PIERO DI COSIMO is one of those artists who suffered from temporary neglect and whose rare merits have only been lately recognised. Many of his works formerly passed under the names of other masters, but have recently been restored to him, and now we are once more able to form a clear idea of his style. The first notice we have of this gifted but eccentric artist is in 1480, when his father, Lorenzo Chimenti, himself a goldsmith-painter, describes his son as a painter earning no salary, and working in Cosimo Rosselli’s shop. It was from Cosimo that Piero, who was then eighteen, derived his name. Rosselli loved him as his own son, and had good reason, Vasari remarks, to treat him well, since Piero, being a far better artist than his master, became indispensable to him, and was employed on all his important works. Two years after this, Piero accompanied Cosimo to Rome, and not only painted the landscapes and many of the portraits in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, but himself executed the Destruction of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, which was supposed to be Rosselli’s work. As Botticelli had glorified the pious and merciful acts of Pope Sixtus in his fresco of the Purification of the Leper, so Piero was desired to celebrate his warlike deeds, and especially the victory which the papal general, Roberto di Sanseverino, had obtained at Campomorto in August, 1482, over Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, whose armies had invaded the papal dominions and threatened Rome itself. Moses, the leader of the chosen people, is represented standing on the shore, watching the Egyptian hosts and the chariots of Pharaoh in the act of being swallowed up by the raging seas, while Miriam, attended by the Hebrew women, chaunts her song of triumph at his side. The groups of warriors and horses struggling in the waves, the angry skies and the fury of the elements, are rendered with great truth and force, and the whole fresco is distinctly superior to the earlier works executed by Cosimo Rosselli, who probably found this subject beyond his powers.
After his return to Florence, Piero began to work as an independent master, and received many important commissions towards the close of the century, when Ghirlandajo was dead and Leonardo absent in Milan. Filippino’s influence appears in several round Madonnas and Holy Families of his earlier period, as well as in the large altar-piece of the Conception, which he painted for the Tedaldi Chapel in the Annunziata, and which is now in the Uffizi. Here the Virgin is represented standing on a pedestal, adorned with a bas-relief of the Annunciation, and looking up with rapt expression at the Holy Dove which hovers in a sea of golden light above. Six saints, among whom are Filippo Benizzi, the founder of the Servite order, and Archbishop Antonino, kneel at her feet, and a fantastic landscape of steep rocks, crowned with palms and buildings, fills up the background. The other altar-piece which he painted about this time, after many delays and prevarications, for his friend the Spedalingo of the Innocenti, is still preserved in that hospital. Here the Virgin is enthroned and the Child bends down to place the ring on St. Katherine’s finger, while S. Rosa offers him flowers, and two aged saints and six boy-angels, wreathed with roses and holding lighted tapers, make up the group. Both the reading Magdalen, in a red robe, with pearls in her brown hair, which was until lately the property of the Monte di Pietà in Rome, and the Holy Family, which long bore Signorelli’s name, at Dresden, strongly resemble Filippino’s works.
But a new and more individual phase of Piero di Cosimo’s art is seen in the tempera pictures which he painted for the decoration of the houses and furniture of the cultured Florentines of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s circle. The romantic bent of his genius throws a faëry glamour over the Greek myths which he renders in so quaint a fashion, whether he paints the nymphs hastening with flowers and fruits, and their little white dog in their arms, to bring back the fair boy Hylas to life, or the faithful hound Lelaps watching over the dead body of Procris on the flowery shore. In taking the loves of Venus and Mars for his subject, and representing the goddess with Cupid and a pet rabbit in her arms, reclining in the myrtle bowers where the god of war slumbers, Piero was bold enough to enter into competition with Botticelli ; but if his drawing falls short of Sandro’s vigorous line, his landscape, with the rose-bushes and blue lake sleeping in the clear sunshine, is far more lovely. Like several of his contemporaries, it is plain, he had studied the minute rendering of objects in Hugo van der Goes’ triptych and other Flemish landscapes, and had learnt from their ex-ample to reproduce every detail with what Vasari calls “almost incredible patience.”
The panels of the story of Perseus and Andromeda,-in the Uffizi, were ordered by Filippo Strozzi, and are executed in oils, a medium in which Piero loved to make experiments, and in which he strove to emulate Leonardo’s sfumato tints and effects of chiaroscuro. The influence of this great master is strongly marked in his later works, such as the Borghese Madonna, the Judgment of Solomon in, the same collection, and the larger Uffizi panel, in which he repeats the subject of Andromeda’s deliverance, and introduces a group of musicians celebrating the triumph of Perseus. An old inventory, of 1589, states that the figures in this beautiful painting were drawn by Leonardo, probably when he was in Florence in the first years of the sixteenth century, although the colouring and landscape are plainly Piero’s work. And it is worthy of note that Piero di Cosimo is one of the few Florentine masters whose name appears in Leonardo’s notebooks.
The ” horrid sea-monster ” which this master painted for Leonardo’s patron, Giuliano de’ Medici, and the satyrs, fauns, and bacchantes with which he decorated panels in the Vespucci Palace, have been lost, but one work which he executed for the same noble family is fortunately still in existence.
