Piero di Cosimo was, in all likelihood, the strangest painter of the 15th century. “Men could perceive the strangeness of his brain,” wrote his biographer, Giorgio Vasari. “He knew no pleasure save that of going off by himself with his thoughts, letting his fancy roam, and building castles in air. . . . He was very strange.”
Vasari was writing around 1550, when many artists were strange. In the age of Mannerism, of exorbitantly antinatural distortions of color and form, some of the finest artists had been, as one said back then, “born under Saturn.” That was a polite way of saying that they were melancholic— or, as we would say today, deranged. Jacopo Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, even Michelangelo were so described.
But in Florence in the 1400s, a very different style dominated art, architecture, and culture in general. It was an aesthetic whose classical aspirations generally sought balance and harmony over conflict and irregularity. Such a style, whatever its other virtues, usually entailed a suppression of the imaginative faculty. And so, it is generally high noon in the art of the Florentine Renaissance: Brilliant daylight floods the surfaces of the perceptible world, banishing all doubt and disquiet, all trace of mystery or dreams.
Though often lauded as one of the preeminent achievements of the time, Botticelli’s line-drawing illustrations for The Divine Comedy have always struck me as a failure. The painter, lacking the poet’s myriad-mindedness, his intervals of darkness and ecstatic light, was (it would appear) incapable of drawing that which he had not actually seen. Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522), however, could. The subject of this nearly definitive exhibition at the National Gallery, in coordination with the Uffizi in Florence, he is the odd instance of a 16th-century painter condemned to labor within the constraints of 15th-century art.
He was a creature “of imagination all compact.” His 40-year career was evenly divided, with one half in the 15th century and the other in the 16th, and in his later years, he remained admirably up-to-date on the latest developments in art. But in accommodating these new, 16th-century influences, he seems to be importing them into the 15th-century frame of reference in which he was raised—and to which he remained essentially loyal to the end of his life.
If he had been born one or two generations later, his extravagant ancient gods would be emblazoned across an entire wall. As it is, they politely occupy the side of a cassone, or marriage chest. His sundry hirsute abominations, satyrs, centaurs, and the like would have been rendered in such a way as to convey their elemental violence. Instead, they are limned with the skill of a miniaturist and seem more comical than anything else. It is as though Mozart had survived (as he certainly could have survived) into the age of Liszt.
As for this new retrospective—incredibly, the first ever devoted to this essential master—there is little that needs to be said beyond the fact that it contains most of his important works and that they look radiantly fresh and beautiful. In a lifetime of museum-going, you will rarely see anything as good as—and may never see anything better than—his Madonna and Child Enthroned (ca. 1493) from the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence, or the Silenus and prancing satyrs of The Discovery of Honey (ca. 1500), or the Madonna and Child with Two Musician Angels (ca. 1505) from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice.
In these works, Piero renders reality in such sharp detail—I am thinking of the blasted tree at the center of The Discovery of Honey—that he fundamentally transfigures the perceptible world until naturalism itself seems uncanny and strange.