In the first article in this series of three to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522), I had reached the first of his major mythological paintings in the mid-1490s.
At some time between 1485-1505, Piero was commissioned to paint Incarnation of Jesus, also known as Immaculate Conception with Saints, for the Tebaldi Chapel in the Church of the Annunziata of Florence. There’s some uncertainty whether he painted this in oils alone, or continued to use egg tempera with them.
The white dove of the Holy Spirit hovers above the head of the Virgin Mary. On the left are Saints John the Evangelist, Philip Benizi and Catherine (kneeling). On the right are Saints Margaret (kneeling), Antoninus and Peter. In the background are vignette scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Flight to Egypt, making this complex multiplex narrative.
The Forest Fire, thought to have been painted in the period 1488-1507, is an unusual theme for one of Piero’s panoramic panels. This was apparently inspired by book 5 of On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) by Lucretius, and is one of the early landscape paintings of the Renaissance. The birds and beasts shown are largely intended to be natural, although some have a decidedly legendary appearance. This painting was commissioned for Francesco del Pugliese, a local merchant.
In about 1499, Piero was commissioned to paint a pair of mythological paintings for Giovanni Vespucci, another distinguished Florentine.
The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (c 1499) shows a story taken from book 3 of Ovid’s Fasti, which had been recently republished in Venice. Bacchus stands with Ariadne, his wife, in the right foreground; he holds a thyrsus, and she is pointing to the wreath on his head. Around them are some of his followers, including several satyrs, making a din to drive the bees away so they can rob them of their honey. Notable among those followers is the drunken Silenus riding an ass to the right of the dead tree.
Its companion, Misfortunes of Silenus (c 1500), echoes the composition of The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus around a central dead tree, and uses multiplex narrative to show Silenus three times, falling off the back of his ass, and in the left and right foreground.
During this period, Piero also painted some of the earliest scenes of hunting, in this case probably combining the use of egg tempera with oils.
A Hunting Scene, from 1495-1505, appears to be derived from The Forest Fire, and includes a fire in the central mass of trees, as well as many animals being hunted.
Return from the Hunt, also from 1495-1505, employs a different composition to show members of a hunting party returning by boat across a lake or broad river, and disembarking on the homeward bank.
Piero’s portrait of A Young Man from about 1500 hasn’t been further identified, but demonstrates the advances in his handling of oils in the eyes and modelling of the face, although there is limited texturing of textiles.
Next week, to mark the five hundredth anniversary of Piero’s death, I will look at a selection of paintings from later in his career, when he earned himself a reputation as being an eccentric and recluse.