The Vegetarian Loner of the Renaissance, Now a Modern Master: On the First American Piero di Cosimo Show, in 1938

Piero di Cosimo, Liberation of Andromeda, ca. 1510–1513, oil on panel. ALINARI / ART RESOURCE, NY

Piero di Cosimo, Liberation of Andromeda, ca. 1510–1513, oil on panel.


Only two U.S. exhibitions have ever been devoted to the work of Piero di Cosimo, an Italian Renaissance painter who is considered by many to be one of the masters of his time. The first was in 1938 at Schaeffer Galleries, and the second, titled “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence,” just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The latter is the first major retrospective of Piero’s work—an incredible fact, considering the artist’s stature.

Alfred M. Frankfurter reviewed the 1938 Schaeffer Galleries show for ARTnews. Frankfurter compared Piero, a “modern master,” to Sandro Botticelli, noting that just as Botticelli had inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, Piero had influenced the Surrealists and abstract artists, who took from him an interest in color, form, and fantastical images. Frankfurter also noted Piero’s erratic behavior, and wrote that he was just as fit “for the rôle of modern dictator as well as modern painter.” Frankfurter’s thoughts on the show, originally published in our November 12, 1938 issue, are reproduced in full below.

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo, ca. 1482/1483, oil on limewood panel.

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo, ca. 1482/1483, oil on limewood panel.

“Piero di Cosimo: A Modern Master of the Renaissance”
By Alfred M. Frankfurter

To do honor in a one man show to an artist dead four hundred years is a rare occasion in the scene of the New York galleries, for museums themselves hesitate at the physical difficulties and popular inhibitions that surround the presentation of a single artist from the yonder side of 1600. Thus, aside from its own substantial content, there is meat for the future in the small but successful exhibition of Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521) current at the Schaeffer Galleries, where seven of this extraordinary Florentine’s scarce extant pictures hold forth, aided by an excellent catalogue, in concise illustration of his now so appealing qualities.

Had a kinder destiny preserved more of his works, Piero di Cosimo, as I have said elsewhere, might well mean to the twentieth century what Botticelli meant to the nineteenth. Even lacking a widely accessible oeuvre like the great Sandro’s, Piero has begun to be celebrated as a spiritual ancestor by an abstracting post-War world, and, more particularly by the Surrealists who, with their dependence upon verbal imputations and classical sources, are so curiously akin to the Pre-Raphaelite high priests of the Victorian cult of Botticelli. Whatever the subjective defects of these modern literary-artistic movements, they are important, and especially so in this case, for their influence on contemporaneous taste in the art of the past. They necessarily seek their real or claimed prototypes, and guide toward them a public to whom the whole process subtly yet certainly becomes its own means of selection from the accumulation of centuries of artistic accomplishment.

The result is the “modern way of seeing” about which a great deal is spoken in our time as the first conscious recognition of such mutation of taste. Other masters, like Bosch and El Greco and Chardin, share an enthusiastic contemporary reception with Piero di Cosimo, but none of them come so close to the dernière heure of modern taste as the Florentine, three of whose paintings have entered American museums within a twelvemonth. It was a happy thought to recognize these facts in the current exhibition which gathers the greater part on this side of the Atlantic, two of them previously unpublished and unknown to the public, and others correlated for the first time under one roof.

What I have said must not imply that Piero was a forgotten or even a neglected artist before the nineteen-thirties. Although today he serves the abstracters of the fantastic just as Botticelli served the sentimental literati of Ruskin’s day, his stature as an artist in relation to his contemporaries has been adequately perceived even if not precisely evaluated ever since Vasari devoted many pages to him shortly after his death. To be sure, the redoubtable historiographer of the cinquecento manifested greater concern with Piero’s personal eccentricities than with his artistic performance. But there was enough sustenance for the identity of Piero di Cosimo to have remained more or less intact beside so much better publicized contemporaries as Lorenzo di Credi and Botticelli, mainly as a stylistic liaison between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, between the Early and the High Renaissance.

Piero di Cosmio, Portrait of Francesco Giamberti, ca. 1482/1483, oil on panel.

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Francesco Giamberti, ca. 1482/1483, oil on panel.

The real place of Piero di Cosimo is intermediate to those two valuations. His art is neither fully the exotic, metaphysical and supernatural, by the partial manifestation of which he appeals to the escapist tendencies of modern life, nor the deliberately eclectic, dry transition from one style to another of which art-historians called him a valuable document.

It is actually a little both of those things. To corroborate this there is the evidence present in this exhibition: the indices from strongly personal interpretation of the chiefly Botticelliesque forms of Florence in the ninth decade of the quattrocento, through the period of astonishingly facile manifestation—which might, in all fairness, be coincidental as easily as derivative—of the idioms ordinarily peculiar to several of his contemporaries, and ending with the completely individual productions, of a profound degree of mannerism when not surely far in advance of their time, from the final period beginning about 1510.

