Piero di Cosimo:
The Poetry of Painting in
National Gallery of Art,
February 1May 3, 2015.
Piero di Cosimo:
Visions Strange and Beautiful
by Dennis Geronimus.
Yale University Press, 2007,
Because a painting can be apprehended all at once, this art form, more than any other, encourages love at first sight. Some thirty or forty years ago, I encountered a painting, Death of a Nymph by Piero di Cosimo, at the National Gallery in London, and I fell in love. Death of a Nymph is a compellingly bold and simple composition. A woman in a diaphanous, scanty garment lies dead in a meadow, bleeding from the throat. She is attended on the left by a faun holding her shoulder and tentatively touching her forehead, and on the right by a large brown dog watching solemnly from a respectful distance. Some of what I loved about the painting was the dog. In all the years of viewing art since, I have found only one other comparably moving rendition: the grave gray dog in Dosso Dossi’s Enchantress, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The dogs of Piero and Dosso are both so expressive of empathetic emotion that they could almost be human. In fact, the dog in Dosso’s painting is human, transformed into his false shape through sorcery. What is marvelous about Piero’s creature is that he is at least as noble as Dosso’s and yet, with his muddy paws, he remains all dog.
The beauty of Death of a Nymph rests partly in the bluish seashore, enlivened with waterfowl, that constitutes the upper third of the horizontal panel; among Renaissance Italian painters, only Leonardo, who influenced Piero, painted background landscapes that are so supremely lovely. In the distance in this painting, three dogs are frolicking on the beach. Before I knew much about Piero, I saw those revelers as kin to the ploughman in Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, memorialized in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” But take another look, and you notice that the grieving hound in the foreground has wet tail and hind legs. The seaside games precede in time the discovery of the fallen nymph. One of the three merrymakersrecognizably our protagonisthas abruptly rushed to the site of the tragedy. This is not a scene, to quote Auden, “where the dogs go on with their doggy life” alongside someone else’s disaster. Piero is portraying awareness, not obliviousness.
Piero’s work is all about hyperclarity. He believed that if you look close and hard, the world becomes fantastic. One way to make that viewpoint visible was to infuse the mythological with the real. The disruption by drunken centaurs of a wedding of Lapiths (a legendary pre-Hellenic tribe) is a theme that appealed to Renaissance painters who loved to show bodies writhing in violent conflict. When Piero portrayed the calamitous nuptials, he too luxuriated in the mayhem; but he placed front and center the beautiful Centaur Hylonome, as she cradles her dying husband and attempts in vain to stanch his fatal wound. Throughout his depictions of the legendary, Piero incorporated pinpoints of prosaic reality. Clothes hang from the windows of houses in the background of the Liberation of Andromeda, as the armored, airborne Perseus descends to slay the glorious tusked and scaly dragon. Clothes also dry on a line in the Volto Santo, behind an image of Christ. Piero inserted a more novel touch of humanity in his painting of Venus and Mars lying in postcoital languor. In Piero’s imagination, instead of fulfilling his supporting role as a conventional cherub, Cupid is a chubby little child nestled in his mother’s arm and draped in her sheer shawl. At his side is a giant white hare, almost as big as he is. A large butterfly, wings outspread, dawdles on Venus’s knee. A fly dozes on Mars’s pillow.
What is the giant bunny doing here? Or the butterfly? You might ask the same about the oversized grasshopper in Vulcan and Aeolus, or the large mockingbird poised to snack on a gigantic white speckled caterpillar in the tondo (now in Sao Paulo) of the Madonna and Child with the young St. John. Even when you can ascribe a symbolic significance, as to the fourteen tadpoles, emblems of regeneration, that are swimming in a pool in the (Toledo, Ohio) tondo of the Madonna’s adoration of the Child, the reasoning seems more justification than motivation. Tadpoles and caterpillars appealed to Piero for what they were, not what they represented.
Personally, he seems to have been an odd man. The little that is known about his life comes mostly from Vasari, the unreliable but indispensable chronicler of Italian Renaissance artists. From Vasari, we learn that Piero was “very strange” and liked going off by himself and letting his imagination wander. Caring nothing for food, he would have an assistant boil up fifty eggs at a time when heating glue, so that he might save money on firewood as well as sustain himself without fuss. He couldn’t bear the sound of men coughing, babies crying, friars chanting, or bells chiming. He let his garden run wild, preferring to see plants and animals free of cultivation. He would examine a spit-stained wall and discern in the blots equestrian fighters and urban conglomerations. How much of this is true is anyone’s guess. But as the art historian Dennis Geronimus points out, Piero’s eccentricities did not prevent him from gaining the patronage of the most important families in Florence. He was not an outsider artist.
