Faith and Fantasy
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The dramatic paintings of Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522) once ignited the imagination of Florence. In Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari said his work had “both draughtsmanship and grace,” adding, “it is certain that Piero was a great master of colouring in oils.” Today, though, the artist is overshadowed by many of his Renaissance contemporaries.
Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., was co-organized by the Uffizi Gallery. The retrospective includes loans from American museums, important paintings from the Uffizi, as well as altarpieces from Italian churches and paintings from smaller museums in Italy.
Both Piero’s biblical and mythological scenes ooze with theatricality. The altarpiece “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Dominic and Nicholas of Bari,” c. 1481-1485, was commissioned for a small church west of Florence. The stage-like setting of this picture features Mary and the Christ child on an elevated throne with four saints arranged symmetrically around them. As the child raises two tiny fingers in blessing, his plump body is bathed in a spotlight that casts shadows on the folds of his skin.
The realism in this composition is impressive, conveying each character’s individuality. Tiny details are precisely executed down to the metallic shine on St. Peter’s keys, the reflections on gold orbs held in St. Nicholas’ hand, and the turrets of a castle on a faraway hill.
On the left side of the altarpiece, Saint Peter presents Saint Dominic to Mary. Saint Dominic holds a stem of white lilies over his shoulder, a symbol of the Spanish saint’s chastity. John the Baptist, clad in animal skin, holds his staff in one hand and points at Christ with the other, guiding the viewer’s eye to the center of the composition. The three golden orbs held by a kneeling St. Nicholas represent dowries that St. Nicholas provided for the daughters of a poor family. A glass vase of flowers, every tiny leaf and petal carefully described, is placed along the central axis of the altarpiece.
This painting was influenced by the robust international commerce then taking place between Florence and Bruges. The dissemination of Flemish paintings and prints excited a number of artists in Italy at the time, including Piero. In particular, Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece in a Florentine church seems to have had a profound influence on Piero. In “Madonna and Child Enthroned,” Piero adopted a number of Flemish painting techniques, including fine naturalistic details, cool Northern light and a rich color palette combining tempera paint, then widely used in Italy, with oil paint, the material of choice in Early Netherlandish painting. The vase of flowers centered at the bottom of Piero’s altarpiece echoes the flowers at the base of van der Goes’s Portinari triptych.
Piero painted “The Adoration of the Child,” c. 1490-1500, in a large tondo format. As Mary kneels before her sleeping baby, her rich blue robes fall softly around her arms. Behind the child is a tall outcropping of dark rocks with an open portal, foreshadowing Christ’s entombment. At the base of the picture, tadpoles swimming in a clear pool symbolize rebirth and transformation.
Piero’s mythological paintings were especially theatrical. Vasari said Piero’s “strange fauns, satyrs, sylvan gods, little boys, and bacchanals” have “great grace and most vivid truth to nature.” In “The Discovery of Honey,” c.1500, Bacchus and Ariadne are accompanied by a bawdy group of satyrs —men, women and children with the legs and tails of goats—who bang on kitchen pans to attract a swarm of bees to a hollow tree. Dozens of comical figures fill this canvas with raucous activity. A gnarled old tree with large empty hollows and leafless spindly limbs prefigures Dali’s surrealist landscapes. The companion to this panel, “The Misfortunes of Silenus,” c. 1500, was so sexually explicit that Piero later toned it down, covering up some risqué elements.
Another eccentric work, the “Liberation of Andromeda,” c. 1510-1513, was commissioned by the Strozzi family to decorate the wedding chamber of Filippo Strozzi, the Younger, and Clarice de’ Medici. In this otherworldly picture, Andromeda, promised as a sacrifice to Neptune, is topless, bound to an anthropomorphic tree trunk. A giant sea monster, complete with a corkscrew tail, large webbed feet, and protruding fangs, thrashes nearby in the sea. Perseus is depicted in a time-lapse sequence, shown both flying through the air in his winged sandals and landed on the back of the sea monster, striking the beast with a sword. At the bottom the painting, Perseus appears again, now as hero, winning the hand of Andromeda as the whole company rejoices. Fanciful musical instruments play for the celebration, one figure blowing through the straw of a clarinet-like tube that’s connected by a swan’s head to guitar strings.
Maybe Piero di Cosimo’s reputation faded because his paintings are so idiosyncratic. Whatever the reason, the quirky artworks in this comprehensive exhibition, with their clear Northern influence, unlike anything else produced in Renaissance Italy, offer a welcome introduction to an original talent.
Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence, through May 3, 2015, National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 202-737-4215, www.nga.gov