Piero, Out of Obscurity

And he was likewise so great a lover of solitude, that he knew no pleasure save that of going off by himself with his thoughts, letting his fancy roam and building his castles in the air.’*

While Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Verrocchio and Michelangelo may be a few of the universally accepted pillars of the Italian Renaissance, the name Piero di Cosimo has not been accorded quite the same celebrity and historic esteem and remains far less widely applauded.  Many millions journey to the Denon Wing of the Louvre Palace each year to bear witness to La Gioconda, but there has only been one retrospective exhibition of Piero di Cosimo’s painting to date, held at the Schaeffer Galleries in New York in 1938. Indeed, despite the vivacious and beguiling genius of his compositions, the Florentine master has so often been veiled in murky obscurity. 

Born Piero di Lorenzo to a goldsmith in Florence, the young artist apprenticed at the studio of painter Cosimo Rosselli, eventually adopting the pen name Piero di Cosimo as homage to his master. Alongside Rosselli, he travelled to Rome to assist with the completion of Last Supper – a fresco that would form part of a series within the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pop Sixtus and intended to detail the Passion, or the final period in the life of Christ. With a particular flair for portraiture, Piero painted the blushed faces of wealthy dignitaries in Rome and in Florence. He was however, utterly versatile in his approach and his subjects ranged from the divine through to the pagan and profane. His apt for the latter – for whimsy and fantasy is perhaps what sets the artist apart, a striking depiction of his own singular delight over the strict reenactment of ancient fables. 

This year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. will host Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence, the second ever survey of Piero’s oeuvre. “The NGA has three paintings by Piero, a major altarpiece entitled Visitation of Our Lady, a religious painting for private devotion entitled Nativity, and the whimsical Allegory of Chastity Triumphing Over Lust,” explains the exhibition’s chief curator and associate curator of Italian and Spanish paintings for the NGA, Gretchen Hirschauer. “Piero was long overdue for an exhibition, and following on the heels of shows in Europe on Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, both fellow Florentine artists, we decided to proceed.” 

The exhibition at the NGA will parade a gathering of some 40 of Piero’s paintings, including altarpieces and portraits, as well as a collection of the artist’s more enigmatic mythological and allegorical scenes. “We studied the entirety of Piero’s oeuvre and have tried to bring together as many of his works as we could,” Hirschauer continues. “We began to work on the exhibition in the abstract as long ago as 2008, and serious work began in 2010.  Conversations were had with each potential lender and our partner, the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.” 

For Hirschauer, the solemnly scarce number of surveys of Piero’s work over time may be credited to an inability to move certain works across boarders or out of museum resting places. “Most of Piero’s paintings are on large wood panels. Up until recently institutions did not lend such works in general.  Now with the advances in packing and shipping technology, wood panels are safe to travel.” However, this does little to explain the absence of a wider reportage and conversation around Piero di Cosimo and his life’s work. 

The banner image of the NGA’s upcoming retrospective is its own Visitation of Our Lady. As its title does suggest, the square panel is a religious scene – realist in form and richly coloured, Piero has conjured the Virgin Mary, Saint Anthony and Saint Nicholas. The piece was first described in 1550 by the artist-biographer Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as being an altarpiece painted for the family chapel of Gino Capponi in the church of Santo Spirito in Florence. When describing Piero’s depiction of ornaments in Visitation, Visari wrote, ‘even by that time men could perceive the strangeness of his brain, and his constant seeking after difficulties.’ 

Indeed, it is Giorgio Visari who is responsible for the most comprehensive but colourful account of the life of Piero di Cosimo, his work and his creative temperament. According to Visari, Piero was a recluse, an outsider and an eccentric at odds with the artistic community of his era – evidenced in both the oddities of his work and by the way he chose to live. In Vasari’s biography, Piero withdrew from the world following the death of Cosimo Rosselli, ‘leading the life of a man who was less man than beast.’ For Visari, Piero’s quiet recognition over the centuries in comparison to his contemporaries would not be due to any lacking of talent, but rather the fault of his strange solitariness. The biographer reasons, ‘Every good intellect and every excellent craftsman should always be taught, from such an example, to keep his eyes on the end of life.’ 

However Hirschauer believes Piero di Cosimo was simply a true artist, living and breathing the philosophy of his time. “I think he was [eccentric], but aren’t many artists intriguing characters?” she muses. Piero was profoundly interested in observing and investigating the waywardness and chance of nature itself – plants and animals in their most natural state – allowing his garden to grow wild and leaving his house mostly unkempt. Is this the behaviour of a curious man, or one yielding to the earthly inquiries of Florentine Renaissance thinking? “He wasn’t really [an outsider],” says Hirschauer. “He was an unusual and brilliant character, maybe even odd, but he was very successful and recognized by his patrons and peers as a gifted storyteller.”

Piero’s approach to mythology was brilliantly unique, an unfettered expression of imagination which earned him the distinction of being an enchanting storyteller as well as a painter. “His fantastic inventions rivalled the verses of the ancient poets whose myths and allegories he set out to transform in a wonderfully strange language all his own," says Hirschauer. “His gift for hearing or reading the story and making it come to life, adding inventive details that follow or further highlight the story told.  Botticelli was really his only real rival in telling stories of the ancients.”

In Piero’s Allegory of Chastity Triumphing over Lust, a winged woman cloaked in blood red dangles the end of a delicate string bow tied around a bucking horse. Set upon a tiny atoll that appears to have been torn from the land, a mermaid like creature bathes in the foreground. As with many of Piero’s mythical compositions, Allegory invites a labyrinth of interpretations. While Piero – not unlike his Renaissance peers – was inspired by Vitruvius’ account of the evolution of man, his approach to iconography was, for the most part, informed by his own imaginings.  Some have speculated that the red mistress in Allegory is Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn, but missing symbolic elements such as her multi-coloured cape suggest otherwise. Here, Piero is telling his own story.

Similarly, The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus is based on Ovid’s poem, The Fasti, but Piero has created his own version, peppered with fantastical hybrid creatures. Painted for Vespucci family at the very end of the 15th century, Piero’s image tells the story of the journey towards evolution and progress. The painting shows an adult and baby satyr on the main branch of a gnarled tree and gathering of satyrs below, all brandishing household utensils in order to encourage bees to settle in the tree. To the left of the scene is a serene city symbolising civilisation, and to the right is a higher rocky outcrop, obscured by dark threating clouds. Piero’s account is whimsical but entirely individual. 

“He was certainly a man of his time, religious, interested in the details of nature, and the stories of the ancients,” adds Hirschauer. “He is an artist whose time has come.” For the curator, it is Piero’s individuality that distinguishes rather than diminishes his work. While Visari may have decided that Piero di Cosimo should forever be misunderstood and masked by ambiguity, a deeper, more open understanding of Piero’s arcane subjects makes the artist interesting over obscure, and artistic instead of eccentric. 

*extract from Giorgio Visari’s Lives of the Artists.

This piece appeared in print for MUSEUM in 2015. 

Image, Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, c. 1499.

Art, Op EdSammy PrestonMUSEUM