Piero di CosimoHe was born on 2 January 1462. His father, Lorenzo di Piero d’Antonio, was apparently a blacksmith or toolmaker (not a goldsmith as stated by Vasari), who lived on the Via della Scala in Florence. By 1480, he was an assistant in the workshop of Cosimo Rosselli, from whom he took the name of Piero di Cosimo. He may have assisted Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel in 1481-82 (helping him with the portraits and landscapes of his frescoes according to Vasari). By 1482, at the age of twenty, he was a member of the artists’ confraternity (Compagnia di San Luca), but he appears to have retained close ties to Rosselli’s workshop until Rosselli’s death in 1507. Piero’s early works show the influence of Filippino Lippi and Signorelli. Later, he was much influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, and developed a softer, more painterly style.
There are very few signed or dated or well-documented pictures, and most attributions are based on descriptions in Vasari. He was famous in his own day for brilliantly inventive (but inevitably ephemeral) decorations for masques and carnival processions. These included a macabre Triumph of Death – probably performed in 1506 or 1511 and richly described by Vasari – in which a huge Grim Reaper was driven through the streets on a chariot drawn by black buffaloes, accompanied by figures dressed as skeletons issuing from tombs and ghastly horsemen in black carrying torches and standards with skulls and bones. His best-known surviving works are highly original and often amusing spalliere (horizontal wall or furniture paintings) illustrating ancient myths or the violence of primitive life, with wild or imaginary beasts, satyrs and centaurs. He also painted a number of altarpieces, a greater number of smaller religious pictures (especially tondi) and a few portraits. He did not run a large workshop and (apart from his putative early efforts in the Sistine Chapel) he is not known to have worked in fresco.
Piero was patronised by some of Florence’s most prominent patrician families (Vespucci, Pugliese, Strozzi, Capponi and Gondi), but a reputation for quirkiness could have cost him important public commissions. He is the most eccentric artist in Vasari’s Lives – a neurotic recluse, frightened of fire and thunder and intolerant of everyday noises such as people coughing or bells ringing, who lived on hard-boiled eggs which he cooked fifty at a time in his glue pots. George Eliot, inspired by Vasari's vivid description of Piero's quixotic personality and lifestyle, included him as an amusingly contankerous character in her historical novel Romola (1863). In the 1930s, Piero was claimed as a Proto-Surrealist, anticipating the likes of Salvador Dalì and Max Ernst. There has been a more recent tendency to play down Piero's strangeness, but the extraordinary inventiveness and sheer fantasticality of his imagery and subject matter can scarcely be denied.
Piero died, probably of the plague, on 12 April 1522 and was buried in his parish church of San Pier Maggiore (now destroyed). He was master of several great painters of the next generation – Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo.
*Giuliano da Sangallo; Francesco Giamberti. Wood, each 48 x 34.
Giuliano da Sangallo (about 1443-1516) started life as a woodworker and became Lorenzo the Magnificent’s favourite architect. His buildings include the villa at Poggio a Caiano, Santa Maria delle Carceri at Prato, the Palazzo Gondi in Florence, and the sacristy added to Brunelleschi’s church of Santo Spirito. His brother Antonio the Elder and nephew Antonio the Younger were also major architects. Giuliano has a pair of compasses and a goose feather quill on the ledge before him. His father Francesco Giamberti (1405-80), founder of the dynasty of architects, was a carpenter and musician. He has a sheet of music on his ledge and, in the right background, there is a tiny scene of an organ being played and a choir singing in front of a church. The church has been identified recently (by Doris Carl in the January 2015 Burlington Magazine) as Santa Maria di Sangallo – Francesco's parish church, where he was organist from the early 1470s. Giuliano’s portrait may have been painted from life but his father’s must be posthumous. Suggested datings have ranged very widely (1480s to early 1500s).
Vasari saw the portraits in the house of Giuliano’s son Francesco. They were in the collection of William III of England and passed by inheritance to Holland, where they were hung in Het Loo Palace. They were once thought to represent Guido d’Arezzo (the inventor of musical notation) and Laurens Janszoon Coster (the alleged inventor of printing), and were at various times ascribed to Lucas van Leyden, Holbein and Dürer. The names of the artist and the sitters were only rediscovered in 1879 by Gustavo Frizzoni (who noted the resemblance between the portrait of Giuliano and the woodcut in Vasari’s Lives). Transferred from the Mauritshuis at The Hague in 1948. Giuliano’s face now appears somewhat abraded, following the removal of repaint in a restoration of 2005. After restoration, the two portraits, previously hung separately, were framed together as a diptych.
*Venus and Mars. Wood, 72 x 182.
This picture was once owned by Vasari, who describes it enthusiastically as follows: ‘… a picture of a nude Venus with a nude Mars lying asleep in a meadow full of flowers, surrounded by cupids who are carrying his helmet, gauntlets and other armour. It also contains a myrtle bush and a cupid frightened by a rabbit, with the doves of Venus and other accessories of Love. This picture is in the house of Giorgio Vasari, treasured in memory of the author whose fancies always delighted him.’ The composition and iconographical detail recalls Botticelli’s picture in the National Gallery, London. It was probably commissioned as a spalliera panel (bedhead?) for a marriage chamber, and may date from the 1490s or early 1500s. After Vasari’s death, it is said to have passed with the Gaddi estate to the Casa Nerli in Borgo San Niccolò, Florence. It was purchased by von Rumohr for the Berlin Gallery in 1829.
Borgo San Lorenzo (30 km north-east of Florence. Pieve di San Lorenzo.
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist and St Thomas. Wood, 202 x 165.
John the Baptist points to the Child (announcing Christ's coming ministry) and Thomas the Apostle holds a spear (instrument of his martyrdom). Two angels hovering overhead hold a bishop's mitre. There are no early references to the painting, which is first recorded in the oratory of the Compagnia degli Azzuri at Borgo San Lorenzo. After the penitent brotherhood was suppressed, the picture was transferred in 1792-93 to the oratory of the Santissimo Crocifisso. Formerly ascribed merely to the Florentine school, it was published as a work of Piero di Cosimo in 1905 (by Carlo Gamba in Rivista d'Arte). Late (about 1518-20). Formerly repainted and now badly damaged by abrasion and exposure. After an earthquake in 1919, the picture was taken to Florence, where it remained for almost sixty years. It was returned to Borgo San Lorenzo (Chiesa del Crocifisso) after restoration in the mid-1970s. Restored in Florence again in 2005-6, and returned to Borgo San Lorenzo (Pieve di San Lorenzo) in September 2014.
Boston. Museum of Fine Arts.
Two Angels. Canvas (transferred from panel), 87 x 65.
A fragment, cut from the upper left corner of the large altarpiece of the Madonna with SS. Vincent Ferrer and Jerome in the Yale University Gallery. Bequeathed by Mrs Turner Sargent in 1894 (with an attribution to the Sienese painter Girolamo del Pacchia). The fragment of Two Angels from the right-hand corner was given to Boston’s Church of the Advent in 1860 and is now in a private collection.
Budapest. Fine Arts Museum.
‘Volto Santo’. Wood, 160 x 121.
The Volto Santo, a large polychromed wooden crucifix supposed carved by Nicodemus, is preserved in Lucca Cathedral. This curious representation of it is set in a hilly landscape with a city (Lucca?) in the middle distance. The golden chalice under Christ's right foot bears, on its base, the tiny fleur-de-lis of the Florentine Republic. The picture was probably commissioned by a confraternity of silk weavers (Compagnia della Croce) that was originally based in Lucca Cathedral. In the right distance, a tiny figure is shown painting on a wall a lion emblematic of the confraternity's patron saint, Mark the Evangelist. The picture was acquired by the Budapest museum in 1893 from Luigi Resimini of Venice, and was previously ascribed to Giuliano Bugiardini, the Milanese Andrea Solario and the Veronese Giovanni Francesco Caroto. The attribution to Piero di Cosimo was made in 1921 (by the Hungarian collector Sándor Lederer). According to Vasari, Piero’s master Cosimo Rosselli painted an altarpiece depicting the Volto Santo for the guild of silk weavers in the church of San Marco at Florence. (This may be the picture, now attributed to the ‘Master of the Fiesole Nativity’, in the County Museum, Los Angeles.)