A recent exhibition of Piero’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington provided a rare tour through the peculiar recesses of the artist’s sensibility. Some masterpieces, including Death of a Nymph and Venus and Mars, were absent. Nevertheless, with forty-four paintings, the show brought together a majority of Piero’s surviving work. Everywhere his childlike wonder at the world was on display. Consider the giraffe. In 1486, the Sultan of Egypt presented Lorenzo de Medici with a gift of this exotic creature, previously unseen in Florence. It provoked an enormous sensation, and Piero was not alone in painting it. (Vasari, for one, depicted the presentation of the tribute to Lorenzo.) But who else would pair it with an adorable and wholly imagined baby giraffe? Who else, in another painting, this one depicting the return of primitive people from a hunt, would include two fur-clad women nursing an orphaned cub or pup? Even more remarkable than his empathy for animals was Piero’s animation of the landscape. A faun emerging from the hollow of a tree in The Discovery of Honey seems to be coming out of a womb. The rock on which Andromeda is tied to await the dragon stares out like an open-mouthed jewfish confronting the monster. Piero’s gnarled, pollarded trees and craggy cliffs have more personality than do the human subjects of lesser artists.
And what of his people? Through a convergence of genius with a historical moment, Piero created portraits of the Virgin Mary and myriad saints that manage miraculously to be both quotidian and sacred. The holy men often have bald and wrinkled foreheads, and the women can seem worn and worried. Yet they look wise, devout, blessed. In the continuum of art history, Piero is poised on a short, narrow bridge that leads from inspiration to allusion, from the beatific renderings of the saints in exalted surroundings by Giotto and Fra Angelico to the barroom naturalism of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew and, much later, Jacques-Louis David’s randy teenaged Cupid slipping out of Psyche’s bed. It is identifiably the real world that Piero is looking at, but seen through his eyes, the world is enchanted. Suggestively, in an unusual double portrait he painted with Flemish fastidiousness of a father and son, he placed in front of each a professional symbola pen and compass for an architect, a musical score for a musician. It was the sort of marker that identified a saint, and this is its first recorded use in a secular Western portrait.
Piero’s small, jewel-like image of Simonetta Vespucci was not in the show but merits a pilgrimage to the Musée Condé in Chantilly. Depicted bare-breasted and in profile, Simonetta is adorned by an extraordinary architectural hairdo, festooned with strands of pearls, and an even more unusual necklace, which consists of a golden chain around which a live black snake is sinuously intertwined, its tongue flicking at the tip of its tail. For obvious reasons, the painting was thought by some to depict Cleopatra, but this snake is not poisonous and the woman is virtuous. Painted after her death, Piero’s portrait was intended to memorialize a wife who died very young and was thought to embody beauty and chastity. The world is charged with her undying presence: the effulgent clouds behind her reiterate the refined curves of her forehead, nose, and chin. It is revealing to compare this painting to earlier portraits in profile of aristocratic women, such as Pisanello’s of a princess against a background of butterflies and columbines, or those of the Pollaiuolo brothers, done closer to Piero’s time. The butterflies in Pisanello’s magnificent picture are a tip-off: they are ravishingly decorative multiples, unlike Piero’s butterflies, which are exquisite individuals. The women in the portraits by Pisanello and the Pollaiuolos are idealized beauties who don’t seem real. Piero’s Simonetta is both a remembrance and an apotheosis, a particular woman and also an ideal.
At the National Gallery exhibition, I saw a painting by Piero that was new to me, of St. Jerome in the desert. At first, I was disappointed. Where was the lion? Piero, so enamored of the zoological, elected here to omit Jerome’s usual consort. Instead, he had applied a decorator’s zeal to Jerome’s cave, outfitting it with curtains and a desk. In the foreground, he presented the exhausted saint, crouching by a rocky outcrop and holding a stone to beat his breast in self-mortification. Jerome has placed a skull and a crucifix on a tree stump; his eyes, though, are fixed on a solitary wild lily that is growing out of the rock. If you look closely, you will see what he sees: the calyx of the flower is in the shape of a cross. This is Piero’s abiding message. When you pay profound attention, the form of the divine becomes visible in nature. Through the magic of awareness, the world catches fire and is transformed.
Arthur Lubow's biography of Diane Arbus will be out in June 2016.