There are no centaurs, wrote Lucretius in On the Nature of Things, no “monsters of two natures”. The Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo differed. Piero’s Hunting Scene and Return from the Hunt, c.1488, echo Lucretius’s account of man’s origins in bestial violence, but the centaurs and satyrs are there too, helping the hunters and reflecting man’s divided nature. According to Vasari, Piero was also something of a monster, an artist of a “most lofty spirit” who lived like a “beast”, and mostly on boiled eggs. This summer, the Galleria degli Uffizi and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, present their first collaboration, and the first retrospective of Piero’s art, which marries narrative to colour, and spiritual delicacy to interior decoration.
Piero was born in Florence in 1462, the eldest son of a blacksmith. He acquired “di Cosimo” from his apprenticeship to Cosimo Rosselli, whose daughter he married. This was the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the epitome of Renaissance patrons; the Florence of Verrocchio, Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo, whose palette Piero studied and imitated. In 1482, he joined Rosselli, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio in the party of Florentine artists engaged by Sixtus IV to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
The arrival of Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds in 1483 transformed Florentine painting. Piero quickly assimilated the naturalistic detail, saturated colours, and beautiful landscapes of the Netherlandish style. Only Botticelli rivals him as a creator of spallieri, decorative panels on mythological themes, set on a wall at the height of a shoulder (spalli). Piero’s animals, like Carpaccio’s, are tragically human. Many Florentine artists painted the giraffe that Lorenzo de Medici received from the sultan of Egypt in 1487; only Piero gives the giraffe a baby. The sea monster in Piero’s Liberation of Andromeda, c.1510, is a slender vegetarian, its ears furred with red hair as weightless as floating sea grass, its eyes pained from the slashes of Perseus’s curved sword.
Piero’s humans, divine and saintly, are as disarmingly natural as domestic animals. In his late masterpiece, Madonna and Child, c.1515-8, the light is diffused, the colours watery, the faces thin, the landscape misty. This dissolution of form into light recalls Leonardo’s sfumato, the “smoke-like” effect. It may also reflect Piero’s admiration of the morbid preacher Savonarola. Piero’s float for the carnival of 1507, “The Triumph of Death”, terrified the whole city (see opposite).
Piero was scared of lightning and doctors, distressed by crying children and chanting friars, and irritated by shadows and coughing. He conversed in a monologue, let his garden run wild, and never tidied his studio. For food, he boiled 50 eggs at a time when he lit a fire to make glue. This economical and sensible practice gave rise to a legend that he also ate the eggs in batches of 50. He was not mad, merely odd and sensitive.
In 1522, Piero died from the plague, possibly compounded by indigestion. His best work has landed in American museums or remained in Florence. This summer, most of his major paintings congregate on both continents. The Washington show, accompanied by a collection of essays, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Paintings in Renaissance Florence, eds. Gretchen A. Hirschauer and Dennis Geronimus (Lund Humphries, £45 hardback, £30 paperback), runs until May 3. Then it will decamp for Florence, to be exhibited from June 23 to September 27. The Uffizi’s rooftop café has yet to confirm that its summer menu will include boiled eggs.