In Rome today I walked, from the Protestant Cemetery to via Appia. Across trains shrieking and crowds rumbling in the streets, across the uneven rhythm of sirens, the roar of engines, the ceaseless hissing of people’s iPods, across the coarse texture of the city noise, a train of thoughts unwinds along my journey.
With great lucidity I recall a certain painting from the sixteenth century and with it the stupor that overcame me when I first saw it in a book at school. A Deposition: my eyes first encounter those of the young man who holds not just the heavy body of Christ, but the entire composition. No cross appears in the picture: this painter always hides the props. It seems that he does not need any architectural or structural grip to state his vision. All exists on the surface. The sky is defined only by a little cloud; only by a pale bit of ground, the earth. The colours one would expect in a landscape are transposed within the shapes of people: not only in their clothes but also in their skin, as if to reinforce the flatness of this surface and the non-hierarchical arrangement of its patterns. A face is scarlet as the burning of a silent fever, another yellowy green as of dry leaves. Pallid, pastel, pain-stricken poses seem to fix these figures in a cloud of melancholy rather than in the pangs of loss. Only their glances flee. No angular lines: all is soft curves, yet caught in unnatural poses. The modulation of hues and tones calls for focus and displaces. The contours do not constitute the volume of the forms, but prevent them from gaining volume. This is not painting and movement, this does not hint at sculpture and monumental balance. Classical forms here are devoid of any depth; they exist in their spiralling rhythm. This picture is resolved in the tempo of its shapes and this is a painter of visual poems.
The figure of Christ is bent in a double curve and swollen. His torso, a lump of pink flesh. The face is not that of an eruptive cadaver but of a still body. Against a barely-there sky, at some point this entire surface seems to bow down, almost to lean toward me. None of the ten figures in the scene, spiralling, none of them keeps watch over Christ: either their eyes are averted, or they look at me out of the surface, stuck in their impossibility of roundedness. The Virgin wears a cloak of the colour of the sky: there is no real sky in this painting, the sky is in her cloak. She is stuck pensive in her hushed lyricism. Maybe she is just about to sob.
The Deposition by Pontormo, kept in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence, was revisited by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a tableaux vivant featured in his short 1963 film La ricotta, shot in a site off via Appia in Rome.
In Pontormo’s painting each face and each figure is arranged within the logic of the plane and evened out in an appearance of sublime grief. In Pasolini’s film the sublime grief descends back to earth and the flatness gains volume out of the manners and the expressions of the people enacting the scene: the poor, the prostitute, the rich actress, the old man, all with their faces and postures, most of all with their direct presence. Human, and yet removed: La ricotta is a short film staging the shooting of a film, where the representation of the Passion of Christ is interwoven with the story of hungry Stracci, an extra who ends up being crucified – both literally, and symbolically. Orson Welles plays the film director, Pasolini’s actors of choice play the real people who play the saints and the real people in the Passion, the Roman suburbs play a scenario of golden stillness.
Be still!, shouts the voice of the director to the people in the film, who are staging the tableaux vivant reproducing Pontormo’s painting. You can’t move, you are the figures in an altarpiece! And yet they move; and yet the close-ups of the camera capture their most human gestures, they pry on the moments where hieratic poses merge into ordinary expressions, where solemnity is touched by distraction. Then the entire construction falls down, clumsy, and everyone laughs. Pasolini’s oxymoronic vision spans the two extremes; it distils the innermost essence of human nature into a glimpse of beauty, soon to be corrupted and to fall apart. In his representation of Pontormo’s painting he reveals the tangible and the unspeakable together, as one shakes the other in a vision of stillness before crumbling down.