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Piero di Cosimo

 
 

 

 



Piero
di Cosimo

born 1462, Florence
died 1521, Florence


original name Piero Di Lorenzo Italian Renaissance painter noted for hiseccentric character and his fanciful mythological paintings.

His name derives from that of his master, Cosimo Rosselli, whom he assisted (1481) in the frescoes “Crossing of the Red Sea” and “Sermon on the Mount” in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. There he saw the frescoes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandajo, whose styles dominate his early “Story of Jason” (1486; National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town). In “The Visitation with Two Saints” (c. 1487; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the permanent influence of the enamel-like colours of Hugo van der Goes' “Portinari Altarpiece” is first visible.

Piero's mature style is exemplified by his mythological paintings, which exhibit a bizarre, romantic fantasy. Many are based on Vitruvius' account of the evolution of man. They are filled with fantastic hybrid forms of men and animals engaged in revels (“The Discovery of Wine,” c. 1500; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) or in fighting (“Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths,” 1486; National Gallery, London). Others show early man learning to use fire (“A Forest Fire,” c. 1487; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and tools (“Vulcan and Aeolus,” c. 1486; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). The multitude of firm, glossy-skinned nudes in these paintings show Piero's interest in Luca Signorelli's work. But, while “The Discovery of Honey” (c. 1500; Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Mass.) retains Signorelli's figure types, its forms are more softly modeled, and its light is warmer, showing Piero's mastery of the new technique of oil painting. In the “Rescue of Andromeda” (c. 1515; Uffizi, Florence), Piero adopts Leonardo da Vinci's sfumato (smoky light and shade) to achieve a new lush, atmospheric effect.

Piero painted several portraits, of which the best known is the memorial bust of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1498; Conde Museum, Chantilly, France), mistress of Giuliano de' Medici. Simonetta is partly nude, and her rhythmic profile is accentuated by the black cloud placed behind it. She wears a gold necklace, around which two snakes coil, possibly an allusion to her death from consumption. The transience of youth and beauty is the theme of the famous “Death of Procris” (c. 1490–1500; National Gallery, London). The softly undulating form of the accidentally slain Procris lies in a meadow bathed in a golden light while a curious satyr kneels beside her and her faithful dog—considered the first humanized dog in art—mourns at her feet.

Piero's art reflects his bizarre, misanthropic personality. He belonged to no school of painting. Instead, he borrowed frommany artists, incorporating elements of their style into his own idiosyncratic manner. He painted many works to please only himself (an unusual practice for the time) and declared that he often found inspiration for his paintings in the stains on walls.

 

 
 


Venus, Mars, and Cupid
1490
Wood panel, 72 x 182 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
 


The Death of Procris
1500
Oil on panel, 65 x 183 cm
National Gallery, London
 

           
   


Allegory
1500
Panel
National Gallery of Art, Washington
 

 

 


St Mary Magdalene
1490
Tempera on panel, 72,5 x 76 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

 

see collection:

Piero di Cosimo

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Piero di Cosimo:

Simonetta Vespucci


  











Giorgione
Laura
(detail)
1506

As in Giorgione's Laura, Simonetta's naked breasts are an allusion to the Amazons, to whom antique legend attributed ex ceptinal chastity.


Piero di Cosimo
Simonetta Vespucci
1520

 



Piero di Cosimo
Simonetta Vespucci
(detail)
1520

The withered tree often symbolised death in Italian Renaissance landscapes.

Here, Piero di Cosimo has chosen a portrait type which was already outmoded by the time he came to paint it (c. 1520).The profile view may have been borrowed from a medal portrait used by Piero as a model, since Simonetta Vespucci, whose latinized name appears on the strip along the bottom of the painting, had died of consumption in 1476. Simonetta was the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici (1453-1478). Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494), a Florentine poet close to the Medici family, extols her grace and beauty in a renowned love poem: "La bella Simonetta". In the poem he compares her to a nymph frolicking with her playmates on a meadow:

"...Thus Amor sent his brightly burning spirits forth from eyes so sweet to fire the hearts of men.
A miracle it was
that I did not at once reduce to ash."


Poliziano eulogizes her "animated face", framed by loosely hanging golden hair - a symbol of Simonetta's virginal purity. In Piero di Cosimo's painting, in contrast, the young woman wears the elegantly plaited hair-style of a "Donna": a complex arrangement of braids decorated with pearls and intertwined with strings of beads. Her high, shaved forehead corresponds to a fashion in Italian, as well as Netherlandish, aristocratic circles in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Unlike Antonio del Pollaiuolo's profile of a young woman'', painted c. 1465, almost a cameo-portrait against an even blue sky, Piero di Cosimo seeks to characterise Simonetta's mood by posing her against an atmospheric landscape. There is something gloomy in the repetitive, almost laminated outlines of the evening clouds, possibly evoking the mood of her early death. This corresponds to the withered tree on the left, a symbol which usually stands for death in Italian Renaissance landscape backgrounds. The motif is echoed by the snake wound around her necklace. Giorgio Vasari, who evidently was not acquainted with symbolism of this kind, saw in this an allusion to Cleopatra, who, according to Plutarch, had died from the bite of an asp. This explanation is unconvincing, however. It is more likely that the snake is a reference to the "hieroglyphic" symbolism of Egyptian "impresa". In the mythography of late Classical antiquity, the snake, especially when shown biting its own tail, was a symbol for eternity, or for time's rejuvenating cycle. It was therefore attributed to Janus, the god of the new year, and to Saturn (Kronos, whose name was often confused with time, Chronos), or "Father Time". In the inscription Simonetta is described as "Ianuensis" (belonging to Janus). The snake was also the symbol of Prudentia. Thus Simonetta is praised for her wisdom. Her contemporaries would not have been offended by her naked breasts. As in Titian's Venus at her Mirror, this motif may be seen as an allusion to the "Venus pudica", or "chaste" Venus. In Pans Bordone's allegories on the subject of lovers, executed c. 1550, it was a bridal symbol. Thus Simonetta is honoured not as Giuliano de' Medici's mistress, but as his betrothed, or perhaps even as his wife.

Norbert Schneider

 

 

 


Piero di Cosimo
Simonetta Vespucci
(detail)
1520

Simonetta was a member of the rich Florentine Vespucci family.
She was related to the famous merchant and discoverer
Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), who gave his first name
to the American continent.

 

 


see collection:  Piero di Cosimo

 

 

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