Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Painters, describes Piero di Cosimo as a man who lived “in the strangeness of his mind,” beset by fears that were also compulsions—his pyrophobia was so intense, Vasari says, that he couldn’t bear to cook food, yet he vividly depicted great fires in his art. Maybe Vasari exaggerated a little; but then, no, looking at the show of Piero’s art at the National Gallery, eccentric doesn’t begin to do him justice. This was one strange dude.
Piero was a younger contemporary of Botticelli and Da Vinci, his fellow Florentines, both of whom unsurprisingly influenced his work. He was already in full command of his art at the age of eighteen, as the perfect compositional balance of his Madonna and Child Enthroned with Sts. Onophrius and Augustine illustrates. What is still lacking, at this point, is the sense of profound expressive inquisition that Piero will soon bring to his work, and that will destabilize it in the most fascinating ways. Who are these people? Piero always seems to be asking of his subjects; What is this world about? Even in his representations of the most conventional figures—the Madonna and Child were his favorites—there is always something off-kilter, a door to another room.
Another early painting, Madonna and Child with Sts. Lazarus and Sebastian, shows this developing sensibility. The central figures are still conventional enough, but why this saintly pair? Lazarus, raised from the dead, has the marks of decomposition on him; his body shows sores, one of which a small dog licks. Sebastian, forever the symbol of martyred youth, stands casually posed in the pride of early manhood, holding the arrows that symbolize him, but bearing at the same time the stigmata of the wounds he has yet to receive. Lazarus, then, bears wounds that are past into the eternal present of the Holy Mother and Child, while Sebastian bears those of his future into that same present. We are all wounded and afflicted, Piero is telling us, all subject to violence, cruelty, and decay, and even in a divine presence we are not—at least not yet—healed of the flesh. At the same time, the Madonna’s suffering itself still lies before her in the wounds of her votaries, which are to be those of the Child she holds. Redemption is tantalizingly present, but, from the point of view of the human condition, it also seems terribly far away.
Piero transforms another conventional subject into a tableau of coolly observed horror in A Hunting Scene. Depictions of the hunt are as old as those Assyrian bas-reliefs ISIS has been so busily demolishing of late, and they are almost always celebrations of royal prowess and aristocratic privilege. In Piero’s hands, however, the hunt becomes a vision of universal predation, with humans, satyrs, and beasts all piling on each other, as for example in the image of a lion polishing off a bear, his teeth bared for the final kill, who does not see the satyr figure who stands, club raised high, about to kill him. The mixture of humans and satyrs, all nude, clearly represents man’s participation in animal savagery, the universal bloodlust all flesh shares, and the universal necessity to which it is subject. What’s most chilling about the scene, though, is Piero’s own enthusiastic participation in it, as he allows his imagination free rein in twining his human and animal forms in their dance of death. “Nature red in tooth and claw”—long before Darwin, long before Freud, Piero’s Hunting Scene says it all.
Piero is best known, though, for his mythological extravaganzas. In the briefest word, the recovery of classical antiquity is what the Renaissance was about, and classical mythology in particular provided fertile ground for the artistic imagination. Piero’s scenes are justly famous, and they are also his most experimental and fantastic. A single example from the show, The Liberation of Andromeda, is a phantasmagoric feast. Andromeda is chained (actually, rather loosely tied with red sash), not to a rock but to a decayed stump, while Perseus, who in prefigurement leaps onto the scene from the upper right of the frame, has also landed on the back of the monster who must be slain to rescue her. The latter is a nightmarish concoction, who roils the offshore waters with enormous flippers but also features a tusked, snarling head and a lavishly coiled dragon’s tail. Perseus is a tiny figure on his back, but, nonetheless seems fully confident of his ability to dispatch the beast. There’s plenty else going on in the scene, though, including a pair of lovers engrossed in each other on a ledge above Andromeda and quite oblivious of her, and a pair of shore parties, one in Turkish dress, one of which turns away from the monster in horror while the other parties on with reveling dancers and musicians.
Piero holds the scene together with balanced composition, including the two shore parties and the high facing cliffs above the island’s bay. Closer inspection reveals that the latter are hardly what they seem, though, for the left-hand cliff is so precariously balanced it seems about to topple, while the crest of the right-hand one appears to be in the process of disappearing into smoke. It’s a marvelous painting, and an even more marvelous puzzle. Just don’t expect a solution.
As Piero goes on, his work more and more closely anticipates the expressive distortions of Mannerism. It also, however, gains in humanity. The evolution in his treatment of the Madonna and Child theme is alone worth an essay—the lightness and tenderness with which she holds him (hands fascinate Piero as they do Caravaggio), and his own playfulness, interacting with the infant figure of John the Baptist and inquisitively searching the world. The man who had devils in his head was curiously at home with the angels, too.