The Ways of Being: Pontormo through Pasolini (Balagopal S. Menon, UG II Roll no. : 22)


“In the paintings Jacopo completed up to this time in the chapel, it almost seems as if he had returned to his early style, but he did not do so in painting the altarpiece, for as he was thinking over new ideas, he completed it -without shadows and with such a clear and harmonious colouring that one can hardly distinguish the light from what is partially shaded and -what is partially shaded from the shadows.”

– Giorgio Vasari on Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross

Jacopo Pontormo (1494 – 1557) completed The Deposition from the Cross, the altarpiece for the Capponi Chapel of the Santa Felicita church in Florence, in 1528. Strangely enough, the cross is not a part of the painting. A solitary cloud and a small patch of visible ground are the only elements of the ‘natural world’ available to the people within the painting. At the center is a white cloth – the garment for the pallid, limp body of Christ – and surrounding it, an overlap of figures draped in brightly coloured cloths. The figures within and the painting itself seems to carry with it, the idea of the “pregnant” moment, as described by Lessing – a sense of “what has gone before and what is to follow” (Lessing’s Laocoon) could be gathered from the expressions of the figures. However, the structure of the painting imparts a sense of fragility; almost as if all the figures are supporting one another and if even one of them did so much as move an inch, the entire structure of bodies would collapse instantly. It is not just the burden of the body that they carry, but the grief accompanied with it that somehow seems to justify the almost hollow center of the painting, as compared to the vortex of colours that is present all around. Described by Paoletti and Radke as representing the “spasm of emotional reaction to Christ’s death”, the painting is considered to be a perfect example of Mannerist art for its depiction of elongated forms, balanced poses, a collapsed perspective and of course, what Vasari described as the “harmonious colouring” which imparts a sense of theatrical lighting to the entire work.



Figure: Jacopo Pontormo’s Deposition from the Cross (1523–25).

Oil. Santa Felicita, Cappella Capponi. Florence.


In the 1962 short film, La ricotta, which tells the story of a director (enacted by Orson Welles) who is trying to make a film on the Passion of Christ, a short sequence portrays the cast of the film enacting the Deposition of Christ from the cross by imitating the precarious poses of the figures in Pontormo’s painting. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who wrote and directed the film, is known for the importance he places on reality in his works. In his essay, “Observations on the Long Take” (1967), Pasolini says that reality, because it is seen and heard as it happens, would affect cinema, which, according to him, is the reproduction of reality – “Cinema, therefore, reproduces the present”. Thus, for a storyteller like Pasolini to make use of a tableau shot of a Mannerist painting, which is far removed from the naturalistic, and even realistic qualities (according to the art historian, Arnold Hauser, “for the first time art deliberately diverged from nature.”) that generally characterise his works seems rather unusual.

Pasolini’s education at the University of Bologna, under the art historian Roberto Longhi, undoubtedly influenced his cinematic style. In fact, while talking on his 1962 work, Mamma Roma, Pasolini describes the influence of fourteenth-century art on his cinema thus,

“My cinematographic taste does not originate in cinema but the visual arts. What I have in mind as a vision, as a visual field, are the frescoes of Masaccio, of Giotto‑—‑the painters I love the most, together with certain Mannerists (for example, Pontormo).”

While the influence of Giotto and Masaccio (along with other High Renaissance and Baroque artists) can be noted throughout Pasolini’s film career, it is only in La ricotta that he tries to achieve a tableau shot of a work by Pontormo. According to Sam Rohdie, the very fact that Pasolini cites past artists in the various sequences of his films, regardless of whether or not they were Mannerists, makes Pasolini a Mannerist, as he was trying to introduce a new cinematic language. Tableau shots (the use of tableaux vivants – carefully composed static shots resembling a painting – inspired by Diderot’s use of the “deliberate tableau” in eighteenth-century drama), thus form a part of cinematic mannerism. According to Pascal Bonitzer, Pasolini, through these tableau shots, play upon the difference between painting and cinema, thus showcasing a play of oppositions that characterize Mannerism itself.

La ricotta earned its director a four month prison sentence for blasphemy soon after its release (the sentence was later suspended). The film’s story is a clear satire of the consumerist society. Even though Pasolini, in the disclaimer to the film, says that the story of the Passion, to him, “is the greatest story ever told”, the film uses the element of religiosity in it, to bring the viewer’s attention to the Catholic Church’s abandonment of the poor and the downtrodden of the society. The use of Pontormo’s work comes under this context. As John Berger said in his work, Ways of Seeing, “In the age of pictorial reproduction the meaning of paintings is no longer attached to them [….] When a painting is reproduced by a film camera it inevitably becomes material for the film-maker’s argument.” Pasolini, in his essay, “The Cinema of Poetry”, talks of the theory of “contamination” of cinema. By contamination, his aim is to combine ideas of the sacred with the profane. Thus, he could portray the presence of the sacred in everyday life, in reality. After all, for him, cinema is “writing in reality”.

