A 1913 reconstruction of one of the Rosso-Pontormo wheel paintings as a sculpture by Marcel Duchamp utilising an actual bicycle wheel of unknown provenance.

In the late renaissance, between the years 1523 and 1527, two well-known Florentine artists contrived to make a series of paintings of a bicycle wheel.  The exact number of paintings in the series was impossible to calculate, even at the time, for reasons which will become obvious. Most commentators think there were probably around 60 altogether. 

At the time these paintings were made, the two artists were located 274 kilometers apart. Jacopo Carucci (known as Jacopo da Pontormo, or simply Pontormo) lived in Florence, while Giovanni Battista di Jacopo (known as Rosso Fiorentino, the Florentine redhead) lived in Rome, remaining there until the sacking of Rome in 1527. They were exact contemporaries, both born in 1494. Their close collaboration[1] was apparently not hindered by the distance between the two cities, despite the fact that even if they had utilised the subject of their works for travel, the conditions of the roads would have made it a journey of several days, while the railway was still nearly 300 years away, the main rail connection between Florence and Rome not being finished until 1866.

More puzzling was the subject of these paintings. The wheel was already in existence in many forms, but at the time the bicycle was unheard of.[2] Even the predecessor of the modern bicycle, the velocipede or dandy horse, was not known until 1817. The bicycle we know today with pedals at the centre and a chain driving the rear wheel was not in common use until the mid 1880s. The paintings depict a wheel recognisable from the design of the 1890s models, remaining more or less the same thereafter, except for the introduction of Derailleur gearing between 1900 and 1910.

These issues all contribute to the prechronistic status of the paintings, clearly constituting temporal anomalies and worthy of study from that vantage alone as we have seen in many[3] articles, monographs, duotones and multiverse epics. More puzzling and resistant to any form of non-aesthetic deduction is the inherently inconsequential nature of the paintings. We know enough of them now to have determined, as Pontormo and Rosso claimed at the time of their creation, that they are impossible to arrange in sequence based on the number of spokes. The optics of spokes, of course are not trivial, and have been mostly worked out, but this case there is no resolution of spoke theory, with or without the help of quantum reasoning.

There are two cardinal facts known for the paintings, recorded countless times in notes made by the artists separately and apart,[4] these being 1.) no painting has a wheel with all its spokes and 2.) no wheel has less than two spokes. Conventional metallic bicycle wheels for single rider bicycles of the sort depicted by Pontormo and Rosso had 32 spokes. Given that there were around 60 paintings made, this suggests they should have at least a few examples where the number of spokes is the same. This been found to be not the case. Nor is there any pattern to which spokes are missing and in what sequence.[5] We know that the orientation of the wheel is identical in all paintings, by the position of the projecting valve used to inflate the tyre’s inner tube. Yet no pattern or sequence has so far been shown to follow any logical, natural or eccentric design.

This is the principal reason the paintings have never been shown. Many attempts have been made but the problem of the order in which to hang them has never been overcome. Curators who have tried too hard to resolve this problem suffer two equally miserable fates. More than half of them have been imprisoned for defacing artworks, in attempts to either erase or add spokes to make their numbers more amenable to consequentiality (this never works) while the remainder have been forced to retire for a little lie down and never get back up.

Prechronisms are invariably riddled with such intransigent difficulties, as we shall discover the following chapters, but none more so than the deservedly cherished wheel paintings of Rosso and Pontormo.

Brisbane, Thursday, March 14, 2019

[1]    A weekly soiree to follow the progress of these paintings alternated between the two studios of these artists. Because Pontormo’s was in Florence and Rossi’s in Rome, the visitors to these salons were unlikely to meet and compare notes, thus keeping the matter secret. It is not known how these artists collaborated so closely during the period between 1523 and 1527, but this is a minor eccentricity compared with the strangeness of the venture as a whole.

[2]    We give the fraudulent painting of 1500 attributed to Gian Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, short schrift, even more than it deserves. Most would give it no shrift at all. We however are not absolutists, even when it comes to infinity.

[3]    Not ‘multiple’ mind you, an execrable use of a big word when a little one will do.

[4]    Their notes together are diplomatic and carefully worded not to cause offence, while those made separately by the artists, presumably unknown to each other. are seething with invective and not restricted to each other. Their teacher Andrea del Sarto gets a fair walloping while the rod is likewise not spared for the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

[5]    It has been suggested that this question be handed over to artificial or ‘margarine’ intelligence, but we prefer our intelligence to be real.