Cambridge (Mass.). Fogg Art Museum.
*Misfortunes of Silenus. Wood, 79 x 128.
The subject, identified by Panofsky in 1937, is from Ovid’s Fasti. Silenus, stung by bees in his quest for honey, is thrown from his donkey. He is shown again on the right of the picture, being levered to his feet, and on the left, sitting on the ground as children plaster mud on his face to soothe his stings. Once assumed to be unfinished, the panel has been damaged by harsh cleaning and censorious scraping and overpainting. (The satyrs have been emasculated and a scene of bestiality with a donkey has been painted out.) A better-preserved companion picture, representing the Discovery of Honey, is at Worcester (Mass.).
The pair are almost certainly from a series of bacchanalian scenes which Vasari records were painted for Giovanni Vespucci. They were probably commissioned after 1499, when the Vespucci acquired their palazzo on the Via dei Servi. They seem to have remained in situ while the ownership of the palazzo passed to the Salviati, Ridolfi, Baglioni and Incontri. They came to England in the 1850s, and remained until 1935 in the Sebright collection at Beechwood, near Dunstable. The Misfortunes of Silenus was acquired by the Fogg Museum in 1940. Two long, frieze-like panels of Tritons and Nereids (37 x 158) may have formed part of the same decoration in the Palazzo Vespucci; they are now in private collections in Washington and Pesaro.
Chantilly. Musée Condé.
*Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (or Cleopatra). Wood, 57 x 42.
She is bare-breasted, her braided hair is threaded with pearls, and a snake has coiled itself around her gold necklace. The prominent inscription in Roman capitals along the bottom – identifying the subject as ‘Simonetta Vespucci of Genoa’ – has often been dismissed as a later addition, but technical evidence has been adduced to defend its authenticity. Simonetta, daughter of the Genoese nobleman Gaspare Cattaneo and wife of Marco Vespucci, was immortalised by Angelo Poliziano as Giuliano de’ Medici’s platonic mistress. It the picture does represent her, it would be a highly idealised portrayal and a posthumous one. Simonetta died of tuberculosis in April 1476 at the age of only twenty-three, and there are no certain portraits of her. (A number of rather similar paintings of female profiles from Botticelli's workshop have sometimes been called (idealised) portraits of Simonetta; but the most widely accepted likeness is probably that of a young woman of the Vespucci family sheltering beneath the Virgin's cloak in Ghirlandaio's frescoed lunette of the Madonna della Misericordia in the church of Ognissanti.)
The alternative interpretation of the subject as Cleopatra rests on the identification of the picture with the ‘very fine head of Cleopatra by Piero, with a serpent around her neck’ seen by Vasari in the house of Francesco da Sangallo. This picture was inherited by Francesco’s son Clemente and then passed, in 1586, to the Vespucci family (who, it has been argued, might have added the Simonetta inscription in honour of their famous ancestor). It remained with the Vespucci until 1841, and then passed into Frédéric Reiset’s collection in Paris. It was confused for a time with Botticelli’s portrait of Simonetta mentioned by Vasari, but was restored to Piero in 1879 by Gustavo Frizzoni. Probably fairly early (1480s?). Previously somewhat dirty, it was cleaned at the Louvre in 2014.
Chicago. Art Institute.
Virgin and Child with St John, St Cecilia(?) and Two Angels. Wood, 75 in dia.
The Christ Child bites into a piece of the fruit (apples or more probably plums) offered him by St John. The girl in profile on the right, holding a book with musical notation, might represent St Cecilia. Such circular paintings (tondi) were painted for private clients and often hung in the bedchambers of wealthy Florentine residences. Around a dozen examples by Piero are known. Probably comparatively late (around 1505). Acquired by the Art Institute in 2007 from a New York private collection. X-rays reveal that Piero originally envisaged setting the figures in a rocky grotto like that in Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks. The oil paint has thinned, causing the surrounding figures (which were painted over dark paint) now to appear darker in tone than the Virgin and Child.
Holy Family. Wood, 165 in dia.
The subject is probably the Flight into Egypt; this is suggested by the water bottle and pair of cherries (a reference to the fruit that miraculously fed Christ on the journey) at the bottom of the picture. The Holy Family are shown at rest in front of an outcrop of rock. Joseph points to the Christ Child, and the infant St John, holding his reed cross, tenderly touches Christ's head. Two angels, seated on top of the rock, sing from a hymnal. The large tondo is similar in style to the Innocenti Altarpiece and probably dates from the 1490s. It is first recorded in the Venerosi collection at Pisa and was later with Samuel Woodburn (a prominent London art dealer). It was acquired by the Dresden Gallery in 1860 as a work of Signorelli, with whom Piero di Cosimo was then often confused. It was first correctly attributed in 1870 by Gustavo Frizzoni (a Bergamask pupil of Giovanni Morelli and a key figure in the rediscovery of Piero di Cosimo).
Edinburgh. National Gallery of Scotland.
Two Angels holding a Crown. Wood, 93 x 184.
This very damaged and repainted lunette is not usually exhibited. It was bequeathed to the gallery in 1924 by Sir Claude Phillips, who had attributed it to Melozzo da Forlì. The attribution to Piero di Cosimo was made by Berenson (1932). Gamba (1940) identified it as a fragment of a lost altarpiece from the church of San Gattolini on the Via Romana in Florence ‘representing a Madonna seated, surrounded by four figures, while two angels in the air are crowning her’ (Vasari). When the church was demolished in 1544, the picture was moved to San Frediano, where it remained until 1787. It was last recorded, in a ruinous state, in the Castelli collection.
Fiesole. San Francesco.
*Immaculate Conception. Wood, 184 x 178.
The composition is remarkably original. God the Father, seated in Heaven among angels with scrolls, extends a rod or sceptre towards the Virgin Mary. Below, six saints display tablets or scrolls bearing inscriptions alluding to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. St Francis and St Jerome kneel on a raised stone platform – which would have seemed, when the picture was in its original position behind the altar, to form an extension of the altar. Francis is represented with bent nails through his hands and Jerome with a stone. Four other saints – usually identified as Augustine and Bernard, to the left, and Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, to the right – stand below the level of the platorm, and are visible only from the thigh or waist up. The picture is mentioned by Vasari (‘a charming little thing, the figures not being very large’). On the strength of an inscription (bottom left) giving Piero’s name and the date 1480, it was once believed to be a youthful work, painted under the influence of Cosimo Rosselli. However, the inscription is a later addition, and the picture is now usually considered one of Piero’s last works (after 1510). Damaged by harsh cleaning in the eighteenth century, the picture was in a very sorry state before restoration in 1984-85, when coarse repaint and darkened varnish were removed.
*Immaculate Conception (Incarnation of Christ). Wood, 206 x 172.
In the earliest Uffizi catalogues the picture was called simply 'Standing Madonna among Saints'. The subject was later interpreted as the 'Immaculate Conception' (the belief, approved as doctine by Sixtus IV in 1475, that the Virgin Mary was conceived free of Original Sin) and more recently still as the 'Incarnation of Christ' (the belief that the Son of God came to earth in human form through Christ's miraculous birth). The pregnant Virgin, resting her right hand on her swollen belly, stands on a pedestal decorated with a relief of the Annunciation. She is illuminated by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and, overwhelmed by the sacred mystery, she has dropped her book, which is lying just in front of the pedestal. St Catherine of Alexandra (holding a book and martyr's palm, and with a fragment of her spiked wheel visible on the ground behind her red mantle) kneels on the left with the youthful St John the Evangelist (pointing to the Virgin) and St Philip Benizi (the Servite friar, holding a lily). St Margaret of Antioch (holding a cross and rosary beads) kneels on the right with St Peter ((possibly a self-portrait) and the elderly St Antoninus (Archbishop of Florence and founder of the famous convent of San Marco). On the hilltops are small scenes of the Adoration of the Child (left) and the Flight into Egypt (right, with a view of the Servite convent of Montesenario in Cafaggio).
