A new exhibit which opened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art is “a once in a lifetime opportunity to see many works by Piero di Cosimo all in one place,” said gallery director Earl Powell III.
Cosimo, a Florentine painter of the Renaissance era, has only had one other known solo show in history: seven pieces in New York back in 1938. Now, in partnership with several European (primarily Italian) and American museums, the NGA is presenting 44 works by Cosimo in its first major exhibition of the new year.
The Italian Ambassador to the U.S., His Excellency Claudio Bisogniero, praised the collaboration between the two nations, describing it as an unprecedented exhibition.
“Italy has been blessed with so many talented artists, past and present, and the NGA has hosted numerous exhibitions displaying their works, so thank you for showcasing the best of Italy,” he said.
Co-curator Dennis Geronimus, an art history professor at New York University called the exhibit “a singularly rare survey devoted to an artist in possession of a most extraordinary gift.”
Cosimo worked with the greatest artists of the time such as Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, Powell said. Both of their artistic influences are visible, though not overpowering.
Cosimo’s artwork is soft yet precise and supremely decorative. He is a master of detail, down to the white chin stubble of the old, titular carpenter-organist in “Portrait of Francesco Giamberti.” In the piece, sheet music in the foreground presents a phrase of grammatically correct, playable organ music, said Geronimus. Giamberti himself is re-pictured in the background, playing organ outside a country church.
Cosimo’s work on Christian subjects is bright and sunny, with halos that are solid yet translucent and features a glinting, starry style. Conversely, there is a dim, ominous quality to his paintings depicting the hunt, with heavily subdued tones that visibly contrast with the more abundant sacred works.
In “The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot,” every detail is precise and rendered perfectly, from the shimmering strands of St. Nicholas’ beard to the intricate golden pattern on Anthony’s robe to the window-hanging laundry that Geronimus said is a veritable signature in Cosimo’s work.
Additionally, the three gold spheres at St. Nicholas’ feet in the piece are the same as those he was pictured holding in “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Dominic, and Nicholas of Bari,” painted about five years later, according the exhibition catalog.
In “The Holy Face,” Jesus Christ is cloaked in a deep blue robe and helmet-like crown evocative of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. He is serene and unsuffering, although nailed to a cross Cosimo painted after a sculpture by Matteo Civitali. A goblet sits at Christ’s toe to gather the would-be blood, but it sits empty.
Many of the works are large panels once intended for churches and chapels of Florence’s most prominent families, including the Vespuccis and Medicis. One other type of painting featured is the tondo, a circular piece which offers a porthole into the spiritual world with every specificity imaginable. In one tondo, tadpoles swim about in a little pond at baby Jesus’ feet.
The tadpoles’ miraculous transformation to froghood symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, according to NGA co-curator Gretchen Hirschauer.
In another tondo, a bluebird flies by as St. Augustine and St. Onuphrius stand with Mary and Jesus. Later, a pigeon appears in the nativity and part of a wagon wheel sits at St. Catherine of Alexandria’s knees – all these elements formed into what Powell called Cosimo’s “strange visual language that was all his own.”
In ideological contrast to the many portraits of Jesus and the saints, Cosimo’s spectrum of mythological work is also on view.
“Piero’s interpretations of classical myths and fables continue to captivate and confound us,” Hirschauer said.
In “Liberation of Andromeda” – once attributed partially to da Vinci due to its similar approach to roiling water, Geronimus said – the subject matter is entirely strange, from a dazzling, water-snorting sea monster to musical instruments born from a vibrant imagination.
“Piero was esteemed in his day as an ingenious spirit of uncommon imagination, his fantastic inventions rivaling the verses of the ancient poets whose tales he transformed into paint on panel,” Hirschauer said.
In “The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus,” part of a duo of paintings composed for the Vespucci family, ecstatic nymphs and satyrs dance around a gnarled tree bursting with flights of wasps. The wasps, substituted for the original myth’s hornets, were used by Cosimo to create a pun from the Vespucci name: the Italian word for wasp vespa, Geronimus said.
The exhibit also surveys the small quantity (three pieces presented here) of Cosimo’s secular portraiture. “Portrait of a Lady,” done of a woman who married into the Medici family, is, from a distance, eerily reminiscent of Whistler’s Mother, which would come centuries later in 1871.
In another secular work, “The Building of a Palace,” workers toil at every trade of craftsmanship before a grand, in-progress palazzo while a resigned, solitary horseman at dead center rides quietly and dejectedly through the scene.
All of this variety, letting alone the enormous amount of gallery space devoted to the exhibition, could threaten visitors with blinding overexposure. Instead, through careful curating, it allows them to view the pieces through a centralizing theme.
Throughout his career, Cosimo darted from myth to Christ to daily life for his subjects, and shifted his style to echo those artists he admired at the different periods of his life. What unites the work and runs as an undercurrent to the exhibition are the little things, the look-twice-or-you-won’t-see-them background things – whether they be laundry in a window or a catlike animal traipsing along a balcony – that tie him to his home city of Florence.
“He was a wildflower,” Geronimus said, reflecting the variety, “[but] firmly planted in Florentine soil.”
The exhibit in the gallery’s West Building runs through May 3. A companion exhibit on Florentine publishing in the Renaissance opened in the NGA library on Feb. 1.
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.