Here’s a fun game: Ask your friends to name their favorite Renaissance painters. Friends without artistic backgrounds would probably list the names of Ninja Turtles. Some might include Sandro Botticelli, Dürer, or Bosch. Artists may add Titian, Jan van Eyck, Giotto, or Giovanni Bellini.
A name that would likely make none of those lists is Piero di Cosimo, currently the subject of a monographic retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. Considering that it’s been nearly 500 years since Piero died and 20 of his works reside in collections across North America, it might seem unlikely that this exhibition is his first-ever solo retrospective. But Piero lacks the household-name fame of his peers, and pulling off an exhibition of this nature is harder than it seems.
Piero was a 15th-century Florentine painter remembered, as in his brief biographical chapter in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, as a madman who allegedly ate eggs like a voracious Cool Hand Luke. Despite Piero’s many surviving paintings, we know little about his personality, compared to his better-known contemporaries (like Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo). “There are all sorts of documents that detail where he lived,” says New York University’s Dennis Geronimus, a Piero scholar who curated the exhibition with NGA’s Gretchen A. Hirschauer. “Those are typically tax records.” Other documents might list his profession, which in three instances list him as a miniaturist. “In the 21st century, that means he illuminated manuscripts. And that fleshes him out as an artist,” Geronimus says.
“The current retrospective is long overdue,” says curator Theresa Papanikolas of the Honolulu Museum of Art. That museum’s Piero portrait, “St. John the Evangelist,” is one of 44 works assembled in the NGA exhibition, and like much of Piero’s work, it was once attributed to someone else. The painting, which depicts St. John blessing a chalice to exorcise its poison, represented by a curled and angry snake levitating from the cup, was thought to be the work of Leonardo. The softness of the evangelist’s flesh, the shift between dark and light painted values within the drapery, the snake’s life-like qualities, and the black background are reminiscent of Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine.” Other works were initially attributed to Luca Signorelli or Filippino Lippi.
At the NGA press preview, Hirschauer explained that Piero is a favorite among curators and scholars but little known by others. “[Piero] is not likely the household name [in Boston],” remarked Frederick Ilchman, chair of European art at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. The MFA’s Piero on loan to the exhibition is a small piece consisting of two angels. It’s a portion of a larger altarpiece that lives at the Yale University Art Gallery and is usually kept in storage, partly due to its fragility. Piero’s lack of mainstream street cred doesn’t dull Ilchman’s appreciation for the old master. “He was just a brilliant technician. His paintings illustrate subtle treatment of folds of cloth, how he depicted hair, and the softness of skin.”
Piero’s eccentric mythological scenes are particularly beguiling for art buffs. In his painting “Perseus Rescuing Andromeda,” Perseus swoops in from the upper right and slays an imaginative-looking Leviathan in the center of the composition. In the lower left corner, people huddle on a beach, recoiling in fear from the monster; on the lower right, the same people rejoice with Perseus and the rescued Andromeda while two musicians play instruments that do not exist in real life. The remaining foreground includes intricately detailed botanical elements, while the background shows the wash of several villagers hanging out to dry. By contrast, “some of his religious paintings—nativities, and paintings with the Madonna and child—are incredibly tender,” Ilchman says. “So he has a wide range with a tremendous facility.”
If Piero’s name sounds at all familiar, that’s likely due to a small scandal at the New York Times last summer. In an announcement about NGA’s Piero exhibition, columnist Carol Vogel lifted a passage from Wikipedia that summarized Vasari’s entry on Piero’s peculiarities in The Lives of the Artists.
Geronimus first encountered Piero’s work as a high school student wandering the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he considered a “second home.” On his frequent visits, he found himself returning to two panels of satyrs and men burning the forest while hunting game. Years later, when it came time to pick a dissertation topic as a graduate student, Geronimus blurted Piero’s name out to his supervisor over a slice of pizza, and both realized the potential of the subject. “At that point, there may have been only three serious books on the artist, and Sharon Fermor’s was the only book written after 1970,” Geronimus says. His research brought him to NGA in 2000, where he first met Hirschauer.
“We have three paintings characteristic of [Piero’s] work: private devotional, allegories, altarpieces,” says Hirschauer, who first approached Geronimus about a Piero exhibition in 2008. The NGA’s three works by Piero were part of a donation of 393 Renaissance masterpieces from Samuel H. Kress, one of the museum’s nine founding benefactors.