The picture is described at length by Vasari, who says that it was commissioned by the Servite friars for the chapel of the Tedaldi in the left transept of the Florentine church of Santissima Annunziata, where the vest and pillow of St Philip were preserved. Vasari also mentions a predella, with a scene of St Margaret issuing from the belly of a serpent, which is lost. The probable patron was Pierozzo Tedaldi, who was a Dominican friar (known as 'Fra Pietro') at San Marco. His patronage would explain the presence of St Peter (his name saint) and St Antoninus, and possibly also St Margaret (he had a sister called Margaret) and St Catherine of Alexandra (as a proxy for the Dominican Catherine of Siena). The Tedaldi Chapel was originally dedicated to John the Evangelist.
The picture has been variously dated between 'about 1498' and 'about 1510'. It was bought by Cardinal Leopardo de’ Medici in 1670 and replaced in the church by Volterrano's Saint Filippo Benizi in Glory. It hung in the Pitti Palace until 1804, when it was transferred to the Uffizi. There is another, probably rather later, altarpiece by Piero di Cosimo of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco at Fiesole.
**Perseus Freeing Andromeda. Wood, 71 x 123.
The panel combines several episodes from the story told in Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book IV). Perseus, wearing Mercury's winged scandals and carrying the polished shield given to him by Athena, is shown, upper right, flying through the air to rescue the Ethiopian princess Andromeda, who is bound to a tree by the seashore. He then stands on the huge monster to administer the coup de grace with his curved sword. Lower left, Andromedea's distraught mother Cassiopeia (wearing a blue cloak), her father King Cepheus (in a white turban) and her suitor Phineus (in a strange red-winged costume made of feathers) shield their eyes from the scene. Bottom right, Perseus and the freed Andromeda are greeted by the joyful king and his retinue. Revellers wave laurel branches and two musicians play fantastic instruments. (One instrument, being tuned upside down, is a little like a tromba marina and the other, plucked by an African, somewhat resembles a tambourine de bearn.) The old bearded man on the extreme right (who resembles the St Peter in the Immaculate Conception) is probably a self-portrait. In the upper right distance, Perseus builds three altars to the gods, sacrificing a cow to Minerva, a calf to Mercury and a bull to Jupiter.
According to Vasari, who says that Piero ‘never did a more lovely or better picture’, it was painted for Filippo Strozzi. A payment of 6 florins made by Filippo Strozzi to Piero on 11 September 1510 for work on a room in his palazzo may relate to the picture. It was given by Giovanni Battista di Lorenzo Strozzi to Sforza Almeni, first chamberlain to Cosimo I, and by 1589 it was hanging in the Tribuna of the Uffizi (the inventory states that the figures were drawn by Leonardo – a claim not taken seriously by modern critics). The picture is almost perfectly preserved, enabling the delicacy of finish, glowing colour and subtleties of tone to be appreciated. Three other panels depicting episodes from the Perseus story were also formerly in the Uffizi and are now on show in Davanzati Palace. They were once attributed to Piero himself but are now given to an unknown follower (the ‘Maestro di Serumido’).
Profile Portrait of a Woman. Paper mounted on panel, 50 x 37.
This sober little profile portrait of a woman in a pale yellow head scarf was traditionally thought to represent Caterina Sforza, wife of Giovanni de’ Medici and mother of Giovanni delle Bande Nere. Exhibited in the Uffizi in the nineteenth century as the work of an unknown Flemish or Tuscan artist, and later catalogued under Marco Palmezzano. The attribution to Piero di Cosimo was made by Berenson (1932 and 1963 Lists). Until recently, it had received little attention in the literature on the artist, but it has been adopted by the latest (2003) Pitti catalogue and was accepted in Dennis Geronimus’s 2006 monograph.
Florence. Horne Museum.
Saint Jerome in the Desert. Wood, 74 in dia.
The penitent saint, stone in hand, kneels before a crucifix and a book propped against a skull placed on a tree stump. In the background, a cave with his books. When Herbert Horne acquired this tondo in 1906, it was overpainted with an eighteenth-century Visitation. Suspecting that the panel was much older because of the carved wreath frame, Horne had it restored by Luigi Cavenaghi and the original painting of St Jerome was revealed. The many paint losses have been concealed by retouching. The tondo appears to have been influenced by Rogier van der Weyden's Lamentation, which was painted in the 1450s or early 1460s for the Medici villa at Careggi and is now in the Uffizi. The cave in Piero's painting resembles the tomb in Rogier's, and the head of St Jerome is like that of Rogier's Joseph of Arimathea.
Florence. Museo dello Spedale degli Innocenti.
*Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels. Wood, 203 x 197.
The Virgin is enthroned between four saints. Peter holds enormous keys to the Gates of Heaven and Hell. The kneeling, black-habited nun has been traditionally called Rose of Viterbo or Dorothea, but is perhaps more plausibly identified as Elizabeth of Hungary or Catherine of Siena. She offers a handful of red and white roses to the Christ Child, who holds some of the flowers in his right hand, while others have spilled onto the step and pavement. Catherine of Alexandria, also kneeling, reaches out her hand to receive the ring the Child holds in his left hand. Her crown rests on the step and a fragment of her spiked wheel is on the pavement. The elderly John the Evangelist stands on the right, holding his Book of Revelation. The six youthful figures standing behind the saints are usually called angels, but do not appear to have wings. Two baby angels cling to candelabra attached to the sides of the throne.
The picture was painted as the altarpiece for Piero del Pugliese’s chapel (now destroyed) in the church of the Spedale degli Innocenti, where (according to records of payments uncovered in the 1970s) it was probably installed in December 1493. The very wealthy Piero del Pugliese (who is portrayed as a donor in Filippino Lippi's famous Vision of Saint Bernard in the Florentine Badia) had served as consul of the Guild of Silk Merchants (Arte della Seta), which was responsible for the fabric of the Ospedale. The picture was originally surmounted by Andrea della Robbia’s beautiful glazed terracotta lunette of the Annunciation (now in the hospital courtyard). Surviving documents also describe a richly carved frame, a painted curtain, dossal and candleholders. According to Vasari, Piero di Cosimo received the commission from a personal friend, the president of the hospital, whom he drove to distraction by not allowing him to see the picture until it was finished.
Florence. Palazzo Davanzati.
Story of Perseus and Andromeda. Three panels, 67 x 151/169.
The scenes are: the Sacrifice to Zeus for the Release of Andromeda; the Freeing of Andromeda; and the Marriage of Perseus and Andromeda. From the collection of Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici, brother of Cosimo II (1666). The three panels were formerly exhibited in the Uffizi as works of Piero di Cosimo, but they are not of the same quality as the Perseus Freeing Andromeda that is still in the Uffizi. Zeri (1962) ascribed them to the ‘Maestro di Serumido’, named after an altarpiece in the church at Serumido and possibly to be identified with Mariotto Dolzemele. Transferred to the Palazzo Davanzati in 1956.
Florence. Museo di Casa Martelli.
Adoration of the Child. Wood, 115 in dia.
An oversized ox reclines on the hill on the right. The dome-shaped object in the distance appears to be a huge haystack. This large tondo has been with the Florentine Martelli family since the eighteenth century. It was first published as a work of Piero di Cosimo in Mina Bacci's 1966 Italian monograph on the artist. It is a near-replica of a painting formerly at Berlin (destroyed in 1945). The Berlin version was rectangular (132 x 147) and included two shepherds, which are omitted from the tondo. Late (around 1510) .
Hartford (Conn.). Wadsworth Atheneum.
*Finding of Vulcan (?). Canvas, 156 x 174.
The subject is not quite certain. The picture was once called Hylas and the Nymphs. Panofsky (1937) plausibly argued that it represents the discovery of the young Vulcan on the Island of Lemnos after he had been thrown from Mount Olympus because his small and ugly appearance upset his mother Juno. (He broke his leg in the fall – hence his perpetual limp.) The injured youth is tended by the nymph Thetis, who had been out gathering flowers with her companions. A goldfinch flutters overhead, and a pheasant glides across the sky. On the ground (bottom centre) a sparrowhawk stands over its prey (a green woodpecker?).