“Literature,” according to Gilles Deleuze, “is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand.” Pasolini, in the film-within-the-film, employs the myth and evokes the ancient world in a fantastical manner so as to reflect on the contemporary world. Thus, he successfully portrays the fall of sacred and prosaic values in today’s world. According to Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa, the character of the director in the film, played by Orson Welles, is a “self-directed irony” on the part of Pasolini himself. While the director is a self-parody, the entire film that is being shot is Pasolini’s means to poke fun at the film industry and the society as a whole. The actors on set seem least interested in the project. Enzo Siciliano aptly sums it up in his biography of Pasolini, “this movie set is nothing but the temple overrun by the moneychangers.” Thus, in such a film that speaks about film itself as an artifice, it is of no wonder that Pasolini decided to use a Mannerist artwork – one that clearly displays its artificial nature.

The film is shot in black-and-white except for the scenes that show the Deposition of Christ, which is shot with a remarkable display of colours. As Steven Jacobs said, “the suffering of Christ is presented as a spectacle.” According to Pasolini,

“One can see La Ricotta as a ‘collage.’ The film’s ‘pictorial’ passages are quotations that have a highly precise function: to quote the two Mannerists painters Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo. I have perfectly recreated their pictures in detail. Not because they share my point of view or because I love them – it’s not about my representation in the first person – but rather just to show the inner state of the protagonist of La Ricotta, who is a director conceiving a film on the Passion. [….] Not that I have something against directors of Bible films; it was not a polemic against bad taste but rather against an excess of good taste.”

In Pontormo’s original painting, Paoletti and Radke observes that the kneeling male figure, who is “balletically positioned”, would not be able to support the body of Christ by just standing on his front two toes. While the figures in the painting seem to inhabit a corporeality that defies gravity, the actors who try to re-enact the painting in the film eventually fall down in a combined heap. This amuses the actors as they immediately start laughing while the assistant director shouts out in anger. According to Jill Murphy, this fall of the actors was inevitable given their constant movement and laughter all the time and the lack of interest they portrayed. Thus, the elements of the Carnivalesque are introduced into the composition of the image (this is an effect of the actors’ behaviour both within and outside the shoot, as both are shown in the film). In fact, as Murphy rightly points out, the constant mistake made by the crew of the film as they play the contemporary dance music instead of the required classical score by Alessandro Scarlatti as a background for the Deposition scene is an evidence of this overt Carnivalesque atmosphere pervading the entire shoot of the film.

Pasolini Pontormo

Figure: The Pontormo tableaux vivant; La ricotta

Collapse of the Tableaux

Figure: Collapse of the Pontormo tableaux vivant; La ricotta

The collapse of the tableaux jolts the viewers and the actors back into real life after a moment of reminiscence of the sacred. According to Steven Jacobs, since Pontormo has the distinction of employing statues within his paintings, there is a question of the image-within-the-image present in his work. Pasolini, by using Pontormo, adds to his dimension of questioning the reality (since living actors are portraying a painting). By showing an image of a sacred moment, put forth as opulently as possible and then destroyed by the laconic attitudes of the cast members, Pasolini portrays the decay of religion and the uselessness of the opulence employed. Furthermore, Pasolini portrays a literal fall of Christ here, which, instead of making people sad, makes them laugh out loud. Pontormo painted the only Renaissance painting dealing with the theme of Pygmalion – thus blurring the line between the living and the sculpture through a painting. Here, Pasolini (or the character of the director in the film), by making the actors pose as sculptures, does the same, through a cinematic representation of a painting. Thus, the ever shifting semantics of the past and the present comes together with art.

Pasolini, in “The Cinema of Poetry” talks of how a “cinema author” draws his image signs “from chaos, where an automatic or oneiric communication is found in the state of possibility, of shadow.” Stracci (Italian meaning: “rags”), the protagonist of Pasolini’s film, the extra who plays the role of “the good thief” ends up dying on the cross on set, just before his scene is about to start. Just like everything else, the film even reverses the “pregnant” moment idea of the original painting – while in the original, it portrays a sense of sadness over the death of Christ and hope for his return, here, the tableaux almost seems to represent Stracci’s imminent death. This is the first film by Pasolini where he used a zoom lens – the main use of it went into capturing the faces of the actors as they were standing like sculptures, almost like a book on art history. Pontormo’s painting, at the hands of Pasolini, is being used as the representative of an entirely different ideal.



  1. La ricotta was released as a part of the feature, Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963), a compilation of four films directed by Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti (the name of the film is the combination of their names).
  2. Pasolini also uses Rosso Fiorentino’s painting of The Deposition of Christ in the same film. However it was not discussed under the present title to avoid confusion.




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  • Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of Painters. Translated by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1991.




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