Summer 2005

Ingestion / Pontormo’s Diary

Food and the management of the artist’s melancholy

Elizabeth Pilliod

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Pontormo’s Diary is an intimate autograph manuscript of twenty-three pages, in which the artist records aspects of his daily existence from January 1554 to October 1556, just a few mo­nth­s before his death. Discovered at the beginning of the last century in the National Library at Florence, the diary likely survived due to the diminutive drawings in its margins. After listing what he ate, occasionally Pontormo would add, “and I began the figure that looks like this,” drawing a line from the text to a tiny sketch of a contorted human figure. These sketches provide valuable information about Pontormo’s final commission, the frescoes in the choir of San Lorenzo. The paintings, visionary and disturbing, were destroyed during an eighteenth-century remodeling of the church. It is against this backdrop that Pontormo’s Diary was first interpreted.

Pontormo’s detailed but terse account of food eaten, symptoms of illness, the weather, encounters with friends and other artists, and, most famously, his bowel movements, is unlike any other artist’s diary. He also describes hiding from friends who came to call. Most remarkable are his comments about his own psychological states: he mentions feeling depressed, hopeless, irritated, and, when his young assistant Naldini stays out all night, desperately lonely. The Diary depicts an artist who was obsessed with his diet, body, and emotions, a melancholic who preferred solitude to social interaction. Moreover, the weirdness of Pontormo’s last paintings was the product of this psyche. Thus the artist’s own words, written in his own hand, matched an early twentieth-century idea that psychological imbalance is a precondition of creativity and genius. Pontormo’s character was fixed, and he has, with few exceptions, been imagined a disturbed but gifted man ever since.

But perhaps there’s another way to read the Diary. What if we were to compare it to other sixteenth-century reports on weather and everyday events in Florence; cookbooks, health guides, and dietary treatises, to name only a few of the published sources with which Pontormo would have been familiar? It seems that, rather than revealing his deviance from sixteenth-century norms, the Diary instead demonstrates that he was embedded in the popular culture of his time. For instance, a new interpretation (my own, in fact, gleaned over a decade’s close study of contemporaneous writings) shows that Pontormo followed the notions of the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino in trying to manage his melancholy specifically to optimize his artistic inspiration. This suggests that Pontormo thought of painting as a lofty charge, one that could best be met by putting the body into a state most sensitive to divine intervention. It is this pursuit that is traced, in prose by turns prosaic, painful, and lively, in Pontormo’s Diary.

Pontormo, Supper at Emmaus (detail), 1525.

The following excerpt from folios 75 and 76 of the original diary manuscript covers a period from early January to mid-October of 1554.

On the 7th of January 1554, on Sunday evening, I fell down and struck my shoulder and arm, and was in pain.

And I stayed at Bronzino’s[1] house six days; then, went back home. I felt bad until Mardi Gras, which was on the 6th of February 1554.

On the 11th of March 1554, on Sunday morning, I ate lunch with Bronzino—chicken and veal—and felt well (it is true that I was in bed when he came for me at home. It was quite late and upon getting up I felt swollen and full. It was a very beautiful day). In the evening I ate a bit of roasted dry meat which made me thirsty.

Monday evening I ate a cabbage and an omelet.

Tuesday evening I ate one half of the head of a kid and soup.

Wednesday evening I had the other half, fried, and a pretty big helping of zibibbo grapes, and 5 quattrini of bread, and capers in salad.

Thursday morning I felt a dizziness that lasted all day; and even after [it passed] I still felt bad and my head was weak.

Thursday evening, a soup of good mutton and salad of goat’s beard.

Friday evening, salad of goat’s beard and two eggs in an omelet.

Saturday, fasted. Sunday evening, which was the evening of Palm Sunday, I ate a little boiled mutton and salad, and had to eat three quattrini of bread.

Monday evening after dinner I felt very lively and agreeable. I ate a salad of lettuce, a thin soup of good mutton and 4 quattrini of bread.

Tuesday evening I ate a salad of lettuce and an omelet.

Holy Wednesday: evening, 2 quattrini of almonds, and an omelet and some walnuts. And I did the figure that is above the head [of another figure].[2]

The Duchess came to San Lorenzo; the Duke came, too.

Thursday evening, a salad of lettuce and some caviar, and one egg.

Friday evening an omelet with fava beans, and a bit of caviar and 4 quattrini of bread. Saturday I ate two eggs.

Sunday, which was Easter morning and the Feast of the Annunciation, I went to eat lunch with Bronzino. And I ate dinner there, too.

Monday evening I ate a salad that was of borage and a half-lemon, and 2 eggs in an omelet.

Tuesday evening I was all hoarse and ate a rosemary bread and an omelet and a salad and some dry figs.

Wednesday, fasted.

Thursday evening, a rosemary bread, an omelet of one egg and a salad and 4 quattrini of bread, in all.

Friday evening, salad, pea soup, and an omelet and 5 quattrini of bread.

Saturday, butter, salad, sugar, and an omelet.

On the 1st of April, Sunday, I ate lunch with Bronzino. And in the evening I did not eat dinner.

Monday evening I ate boiled bread with butter and an omelet and 2 ounces of torte.





Saturday I went to the tavern: salad and omelet, and cheese, and I felt good.

Sunday I ate lunch and dinner with Bronzino.

Monday, a small boiled kidney of good lamb.

Tuesday 2 fried eggs and a salad.


Thursday evening 4 quattrini of bread, a salad of the boiled lamb that was badly cooked.

On the 13th—Friday evening I ate cooked radicchio, 4 quattrini of bread and an omelet.

Saturday evening.

Sunday evening I ate boiled lamb meat and cooked salad and cheese.

Wednesday, the 23rd of May, I ate some meat.

Thursday, which was Corpus Domini, I ate lunch with Bronzino. I had some Greek wine, meat and fish. And in the evening an ounce of torte with not much meat, and with little appetite.

On the 2nd of June, Saturday evening, I got the chair, which costs 16 lire.

On the 9th of June 1554, Marco Moro began to prepare the walls and fill in the cracks in San Lorenzo.

On the 18th, the evening of the Feast of St. Luke, I began to sleep downstairs with the new mattress.

On the 19th of October I felt ill, that is, with a cold, and I could not clear my throat and with great effort—it took several evenings—that hard thing came out of my throat, like I had had other times. I don’t know if this was because the weather had been beautiful for a while and I still ate well.

And on the same day I began to take care of myself a little and 30 ounces of bread lasted me 3 days, that is, 10 ounces at each meal, that is, one time a day; and I drank little. Before this, on the 16th of the same month, I bottled 6 barrels of Radda wine.

Translated by Elizabeth Pilliod. With the exception of occasional dashes and the parentheses in the third paragraph, all punctuation has been added by the translator for clarity. Punctuation rules were not consistently applied in handwritten manuscripts in Renaissance Italy. Please note that the translation has remained faithful to the original manuscript in using letters and Arabic numerals interchangeably to indicate numbers.

Special thanks to Karl Larsson and Andreas Mangione whose book “Extract of Pontormo’s Diary” first brought the sparse poetry of the diary to our attention.

  1. Abbreviated by Pontormo as “Bro.” Agnolo Bronzino (1503–1572) was Pontormo’s premier pupil and court artist to the Medici.
  2. A tiny drawing of a figure appears at this point in the margin.

Elizabeth Pilliod is an art historian and writer living in Princeton, NJ. She is the author of Pontormo, Bronzino, Allori: A Genealogy of Florentine Art (Yale University Press, 2001) and is finishing a book on Pontormo’s Diary for the University of Chicago Press.

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