A picture at Ottawa, thought to represent Vulcan and Aeolus, is approximately the same size, is also on canvas, and presumably belonged to the same series. The two pictures are recorded together in 1861 (with an attribution to Signorelli) in the hands of William Blundell Spence, an English dealer in Florence. The Finding of Vulcan was sold to the Scottish collector William Graham and later acquired by Robert Benson. It was bought by the Wadsworth Atheneum from Duveen in 1932. The two pictures have sometimes been ascribed to an assistant, but this negative judgement may have been influenced by their condition, since they are very worn and restored. A third picture, still in a private collection, may also be related. Smaller and on panel, it is identified as representing Jason and Queen Hypsipyle with the Women of Lemnos and is signed and dated 1499.
Honolulu. Academy of Arts.
Saint John the Evangelist. Wood, 83 x 59.
The chalice with the viper in it, resting precariously on the edge of the parapet, is a traditional emblem of the saint, referring to the challenge to him by a high priest of Diana at Ephesus to drink a poisoned cup. Often presumed to be a companion panel to the Magdalen in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome, and often cited as evidence of Leonardo’s influence on Piero’s later works. The attribution has been contested, however, with some critics (beginning with Federico Zeri in 1979) seeing the hand of Giovanni Battista Bertucci il Vecchio, a painter from Faenza. In the early nineteenth century the picture was apparently in Amsterdam in the collection of a J. A. Brentano. By 1909 it was in London (in the collection of Thomas Humphry Wood) and by 1937 in New York (in the collection of Harold I. Pratt). Acquired by Kress in 1947 and allocated to the Honolulu Academy in 1957. The picture has suffered from overcleaning. Old repaint was removed in the 1980s.
London. National Gallery.
*A Satyr grieving over a Nymph (Death of Procris?). Wood, 65 x 183.
A nymph lies almost naked, wounded in the throat, in a field of flowers. She is often identified as Procris, daughter of the King of Athens, who was accidentally killed by a javelin thrown by her husband Cephalus, who mistook her for an animal hidden in a bush when he was out hunting. The mourning satyr kneeling over her is not mentioned in Ovid’s version of the myth, but is introduced in a fifteenth-century play (Niccolò da Correggio’s Fabula di Caephalo). The dog looking on could be Laelaps, a gift to Procris from Artemis/Diana. A different interpretation of the subject has been proposed very recently (by Ianthi Assimakopoulou in Piero di Cosimo: Painter of Faith and Fable (2018)). This identifies the dead nymph as Callisto, a favourite of Artemis, who was seduced by Zeus. In some versions of the myth, Artemis killed Callisto with an arrow when the goddess discovered the nymph was pregnant.
Regardless of the subject, the painting is one of Piero's most fascinating and enchanting works. The sense of melancholy is enhanced by the estuary landscape, stretching in graduated tones of blue towards the pearly horizon. On the sandy beach are dogs (symbolising fidelity?) and herons (symbolising innocence?), and a pelican (symbolising sacrifice?) paddles in the shallows. There are no old records of the long horizontal panel, which may originally have served as the backboard of a bench or cassone or, perhaps more likely, decorated the wainscoting of a room. As a warning of the dangers of jealousy between husband and wife, the subject of Cephalus and Procris would have been appropriate for a marriage chamber. The picture was in the early nineteenth-century collection at Florence of Conte Ferdinando Guicciardini (whose arms are on a label and seal on the back). It came to the National Gallery in 1862 with the Lombardi-Baldi collection. The picture is fairly well preserved, with only scattered small paint losses. A split at the right edge of the panel was repaired in 2022.
*Fight of Lapiths and Centaurs. Wood, 71 x 260.
The violent subject is from Metamorphoses (Book XII). The painting adheres to Ovid's narrative in considerable detail. The wedding feast of Pirithous, King of the Lapiths, is depicted (centre background) as a picnic on the grass. Drunken, lustful centaurs attempt to abduct Lapith women and Lapith men defend their women's honour. Towards the right, the moustachioed centaur Eurytus tries to rape the bride, Hippodame. Theseus is about to throw a wine bowl at him. Just behind, the centaur Amycus raises a chandelier 'as one wields a sacrificial axe' and the Lapith Exadius holds a stag's antlers as a weapon. Theseus appears again in the right foreground, sitting astride Bienor's back and clubbing the centaur's head with the branch of a tree. The centaur Gryneus is about to hurl the smoking altar that killed two Lapiths, Broteas and Orion. The dying centaur in the centre foreground, killed by a huge arrow-like javelin, is Cyllarus. He lies in the arms of his lover Hylonome, whose hair is braided and adorned with flowers. At the left edge, Hercules (not mentioned in Ovid) clubs a centaur. King Pirithous is shown in the right background, aiming a javelin at the centaur Petraeus, who is attempting to uproot an oak tree. In the upper left background, the centaur Dictys, pursued by Pirithous, falls off a cliff and is impaled on an ash tree. In the far right background, the Lapith hero Caeneus, who was endowed with an indestructible body, is buried by centaurs under a pile of stones and tree trunks. The painting may have been influenced by Michelangelo’s youthful relief of the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs (now in the Casa Buonarroti), which was sculpted around a decade earlier.
The long horizontal spalliera panel is one of Piero’s best-preserved pictures. It probably formed part of the decoration of a bedchamber or antechamber in a Florentine palazzo. It is almost exactly the same height as the Forest Fire at Oxford and the two Hunting Scenes at New York, but it is not usually thought to have belonged to the same series. It is first recorded in 1885 in the possession of a Florentine dealer. From 1905 it was in the London collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, who bequeathed it to the National Gallery in 1937.
London. Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Head of a Young Man. Wood, 39 x 41.
Cut down on all four sides, and possibly the portrait of a donor cut out of a damaged altarpiece. First recorded in 1804 in the Desenfans collection with an improbable attribution to Leonardo da Vinci. The attribution to Piero di Cosimo, first suggested by Gustavo Frizzoni in 1879, was accepted in Jean Paul Richter’s gallery catalogue of the following year and retained in Peter Murray’s 1980 catalogue. It was doubted in the monographs by Mina Bacci (1976) and Dennis Geronimus (2006). But the portrait was included as a work of Piero di Cosimo in the major loan exhibition devoted to the artist at the Uffizi (June-September 2015).
Montevettolini (Comune of Monsummano in Terme, near Pistoia). SS. Michele and Lorenzo.
Madonna and Child with SS. Lazarus and Sebastian. Wood, 165 x 123.
The saint in the left – who holds a clapper warning of leprosy or the plague and whose foot sores are licked by a small dog – has sometimes been called Roch, but he is identified as Lazarus by the inscription (rather crude and probably not original) on the pietra serena step. St Sebastian holds two arrows and displays arrow holes on his bare torso. A hazy waterscape (with a fortified manor house on the right and a mill and tiny ferryman on the left) is viewed through the biforic windows. The picture appears to have been painted for the Cecchi family, but the date and circumstances of the commission are unknown. It is mentioned in the church in 1514, hanging in the fourth chapel to the right of the high altar. It was moved in 1888 to the chapel to the left of the high altar, where it remains today. It was previously ascribed to Lorenzo di Credi or the workshop of Filippino Lippi, and was attributed to Piero only in 1959 (by Federico Zeri in the Italian journal Paragone). It is possibly Piero di Cosimo’s earliest surviving altarpiece, painted just before or just after he had worked with Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel (1481-82).
Munich. Alte Pinakothek.
*Story of Prometheus. Wood, 68 x 120.
