Il Rosso Fiorentino’s hands-down masterpiece, a 12-foot-tall “Deposition” painted in 1521, is located somewhat pleasantly off the beaten track in the Tuscan hilltop town of Volterra. It’s an easy day trip from either Siena or Florence. The arch-topped painting resides in the quiet Pinacoteca Comunale, which even in the summer, when tourists wander around Volterra, can seem deserted.
For a work of art almost half a millennium old, however, it’s shockingly modern. The phrase that surprisingly popped into my head when I first saw it was “WPA mural.” But the little interior voice murmuring those words to me meant them as a compliment. Let me explain.
Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, whose nickname means “the red-haired Florentine,” was born in 1494 in Florence, where he studied in Andrea del Sarto‘s studio. In Rome, he saw Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco for the Sistine Chapel, as well as works by the extremely Mannerist artist Parmagianino—he of the famous “Madonna of the Long Neck” (and the adult-proportioned baby Jesus on her lap). Such exposure is apparent in Rosso’s Mannerist “Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro” (1523) in the Uffizi museum in Florence, which resembles nothing so much as a brawl on an American river barge.
After Rome was attacked and looted in a kind of civil war in 1527, Rosso moved to Venice and then, in 1530, accepted an offer of an apartment in Paris, a fat salary and, yes, French citizenship, in return for serving as the official painter for Francis I. Il Rosso Fiorentino died in France in 1540.
Rosso paints the “Deposition,” the most heart-wrenching scene in all of Christianity, as if it were something like Thomas Hart Benton’s “The History of Water” (1930). Eleven figures—Jesus, Mary, two women comforting Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arithmea, Nicodemus, two helpers, a boy holding one of the ladders, and a standing man in the lower right-hand corner—all emote, collapse, twist, strain or stand grieving like heroes at the breaking of a strike.
Although Christ’s face comes closest to looking straight out at the viewer (he’s dead at this point, his eyes are closed, and his head is back and facing upward), he’s but one of many figures, and not, by far, the largest. Rosso’s subject is clearly not merely the Savior, but the whole drama of his removal from the cross. Moreover, Rosso’s style—with its vertical whirlpool of brightly colored cloth apparently starched enough to be as crisp as paper—is protomodern.
His swirl is one of the hallmarks of Mannerism—a mode of expression whose exaggerations broke the classical perfection and balance of the High Renaissance, and started art on the road to the Baroque. Benton, that archetypal American muralist of the 1930s and ’40s, referred to his own style of large, sinewy, multifigure compositions as “Okie Baroque.”
“Deposition” is neatly divided vertically at the level of the leading edge of the piece of wood attached to the cross, to which Christ’s feet are nailed. Above it, there’s a muscular maelstrom of activity in which four men lift from the cross the body of Jesus, which is already turning green in death. Christ also has a strange, melancholic smile on his face, perhaps unique in all paintings of the deposition. One possible interpretation—among many—is that even in death, he foresees himself in heaven.
Below, four figures stand in quiet grief while the boy holding one of the three ladders to the cross turns his head to gaze quizzically at the mourners. (I see him as representing future generations of Christians who will be converted by the story the crucifixion.) Linking the solitary weeping man on the right to Mary and her companions is the lunging body of Mary Magdalene. She grasps the Virgin at the knees, beginning a clockwise oval of hot color—the Magdalene’s vermilion robe to the orange in Mary’s group, to the very warm off-white of the man on the left-hand ladder, to the red-orange garments along the top of the cross, and back down to the weeping man’s molten vanilla robe.
“Deposition” is one of the most tightly designed monumental paintings you’ll ever see. To be sure, anatomical impossibilities—especially the size and angles of various legs and arms—dot Rosso’s most important work. And everybody in the picture is about 7 feet tall (either that, or they have very tiny heads). But the painting is iconographically clever: Sweaty, tendon-defying labor—i.e., earthly work—paradoxically takes place in the painting’s upper realm, nearer heaven, while a relative calm pervades the lower level down on earth. Christ, of course, will—when he rises from the tomb—become the being up in heaven who unites the earthly and the heavenly, and affords mortals a shot at likewise ascending into everlasting life.
The Deposition is the linchpin moment of Christian belief—Jesus’s human life has ended and his life as part of God is about to begin. Similarly, Rosso’s great painting is something of a tipping point. It marks the end of Medieval and pure Renaissance art, when religious faith dictated artistic devices, and the start of Mannerism (carrying on into the later Baroque and modern crucifixion scenes of Peter Paul Rubens and Salvador Dalí), when artistic bravura and innovation took the foreground. Still, for those of us who are not Catholic, nor even particularly religious, Rosso’s artistic stage-managing in his magnificent “Deposition” gives us more than a hint of what passionate religious faith can feel like. Which is, one has to admit, more moving than anything usually seen in a WPA mural.
—Mr. Plagens is a New York-based painter and writer.
A version of this article appeared August 11, 2012, on page C13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Maelstrom of Grief.
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