Painter of Florence

WHILE Giorgione and Correggio were winning praise and glory for Lombardy, Tuscany was not devoid of distinguished men. Not the least of these was Piero, son of one Lorenzo, a goldsmith, and godson of Cosimo Rosselli, and owing to these circumstances he was always known as Piero di Cosimo. Indeed, he who instructs ability and promotes well-being is as truly a father as the one who begets. Piero's father, seeing the intelligence of his son and his fondness for design, entrusted him to Cosimo, who took the charge willingly, and always loved and regarded Piero as a son among all the pupils whom he saw about him, and watched him growing in years and ability. This youth naturally possessed a very lofty spirit, and he was very abstracted, and differed in tastes from the other pupils of Cosimo. He was sometimes so absorbed in what he was doing that those who conversed with him were frequently obliged to repeat all that they had said, for his mind had wandered to other ideas. He was so fond of solitude that his one delight was to wander alone, free to build his castles in the air. His master Cosimo had reason to hope that they might be extensive, for he employed him frequently on his own works, continually entrusting him with matters of importance, knowing that Piero possessed a finer style and better judgment than himself. For this reason he took him to Rome when summoned by Pope Sixtus to decorate the chapel. In one of the scenes there 1 Piero did a beautiful landscape, as I have said in the Life of Cosimo. As he drew most excellently from life, he did a quantity of portraits of distinguished persons at Rome, notably Verginio Orsino and Ruberto Sansovino, whom he introduced into the scenes. He also drew Duke Valentino, son of Pope Alexander VI. So far as I know this picture cannot now be found, but the cartoon exists in the possession of M. Cosimo Bartoli, provost of S. Giovanni. He painted a quantity of pictures at Florence for the houses of various persons, many good examples having come under my notice, and he also did various things for many other people. In the Noviciate of S. Marco he did a Madonna standing with the Child, coloured in oils. In the church of S. Spirito at Florence, in the Chapel of Gino Capponi, he did a picture of the Visitation, with St. Nicholas and a St. Anthony reading, the latter wearing a pair of spectacles, a vigorous figure. There is an excellent representation of an old parchment book, and the balls of St. Nicholas are made lustrous, reflecting each other, showing the curious fancies of Piero’s brain, and how he sought out and performed difficult things.

After his death it appeared that he had lived the life of a brute rather than a man, as he had kept himself shut up and would not permit anyone to see him work. He would not allow his rooms to be swept, he ate when he felt hungry, and would never suffer the fruit-trees of his garden to be pruned or trained, leaving the vines to grow and trail along the ground; the fig trees were never pruned nor any others, for he loved to see everything wild, saving that nature ought to be allowed to look after itself. He would often go to see animals, herbs, or any freaks of nature, and his contentment and satisfaction he enjoyed by himself. He would repeat his remarks so many times that at length they became wearisome, however good they may have been. He stopped to examine a wall where sick persons had used to spit, imagining that he saw there combats of horses and the most fantastic cities and extraordinary landscapes ever beheld. He cherished the same fancies of clouds. He practised colouring in oils after seeing some things of Lionardo toned and finished with the extreme diligence characteristic of that master when he wished to display his art. This method pleased Piero and he strove to imitate it, though he was a long way behind Lionardo, and any other eccentric things; indeed we may say that this spirit pervaded everything which he did. If Piero had not been so eccentric, and had possessed more self-respect, he would have displayed his great genius and commanded admiration, whereas he was rather considered a fool for his uncouthness, though he really harmed no one but himself and greatly benefited art by his works. Thus everyman of ability and every excellent artist ought to consider the end in the light of these examples.

In his youth Piero, possessing a capricious and extravagant invention, was in great request for the masquerades of carnival time,and was a great favourite with the noble Florentine youths, because by his inventive mind he greatly improved those amusements in ornament, grandeur and pomp. He is said to have been one of the first to give them the character of triumphs, and at any rate he greatly improved them with his scenes, with music and appropriate speeches, and a grand procession of men on horses and foot, in costumes adapted to the subject. These proved very rich and fine, combining grandeur and ingenuity. It was certainly a fine sight at night to see twenty-five or thirty couples of horses, richly caparisoned, with their masters dressed in accordance with the subject of the invention; six or eight footmen in the same livery, in single file, carrying torches in their hands, sometimes more than four hundred, and then the car or triumph full of ornaments, spoils and curious fancies, which enchanted the people and instructed their minds.

