Francesco Morandini, called Il Poppi, settled at an early age in Florence and became a student of Giorgio Vasari, with whom he worked closely from his first years as a painter until the mid-1570s. Poppi was part of the team of artists overseen by Vasari for the remodeling of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, first for Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Florence and later Grand Duke of Tuscany, and subsequently for his son and successor, Francesco I. Poppi's proximity to another of Vasari's protégés, Giovanni Battista Naldini, has occasionally led to confusion between the two artists' work: indeed, the present Lamentation has in the past been given to Naldini. Poppi's contributions to the famed Studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici, Alexander and Campaspe (1571) and The Golden Age (1572), show affinities with Naldini's painterly and coloristic style, but also reveal his own highly inventive and extravagant maniera mode, characterized by extreme preciosity, eccentricities of form, and complex pattens of composition and light.
Though Poppi treated the subject of the Lamentation a number of times, this striking composition, signed on the reverse of the panel (fig. 1), is unique in his oeuvre, differing significantly from his other renditions of the theme. In particular, Alessandra Giovannetti has noted its intense devotional mood, its eschewal of decorative embellishments, and its relatively simple, tightly-woven composition, in which the figures are pressed against one another and up to the edge of the pictorial plane. This arrangement forces the attention of the viewer upon the inanimate body of Christ and on the wan, sorrowful face of the Virgin, whose large eyes gaze dolefully upwards. After the mid-1570s, many of Poppi's compositions became more simplified and straightforward in their expression. He did return to his earlier, more elaborate, fanciful maniera style in some works of the mid-1580s, such as the Christ Healing the Lepers (Florence, San Marco, Salviati chapel). The present Lamentation, however, shows the formal clarity and expressive directness which would come to characterize Poppi's latest works, inspired by Counter-Reformation ideals.
Giovanetti dates the present painting to c. 1584, citing the similarities in the figures' expressions and physiognomies to those in Poppi's Presentation in the Temple in the Arrighi chapel in San Francesco, Pistoia, and in his Lamentation in the church of SS. Jacopo e Lucia in San Miniato al Tedesco, near Pisa. The former work is described as being "almost finished" ("quasi condotta à fine") in 1584 by the Florentine philologist, historian and artistic adviser, Vincenzo Borghini, who was involved in the designs for the Palazzo Vecchio renovations and who knew Poppi from his first days in Florence (A. Giovannetti, 1991, op. cit., p. 22 note 77). Giovanetti further proposes that the present Lamentation may in fact be identifiable with another painting recorded by Borghini as being painted in 1584, a "quadro entrovi un Christo morto con altre figure" ["painting with a dead Christ and other figures"] commissioned for a Girolamo Minucci, who was a cupbearer for Francesco I de' Medici as well as a Knight of the Order of Santo Stefano, which was established by Cosimo I in 1562.
A preparatory drawing for the face of the woman between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist may be the sheet in the Uffizi, Florence (fig. 1; inv. 14752F). Several other drawings in that collection appear to study the same head from different angles (invs. 4249F, 4259F, 4261F). In addition, Christ's proper left arm, which falls limply at his side, is a direct quotation from Michelangelo's Pietà (fig. 2), then in the Duomo in Florence (A. Giovannetti, 1995, op. cit., p. 102).