The panel shows several episodes from the story, which Piero could have known from Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum. On the left, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus fashion the first human being from clay. Jupiter punished Epimetheus by turning him into an ape, which is shown climbing a tree in the background. In the centre, the finished statue stands on a plinth. To the right, Minerva tells Prometheus that celestial fire will bring it to life and, in the top right corner, Minerva and Prometheus fly off together. A companion panel at Strasbourg continues the story, illustrating the theft of fire and Prometheus's punishment. Both panels are somewhat worn, obscuring the background detail. Probably late works (about 1515). They are likely to have formed part of the decoration of a room – either attached to furniture or let into wood panelling. (It has been conjectured that – like the famous Liberation of Andromedea in the Uffizi – they could have adorned the martial chamber of Filippo Strozzi the Younger and Clarice de' Medici.) The Munich panel was formerly in the von Kaufmann collection, Berlin, and was acquired by the museum in 1917.
New Haven. Yale University Art Gallery.
Madonna with SS. Vincent Ferrer and Jerome. Wood, originally 209 x 206.
Cut down at the top, and gravely damaged by abrasive cleaning, by old restorations and by splitting along the panel’s vertical joints. Painted as an altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Vincenzo Ferreri, a small confraternity of flagellants that met at the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The relief on the base of the Virgin's throne depicts four members of the confraternity worshipping the crucified Christ. The picture was removed from the convent of the church in the eighteenth century, and was purchased in Florence by James J. Jarves (as a work of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio) in 1859. Two pairs of angels have been cut from the upper corners: one of these fragments is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the other was formerly in the Church of the Advent at Boston and is now in a private collection. A restoration in the 1920s filled in the gaps in the upper corners with wooden inserts and gave the panel an arched top. A drastic, uncompleted attempt at cleaning in 1956-59 removed most of the old thick repaint but further damaged the picture surface. The painting was subsequently deemed unfit for exhibition, and for many years it was kept in storage. A thorough restoration was carried out for the Piero di Cosimo exhibition held at Washington in 2015, and the modern reconstructions at the top of the panel were removed.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
*The Hunt; *Return from the Hunt. Wood, each 70 x 170.
The two panels are clearly a pair and may have been part of a larger series illustrating the early history of man. The Hunt shows early humans, dressed in skins, and half-human creatures (horse-bodied centaurs and goat-legged satyrs or fauns) in a forest hunting wild animals with clubs and their bare hands. A fire rages in the thicket in the distance. The Return from the Hunt (which is less well preserved and has been transferred to a new plywood support) shows the animal carcasses being loaded onto (or unloaded from) primitive boats. In the right forground, an amorous woman has climbed onto a centaur's back. Fires smoulder in the woods on the left-hand shore and smoke billows across the sky.
Piero's fantastic and savage portrayal of the early life of man was inspired by ideas found in classical literature (notably Book V of De Derum Natura by the Roman Epicurean philosopher Lucretius and Book II of De Architectura by the Roman architect Vitruvius). In a famous article (published in 1937 in the very first issue of the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute), Edwin Panofsky interpreted the paintings as illustrating the origin and growth of civilisation through the discovery and control of fire. According to Panofsky, the Hunt and Return from the Hunt belonged to a series that included not only the Forest Fire at Oxford but also (which seems much more doubtful – if not impossible) the two ‘Vulcan’ canvases at Hartford and Ottawa.
The series has sometimes been identified with the ‘scenes of fables with small figures’ mentioned by Vasari as painted by Piero for a room in the house of Francesco del Pugliese. Opinion on dating has ranged from the 1480s to early 1500s. By 1705 the two panels were in the collection at Rome of the Marchese Sacchetti (whose family was Florentine in origin). Acquired at Rome in the 1860s by the American painter Thomas Hiram Hotchkiss. When Hotchkiss's estate was sold at New York in 1871, the two panels were bought for $90 and $120 by the financier Robert Gordon, who gave them to the Metropolitan Museum in 1875.
The Hunt inspired these opening lines from W. H. Auden's Woods (1952-53):
'Sylvan meant savage in those primal woods
Piero di Cosimo so loved to draw,
Where nudes, bears, lions, sows with women's heads,
Mount and murdered and ate each other raw.'
Head of St John the Baptist. Wood, 29 x 23.
The youthful saint is identified as John the Baptist by his reed cross and the tufts of his camel's skin garment. His portrait-like profile is silhouetted against a dark background. The small panel, which seems to show the influence of Filippino Lippi, is considered one of Piero di Cosimo’s earliest works and may date from the early 1480s. It was with the Bentivoglio family at Florence until 1833, when it was acquired by the Reverend John Sanford as a work of Pollaiuolo (whose name is inscribed in ink on the back of the panel). It was attributed to Piero di Cosimo in 1913, when it was sold in Paris with the collection of Edouard Aynard of Lyons. Bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum in 1921 by the New York jeweller Michael Dreicer.
Ottawa. National Gallery of Canada.
*Allegory of Civilisation (Vulcan and Aeolus). Canvas, 156 x 165.
The precise subject is uncertain. It was identified by Panofsky (1937) as representing ‘Vulcan as the arch-craftsman and first teacher of human civilisation’. On this interpretation, Vulcan would be the figure on the left hammering a horseshoe on an anvil, while Aeolus, keeper of the winds, fans the fire with a bellows. A bareback rider, naked except for a red cloak draped around him, watches, waiting for his horse to be shod. In the background, a wooden structure is being built. The workmen are presumably using tools (a hammer and bow saw) that Vulcan had fashioned (though one labourer is still wielding a crude club). The relevance of the family group and sleeping figure are unclear. Vasari mentions a picture of ‘Vulcan represented with great art and incredible patience’ among the mythological scenes which Piero painted for a room in Francesco del Pugliese’s house. A clue to the date of the picture is given by the giraffe in the background. A giraffe ('molto grande e molto bella e piacevole') was a gift from the Sultan of Egypt to the Signoria of Florence: it arrived in November 1487 and died in January 1489, after hitting its head when being led through a low doorway. Other wildlife includes two pheasants in flight (one, near centre, with a worm in its beak and the other, right, swooping down) and a large cricket resting on the flat stone (bottom right corner).
The picture was sold in 1861 by William Blundell Spence, an English art dealer in Florence, to the Marquis of Lothian. It remained in Scotland (first at Newbattle Abbey, near Dalkeith, and then on loan to the National Gallery at Edinburgh) until the early 1930s. Acquired by the Ottawa gallery in 1937. A picture in the Wadsworth Atheneum at Hartford – thought by Panofsky to represent the Finding of Vulcan – is almost the same size, is also on canvas, and presumably belonged to the same series. Works by Piero on canvas are very rare, and the Vulcan and Aeolus is especially worn.
Oxford. Ashmolean Museum.
*Forest Fire. Wood, 71 x 203.
A variety of wild, domestic and fantastic animals – including a lion and lioness, a she-bear with her clubs, a bellowing ox, and a deer and pig with human faces– flee the forest fire raging unchecked in the background. A cowherd, dressed as a contemporary peasant and carrying a yoke, urges his cattle to safety. A dozen species of birds have been identified in the trees and sky, including osprey, rook, pigeon, peregrine and woodcock. This strange picture was thought by Panofsky to illustrate the idea, found in Vitruvius, that primitive men lived like animals until a forest fire drove them towards social organisation. The two brutal Hunting Scenes in New York may have belonged to the same series (though they are about a foot shorter and are darker in tone). The Oxford panel has been identified with ‘a rectangular picture representing the Island of Circe by Piero di Cosimo’ recorded in 1894 in an inventory of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. It was later in the collection of Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, from whom it was acquired by the National Arts Collection Fund in 1933.
Madonna and Child with a Dove. Wood, 87 x 58.
The Virgin is seated on the ground as the Madonna of Humility. She wears a simple head scarf. It has been observed that the scarf, knotted across her breast, forms the shape of a red human heart – but it is open to question whether religious symbolism was intended. (Devotion to the 'Immaculate Heart of Mary' only became widespread in the seventeenth century.) The Virgin's cloth of honour is made of woven leather rather than the usual brocade. A book lies open on the parapet and a white dove (identified as the Holy Spirit by its tiny halo) perches on the right. The motif of the Child struggling from the Virgin’s embrace is probably derived from Leonardo. The picture was once in the Farnese collection at Parma (Palazzo del Giardino) and Naples (Capodimonte). It is recorded in 1802 in San Luigi dei Francesi (the French church in Rome which was then being used by the Napoleonic administration as a store for confiscated works of art) and entered the Louvre a year of two later. Ascribed to Ghirlandaio in old catalogues, it was first given to Piero di Cosimo in 1879 by Gustavo Frizzoni – one of a series of brilliant new attributions to the painter made by Frizzoni between 1870 and 1906. The panel may date from the 1490s.