Among these things, which were fairly numerous and ingenious, I will briefly describe one of Piero's chief efforts 2 when he was already mature. It was not, like many others, pleasant and pretty, but curious, horrible and surprising, giving no small pleasure to the people. For as acid things give wonderful delight in food, so horrible things in these amusements tickle the fancy, as, for instance, in tragedy. This particular device was the car of Death secretly prepared by Piero in the Pope's Hall, so that nothing transpired until it was made public to all at the same time. It was a large car drawn by black buffaloes and painted with white death's heads and crossbones. At the top of the car a gigantic Death held his scythe, while round the car were many tombs with their stones. When the car stopped, these opened, and figures clothed in black issued out, with the complete skeleton painted on their draperies, the white set off by the black. From a distance there appeared some of the torches with masks painted behind and before like skulls, including the throat, most realistic but a horrid and terrible sight. At the raucous, dead sound of some trumpets, they came half out of the tombs and sitting on them, sang the following noble canzone to a music full of sadness:

Dolor, pianto e penitenza, etc.

In front of and following the car were a great number of dead mounted on the leanest and boniest horses that could be found, with black trappings marked with white crosses. Each one had four foot men dressed as the dead, carrying black crosses and a great black standard with crosses, skulls and cross bones. After the triumph they dragged ten black standards, and as they marched they sang the Miserere, a psalm of David, in unison, with trembling voices. This lugubrious spectacle, by its novelty and tremendous character, as I have said, at once terrified and amazed the whole city, and although it did not seem at first sight suited to the carnival, yet it pleased everyone because of its novelty and because everything was admirably arranged. Piero, the inventor, received hearty praise for his work, and this encouraged him to produce witty and ingenious devices, for the city has no rival in the conduct of such festivals. Old people who saw this spectacle preserve a lively recollection of it and are never tired of talking about this curious invention. I have heard it said by Andrea di Cosimo; who helped him with this work, and by Andrea del Sarto, his pupil, who also had a share in it, that this invention was intended to signify the return to Florence of the house of the Medici, exiles at the time and practically dead. Thus they interpret the words:

Morti Siam, come vedete Cosi morti vedrem voi Fummo gia come voi sete Voi sarete come noi, etc.

to indicate their return, like a resurrection of a dead man to life, and the banishment of their opponents. However this may be, it was natural that a special significance should be attributed to these words when this illustrious house returned to Florence, as men are apt to apply words and acts that happen before the events that follow after. The opinion was certainly entertained by many, and it was much discussed.

But to return to art and the achievements of Piero. He was Commissioned to do a picture at the Chapel of the Tedaldi in the church of the Servite friars: where the vest and pillow of St. Philip, their founder, are preserved. Here he did a Madonna' standing, raised from the ground on a dado; she is without the Child, holds a book in her hand, and raises her head to heaven while the Holy Spirit above irradiates her. The light emitted by the doves is the only thing which illuminates her and the other figures, St. Margaret and St. Catherine, who are adoring her on their knees, while St. Peter and St. John the Baptist, with St. Philip, the Servite friar; and St. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence, stand and regard her. There is a remarkable landscape of strange trees and some caves. It indeed contains some very beautiful parts, such as certain heads, displaying design and grace, with a very even colouring. Certainly Piero possessed the art of colouring in oil to perfection. He did the predella of small scenes, excellently painted, among them being St. Margaret is suing from the belly of the servent. This animal is caricatured and so ugly that I do not consider that a better example of the kind is to be found, presenting a truly fearful aspect with its poisonous eyes, fire and death. I do not think that anyone painted such things better than Piero, nor conceived them so well, as for example a marine monster which he did and presented to M. Giuliano de' Medici, of remarkable and curious deformity, so that it appears impossible that Nature should have produced anything so fantastic. This monster is now in the wardrobe of Dtike Cosimo, which also contains a book of similar curious and strange animals by Piero, carefully drawn with the pen and executed with admirable patience. The book was presented by my good friend M. Cosimo Bartoli, provost of S. Giovanni, who is a great admirer of the profession. In the house of Francesco del Pugliese, Piero did some scenes of fables in small figures about a room, the diversity of the fantastic creations in which he delighted, houses, animals, costumes, various instruments and other things defying description. After the death of Francesco and his children they were removed, and I do not know what has become of them. There is a picture of Mars and Venus and their loves, and a Vulcan represented with great art and incredible patience. For Filippo Strozzi the elder Piero painted a picture of Perseus releasing Andromeda from the monster, in small figures, containing some most beautiful things. It is now in the house of Sig. Sforza Almeni, first chamberlain of Duke Cosimo, 3 having been given to him by M. Giovanni Battista di Lorenzo Strozzi, who knew how fond he was of painting and sculpture. He values it highly, for Piero never did a more lovely or a better-finished picture; no more curious sea-monster can be seen than the one which he drew there, while the attitude of Perseus is fine as he raises his sword to strike. Andromeda's beautiful face is torn between fear and hope, as she stands bound, and before her are many people in various curious costumes, playing and singing, some laughing and rejoicing at seeing her release. The landscape is very lovely and the colouring soft, graceful, harmonious and well blended. Piero finished this work with the greatest care. He also painted a picture of a nude Venus with a nude Mars lying asleep in a meadow full of flowers, surrounded by cupids who are carrying his helmet, gauntlets and other armour. 4 It also contains a myrtle bush and a cupid frightened by a rabbit, with the dovesof Venus and other accessories of Love. This picture is in Florence in the house of Giorgio Vasari, treasured in memory of the author whose fancies always delighted him.

