Five hundred years ago today, the Florentine artist Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522) died in his home city of the plague. In the first and second articles in this series, I have looked at a selection of his surviving paintings up to 1500. In this third and concluding article, I show some from the sixteenth century, when he apparently became increasingly eccentric and eventually reclusive. According to Vasari’s biography, he was terrified of thunderstorms and fire, as a result of which he lived mainly on hard-boiled eggs. He also refused to have his studio cleaned, although that habit has been not uncommon in painters ancient and modern.
Piero continued to paint classical mythology on panoramic panels, including Tritons and Nereids, with Satyrs and Centaurs (c 1500-05), which is believed to have been commissioned for the Palazzo Vespucci.
There’s uncertainty over the date that he painted Venus, Mars and Cupid, which is of significance. If it was painted in about 1505, then it may have been a tribute to the ageing Botticelli, whose 1485 painting of this theme (below) must have been its major influence. If it was painted earlier, perhaps in 1490, then it seems to be a simple reworking with Venus nude, added natural history, and a fine landscape background.
Piero’s Fight between Lapiths and Centaurs (1500-15) is one of my favourite accounts of this wedding that went so terribly wrong, and follows Ovid’s account in his Metamorphoses in careful detail. In the centre foreground, Hylonome embraces and kisses the dying Cyllarus, a huge arrow-like spear resting underneath them. Immediately behind them, on the large carpets laid out for the wedding feast, centaurs are still abducting women. All around are scenes of pitched and bloody battles, with eyes being gouged out, Lapiths and Centaurs wielding clubs and other weapons at one another.
Piero’s Andromeda freed by Perseus from about 1510-15 is another careful account taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, using multiplex narrative.
Centred on the great bulk of Cetus, Perseus stands on its back and is about to hack at its neck with his sword. At the upper right, Perseus is shown a few moments earlier, as he was flying past in his winged sandals. To the left of Cetus, Andromeda is still secured to the rock by a prominent red fabric binding (not chains), and is bare only to her waist.
In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents, the King and Queen, still stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground is a celebratory party already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers, to feast their delivery from the attacks by Cetus.
Piero’s Two Angels from about 1510-15 appears to be a simpler double-portrait without any underlying narrative.
Probably the last of Piero’s surviving mythological paintings is his account of Prometheus, again using multiplex narrative effectively, this time on two panels. As is common in classical mythology, the myth differs considerably across various accounts. After the overthrow of the Titans, when Zeus and the Olympian gods are firmly in command, Prometheus incurs the wrath of Zeus by tricking him into taking what appears to be the larger share of the meat of a cow, but which turns out to be its bones.
For that, Zeus withholds fire from mankind. Prometheus is then driven to steal it for the mortals, angering Zeus further. The senior god then asks the Titan to mould earth to form a woman, whom Athena dresses and adorns. This is Pandora, declared by Zeus to become an evil to all mortal men. As his punishment, Prometheus is chained to a column, and each day an eagle arrives and feeds on the Titan’s liver, which regenerates overnight. This torment is finally relieved when Heracles, with the consent of Zeus, kills the eagle.
The first panel of The Myth of Prometheus from 1515 tells some of the start of the classical myth. Beneath a statue of the Titan, at the left Prometheus is fashioning not a woman from earth, but a man. On the right Athena is dressing that man, and then flies away with him. The second panel recaps the creation of the man, and Prometheus’s punishment.
In 1520, Piero painted another tondo, showing the Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels. In its background is a fine landscape and sky.
At the time, epidemics of fatal infectious disease repeatedly swept through the cities of Italy, and much of Europe. Although not as severe as the later outbreak which lasted from 1527-31, Piero died of plague in 1522.
While he isn’t as famous as his contemporaries Botticelli or Leonardo da Vinci, Piero di Cosimo was a major painter of the Italian Renaissance who broke new ground in his distinctive paintings of secular subjects, most prominently mythology, and in his fine landscape backgrounds.