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Of all the characters passed down from Giorgio Vasari’s Vite, it is Piero di Cosimo perhaps more than any other who came to embody the belief widely held in the Renaissance that art imitates life. What is known of his biography is remarkably sparse, apart from the stories Vasari gleaned as a young apprentice in the workshop of Andrea del Sarto, once a pupil of the eccentric master. Born in 1462, Piero was actually the son of Lorenzo d’Antonio, not a goldsmith (as Vasari would have it) but a succhiellinaio, or blacksmith. Throughout his career, Piero held an unusual fascination with the craft of the forge and the exploits of Vulcan. It was both in his blood and at the core of his curiosity about the origins of things and the evolution of the human race. Vasari, with his sense of duty to the moral purpose of the arts, perceived in Piero a “spirit very different and far distant from that of other painters” (Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, New York: Knopf, 1996, vol. 1, 657). Rather than a distinction, this became a mark of astrattezza, or introversion. Even so, to Vasari what Piero contributed to Tuscan painting stood in comparison with the achievements of Giorgione and Correggio in the Veneto and Lombardy.
By the nineteenth century, it was precisely this untamed quality of Piero’s images—the bizzarrie—that appealed most immediately to collectors, primarily in England and North America. A small assemblage of seven paintings took place in New York at Schaeffer Galleries in 1938, followed by the monograph by British art critic R. Langston Douglas eight years later. In recent decades, the corpus of attributed works, as well as the documentation of Piero’s life, has grown appreciably. (In addition to the scholarship of Federico Zeri, Mina Bacci, Anna Forlani Tempesti, and William Griswold, see Sharon Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasia [London: Reaktion, 1993], which explores the complexities of Vasari’s narrative, and the review by David Franklin in Burlington Magazine 135, no. 1086 [September 1993]: 637–38.) The present exhibition, organized by National Gallery of Art curator Gretchen Hirschauer in collaboration with Dennis Geronimus of New York University and Virginia Brilliant of the Joan and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, brings together thirty-eight paintings in Washington and forty-four in its subsequent venue at the Uffizi. Although some notable masterpieces could not travel—The Death of Procris (National Gallery, London, ca. 1495/1500), Venus, Mars and Cupid (Staatliche Museen, Berlin, ca. 1495/1505), and Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra (Musée Condé, Chantilly, ca. 1480)—those on display offer a visual feast, showcasing the wealth of Piero’s poetic invention and the delicacy of his brushwork.
Piero’s talents did not go unappreciated in his own day, judging by the circle of sophisticated patrons whom he served: Filippo Strozzi the Younger, Piero Capponi, Piero di Francesco del Pugliese, Federico Gondi, Giovanni Vespucci the Younger, Giuliano dei Medici, and putatively Lorenzo il Magnifico. As this exhibition highlights, the idiosyncratic genius of Piero could not have flourished without the erudite and at times libertine tastes of these Florentine patricians. Although increasingly isolated by infirmity up to his death in 1521, Piero enjoyed a position of respectability among his peers. When in January 1504 a committee was convened by the Opera del Duomo to select the most fitting location for Michelangelo’s David, Piero gave the closing remarks following those of Leonardo da Vinci, Pietro Perugino, Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, Andrea della Robbia, and his close friend Giuliano da Sangallo.
Against the measure of his contemporaries, the stylistic range of Piero’s oeuvre makes it difficult to chart a single line of development. Accordingly the curators chose to organize the paintings thematically rather than chronologically, except for the last decade, when Piero relied on the assistance of garzoni. There is no reason to doubt Vasari’s observation that Piero in his early years studied closely the technical innovations of Leonardo, adopting his sfumato lighting and gradation of tone through oil glazes. Piero’s earliest independent altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Sts. Lazarus and Sebastian (ca. 1480–85) for the church of SS. Michele Arcangelo and Lorenzo Martire in Montevettolini, hung in the first gallery, shares the dark somber tones of Leonardo’s manner shortly before his departure for Milan, as well as figural motives that Piero ostensibly borrowed from his Benois Madonna (Hermitage Museum, 1478). To continue along Vasari’s account is more problematic. How is it that Piero, with his uncanny ability to achieve the psychological probity of Leonardo, in later years could have strayed so far from the mark—“molto lontano da Lionardo, e dall’altre maniere assai stravagante?” Vasari infers that the variability of Piero’s temperament was to blame, preventing his full maturation as an artist. Yet to look upon the St. John the Evangelist (Honolulu Museum of Art, ca. 1500/1505) in the last gallery of the exhibition, the impact of Leonardo was never more intense than in Piero’s late years, as first observed by Bernard Berenson and Lionello Venturi.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are at once transported into the early 1480s, when the fashion for Flemish art was reaching its height among Florentine bourgeois households. In May 1483, Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece was installed amid great fanfare in the church of Sant’Egidio at the Spedale di S. Maria Nuova. The startling naturalism of this triptych inspired Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1485) for the altarpiece of the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita, as well as Piero’s own version of the theme, a work once owned by the Medici (destroyed). Even in the early commission of the Pugliese altarpiece, which dominates the first gallery, Piero has mastered the luminosity of brocaded fabrics: the bouclé d’or of the pallium over the back of St. Nicholas of Bari, the bejeweled crosses and nails embroidered on a green cloth of honor behind the Virgin, and the three gold balls on which can be seen a reflection of other witnesses inhabiting another interior, calling to mind Jan van Eyck’s mirror in the Arnolfini wedding portrait. The stemma on either side of the predella might suggest that Del Pugliese wished to vaunt his family and himself, having served thrice as gonfaloniere di giustizia. In fact, Piero founded the chapel of S. Maria di Lecceto but gave his donation without pressing the parish priest for ius patronatus. Rather than having his likeness depicted in the person of his namesake, St. Peter, Piero chose St. Nicholas of Bari to honor his son, Niccolò.