Profile Head of the Young Baptist. Wood, 35 x 25.
This small panel, ignored in most books on Piero di Cosimo, is similar (but distinctly inferior) to the painting of the young Baptist in profile in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It was attributed to Piero himself by Berenson (1963 Lists) and the 1981 Louvre catalogue. Earlier catalogues had given it to Uccello and to Bianchi Ferrari. Attributions have also been made to an anonymous contemporary Florentine painter known as the 'Maestro Esiguo' (or 'Alunno di Benozzo'). Acquired in 1878 from the De La Salle collection.
Perugia. Galleria Nazionale.
*Pietà with St John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. Wood, 190 x 112.
The composition of the figures – with the dead Christ stretched horizontally across his mother's knees, St John holding his head and Mary Magdalene supporting his legs and contemplating his wounded feet – is quite like that in Perugino's famous Pietà at the Uffizi. The hill of Calvary rises behind, with the three crosses silhouetted against the sky. Above, three angels on a bank of cloud hold instruments of the Passion (crown of thorns, sponge, cross, pliers and spear). In the right distance, St Martin divides his cloak with a beggar. In the foreground, a hammer, pincers and Mary Magdalene's alabaster jar lie among the grass and wild flowers. An altarpiece from the parish church of San Martino at Abeto di Preci, near Norcia in Umbria. After the church was rebuilt in 1855, the picture was removed to the Palazzo Cesqui at Trevi. It entered the gallery in 1917. It is usually considered a comparatively late work (though recent datings have ranged from '1495-1500' to 'circa 1510'). Restored in 1999; in good condition and still in its fine original gilded frame.
Prague. National Gallery.
Saint John on Patmos. Wood, 92 x 78.
The youthful saint, seated on a ledge of rock, is caught in deep thought, his head resting on his hand and his quill pen standing unused in the inkwell beside him. His eagle points with its beak at the page of the large book lying open on the ground. The page is now blank but was presumably intended to display a quotation from the Book of Revelation or St John's Gospel. The picture is first recorded only in 1923, when it was in the hands of a Vienna art dealer (Galerie Sanct Lucas). The attribution has been disputed. It was rejected by Dennis Geronimus in his 2006 monograph, and the museum catalogued the picture in 2008 as a work of the Veronese painter Giovan Francesco Caroto. The picture was included, however, in the major Piero di Cosimo loan exhibition held in Florence and Washington in 2015. There is a seventeenth-century copy by Baccio Bonetti in the church of San Niccolò at Cortona. In the copy, the page of the book is inscribed with the opening words of St John's Gospel ('In the beginning was the word and the word was with God ...').
Rome. Galleria Nazionale (Palazzo Barberini).
*The Magdalen. Wood, 73 x 56.
The saint is richly attired in fifteenth-century costume (green velvet gown, yellow sleeves, red mantle with blue lining, and pink bow on her left shoulder) and her long chestnut hair is braided and adorned with a string of pearls. She holds an open book on the ledge in front of her. She is identified as the Magdalen by the alabaster jar of ointment on the right of the ledge. The picture may date from the early 1500s. It is composed like a portrait and is sometimes thought to depict a young Florentine lady in the guise of her name saint. The possibility that it is a portrait is made less likely, however, by the existence of a painting – the Saint John the Evangelist at Honolulu – that is clearly a religious work and is likely to have been a pendant to the Magdalen or to have belonged to the same series of pictures of saints. In the Saint John the Evangelist, the jar of ointment is replaced by a goblet with a serpent emerging from poison.
The attribution to Piero di Cosimo goes back to Morelli (1892), when the picture was in the collection of Baron Giovanni Barracco, who had acquired it from the Monte di Pietà (a sort of pawnshop for art works in Rome). It was given to the gallery in 1907. A replica (doubtfully attributed to Innocenzo da Imola) in the Courtauld Institute, London, has a landscape background.
Rome. Galleria Borghese.
Adoration of the Child. Wood, 140 in dia.
The infant Baptist, wearing a camel skin, kneels in prayer beside the Christ Child, who embraces the Baptist's reed cross as he lies against a bundle. Adolescent, curly haired angels stand on the right with long flutes. The white bird perched on the beam may represent the dove of the Holy Spirit. Through the door of the stable, St Joseph is seen taking the ox and ass to pasture and the tiny figures of the Magi are visible on the hill. There is a replica (identical in composition but darker in tone) in the Hermitage at St Petersburg. The Borghese version appears to be slightly unfinished (particularly in the flesh tones), but may rather be abraded by overcleaning. It was ascribed to Giovanni Bellini when first documented in a 1693 inventory, hanging over a door in the Palazzo Borghese. After attributions to Raphael and Fra Bartolommeo in early nineteenth-century inventories, Gustavo Frizzoni (1870) was the first to recognise Piero di Cosimo as the artist. Usually considered comparatively late (about 1510-12).
Rome. Vatican. Sistine Chapel.
According to Vasari, Piero di Cosimo assisted Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel, and specifically ascribes to him the landscape of the Sermon on the Mount and some portraits. (Given Piero's evident fascination with the natural world, it has been plausibly suggested that he was also responsible for the acutely observed depictions in the fresco of birds in flight – including a hoopoe chasing a goldfinch and a quail pursued by a raptor.) Piero may also have had some hand in Rosselli’s other frescoes of Moses destroying the Tablets of the Law and the Drowning of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, but there is no consensus about which parts he may have painted. Some modern critics have even doubted whether he painted in the Sistine Chapel at all. The frescoes were executed in 1481-82, when Piero was just 19-20 years old.
St Louis. Art Museum.
*Altarpiece ('Pala del Pugliese'). Wood, 168 x 112.
This richly coloured, well-preserved small altarpiece is complete with its predella in a nineteenth-century replica tabernacle frame. Main panel: Madonna enthroned, with St Peter presenting the kneeling St Dominic on the left, and John the Baptist and the kneeling Nicholas of Bari on the right. A vase of flowers, placed in the centre foreground, is painted with meticulous detail. There are just three scenes in the predella: St Dominic Burns the Books of the Albigensians; Meeting of the Young Jesus and John the Baptist; and St Nicholas Destroying the Idols. At the ends of the predella are the arms (a red lion rampant over three stripes) of the Pugliese family.
It was once supposed that the altarpiece was painted for one of the Dominican convents in Florence (San Marco or Santa Lucia) or Prato (San Marco), which were left money by Francesco del Pugliese in his will of 1503. But it is now thought to have been commissioned by Francesco’s uncle Piero for his chapel (consecrated on 1 May 1481) in the hermitage of Lecceto, near Lastra a Signa (10 km south-west of Florence). It has been suggested that the profile of St Nicholas, offering the three gold balls, could be a portrait of Piero del Pugliese (who is portrayed as a donor in Filippino Lippi's famous Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard in the Badia Fiorentina). The altarpiece is first certainly recorded only in 1859, when it was sold with the collection of Lord Northwick of Thirlestane House, Cheltenham. It subsequently passed into the collection of the Duke of Newcastle at Clumber Park, near Worksop. Bought by the St Louis museum in 1940 from a New York dealer.
St Petersburg. Hermitage.
Holy Family with Angels. Canvas, 152 in dia.
The little St John, clutching his cross, is comforted by Joseph, seated on the right. The entourage of the Magi is seen, following the star, on the hill in the left distance. This large tondo was acquired in 1921 as a work of Francesco Granacci and later catalogued as a copy after Piero di Cosimo, but is now generally accepted as an original late work (about 1515-20). The fluid oil technique, glowing colour and soft light are hallmarks of Piero's late style. The painting is one of two tondi that would fit Vasari’s description of the picture of ‘Our Lady, standing with the Child in her arms’ painted by Piero for the Noviciate of San Marco; the other is in São Paolo. Formerly in the collections of the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna at the Villa di Quarto, near Florence, and Prince Kochubei of St Petersburg.
