One of this year’s most important anniversaries is that it’s half a millennium since the death of the Renaissance master Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522). For much of that time, in accordance with Vasari’s biography, it was thought that he’d died the previous year. However, recently discovered documents establish that he died during an outbreak of plague in Florence, on 12 April 1522. This is the first of three articles looking at the little we know of his career, and a selection of his major works.
Piero was born in the city of Florence, the son of a goldsmith, and was apprenticed to Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507) there. As with other artists, he named himself in honour of his master, hence is known as Piero di Cosimo. Although Rosselli wasn’t in the same league as his younger contemporary Sandro Botticelli, he was one of the masters who was summoned to Rome in 1481 by Pope Sixtus IV to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Rosselli took with him a team thought to include Piero, by then probably a master in his own right.
Piero was active at a time when oil painting was replacing more traditional egg tempera as the preferred medium for easel paintings. Many of his works therefore employ both, as was common at the time.
Piero’s Sacred Conversation, or Virgin and Child Between John the Baptist and Saint Magdalena, was probably painted using both media in around 1480, perhaps shortly before he travelled to Rome with Rosselli. The figure to the left of the Virgin Mary is Mary Magdalene, and to the right is Saint John the Baptist.
Visitation, from the decade 1480-90, features the Virgin Mary and a much older Elizabeth shaking hands. The saints seated in front of them are Nicholas (left) and Anthony. Nicholas of Myra is reading a gospel, and at his feet is a golden ball; Anthony the Great has a bell at his feet, and a Tau cross in the shape of the letter T.
From around 1490, Piero’s surviving works are predominantly mythological stories, which are among his most distinctive and original paintings. Many use panoramic panels with rich landscape backgrounds influenced by the Northern Renaissance. Paintings from the north, such as those commissioned by the Portinaris, had arrived in Florence in the early 1480s and were soon reflected in the work of local painters. Piero’s choice of format was probably set by demand for paintings set into wedding chests (cassone), headboards (spalliera) and other decorative panelling.
A couple of Piero’s early paintings of mythology centred on stories about Hephaestus or Vulcan. The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos from about 1490 shows the god being helped to his feet after he had been thrown from Olympus by Jupiter, and landed on the island of Lemnos. Here a young Vulcan is just below centre, being aided by a group of six local nymphs.
Piero also assembled his own mythical narratives, such as that shown in Vulcan and Aeolus from about 1490. From the left the figures are a river god, Vulcan forging a horseshoe, a figure (possibly Aeolus, keeper of the winds) riding a horse, a man curled asleep in a foetal position, a couple and their infant son, and four carpenters erecting the frame of a building. Among the animals are a giraffe and a camel. It’s thought this shows early humans developing crafts at the start of civilisation.
Few of Piero’s portraits have survived, and the most fascinating of them shows Simonetta Vespucci. Born Simonetta Cattaneo in 1453, she married Marco Vespucci when she was only fifteen or sixteen. He was the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the first person to demonstrate that the New World of the West Indies and Brazil wasn’t part of Asia.
Once married, she lived with her husband in Florence, where she was a great favourite at the court of the de’ Medicis. Giuliano de’ Medici entered a jousting tournament in 1475 bearing a banner on which Botticelli had painted an image of Simonetta as Pallas Athene. She had the reputation of being the most beautiful woman in the whole of northern Italy, but that wasn’t to last long: she died of tuberculosis in 1476, when she was only twenty-two.
There are many paintings which are claimed to have been portraits of her, but perhaps the most credible of them is Piero’s Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, painted in 1490, just fourteen years after her death. The melanistic adder wrapped around her necklace may be a reference to the suicide of Cleopatra, and marks her out as a femme fatale.
St Mary Magdalene, painted between 1490-95, is a favourite religious portrait, which includes her distinctive container of myrrh at the right, and frames her in an unusual trompe l’oeil.
My personal favourite of Piero’s paintings is another enigmatic work, usually claimed to show The Death of Procris, but perhaps more accurately titled A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, and painted in about 1495.
It uses the full width of a panoramic panel to show a satyr with his goat legs and distinctive ears, ministering to a dying or dead nymph, who has a severe wound in her throat. At her feet is a hunting dog, with another three in the distance.
In the myth of the death of Procris, though, Cepahalus isn’t a satyr but an Aeolian prince; Procris was impaled in the chest by a javelin; Procris was behind cover, where she was spying on Cephalus, not out in the open; and Cephalus had only one hound, a gift from Diana, which had in any case already been turned to marble. This appears to be a superb painting of another quite different, story.