The Florentine Renaissance artist Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522) was an odd man. He lived solely on a diet of eggs, which he boiled in batches of 50 in the same water with which he prepared his glue. He lived in filth, in uncleaned rooms and with a garden left to run wild. He was terrified of thunderstorms, loud coughing and the chants of friars. The ideas for his paintings came from hours staring at a wall on which sick people had discharged their spittle; he saw cities, landscapes and battles in the grubby marks left behind. By the end of his life, he was – according to Giorgio Vasari – “so strange and eccentric that nothing could be done with him”.
The Piero depicted by Sarah Blake McHam, professor of art history at Rutgers, is rather different. In her informative study Piero di Cosimo, the artist, less celebrated than his direct peers Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo, appears as an underappreciated figure in the history of Renaissance art.
Born Piero di Lorenzo to a Florentine blacksmith – his later surname came from his apprenticeship to the artist Cosimo Rosselli – Piero had a much more fortunate career than the stories of his strangeness might suggest. After a successful apprenticeship, in which he helped his master paint a scene for the Sistine Chapel, his career was on sure ground. He was the golden boy of wealthy aristocrats who wanted to decorate their houses with his scenes from Greek and Roman myths, and the favoured choice for patrons seeking the singular mix of whimsy and detail in his religious paintings. (In one scene of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, he added a monkey clambering atop a palazzo as if on a tightrope.)
Despite his success, however, Piero was somewhat forgotten in the roll-call of Renaissance artists. It wasn’t until 2014 that there was a major exhibition of his work at America’s National Gallery of Art, and it was only in 1946 that he received scholarly attention with a monograph by Robert Langton Douglas. Institutional and academic fame are not everything, though. Piero had other fans. George Eliot made him a character in Romola, her novel about Renaissance Florence, and the Surrealists of the 1930s claimed him as their offbeat ancestor.
Blake McHam’s book is part of the revival in interest in Piero in recent years. It isn’t, Blake McHam tells us, a biography – details other than those apparently made up by Vasari are too thin on the ground – nor a study of “the development” of Piero’s style – this would be “treacherous”, she adds, for any chronology is impossible when so few paintings are dated – but rather a study of the different genres of Piero’s art: his secular myths and legends, portraits, altarpieces, and private devotional paintings.
In Blake McHam’s hands, the full scope of Piero’s talent is explored. Despite his lack of literary education – he died without a book in his possession; there’s a question mark over whether he could even write – Piero’s secular scenes are able to package old myths in new ways. His large panels showing human pre-history – his Hunting Scene, The Return from the Hunt, and Forest Fire – are brutal. Animal-like humans pursue human-like animals with “blood-curdling gusto”. Early humans, it seems, are little more than cannibals. These images are radical in Renaissance art, but they didn’t come from nowhere: Piero was painting in response to works by Lucretius, Vitruvius, Pliny and Boccaccio. Either the painter was better educated than he is given credit for, or his patrons knew just what details from classical texts to tell him to get his unusual imagination working.
Blake McHam illuminates, too, Piero’s singular approach to religious painting. In her telling, Vasari’s comment that the artist was constantly “seeking after difficulties” is not just a reference to his technical flourishes but the theology of his paintings, too. In one of his altarpieces, The Visitation of Bari and Anthony Abbot, the normal chronology of Biblical stories has been upended in favour of something far more experimental: stories are painted as frescoes within the landscape of the painting, or so hidden they have to be sought out. Instead of the altarpiece being a site of Christian teaching, it has become something more experimental: a religious puzzle, an exegetical dance.
This book does a wonderful job of exploring Piero’s context: the literary background to his work; his links to other painters from Botticelli to Leonardo. But it’s hard not to feel like something is missing: her Piero is unorthodox but not eccentric; idiosyncratic but not wonderfully bizarre. The extent of his real-life oddness – the cannibalistic paintings, the tendency towards heresy – is occasionally minimised in an attempt to distance him from the egg-eating myths (Vasari wrote them, Blake McHam argues, because he was disappointed with Piero’s output). But it isn’t Blake McHam’s fault that she can’t posit a story to replace the myths. Without the facts required to write a biography, this is a delightful, diligent study of the most playful, surprising artist of the Renaissance.
Francesca Peacock is the author of Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish. Piero di Cosimo is published by Reaktion at £17.95. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books