Adoration of the Child. Canvas (transferred from panel in 1839), 144 in dia.
This tondo is an exact replica of the one in the Borghese Gallery, Rome. Once in the collection of the Empress Josephine at the Palais de Malmaison, it was acquired by the Hermitage in 1829 from the Duchess Saint-Leu with an attribution to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. Later catalogued as by Bugiardini, but attributed to Piero di Cosimo since 1899, when Fritz Knapp published his German monograph on the artist. Continuing doubts about its authenticity (it is sometimes regarded as a copy of the Borghese version) may reflect its repainted condition. Probably late (after 1510).
São Paolo. Museu de Arte.
Madonna and Child with St John and an Angel. Wood, 129 in dia.
The Virgin stands beside the trunk of an oak tree. The little St John clutches a sprig of yellow broom in his left hand. With his right hand, he offers a reed cross to the Christ Child, who blesses him. The angel, crouching behind the rock on the right, holds the stems of two flowers (sometimes called buttercups but apparently white dog roses). The bird, perched on the tree stump on the left, has been called a blackbird or jackdaw, but has been identified recently as a black redstart. It watches a large caterpillar, identified as that of a death's-head hawkmoth. The caterpillar has been variously interpreted as a symbol of the Resurrection (as caterpillars transform themselves into buttereflies, which have been associated since antiquity with the human soul), as a symbol of Christ's sacrifice (on the assumption that the caterpillar is about to be predated by the bird) or as a symbol of blight (a reference, supposedly, to the Old Testament plagues). The meticulously painted wild flowers (dandelion, buttercup and chamomile) in the foreground and the mushrooms sprouting near the oak may also have symbolic meaning. The large tondo has been damaged by flaking, and is abraded and retouched. Recorded in 1663 in the Habsburg collections at Vienna. Acquired in 1951.
Sarasota (Florida). Ringling Museum.
*Building of a Palace. Wood, 78 x 197.
The picture depicts the construction of an immense and elaborate building in marble. The building, probably imaginary, has two wings, which are surrounded by a colonnade. Colossal statues are placed along the cornice. Workmen are shown unloading a block of stone from a cart, opening a large wooden crate, cutting a plank of wood with a frame saw, shaping a block of wood with adzes, chiselling a section of marble cornice, dragging a piece of marble on a trolley, carrying a heavy wooden beam, and measuring a marble column.
It has been suggested that the picture might be from the same series as the two Hunting Scenes in New York and the Forest Fire in Oxford, which illustrate episodes in the early history of mankind. If so, it could symbolise the final stage, when civilisation has reached full maturity. However, it is rather larger than the New York and Oxford panels, and it has sometimes been judged later in style (and inferior in quality).
Recent archival research suggests that the panel may have come from a Pugliese palazzo on the Via dei Serragli. It has also been identified with a ‘long, narrow painting over a chimney, representing a building’ inventoried in 1637 in Cardinal Giovan Carlo Medici’s Villa di Mezzomonte and in 1663 in the Medici villa at Castello. It is first certainly recorded in the nineteenth century in Russia; it was then sold to a French dealer (as a work of Signorelli), and in 1884 was acquired by Emile Gavet of Paris (who displayed his artworks in his apartment near Notre Dame). It was bought, along with a large number of other objects from the Gavet collection, by John Ringling in 1928 from Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (wife of the railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt). Doubts have sometimes been expressed over the attribution, and some of the figures might have been executed by an assistant. The panel appears to have been trimmed at the top, and there is now almost no sky between top of the building and the upper edge. (A strip some 5cm. wide had been added to the top, but has now been removed.)
Stockholm. Royal Collection.
'Madonna del Libro'. Wood, 82 x 56.
An early work (late 1480s or 1490s). It is nearly a replica of Filippino LIppi's Strozzi Madonna, now in the Metropolian Museum, New York. The poses of the Madonna and Child are almost identical, but Piero's painting is more sombre in colour and mood. His Madonna wears a dress of greyish mauvre and mantle of dull dark green, whereas Filippino's Madonna is in bright red and blue. Piero has placed his Madonna in a rather gloomy room, with a stormy sky viewed through the window, whereas Filippino's Madonna is shown in a Florentine palazzo with a sunlit view through a loggia. Piero has added, on the table in the foreground, a bowl of black grapes and half an apricot. The grapes allude to the wine of the Eucharist, while the apricot (or peach) can be a symbol of Redemption. The picture, once in the collection of the Duchess di Galliera, was given by Napoleon to Josephine, Queen of Sweden.
The picture currently hangs in Lovrisa Ulrika's Antechamber in the Royal Palace (Kungliga Slotten).
Strasbourg. Musée des Beaux-Arts.
*Story of Prometheus. Wood, 68 x 120.
Several episodes in the story are represented. In the sky, Prometheus steals fire from the sun. On the left, he imparts a spark of life to the clay figure. On the right, he is bound by Mercury to a tree on Mount Caucasus, where he was condemned to have his liver pecked at forever by a giant eagle. The scene in the centre background is more obscure, but it might represent Prometheus warning his brother Epimetheus of the dangers of taking Pandora as his wife. (Pandora subsequently released all the evils upon humanity – the ultimate punishment for Prometheus's act of hubris.) There is a companion picture, showing the first part of the story, at Munich. Formerly in the collection of the British scholar, connoisseur and dealer Sir John Charles Robinson; acquired by the museum in 1896.
Holy Family. Wood, 94 in dia.
The motif of the Christ Child and the infant Baptist embracing is thought to derive from a design by Leonardo. There are two small scenes in the landscape background. On the left, St Jerome is seated in penitence before a crucifix, holding a stone with which to beat his breast. The head and paws of his lion are seen behind the Virgin's mantle. On the right, St Bernard of Clairvaux is seated at a prayer bench, presumably experiencing his vision of the Virgin. The devil chained to a column represents the saint's overcoming of temptation. The tondo may date from the 1490s. It came from the Palazzo Ginori at Florence (where it was attributed to Signorelli) and was later in Glasgow (Laurie and Beatie collections). Acquired for the Strasbourg Gallery by Bode in 1900.
Madonna and Child with Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. Wood, 115 in dia.
The Child lifts the lid of the Magdalen’s ointment jar. Traditionally ascribed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, this carefully finished picture was first attributed to Piero di Cosimo only in 1982, when it was acquired by the museum. It may be one of the earliest of his dozen or so surviving tondi (about 1490?).
Toledo. Museum of Art.
Madonna Adoring the Child. Wood, 160 in dia.
Many of the details of this large tondo probably have symbolic significance. For example, the altar-shaped rock on which the Child sleeps, the bird (sometimes identified as a bunting or goldfinch but probably a coal tit) perching nearby, and the dandelions (a bitter herb) among the grass probably all allude to Christ’s Passion. The pool in the foreground teems with tadpoles (whose mysterious transformation into frogs is analogous to Christ's virgin birth) and winged insects. The picture is a comparatively early work (late 1490s?), attributed to Signorelli by Crowe and Cavalcaselle, and first recognised as a work of Piero di Cosimo at the time of the 1893 London exhibition of the Work of Luca Signorelli and His School. Once with the Guiducci family of Florence, and later in the London collections of Alexander Barker and Arthur Street. Given to the Toledo Museum by Drummond Libbey in 1937. Cleaned in 1995 and in splendid condition (though the gold decoration on the Virgin’s dress and the haloes has almost disappeared).
Tulsa. Philbrook Museum of Art.
Madonna with the Baptist, a Female Saint and Two Angels. Wood, 138 in dia.