The next gallery, one of two devoted to the mythologies, shows the artist’s fertile imagination in the service of another member of the Del Pugliese: Piero’s nephew, Francesco di Filippo. The panels A Hunting Scene (1488/late 1490s) and The Return from the Hunt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1505–7) fit well thematically, though what other paintings belonged to this cycle of spalliere decorations is a matter of debate going back to Erwin Panofsky (“The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo,” Journal of the Warburg Institute 1, no. 1 (1937): 12–30). In his catalogue essay “No Man’s Lands: Lucretius and the Primitive Strain in Piero’s Art and Patronage,” Geronimus argues that Piero’s depiction of unbridled violence between man and animal in their primal state reflects a broader interest among humanistic circles in the first-century Latin poet Lucretius. De rerum natura, the most sensational of Poggio Bracciolini’s discoveries of ancient texts, revealed a primordial world with savage imagery. What distinguishes Piero’s vision in these scenes is the atavistic nature of primitive life, which Geronimus believes was informed by European contact with the New World. In his famous report of 1493, Epistola de Insulis nuper Inventis, Christopher Columbus noted the natives’ descriptions of hirsute and ferocious cannibals (monstrous). By 1505, illustrations of flesh-eating natives were appearing in editions of Amerigo Vespucci’s Mundus Novus. Although A Hunting Scene and The Return from the Hunt are generally dated to a decade earlier, Piero had already established close ties to another Vespucci, Giovanni di Guidantonio, patron of the Bacchanalian scenes.
Two other large paintings filling this gallery—The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, late 1480s) and Vulcan and Aeolus (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, late 1480s)—fit as pendants both in their square proportions and support on coarse canvas. David Franklin proposes (exhibition catalogue entry, 118) these idyllic landscapes would have adorned a rustic villa rather than urban townhouse. Of all Piero’s oeuvre, the Ottawa painting is the most exuberant display of Vulcan’s craft, in loving tribute to his father, a member of the arte dei fabbri.
Liberation of Andromeda (Galleria degli Uffiz, ca. 1510/1513), which Vasari deemed Piero’s masterpiece for its landscape, completes this first gallery of mythologies. When the painting was moved to the Tribuna of the Uffizi in the later sixteenth century, some thought it to have been designed by Leonardo and the color applied by Piero (Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 108). Its commission was occasioned by the strategic marriage of Giovanni Battista Strozzi (known as Filippo the Younger) and Clarice dei Medici in 1508. Significantly, this most outlandish of Piero’s sea creatures (orca marina) would have vied with the earlier marine monster “fantastic in its deformity” painted for Giuliano dei Medici (Cosimo I later had it adorn his Guardaroba in the Palazzo Vecchio). The matrimonial alliance of these two households represented a healing of animosities going back several decades to when Giovanni Battista’s father, Filippo di Matteo, was exiled in Naples. Interpretations of the painting are rife with allusions to the Medici. Their return to Florence in 1512 would signal the deliverance of the Strozzi, while Perseus was to herald the advent of their liberator, Lorenzo dei Medici, Duke of Urbino. Geronimus points out the branches of coral, believed to have talismanic effect, already sprouting from the blood of Medusa’s disembodied head. Although the continuous narrative adheres faithfully to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Piero certainly would have known the apotropaic image of the Gorgoneion from the Tazza Farnese, the Ptolemaic sardonyx phiale in the collection of Clarice’s grandfather, Lorenzo il Magnifico. Piero adapted two figures from the front of this prized antiquity for Prometheus Fashioning the First Man (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, ca. 1510/1515). It may be argued that the potency of the Gorgoneion, which Giuliano dei Medici sported on the cuirass of his portrait bust en vivant, was elicited by the Strozzi with similar intent. Ultimately, Filippo the Younger could not protect himself from the vicissitudes of fate. Declaring his allegiance with the Republic, he was captured by Cosimo I and committed suicide in prison. His collections confiscated, the Liberation of Andromeda passed to the duke, who gifted it to his chamberlain, Sforza Almeni. As for the Tazza Farnese, it had returned to Florence with Alessandro dei Medici, who as duke chose the figure of Perseus brandishing the Medusa head on his impresa. Cosimo co-opted the mythological hero for his own propagandistic ends in Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze relief of Andromeda on the base of the Perseus (1545).
