There are many, many things I miss about Florence. I could wallow in my separation-depression (can’t say I’m always above it), or I can seek out ways to add a little bit of Italian flair to life here in the States. Luckily, I didn’t have to look too far this past spring when the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. premiered the first-ever major retrospective of Piero di Cosimo. As it is now slated to open at the Uffizi this Tuesday, June 23rd, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what I found to be a dynamic and intriguing show.
First, a little background on Piero himself. Never heard of him? Many haven’t. Described by the New Yorker as “the strangest master of the Florentine Renaissance,” he was considered eccentric (at best!) during his time. The article goes on to recount many of Vasari’s highly critical tales of the artist, who, while a contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo, clearly did not command the same respect from his local art community. Even his death seems a disappointment, with his passing at 60 in 1522 simply explained in the exhibit’s language as “probably of the plague.”
Besides his eccentric personality, many saw his work as a mashup of changing influences and fanciful creatures. In an age where an artist was beloved for his signature look, Piero sampled style after style. While humanism was booming, Piero preferred animals. But it’s a shame no one took him seriously, because in his imaginative sampling was a genius not of his time, but ahead of it.
The show drives this point home, featuring 44 of his works gathered from public, private and church collections across Europe and the Americas (the Uffizi debut will be a bit different, as it will also feature complementary works from contemporaries). Walking the rooms, you see reminiscent shades of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Bottecelli (see below), depending on what work you’re looking at. Some paintings even seem to be part of the Northern Renaissance, like Saint Veronica with the Sudarium.
Figure styles change over the course of his career, but Piero’s detailed attention to the natural world never faltered. You don’t need to look further than the giraffe in Vulcan and Aeolus or the flowers in the foreground of The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos to note his interest in other species. He took advantage of allegory and mythical tales to incorporate beings that otherwise would seem out of place in his paintings.
Despite all this diversity in style, it’s clear that what is most on display at this show is Piero’s imagination. The taste of his day did not dictate his representations of creative beasts or timelines. In one of his most recognizable paintings, the Liberation of Andromeda, this talent shines. Neither Andromeda nor her hero, Perseus, take center stage. Instead, the story revolves visually around the singular sea creature that threatens her life. But the larger-than-life tidbits don’t end there. For instance, she is tied to a tree trunk that resembles a human torso, and once she’s free, the celebratory music is performed on fanciful instruments. The details delight viewers as they follow the multi-phase story.
Despite what you might assume, his weirdness was not restricted to his secular work. A personal highlight for me was standing in front of The Visitation with Saints Nicholas and Anthony Abbot, an altarpiece painted for the church of Santo Spirito. In it, Piero plays with time and space to tell the early story of Christ’s life. At center is a pregnant Mary, visiting her cousin Elizabeth. In the background behind Mary is the Nativity scene complete with shepards. Further in the distance, three mini Magi are making their way into town.
My favorite detail, however, is how Piero painted the Annunciation as a wall mural in the top right of the painting. As the National Gallery points out, it was probably depicted that way, as a painted scene within a painting, because chronologically this scene would have already happened before the Visitation. Seeing the full wall mural, of course, reminded me of the popularity of street art today. Below this, Piero also includes the Massacre of the Innocents. Each of these happenings are depicted in the background, and, if you don’t stop to study it, it would be easy to write them off as filler instead of nuanced storytelling. (If you’re interested in a more detailed analysis of this painting, check out the National Gallery’s slideshow. Also one for The Liberation here.)
Portraits, beautifully done, round out the show. But it’s the most fun picking apart Piero’s more imaginative scenes. Walking through it, you might think his work was closer in association to current media phenomena, a match for the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy or Game of Thrones, rather than the Renaissance (although he and Bosch most likely would have made interesting comrades…). Piero may have sampled other artists’ styles, but it’s clear from his art he never quite fit in.
Well, it may have taken a few hundred years, but Piero, this is one art lover who couldn’t be happier to soak up your quirky point of view. With Free Museum First Sundays, there’s no excuse to miss this first major retrospective of his work.
Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522): Pittore fiorentino “eccentrico” fra Rinascimento e Maniera will be on display at the Uffizi from June 23 through September 27.