This is the portrait of “la bella Simonetta,” which hung in the Palazzo Vespucci in Florence until it was bought by M. Reiset, from whose collection it passed into that of the Duc d’Aumale at Chantilly. The fair Genoese maiden who wedded Giuliano Vespucci when she was sixteen, and was so sweet and charming that all men praised her and no women envied her, died of lingering consumption in April 1476, little more than a year after Giuliano de’ Medici had chosen her to be the Queen of his Tournament. Lorenzo, who was absent at the time of her iliness and loved her with brotherly affection, sent his own doctor to attend her, and received daily reports of her condition. When she was borne to her grave in Ognissanti, all Florence flocked to look once more on the lovely face that was even fairer in death than in life, and endless were the elegies and sonnets composed in her honour. The two portraits of Simonetta by Sandro Botticelli in the Medici collection, which Vasari mentions, have disappeared, and the bust in the Pitti, which Mr. Berenson ascribes to Amico di Sandro, does scanty justice to her beauty. Piero di Cosimo, who was a boy of fourteen when Simonetta died, must have painted her portrait from some medal or drawing, but he has succeeded in rendering the spiritual charm and vivacity of her countenance. A striped scarf is thrown over her shoulders, her golden hair is braided with pearls and rubies, and a jewel in the shape of a serpent with dark-green scales is twisted round her white neck, while the panel bears the inscription ” Simonetta Januensis Vespuccia.”
Several other portraits by Piero’s hand, all marked with the same note of distinction, have been preserved, and give us a high idea of his skill in the delineation of character. There is the dark-eyed warrior in gleaming armour of the National Gallery, with the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria behind him, and the Florentine matron with her pet rabbit in her lap, in the Jarves Collection in the United States. There are the portraits of his own intimate friends, Giuliano di San Gallo and his father, which Vasari describes, and which Signor Frizzoni discovered at the Hague, the one holding a pair of compasses, the other a sheet of paper in his hands. And there is Caterina Sforza, the heroic Madonna who held the citadel of Forli against Csar Borgia and the combined French and papal armies, and who came to end her days in the home of her Medici husband.
As a young man, Piero di Cosimo frequently devoted his talents to the preparation of the carnival pageants and masquerades in which the Florentines took delight, and the Medici were glad to avail them-selves of his inventive powers in the festas with which they amused the people. At the Carnival of 1511, his weird fancy found expression in a triumphal car of Death, which paraded the streets drawn by black buffaloes, and escorted by a corps of horsemen in black, bearing sable banners and chanting the Miserere. This gruesome fantasy, as Vasari afterwards heard from Piero’s pupil, Andrea del Sarto, was intended to be a secret prophecy of the return of the Medici, and was accordingly warmly applauded by their partisans, as if it were ” a resurrection from death to life.”
From his youth Piero di Cosimo had been a wayward and eccentric being, full of strange ideas and unreasonable caprices. He never would allow the vines and fig-trees of his garden to be pruned or trained, but allowed them to run wild, saying that Nature must have her way. And he would stand for hours watching the clouds and framing fantastic landscapes and cities out of their changing shapes, much after the fashion suggested by Leonardo in his book on Painting. But after his master’s death, his dislike of society and aversion to his fellow-creatures increased with every year, until in his last days he became a complete misanthrope. He lived alone, without servants or companions, and only a few intimate friends were admitted to his house. His daily fare consisted chiefly of hard-boiled eggs, which he cooked, by fifty at a time, in, the water which he used to heat his size. He was terribly afraid of thunder and lightning, and would close all the doors and windows, and crouch in a corner, with his head under his mantle, until the storm had passed away. And he had a perfect horror of noises, whether of screaming children, church-bells, or singing friars. Even the buzzing of flies excited his wrath beyond control, and he would fly into a rage with the very shadows on the wall. When he was ill, he refused the help of either doctors or nurses, and was fond of contrasting the misery of a death-bed, surrounded by weeping friends and disturbed by the visits of tire-some doctors and unfeeling servants, with the end of the victim of justice, who goes to the scaffold in the light of day and fulness of strength, attended by priests who pray that angels may receive his soul, and followed by the blessings and sympathy of waiting crowds. He must have rejoiced that death came suddenly to him at the last. One morning in the year 1521, he was found dead at the foot of his stairs, and was buried by his friends in the ancient church of S. Pietro Maggiore.
Florence.Uffizi: The Immaculate Conception. 82-84. Perseus and Andromeda. 1312. The deliverance of Andromeda. 3414. Portrait of Caterina Sforza.
” Pitti : 370. Head of Saint.
” Spedale degli Innocenti : Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels.
” S. Lorenzo: Madonna and Saints adoring the Child.
Milan.Palazzo Borromeo; Sala Centrale: 19. Madonna and Child.
” Prince Trivulzio: Madonna and Child with Angels.
Rome.Vatican; Sistine Chapel: FrescoDestruction of Pharaoh.
” Borghese Villa: 329. Judgment of Solomon. 335. Madonna and Child. 343. Madonna and Child with Angels.
” Senatore Giovanni Baracco : Magdalen.
Berlin.Gallery: 107. Mars and Venus. 204. Adoration of the Shepherds.
Chantilly. La Bella Simonetta.
Dresden.Gallery: 20. Madonna and Child with Angels.
The Hague.Gallery: 54, 255. Portraits of Giuliano and Francesco di San Gallo.
London.National Gallery: 698. Death of Procris. 895. Portrait of Warrior.
” Earl of Ashburnham : Madonna and Child with St. John.
” Mr. Benson : Hylas and the Nymphs.
” Mr. Burke: Centaurs and Lapithm.
” Mr. Street : Madonna and Child.
Newlands.Colonel Cornwallis West: Visitation.
Oxford.Christ Church: Pietà.
Newhaven U.S.A.Jarves Collection: 68. Portrait of a Lady with a Rabbit.
Paris.Louvre: 1274, St. John Baptist. 1416. Coronation of the Virgin. 1622. Madonna and Child.
Marseilles.Gallery: 335, 336. Theseus and Ariadne.
Vienna. Harrach Gallery : Madonna and Child with Angels.
” Lichtenstein Gallery : Madonna and Child.