The first major retrospective of Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo comes to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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Despite a wealth of anecdote, hard information about Piero di Cosimo is relatively scarce. Until recently there was even debate over his birth date, though it has now been confirmed as 1462. We know that he was born in Florence and stayed there for nearly the entirety of his life, save for a brief sojourn in Rome with his mentor, Cosimo Rosselli—the fact that the painter took his name is likely a sign of their closeness—to paint frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel for Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere in 1481–82. It is thought that this project yielded his only frescoes. It has proven difficult to link the majority of Piero’s paintings to specific commissions, and none of them are dated. But Piero is one of the few Florentine Renaissance painters who is well represented in North American collections, with work in institutions as well as in private hands. Yet the first and only exhibition of the artist held in the United States took place in 1938 at the Schaeffer Galleries in New York, where there were seven paintings on view.
The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., has partnered with the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence to present “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence” (February 1–May 3), the first major retrospective of the artist. Between the two institutions, there are five paintings by the master, but 39 will come to D.C. on loan, bringing together nearly all of Piero’s extant works, except for those that are too fragile to travel. When 40 of the paintings move to the Uffizi later in the year (June 23–September 27), the exhibition will be repackaged with added works by Piero’s contemporaries and a new title: “Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522): Pittore fiorentino “eccentrico” fra Rinascimento e Maniera.” In Washington, the show will populate six galleries in the West Building and will include altarpieces and devotional works as well as portraits. Also on view will be the artist’s depictions of Classical mythology, which present gods, beasts, primitive man, and untamed landscapes in a manner that no artist before or since has been capable of.
Giorgio Vasari’s biography of Piero in the 1550 and 1558 editions of The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is the source from which we glean much of our information about the artist—much of it character-driven, and much of it contested. We learn from Vasari that Piero did not like to have his rooms cleaned, his garden’s vines trimmed, or his fruit trees pruned. He disliked noise, specifically the crying of children, the coughing of men, and the chanting of friars. He preferred to be left alone but enjoyed studying and drawing animals, perhaps to an obsessive extent. Though he liked the percussiveness of rain splashing on the ground, he loathed thunder and lightning and was in the habit of crouching in the corner with a mantle over his head until a storm had passed. As he grew older, “flies enraged him,” “even shadows annoyed him,” and he refused to tolerate assistants “standing around.” Perhaps the most memorable passage Vasari published about Piero concerned his diet. “He cared nothing for his own comfort,” says Vasari, “and reduced himself to eating boiled eggs, which, in order to save fuel, he cooked when he was heating his glue, and not six or eight at a time but some fifty, and keeping them in a basket, he would eat them by and by.” Vasari’s account has certainly had a hand in perpetuating the image of Piero as a man on the fringes, if not simply a weirdo. However, that doesn’t mean that Vasari—who it should be mentioned was 10 years old at the time of Piero’s death—wasn’t a fan of the artist’s work. In fact, he owned Venus, Cupid, and Mars (which is now in Berlin), and even wrote in his biography, “This picture is in Florence, in the house of Giorgio Vasari, who keeps it on memory of that master, whose caprices have always pleased him.”
The scenes of bestiality and indiscriminate living among beasts and men in Piero’s most famous series of paintings didn’t do much to curb the artist’s reputation as an outsider. However, time has found his use of this imagery as less an expression of fantasy and more a visual record of a particular strain of pagan mythology that was very much opposed to the Neoplatonic visions being captured by Botticelli at the same time. The Epicurean Evolutionism of Piero’s paintings went along with the understanding that primitive man rises beyond a bestial state and discovers his own potential to harness his resources, make tools, and domesticate animals without paternalistic intercession by the gods. Those who harness resources that allow man to establish order amid chaos and incite the first rotations of the wheels of human progress, then become pagan gods. As Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius, and Vitruvius discuss in detail, here mythology steps in, taking over for anthropology. These texts were surely slurped up by the scholars of the 15th century, who were thirsty for anything Classical.
In Hunting Scene (circa 1488–late 1480s)—which was, along with other mythological canvases, probably commissioned by a member of the Pugliese family of Florence—man fought, mated, and cohabitated with beasts and half-human, half-beastly hybrids. In its companion, Return from the Hunt (circa 1505–07; both paintings have been in the collection of the Met since 1875), man is still in a stone age, but the killing has ceased, and crude boats are used to transport the booty of the war and hunt. In a third picture, Landscape with Animals, which is now at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, man has progressed yet a little further, with coarse leather clothing rather than uncured skins, a basic hut, and what seem to be domesticated oxen. The hybrid animals (a sow with the face of a woman, a goat with the face of a man, etc.), which were the products of the first panel’s debauchery, are seen about the woods but are largely removed from human activity. A constant among the narrative of the three paintings, is a smoldering forest fire that seems finally in the third painting to be making an impact on the lives of the humans and animals. Following the chronology of the mythology, the next two paintings in the series, The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos (which was for centuries thought to be a depiction of Hylas and the nymphs) and Vulcan and Aeolus, man is under the tutelage of Vulcan, the god of fire, with help from Aeolus, the god of wind. Vulcan, the supreme blacksmith, has taught man to harness the fire that simmered in the trees and to make tools. And as the development of the practical arts begins, so does civilization.
Piero continues the story for another patron (possibly Guidantonio di Giovanni Vespucci) with the Discovery of Honey (now in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum). Taking its inspiration from Ovid’s Fasti, the painting shows humans beginning to discover life’s pleasures. Here, as Bacchus and Ariadne look on, satyrs and maenads create a commotion in order to attract a swarm of bees from a hollow tree. In its companion picture, The Misfortunes of Silenus (at the Fogg), the greedy and lazy Silenus climbs on his donkey’s rear end in an attempt to pluck a hive from its sylvan home. When the branch he is grasping breaks from his weight, the hive reveals itself to be a hornets’ nest.
In his 1939 Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky not only explains the mythological and poetic genesis of this series of paintings but also explains a great deal about Piero as an artist and man. “Piero’s world seems fantastic, not because its elements are unreal, but, on the contrary, because the very veracity of his interpretation is convincingly evocative of a time remote from our potential existence,” writes Panofsky, “His pictures emanate a pervasive atmosphere of strangeness because they succeed in conjuring up an age older than Christianity, older even than paganism in the historical sense of the word—in fact, older than civilization itself.” Just as Piero’s mythological paintings, and the way he lived his life, seem both to be oddly beautiful reinterpretations of poetry, paganism, and primitivism.