Today is the birthday of Piero di Cosimo, an artist of the Renaissance who was born in Florence in 1462. He was a contemporary of da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Botticelli. Like any good Renaissance artist he painted religious subjects, portraits and mythological scenes but some of them are very odd. Take his painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a sea serpent. That’s Perseus flying in on the top right. There he is again on the back of the monster about to kill it. Andromeda is tied to a weird looking tree on the left. Then, in the bottom right, they are getting married. But look at that sea serpent. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined. The musical instruments are lovely too. Just what is that string and woodwind combination with a birds head on it. Is it real, or is it something he made up?
He certainly had quite an imagination. We know a little bit of his life from Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ which was written in 1568. He tells us that: “He would sometimes stop to gaze at a wall against which sick people had been for a long time discharging their spittle, and from this he would picture to himself battles of horsemen, and the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen; and he did the same with the clouds in the sky.” Piero was clearly in a dream world of his own. It was hard to tell him anything, because he would drift off and stop listening. He didn’t like loud noises, was terrified of lightening and never let anyone sweep out his house. Neither would he let anyone tend his garden because he liked to see everything growing wild. He didn’t attend much to his diet either, but lived on eggs which he cooked, fifty at a time, whilst boiling glue.
Of his religious paintings, I’ve decided to show you ‘The Visitation’ which shows Mary being visited by her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s so full of detail. In this picture, you might be able to make out the Nativity on the left and the Massacre of the Innocents on the right. Bottom right, in the glasses, is Saint Anthony, on the left is Saint Nicholas. Can you see the three gold balls I mentioned when I talked about him last month? Actually, there’s a much better reproduction of this painting here, but it’s not mine to share. It belongs to the Washington Post. But if you take a look at it, you can see the detail of the reflections in the balls. If you’re in the mood for a game, can you also spot the Annunciation, the three kings and the Star of Bethlehem?
Of his more mythological subjects, it’s hard to decide which to choose. He painted a series of panels depicting scenes from primitive humanity, for his patron Francesco del Pugliese, that are truly barbaric and must have been quite difficult to live with. One hunting scene includes a man pulling a bear off a lion that is eating another bear. It’s carnage. Yet he truly seems to love painting animals. There are loads of them in his pictures. Did you see the pig in The Visitation? There is a great painting of the Satyr and Nymph with some really lovely dogs in it. And, in another, a beautiful rabbit frightening an infant Cupid.
There is at least one of his works that I can’t show you though. The citizens of Renaissance Florence really enjoyed a carnival and, on at least on occasion, Piero built a float for them. It was such an amazing thing that it was still remembered by old men when Vasari was writing about Piero forty-six years after the artist’s death. So luckily, even though we can’t look at it, we have a fine description. Vasari tells us that it was not remembered for it’s beauty but: “on account of a strange, horrible, and unexpected invention…”. It was an enormous carriage, drawn by buffalo. It was painted black and covered with white crosses and skeletons. On the top was a huge figure of death carrying a scythe. All around the sides were tombs. Every time the procession came to halt, there was a sound of muffled trumpets accompanied by low moaning. The tombs opened and figures disguised as skeletons came out and sang a mournful song. The carriage was accompanied by many more skeletons who were riding on the most emaciated horses that could be found in the city. The horses wore black caparisons (which are cloaks for horses, you can imagine what I mean) which were painted with white crosses. Each horse was accompanied by four grooms dressed ‘in the guise of death’ and carrying a black torch. They also carried black standards painted with crosses, bones and death’s heads. Piero received a great deal of praise for this spectacle, which was the cause of both marvel and fear in equal measure. He really set the standard for future carnivals. It’s such a shame there isn’t a visual record. The best I can do is ‘The Triumph of Death’ by Bruegel.