Eve and Christ in Majesty, which a bungling recon- struction two centuries later completely destroyed. Never the most prolific creator, he was venerated throughout Tuscany for the slightly mournful, otherworldly lyricism of altarpieces such as the dreamlike 'Visita- tion' at Carmignano and for the incisive handling of colour in portraits like that of the ornately codpieced halberdier recently bought by the Getty museum.

What therefore might we not expect from such a diary? Some gossip, perhaps from the court of Grand Duke Cosimo de' Medici and his duchess Eleonora, a memory or two of old Michelangelo, some savour of Florentine street life or a breath of air from the Tuscan countryside. Painters, setting aside Delacroix's volumi- nous confidences, are often tricky when it comes to words, and confessions during the Renaissance were reserved for ghostly fathers, but Pontormo, judging from a let- ter of his to the historian Benedetto Varchi, was not exactly incapable of com- mitting to paper his experiences as man and artist.

Instead he produced, in 11 libro mio', a document which everyone, not just art his- torians but psychiatrists, novelists and chroniclers of food, medicine and sex, has fretted at ever since for its pawky reluc- tance to deliver the goods in the way we demand from a diary. After several pages of maxims for healthy living, Pontormo's day-by-day account commences. On 11 March he ate chicken and veal at midday, and dined off roast meat, which made him thirsty. Later that week he had a dizzy spell, but recovered sufficiently to dine off a capon and beets. July was remarkable for his difficulty in passing stools, but he managed, in compensation, to bottle six barrels of Chianti from Radda, and in December he treated himself to a wood- cock for Christmas.

Now and then, amid the gastronomic jottings, a name or two appears. The Duke and Duchess visit San Lorenzo to watch Pontormo at work on the frescoes, but we are given no hint of what they said or whether their presence pleased or irritated him. Varchi sends the painter a sonnet, but the poem evidently matters less than the ten ounces of bread he ate that day. From time to time marginal doodles occur, minute sketches of the figures on which he is currently labouring, and at one or two tantalising instants we catch the merest flicker of an intimation that the project engrossed him beyond all else. He was too busy to care when, in May 1555, his friend Giovanni Bernardo del Tasso fell ill.

On Tuesday I started drawing an arm -

Tasso died on Wednesday — and on Thurs- day I finished it and went out to dinner, roast kid and fish.

Even on the various occasions when he drops round to visit his former pupil, that most voluptuous of colourists Agnolo Bronzino, we hear nothing of their dinner- table conversation.

Only the slightly louche figure of Giovambattista Naldini seems to stir Pon- tormo into some sort of emotional reac- tion. Was the toothache he endured one Sunday evening when Battista was out on the razzle psychosomatic, let alone the unspecified ailments noted on a similar occasion, following an epic bout of diar- rhoea? As the obituarists are fond of say- ing, 'he never married', and cared deeply enough for Battista to leave him all his drawings (promptly pilfered by relatives), but scholars have never proved that the acolyte did more for his master than clean his brushes and cook some, at least, of those sedulously logged suppers.

Even to his most charitable of contempo- raries, the artist seemed a queer cove, and his diary, ending a month or so before his death in 1557 on the characteristic note `roast eel costing 15 soldi', keeps us batter- ing at the door, hoping for more secrets than the masklike faces in his paintings, with their distant gazes and sensuous mouths, will ever yield. Paul Johnson solemly adjures us to be more careful with the diaries we keep. Imitate Pontormo, then, steer clear of the Queen Mother and stick to capon and beets.

Jonathan Keates