The master of the hospital of the Innocents was a great friend of Piero, and when he wanted a picture for the Chapel of the Pugliese on the left-hand on entering the church, he allotted it to Piero, who completed it to his satisfaction. But he drove the master to desperation, as he was not allowed to see it before it was finished. It seemed strange to him that a friend should be always thinking of the money and not allow him to see the work, and he refused to make the last payment unless he was allowed to see the work. But when Piero threatened to destroy what was done he was forced to give him the rest, with anger exceeding his former patience. The work certainly contains many good things. 5 Piero undertook to do a panel in the church of S. Pier Gattolini, representing a Madonna seated, surrounded by four figures, while two angels in the air are crowning her, a work conducted with such diligence that he won much praise and honour. It may now be seen in S. Friano, 6 as the other church is destroyed. He did a small panel of the Conception 7 on the screen of the church of S. Francesco at Fiesole, a charming little thing, the figures not being very large. He did some bacchanalian scenes about a chamber for Giovan. Vespucci, who lived opposite S. Michele in the via de' Servi, now via di Pier Salviati, introducing curious fawns, satyrs, wood nymphs, children and bacchantes, the diversity of creatures and garments being marvellous, with various goatish faces, all done with grace and remarkable realism. In one scene Silenus is riding an ass, with a throng of children some carrying him and some giving him drink, the general joy being ingeniously depicted.

Piero's works betray a spirit of great diversity distinct from those of others, for he was endowed with a subtlety for investigating curious matters in nature, and executed them without a thought for the time or labour, but solely for his delight and pleasure in art. It could not be otherwise, for so devoted was lie to art that he neglected his material comforts, and his habitual food consisted of hard-boiled eggs, which he cooked while he was boiling his glue, to save the firing. He would cook not six or eight at a time, but a good fifty, and would eat them one by one from a basket in which he kept them. He adhered so strictly to this manner of life that others seemed to him to be in slavery by comparison. The crying of babies irritated him, and so did the coughing of men, the sound of bells, the singing of the friars. When it rained hard he loved to see the water rushing off the roofs and splashing on to the ground. He was much afraid of lightning and was terrified of the thunder. He would wrap himself up in his mantle, shut up the windows and doors of the room and crouch into a corner until the fury of the storm had passed. His conversation was so various and diversified that some of his sayings made his hearers burst with laughter. But in his old age, when eighty years old, he became so strange and eccentric that he was unbearable. He would not allow his apprentices to be about him, so that he obtained less and less assistance by his uncouthness. He wanted to work, and not being able on account of the paralysis, he became so enraged that he would try to force his helpless hands, while he doddered about and the brush and maul-stick fell from his grasp, a pitiful sight to behold. The flies annoyed him, and he hated the dark. Thus fallen sick of old age, he was visited by a friend who begged him to make his peace with God. Bu he did not think he was going to die and kept putting it off. It was not that he was bad or without faith, for though his life had been uncouth lie was full of zeal. He spoke sometimes of long wasting sicknesses and gradual dying, and its wretchedness. He abused physicians and apothecaries, saying that they made their patients die of hunger, in addition to tormenting them with syrups, medicines, clysters and other tortures, such as not allowing them to sleep when drowsy. He also spoke of the distress of making a will, seeing relations weep, and being in a room in the dark. He praised capital punishment, saying it was a fine thing to go to death in the open air amid a throng of people, being comforted with sweetmeats and kind words, the priest and people praying for you, and then going with the angels to Paradise, and that those were very fortunate who died suddenly. And thus he went on with these most extraordinary notions, twisting things to the strangest imaginable meanings. After such a curious life he was found dead one morning at the foot of the stairs, in 1521, and was buried in S. Pier Maggiore. He had several pupils, among them Andrea del Sarto, who counted for many. His portrait' 8 is obtained from Francesco da S. Gallo, who did it when Piero was an old man, for he was a great and intimate friend. I must not omit to say that this Francesco has a very fine head of Cleopatra by Piero, with the serpent about her neck,' and two portraits, one of Giuliano, his father, the other of Giamberti, his grandfather, most life-like.

  • 1 The Sermon on the Mount, painted in 1482.
  • 2 For the carnival of 1511.
  • 3 Now in the Uffizi Gallery.
  • 4 Probably the picture in the Berlin Gallery.
  • 5 It represents a Madonna and saints, painted about 1500.
  • 6 Probably the picture now in the Louvre.
  • 7 The Immaculate Conception now in the Uffizi.
  • 8 Now in the Mauritshuis at The Hague.

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