National Gallery of Art/ Galleria degli Uffizi, 248 pp., $60.00; $40.00 (paper)
Great nineteenth-century critics taught us to imagine the Italian Renaissance as a world of nymphs walking gracefully on flowery meadows. They liked Piero di Cosimo, who painted his share of nymphs, but they did not have a great deal to say about him. Jacob Burckhardt praised the “extraordinarily solid composition and characters” of Piero’s Immaculate Conception with Saints in the Uffizi and the “completely charming details” of his Liberation of Andromeda. There he stopped. Walter Pater bracketed Piero in passing with his own favorite among the Florentine artists, Botticelli. But he took the comparison no further. Relatively few of the great nineteenth-century collectors sought Piero’s works. They wound up scattered, some of them in small museums. Apart from one important exhibition in New York in 1938, it has not been possible to see many of them at once.
But new generations of art historians began to ask new questions. Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl were fascinated by the metamorphoses that classical mythology underwent in the Middle Ages, as form and content pulled apart. Artists, they argued, portrayed gods and goddesses as medieval rulers, and medieval warriors as classical heroes. In the Renaissance, by contrast, form and content merged again, as accurate philology gave the ancient stories a spectacular new form. Panofsky reexamined the panels in which Piero conjured up the ancient myths. The Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut, had a gorgeous painting, well populated with nymphs, which had traditionally been identified as the story of Hylas, the lover of Hercules. Putting all his immense learning into play, Panofsky showed that it represented the expulsion of Hephaestus from Olympus—and that Piero’s version of the myth incorporated minute details from ancient texts.
Panofsky also examined Piero’s scenes of primitive hunters and artisans at work. He showed that these too had a philological core, since they were inspired by the accounts of early human society in ancient Latin texts. Not all of Panofsky’s interpretations—especially his effort to show that several of these paintings formed a distinct series—have won general support. But he revealed the range of Piero’s artistic interests and techniques and the deep and questing power of his mind. All of these qualities are on view in the National Gallery’s wonderful exhibition, which covers the artist’s entire career.
Like Botticelli, Piero worked in many different fields of art. He produced some of the most handsome and dignified religious paintings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: altarpieces for churches and other religious institutions, as well as tondi, large circular paintings of members of the Holy Family, and paintings of individual saints, for private houses. But he also painted spalliere—wooden panels meant to serve as the backs of settles or other pieces of furniture, to be attached to the chests known as cassoni, or to form part…
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