Say “ Piero di Cosimo ” (1462-1522) and we envision agile, muscular figures, both human and fantastic, enacting arcane mythological scenes, usually involving animals. There’s that wonderful painting in the National Gallery, London, of a dying nymph, mourned by an attentive satyr and the most sympathetic hound in art history. Giorgio Vasari, writing almost 20 years after the artist’s death, in “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” counted Piero among Tuscany’s “men of genius” and praised him both for his imagination and for painting “extremely well from life.” But Vasari also characterized him as a self-absorbed crank who atypically worked alone, without the usual assistants and apprentices, subsisting on hard-boiled eggs. (Never mind that Vasari also mentions the celebrated Florentine painter Andrea del Sarto as one of Piero’s “very numerous disciples.”) That oddball image, along with those obscure mythological subjects, more or less define this relatively unfamiliar Renaissance master for most American art lovers.
Now that perception should change, thanks to “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence,” at the National Gallery, Washington, the first major retrospective ever devoted to the artist. (The only previous Piero exhibition in the U.S., held in New York in 1938, included seven wor...
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