Sunday, March 22, 2015

Piero di Cosimo at the National Gallery

Piero di Cosimo's reputation as a Florentine Renaissance painter has suffered for the notion, going back as far as Vasari and as recently as a New Yorker article about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Gallery, that he was a little touched in the head. Because of his eccentricity, he was not to be taken quite as seriously as the Great Names. But I left the exhibit feeling that there was much more to Piero than that.

Oh, his cup ran over with imagination at times, and the show leaves no doubt he had a sense of humor. The painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda has been widely reproduced in media articles and the museum's own promotion. He obviously had fun with the mythical animal who served as Andromeda's prison guard. The curatorial commentary itself next to the picture aptly suggests the beast is more likely to inspire sympathy for the wacky creature than to scare the viewer.

And then there's the Madonna and Child -- as conventional a subject as any at the time it was put on canvas -- with one delightful detail: a dove with a halo. The Holy Ghost is usually shown as part of the Trinity, up in the sky above the biblical figures, or descending straight down from Heaven as if lowered on an invisible wire. This halo-crowned bird is just off in a corner of the picture. You can almost see the twinkle in Piero's eye as he added that touch.

The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos. 
A larger version is shown in the New Yorker article,
 although the colors are curiously washed out 
compared with the original.

My favorite among the lighthearted paintings is a playful scene from mythology, in which the young Vulcan has just been tossed out of Mount Olympus by his parents, Jupiter and Juno. He has landed on the island of Lemnos, without a stitch of clothing, which seems pleasing to the flower-gathering nymphs who have found him. The nymphs show a nice bit of leg, and the one at the far right, dressed in the height of Renaissance finery, smiles charmingly with amusement and a touch of desire. There's a hole in the cloud where Vulcan tumbled through.

But the exhibit demonstrates that Piero was much more than a producer of jeux d'esprit. His able mind and hand were capable of richly colored, moving religious scenes.

Some of Piero's madonnas can be mentioned in the same breath as those of the great Giovanni Bellini. (For better or worse, Bellini's are mostly in Venice, which unfortunately I don't get to often.) The Venetian managed the impossible: showing Mary and Jesus, a look of unearthly beauty in Mary's face, and at the same time an infinite sadness. It is as if she knows the terrible death that will befall her son as well as, according to Christian doctrine, the end of death.

No, Pierro's works on the same theme (at least those shown at the Smithsonian) aren't as masterful as Bellini's, but in their own way are compellingly dramatic.

Piero seems to have understood what his miserableist contemporary, the monk Savonarola, did not: that joyous tones, a tickling wit, and sincere piety can coexist in love.

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