Kress’ contributions weren’t limited to the National Gallery. “The Kress collection is a chunk of many collections throughout the country,” says Sarah Lees, a curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla. “That’s how our Piero got here; it is one of the handful of great Italian Renaissance paintings in our collection.” Due to the Philbrook’s considerably smaller collection, its visitors might be more familiar with Piero—his paintings don’t get lost among scores of masterpieces as they do in D.C. Jon Seydl, a curator at the Worcester Art Museum, says the same is true of Worcester, Mass. “While it’s true that Piero di Cosimo is not yet a household name, he is perhaps better known here in Worcester than in most places,” he says. “Since the painting is so important for us, we worked with the National Gallery on an exchange loan of their ‘Small Cowper Madonna’ by Raphael.”
Age, fragility, and the difficulty of maneuvering paintings on wooden panel—which NGA conservator Elizabeth Walmsley likened to “moving a piano”—are obvious reasons an institution might be reluctant to lend out 500-year-old works of art for an exhibition. But there are other considerations at play, too. “In order to do an exhibition on Renaissance art, you need a new context, new juxtapositions,” Ilchman says. “You need to learn something new about them in order for everyone to fall into line.” The last monographic exhibition of Piero’s work was in 1938 in a commercial gallery in New York City, and consisted only of seven works (three purchased by Kress). Assembling 44 paintings, many the crown jewels of smaller institutions, allowed for plenty of novel perspectives and conclusions.
Any piece considered for loan to a museum has to undergo careful inspection by conservators to determine the work’s condition. For this exhibition, nine of 44 paintings underwent restoration, including “The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot” from the NGA collection. The painting, measuring more than 36 square feet, took senior conservator Michael Swicklik about a year to restore.
But one of the pieces on view at NGA is an even larger feat of restoration that’s still underway. Nicknamed “the Yale altarpiece,” “Madonna and Child with Saints Vincent Ferrer and Jerome” is only halfway done more than a year into its restoration; it was considerably damaged before it arrived at its home base, the Yale University Art Gallery. It is by far one of the roughest paintings in the Piero exhibition. Years of weathering and stress from moisture, heat, and cold have separated the seven boards that support the painting, creating distinct lines that rise vertically across the face of the composition. An earlier conservation effort completed before 1928 attempted to fill those seams with an over-painting and fill the upper corners of the painting with an arch.
“The areas of original paint that [the conservator] has uncovered from below the thick repainting have proved to be in surprisingly good condition,” says Ian McClure, Yale’s chief conservator. The surface is pockmarked with scratches and chips, paint flecked away like scabs removed from the skin, but despite its rough appearance, the flesh on the face of the Virgin Mother appears almost porcelain, soft and delicate. A sash that drapes across a shoulder of the Virgin and into the hands of the Christ child still looks translucent.
During this exhibition, the Yale altarpiece is exhibited with two panels depicting angels hung above it, one from the MFA and one from a private collection. It’s a reunion of sorts, intending to piece together the parts of the full altarpiece as curators speculate Piero originally intended. There’s another reunion in the exhibition, too. Two panels depicting bacchanals—“The Discovery of Honey,” loaned from the Worcester Art Museum, and “The Misfortunes of Silenus,” loaned from Harvard University’s Fogg Museum—were once commissioned for a bedroom and haven’t been seen together since 1937. The exhibition also boasts several paintings of atypical form: a number of circular paintings, called tondos, and several long, thin panels called spalliera, which were once set into pieces of furniture. While other artists of the late 15th century would also have painted in such dimensions, to have as many by one artist in one place as the NGA show does is rare. Another unusual piece: the Innocenti altarpiece, which has never left Florence since it was first painted more than 500 years ago. While curators note the monumental importance of the exhibition for Piero scholars, for the Innocenti Museum, it was also an issue of fortunate timing: Its facility is currently closed for renovation.
It is a simple task to marvel at the beauty of Piero’s paintings. With three of his pieces in its collection, NGA didn’t have to organize a monographic retrospective to get someone to appreciate him. But now, with 44 on view, the museum is more likely to draw the multitudes—and maybe to get Piero’s name to stick, as scholarship did for Botticelli in the early 20th century. Despite the many scholars and authors dedicated to studying Renaissance artworks, there are still artists from the period ripe for discovery (or rediscovery, as it were). It’s a bold reminder that sprinting through a landmark art museum to see that one important work isn’t always the right strategy. May this Piero exhibition convince viewers to skip the crowds and take their time on the other pictures on the walls. So often, the rediscovered masters are hiding in plain sight.
“Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence” runs to May 3 at the National Gallery of Art.
An original version of this post contained two reporting errors: Samuel H. Kress purchased three Piero paintings at a 1938 gallery show in New York, not four; there are 20 Piero works in North America, not 19.