In the flux of the early Principato, Florentines had become accustomed to the way political winds inflected the reading of images. To Piero, who did not live to see these events, the mutability of meanings would hardly have been unfamiliar. His very manner of painting conveys a heightened sensibility to the ever-changing phenomena of the world around him. In The Misfortunes of Silenus (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, ca. 1500), a stocky tree with bifurcated stumps suggests mockingly the corpulent Silenus himself, sliding off his donkey with legs splayed upward and bottom indecently on display. Other figures seem to transform from male to female or human to beast, as the artist continually reworked his pictures. As x-radiography has revealed, some satyrs in sexually explicit states were actually painted over by Piero, either in self-censorship or befitting his patron’s sense of decorum.
It is unfortunate that none of Piero’s drawings could be displayed in Washington for visitors to appreciate the deliberate process of execution. The animated study for the Visitation and that for the Madonna and Child with Sts. Onophrius and Augustine (The Alana Collection, Newark, Delaware, ca. 1480), illustrated in the catalogue, show the degree to which Piero reworked his compositions. Piero’s sketches also reveal his deftness at observation. According to Vasari, it was Piero’s father who first recognized his innate talent for drawing (vivace ingegno ed inclinazione al disegno) and who commended him to Cosmo Rosselli in assisting on the Sistine Chapel. As an avid collector of master drawings, Vasari had keen insight into this element of Piero’s working method. Apart from acquiring the Venus, Mars and Cupid, Vasari relied on a network of contacts for information on the whereabouts of master drawings. This included his close friend, Cosimo Bartoli, provost of San Giovanni, who had donated Piero’s Libro d’animali, a sketchbook of pen drawings, to Duke Cosimo’s Guardaroba.
In the second edition of the vita, Vasari added a final paragraph devoted to Piero’s portraiture. Of particular interest was the portrait of Piero di Cosimo himself, executed by Francesco da Sangallo while caring for the elderly painter, which served as the model for Vasari’s own woodcut vignette. Francesco also owned the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, as well as the double portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo and his father Francesco Giamberti. This diptych in the Rijksmuseum, one of the highlights of the exhibition, so impressed Vasari that the two sitters “seemed to be alive.” Ironically, as late as the nineteenth century it was attributed to a Flemish hand. For all the confidence and calm of Giuliano’s visage, by contrast, the father’s wizened and animated face seems almost a caricature. As Serena Padovani notes in the exhibition catalogue (41), Piero’s likeness follows closely Filippino Lippi’s figure of San Frediano for the San Ponziano altarpiece, both possibly taken from a death mask. Physical analysis of these panels reveals that the portrait of Francesco was added later and that Piero repainted the tapestry in the foreground of Giuliano’s portrait to meld the two perspective views. More remarkably, Piero executed the panels not on poplar or even oak, but limewood, used customarily for carving because of its dense grain. This was Piero’s tribute to father and son—the one identified by a calipers and quill, the other by a musical score—though both practiced the profession of legnaiuoli and matriculated in the guild of Maestri di Pietra e Legname.
What Piero absorbed of the architectural practice through the company of the Sangallo is on full display in the late panel, The Building of a Palace (John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, ca. 1514/1518). Its precise Albertian perspective, meticulously constructed with calipers and stylus, has led scholars to identify the two-story structure with an actual palace—whether the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano or the unexecuted project for a grand townhouse on the Via Laura. But the lack of a rigorous architectonic logic suggests that Piero’s subject is not so much the design as the act of building. Curiously, while scarpellini, segatori, and carradori go about their business in the foreground, the palace itself appears already finished. To the right a quartet of workers, or pallbearers, dressed in black carry a wooden beam, or a coffin, away from the site!
To look intently at Piero’s paintings, to pry beneath their surface, is to realize that the artist is forever playing with the nature of representation. His images, at once seemingly familiar, on closer view blur the line between illusion and reality. Though Piero steeped himself in the world of classical literature, to read his paintings too literally is to diminish an appreciation for his originality and wit. For Vasari, it was Piero’s gift to see “a certain subtlety in the investigations of some of the deepest and most subtle secrets of Nature, without grudging time or labor, but only for his own delight and for his pleasure in the art” (vol. 1, 657). To modern audiences, this continues to be a source of wonder.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University, Washington, DC
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