Pontormo’s haunting rendition of the tragic legend of Apollo and Daphne takes place in neither bucolic Arcadia nor Thessaly, but a shadowy nowhere land. The canvas depicts the love-struck Apollo chasing Daphne, who was shot with a blunt leaden shaft, inciting antipathy. Growing exhausted from his relentless pursuit, Daphne implores her river god father to save her. The chaste maiden’s prayers are answered. Just as Apollo is about to overtake her, she is transformed into a laurel tree. In Pontormo’s painting, we witness the initial instant of Daphne’s transformation, branches springing upward from her arms, while the rest of her body still retains its human form. The grieving Apollo adopted the laurel as his sacred plant in memory of his beloved, and the crown wreathed with its leaves came to be appropriated in celebration of poets and public triumphs.
Florence’s Carnevale of 1513 carried special significance, as it marked the first such occasion since the return of the Medici after eighteen years in exile. Pontormo’s pair of small mythological scenes, preserved here and in a painting in the Samek Museum at Bucknell University (a gift, like this one, of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation) were jointly conceived for the elaborate ritual as part of a much larger program of painted and sculpted ephemera. Together, the carefully choreographed decorations served to mark a particularly charged political and social event. The turn in political fortunes, already signaled during Carnevale, was strongly reinforced just a month later, with the election of Giovanni de’ Medici as Pope Leo X in Rome. Only eighteen at the time, Pontormo was entrusted with a project of great personal prestige.
Dennis V. Geronimus
Associate Professor of Art History, Department Chair, New York University
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