review of the Piero di Cosimo Exhibit now at the National Gallery of Art

Piero di Cosimo is not a name that automatically springs to mind in discussions of Renaissance artists. Piero lived his entire life in Florence and became a talented and imaginative painter in a period when Florence was in its High Renaissance bloom of prolific artistic activity. While a talented and much sought-after landscape and portrait painter, he was largely overshadowed by his more famous, high-profile Florentine contemporaries such as Michelangelo, Botticelli and Leonardo. And modern history hasn’t treated him any better. For centuries he languished in relative obscurity in the pantheon of great Renaissance painters.

But Piero may finally be getting his due.  Beginning, February 1, 2015, the National Gallery of Art will host a rare exhibition of over 40 of his collected works. The exhibition is titled Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence and, while not the first exhibition of the artist’s work, it is the largest retrospective ever devoted to the Italian Renaissance master and one of the largest and most anticipated exhibitions of 2015. Given that only 50 or so works of art have been definitively attributed to Piero, the National Gallery exhibition constitutes a major part of the artist’s extant work.

Included in the exhibit are a number of the artist’s works on loan from major galleries from around the world including the National Gallery of Canada, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts as well as well as the Galleria degli Uffizi and the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence, to name a few. Also included are various paintings on loan from churches in Italy as well as some works from the National Gallery’s own portfolio. The exhibition will provide a comprehensive perspective of the artist’s oeuvre, from the sacred to the secular, from landscapes to portraits and from the beautiful and serene to, well, the bewildering and bizarre.

The son of a goldsmith, Piero was born in Florence in 1462. He apprenticed as an artist in the workshop of Cosimo Roselli with whom he established an enduring relationship and from whom he subsequently adopted his recognized surname (his given name was Piero di Lorenzo). In 1482 Piero traveled with Roselli to Rome where he assisted his mentor in painting the landscape background in The Sermon on the Mount fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the only time Piero was involved with fresco work. He developed a great reputation as a portrait painter and his most famous portrait probably is that of Simonetta Vespucci, a Florentine noblewoman renowned for her beauty. That portrait is in the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France and is not part of this exhibit. But several of his portraits of the famous as well as the not so famous are included in the exhibition. For example, portraits of Giuliano da Sangallo and Francesco Giamberti, two of the most famous architects of their time, are included as well as those of a young man and a woman whose names have been lost over time.

Unlike some other portrait artists of his time, Piero didn’t specialize exclusively in portraiture but indulged in a diverse range of artistic Promethius Fashioning the First Maninterests. He developed a reputation as a landscape artist as well as a painter of scenes from Classical mythology. For example, Pietro’s Prometheus Fashioning the First Man illustrates Piero’s skills as a landscape painter as well as his fascination with mythology, fantasy and the unusual. In Greek mythology, Prometheus created man from clay in the image of the gods. In Piero’s rendering of this creation myth, Prometheus is shown creating a man from clay before a life-size statue standing on a pedestal. The painting illustrates Piero’s skills as a landscape painter and those with a keen eye can see a city in the near distance. But Piero added his own touches to the painting of the Prometheus myth. Scattered on the edge of the painting are some fascinating but enigmatic, hard-to-overlook details such as the man-beast scaling the tree on the left or the basket of spilled flowers in front of the man pinned under a boulder on the right. These and other touches of fantasy have perplexed gallery viewers and art historians searching for meaning.

Piero’s love of mythology and fantasy with touches of the bizarre is on ample display in the exhibit in paintings such as The Discovery of Honey, The Hunt, The Return from the Hunt and Vulcan and Aeolus.  

But Piero also took up religious subjects, some of which are considered Madonna and Child Enthroned by Piero di Cosimohis greatest masterpieces. Two of the more captivating ones on display include Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Elizabeth of Hungary, Catherine of Alexandria, Peter and John the Evangelist with Angels and the delicately-rendered Madonna and Child with Two Musician Angels. These works are in the classic Renaissance spirit that emphasizes emotional subtlety, elegance, vivid colors and a visual richness.

In his later years Piero mentored some aspiring artists that apprenticedMadonna and Child by Piero di Cosimo with him and was influential in their professional development. One of his most prominent pupils was Andrea del Sarto who also later became one of Florence’s leading painters.

In his later years, Piero became decidedly eccentric. He reputedly was so terrified of thunder storms and fire that he refused to light fires to cook his food and instead subsisted on hard-boiled eggs. He refused to clean his home and studio, seldom bathed and became reclusive and anti-social. Giorgio Vasari in his famous Lives of the Artists, described Piero in his later years as having “grown so odd and whimsical that nothing could be done with him”.

The exhibition will run from February 1st through May 3rd, 2015. An illustrated catalogue containing various essays and detailed descriptions of each of the exhibition pieces written by prominent art historians and curators is available for purchase in the Gallery shops. The 240-page catalogue is published in both hardcover and softcover.

The National Gallery’s Piero di Cosimo retrospective exhibition will be the only exhibition of the artist’s work in the US. After the Washington retrospective, a modified version of the National Gallery retrospective will go on view at the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. That exhibition will have fewer samples of Piero’s work but will include some additional works by Piero’s contemporaries.

If your travel plans include a visit to Washington, DC in the near future, plan on spending part of a day viewing the Piero di Cosimo exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

The piero di cosimo Exhibit is in the west wing of the national gallery of art february 1st through May 3, 2015.
The National Gallery is located at 6th and Constitution Ave NW in Washington, DC. The Gallery’s phone number is 202-737-4215. Additional information regarding the Piero di Cosimo exhibit is available at the National Gallery’s website.

For other articles on food and Italian wine see Food and Wine

©Richard Marcis
January 21, 2015


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