The infant Baptist holds up the sacrificial lamb for the Christ Child to embrace. The saint on the right, reading a book and with her cross lying on the rock, is probably St Margaret. The tiny figures (right background) of St Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar also appear in Piero di Cosimo's Pietà at Perugia. Probably a work of Piero’s final years, painted in a watery oil medium, with hazy outines and very soft modelling of face and hair. Rather worn and restored. First recorded in the possession of a Professore Publio Podio Antichita at Bologna; acquired by Samuel H. Kress in 1931 from the dealer Contini Bonacossi and given to the Tulsa Museum in 1963.
Venice. Cini Collection.
Virgin and Child with Two Angels. Wood, 116 x 84.
The Child, standing on the Virgin's knee, playfully clutches the end of the bow of the angel playing a three-stringed fiddle (rebec?) on the left. The angel on the right holds an open hymn book. A comparatively late work, usually dated around 1505-10. One of Piero’s best-preserved pictures. Formerly in the collection of Baron Ricasoli at Florence. Acquired by Vittorio Cini in 1957 from the Florentine dealer Giovanni Salocchi. There is another version in Florence (formerly exhibited at the Uffizi and Palazzo Davanzati, and now at San Salvi), which was formerly attributed to Piero but is now regarded as an early copy of the Cini picture.
Holy Family with the Young St John. Wood, 119 x 87.
The Virgin sits reading with St Joseph on a rocky ledge. The Christ Child stands between them, supporting his mother's book with one hand and pointing heavenwards with the other. The infant St John, sitting on a camel's skin in the left foreground, ties together a reed cross. This somewhat damaged panel is considered a very late work (probably 1510-20). It is stylistically close (with its soft contours and mellow colours) to the Immaculate Conception at Fiesole and the tondo at Tulsa. The old St Joseph bears some resemblance to the woodcut portrait of Piero in Vasari's Lives and might be a self-portrait. A restoration in 2019 removed thick discoloured varnish and old repaint.
Vienna. Liechtenstein Gallery.
Madonna and Child with the Young St John. Wood, 73 x 54.
The Virgin has tied her mantle to a tree to serve as a sunshade and propped her book of hours on its stump. The picture was acquired in about 1712 by Prince Johann Adam Andreas von Liechtenstein. It was listed in eighteenth-century inventories as a work of Perugino and in nineteenth-century inventories as a work of Giuliano Bugiardini. The attribution to Piero di Cosimo was made in Knapp’s 1899 monograph. It has often been accepted (eg. by Keith Christiansen, with a dating of 1507-10, in his 1985-86 catalogue of the Liechtenstein collections), but Bacci (1966) thought that the picture was an early copy or workshop production and Scriccia Santoro (1993) attributed it to the little known Jacopo dell’Indaco.
Washington. National Gallery of Art.
*Visitation. Wood, 184 x 189.
The Virgin Mary, cloaked in dazzling sky-blue, is greeted by her older cousin, St Elizabeth. Other scenes from the Virgin's life appear, on a miniature scale, in the background. The Annunciation is frescoed on a church façade in the right far distance; the Adoration of the Shepherds is in the left middle distance; the Journey of the Magi is just visible on the distant left hillside; and the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted in the right middle distance. The two elderly men, studiously reading and writing in the foreground, are not, as one might expect, Zechariah and Joseph (the husbands of St Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary) but the early Christian saints Nicholas of Bari and Anthony Abbot. St Nicholas, identified by the golden balls lying on the ground nearby, reads a book with legible quotations from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom. Anthony Abbot is identified by his bell, Tau-shaped staff and pig.
The picture is described by Vasari: ‘In the church of Santo Spirito at Florence, in the chapel of Gino Capponi, [Piero] did a picture of the Visitation, with St Nicholas and St Anthony reading, the latter wearing a pair of spectacles’. The altarpiece is often dated around 1490, on the grounds that Piero Capponi paid the woodworker Chimenti del Tasso six large florins towards the frame in October 1489. However, there is evidence that the picture was still unfinished in 1497, when a wealthy member of the Capponi clan (Mico d'Uguccione Capponi, Gino's second cousin once removed) left a legacy in his will to pay for 'completing or rather painting' an altarpiece for Santo Spirito.
The picture remained in situ, in the chapel in the right transept of Santo Spirito, until 1713, when it was replaced by Giovanni Sagrestani’s Marriage of the Virgin and moved to the Capponi villa at Legnaia. By the mid-nineteenth century, it had entered the collection of Frederick West of Chirk Castle, near Wrexham in Wales. It passed by inheritance to West's grandson (William Cornwallis-West of Newlands Manor in Hampshire), and was then sold to Agnew's. It had crossed the Atlantic by 1933, and was acquired by Kress in 1937 from Duveen. Newly restored (2014) and in generally good condition. (The Virgin's blue mantle and the sky are somewhat restored.) A working drawing at the Uffizi is unusual in showing both the painting and the frame of the altarpiece.
Nativity with St John. Wood, 146 in dia.
The Christ Child lies in the centre foreground, his head resting on a pillow of wheat (alluding to the bread of the Eucharist). He is venerated by the infant St John (clutching his reed cross), the Virgin Mary (kneeling in adoration) and a praying angel (with meticulously described jewels and great feathery wings). The elderly St Joseph gingerly descends the steps of the shelter in the background. At the top of the shelter are three angels, silhouetted against the sky, who guide the path of the three Magi in the left distance. The little figures on the extreme left probably represent Christ and the Baptist meeting as adults before the Baptism. The rock dove (right foreground) presumably symbolises the Holy Spirit. The tondo may date from the early 1500s. It was acquired by the Grand-Duchess Marie of Leuchtenberg, who lived in Florence from 1852, and was later in the collection of her descendants in St Petersburg. Sold by 1917 to Nordiska Kompaniet, the Stockholm department store. Acquired by Kress in 1937 from Contini Bonacossi.
*Allegory. Wood, 56 x 44.
A winged female, draped in a scarlet cloak, stands on a small island. She holds a thin cord, which is looped round the neck of a rearing white stallion. The thorny branch in her left hand might be juniper. A fish-tailed siren swims in the foreground, while the hazy outline of a boat is just visible in the right distance. The subject is uncertain. It has been variously called an Allegory of Aurora, the Triumph of Medicean Wisdom over Lawlessness, the Goddess Hippo Training a Horse, the Propagation of Coral (after the myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which seaweed is transformed into coral), and an Allegory of Chastity. On this last reading, Chastity or Temperance, represented by the winged nude, tames Lust or Pride, represented by the rearing stallion and swimming mermaid. Geronimus (2006) suggested that the panel could have served as a cover or backing for the portrait (of Simonetta Vespucci?) at Chantilly, which is almost identical in size. First recorded in 1870 at the Casa Gravaghi in Parma. Acquired by Kress in 1935 from Contini Bonacossi. Severely damaged and extensively restored.
Worcester (Mass.). Art Museum.
*The Discovery of Honey. Wood, 80 x 128.
Bacchus’s train of satyrs and maenads, including the drunken Silenus on his donkey, bang on pots, pans and other kitchen utensils to encourage a swarm of bees to nest in a hollow tree. Bacchus, naked except for a red cloak draped around him, stands in the right foreground, presiding over proceedings with his wife Ariadne. He leans on his thyrsus (staff covered with vines and leaves) and she holds a wine flask and points to the wreath of vine leaves on his head. A grinning satyr (Pan?), seated next to them with his legs immodestly splayed, holds up a bunch of onions (supposed to be aphrodisiacs).
According to Vasari, Piero ‘did some bacchanalian scenes around a chamber for Giovanni Vespucci, who lived opposite San Michele in Via de’ Servi, introducing curious fauns, satyrs, wood nymphs, children and bacchantes, the diversity of creatures and garments being marvellous, with various goatish faces, all done with grace and remarkable realism. In one scene Silenus is riding an ass, with a throng of children, some carrying him and some giving him drink, the general joy being ingeniously depicted’. The subject may be a loose pun on the Vespucci name, the family symbol being a wasps’ nest. Together with another in the series, now in the Fogg Museum at Cambridge (Mass.), the picture was formerly in the Sebright collection at Beechwood Park, Hertfordshire. Acquired in 1937.