by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Gallery, London
''A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph,'' by Piero di Cosimo.

Dazzling Piero, Rehabilitated

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 10 July 2015


Piero di Cosimo was one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, equally adept at enchanting mythological scenes, emotionally powerful religious images and vivid portraits. Yet, of all the leading Florentine painters of the era, his name remains the least familiar.

A principal reason for this has been the failure, until recently, to establish a generally agreed corpus of autograph works, not an easy matter given his chameleon-like changes of focus and style. No less a contributing factor was the treatment he received in the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari's encyclopedic 'Lives of the Artists.' Vasari's account of him became much more positive between the first edition of 1550 and the second in 1568 — during which time the author had added Piero's 'Mars and Venus,' now in Berlin, to his own collection.

Nonetheless, Vasari still devoted a disproportionate space to the artist's alleged oddities and phobias. These included his misanthropy; an exclusive diet of hard-boiled eggs; his hatred of flies, the crying of children, coughing, the sound of bells and the singing of friars; his fear of thunderstorms and his scorn for doctors.

Piero's evidently cordial relations with fellow artists and students run counter to the accusation of misanthropy, and other pathological obsessions that Vasari listed have now been shown almost certainly to date from a period of illness late in life, or to have been clichéd descriptions of eccentricity lifted from classical literature. But the art historian's lopsided account for centuries directed attention toward Piero's supposed character defects at the expense of his work.

Thus the current exhibition, the first joint project between the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Uffizi, is long overdue. The first version of the show, curated by Gretchen Hirschauer and Dennis Geronimus, was staged this year in Washington and contained 44 autograph works. The Uffizi's, curated by Antonio Natali, Serena Padovani, Anna Forlani Tempesti and Elena Capretti, is much larger: It comprises around 90 works by Piero himself (including drawings, which were not included in Washington) and a further 30 pieces by relevant contemporaries, including Filippino Lippi, Fra Bartolomeo and Lorenzo di Credi.

Piero was apprenticed to the studio of Cosimo Rosselli, whose name he adopted. When Rosselli was called to Rome in 1481-2 to contribute to the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, he took his pupil with him, believing, as Vasari recorded, 'that Piero had a finer style and better judgement than he himself.'

The first rooms of the show, which runs to Sept. 27, contain an altarpiece by Rosselli and early works by Piero and his fellow younger artists Filippino Lippi and Lorenzo di Credi — all manifesting the influence of Leonardo da Vinci and of Netherlandish paintings, which were arriving in Florence in large numbers at this time. Thanks to his precocious talents Piero had established himself as an independent artist by the age of 18, and was winning important commissions from adventurous aristocratic patrons, such as the Del Pugliese family.

Outstanding among these works was a group of brilliantly original visions of mankind in prehistoric times through to the flowering of agriculture and civilization: 'A Hunting Scene' and 'Return from the Hunt,' both now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; 'The Forest Fire,' at the Ashmolean in Oxford, England; 'The Fight Between the Lapiths and the Centaurs,' at the National Gallery of London; and 'The Building of a Palace,' at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

The two Met and the Sarasota panels are on loan here. The Uffizi curators argue that all five of these panels were originally executed for Francesco Del Pugliese in the 1480s as a single narrative sequence, an opinion shared to varying degrees by their colleagues in the United States. They also convincingly propose that Michelangelo's unfinished 'Battle of the Centaurs' frieze was based on Piero's 'Centaurs and the Lapiti' and not vice versa, as has been the conventional view.

The following sections bring together, from collections around the world, an impressive array of Piero's religious tondos, altarpieces and smaller devotional pictures, revealing the inventiveness and imagination he brought to those subjects. They culminate with the dazzling, light-infused 'Incarnation of Jesus' from the Uffizi.

Piero's affinity with Netherlandish art was sometimes uncanny, demonstrated by a double portrait from about 1495 of his friend the architect Giuliano da Sangallo and his father (from Amsterdam), executed in the Flemish style and shown here with Memling's 'Portrait of a Man' from the Uffizi.

The ease with which Piero could flip between genres, styles and moods is highlighted in a neighboring room by another work from around the same period, 'A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph,' exceptionally loaned by the National Gallery in London. This enigmatic and poignant image of a grieving satyr — 'half human, half bestial and yet wholly real,' in the words of the Victorian critic John Addington Symonds — accompanied by a faithful, downcast dog, bears witness to Piero's empathetic depiction of living beings, even imaginary ones, and his sensitivity to the natural world and the animal kingdom.

The artist was particularly celebrated in his later years for his design and direction of spectacular public processions. His exuberantly theatrical, gruesomely humorous, 'Triumph of Death' of 1512, described enthusiastically by Vasari, was talked about for decades afterward.

Four years before his death — he was killed by the plague in 1522 — the artist was afflicted with what appears to have been Parkinson's disease. He was no longer able to paint and it is probable his anger and frustration during this period gave rise to some of the later stories of his bizarre behavior and unsociability.

But by then Piero had been responsible both for nurturing a generation of future artists — including Fra' Bartomoleo, Ridolfo di Ghirlandaio, Andrea di Cosimo Feltrini, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo (the last three of whom assisted him with the famous 'Triumph of Death' pageant) — and for creating some of the most original of Renaissance images.

Piero di Cosimo. 1462-1522. Uffizi, Florence. Through Sept. 27.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024