With the physical exhibits should be taken in account some of the biographical details related by Vasari. Even if a legend, there must have been some foundation in the elaboration of the historian on Piero’s desire for solitude, his fits of ill temper, his “back to nature” philosophy, his vegetarianism and other oddities which seem so strangely to fit him for the rôle of modern dictator as well as modern painter. Sonderling he must have been, though occasionally, it is only fair to say, with a slightly cockeyed and ingrown Weltanschauung.

First of the few facts relating to Piero’s activity, if we are to believe Vasari, is the item that he accompanied his master Cosimo Rosselli to Rome in 1481–82 to assist in the latter’s frescoes in the Vatican, and the hypothesis is followed by tracing the origins of his style to the rather clumsily flowing symmetry of the landscapes as well as the awkwardly undulating outline and rigid frontality of the portrait heads in the two large walls. It is nevertheless a plausible theory when supported by the probably two- or three-year-later Venus, Cupid and Mars in the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin, with its freer evolution of the landscape and still tight heads.

Piero di Cosimo, Saint Jerome in Pentience, 1495–1500, oil on panel.

Piero di Cosimo, Saint Jerome in Pentience, 1495–1500, oil on panel.

Thus begins a first period of the artist, evidenced in this exhibition by the lyric idyll of Finding of Vulcan, lent by the Wadsworth Atheneum. Hartford, which, as Panofsky has shown, is part of a series to which belongs also the fulsome, more dramatic Vulcan and Aeolus as Teachers of Mankind, lent by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Between the execution of these two important works in the same group, however, there seems to have been a long lapse, perhaps as much as five years, for beside the real Rossellesque and rather simple tonal contrasts and unilateral spatial concept of the former, the latter panel proclaims the new influence of Leonardo da Vinci in its subtle undertones and sfumato as well as in the concentric composition and receding space reminiscent of Leonardo’s famous Adoration.

To the Leonardesque inspiration, fully digested by about 1490, Piero then adds a Flemish one, impelled doubtless by the great Hugo van der Goes altar, contemporaneously the cynosure of Florentine artists’ eyes. It may be callled the start of a second phase, manifesting itself in a sharp brilliance of color and a precise, miniature-like concern with atmospheric and landscape detail, and it is here represented in the swelling harmonies of the magnificent Adoration tondo, lent by the S.H. Kress Foundation, and, more specifically, in the lovely panel of The Discover of Honey, lent by the Worcester Art Museum. This phase, in which, it should also be noted, the artist has virtually eschewed the tempera-oil mixture for an oil medium, is also characterized by interferences of the sonorous color of contemporary Venetian painting, deriving from unknown sources, as well as occasional borrowings of facial types and compositional devices from widely varied Florentine contemporaries.

The application of these sources is of greatly differing intensity and frequency, a fact which is perhaps the best corroboration of the Vasari story of Piero’s strange way of life. A recluse and an eccentric, out of touch with the main currents about him, the artist can hardly be said to have formulated a style. Rather it might be called a way of painting, loose enough to permit of an occasional eclecticism or atavism, some times conscious, sometimes unconscious.

Piero di Cosimo, Two Angels, ca. 1510–1515, oil on canvas transferred from panel. ©2014 MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

Piero di Cosimo, Two Angels, ca. 1510–1515, oil on canvas transferred from panel.


Finally, a third period, most mysterious of all, seems to have begun about 1510, with a positive reminiscence of the quattrocento Botticelli, albeit phrased in a now completely characteristic freedom that they defy description. To this phase belongs the famous profile head of Simonetta Vespucci of Chantilly, long erroneously dated as a very early work, and the precious small Allegory, lent by Mr. Kress, with its powdery technique, restrained tones and intriguing and baffling subject. The progress from this start cannot be delineated, except that in this exhibition the large tondo of the Madonna and Child with St. John and Angels, for which a drawing of Piero’s is preserved in the Uffizi, bears eloquent testimony to the development of a full, ripe realization of the swelling forms of the High Renaissance couched in the terms of Piero’s most personal observation of nature and the human body.

It is a great deal to say of Piero di Cosimo that he is unique for his epoch, yet surely he is extraordinary. In an age in which the laws of painting were not alone well defined but practiced almost to perfection, and in which the academy was an inferred idea if not an established fact, he lived and worked in detachment and with astonishing freedom.

His preoccupation with the primitive and basic factors of human existence has been mentioned by Panofsky, and indeed it is patent in nearly all his work, giving it the character of a return to nature curiously prophetic of Rousseau. His brilliant incorporation of symbolism and iconological codification into his pictures makes of him an affinity of our own time with its ceaseless efforts to validate his success was not based on literary associations or the printed word. In him the painter alone speaks and this, above all else, is what makes him a modern master.

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