Cleopatra. c. 1480, Musee Conde', Chantilly, France.
WHILE GIORGIONE AND CORREGIO, to their own great credit and glory, were honoring the regions of Lombardy, Tuscany, on her part, was not wanting in men of beautiful intellect; among whom, not one of the least was Piero, the son of one Lorenzo, a goldsmith, and a pupil of Cosimo Rosselli, after whom he was always called Piero di Cosimo, and known by no other name. And in truth, when a man teaches us excellence and gives us the secret of living rightly, he deserves no less gratitude from us, and should be held no less as a true father, than he who begets us and gives us life and nothing more.
Piero was entrusted by his father, who saw in his son a lively intelligence and an inclination to the art of design, to the care of Cosimo, who took him with no ordinary willingness; and seeing him grow no less in ability than in years, among the many disciples that he had, he bore him love as to a son, and always held him as such. This young man had by nature a most lofty spirit, and he was very strange, and different in fancy from the other youths who were working with Cosimo in order to learn the same art. He was at times so intent on what he was doing, that when some subject was being discussed, as often happens, at the end of the discussion it was necessary to go back to the beginning and tell him the whole, so far had his brain wandered after some other fancy of his own. And he was likewise so great a lover of solitude, that he knew no pleasure save that of going off by himself with his thoughts, letting his fancy roam and building his castles in the air. Right good reason had Cosimo, his master, for wishing him well, seeing that he made so much use of him in his works, that very often he caused him to execute things of great importance, knowing that Piero had a more beautiful manner, as well as better judgment, than himself. For this reason he took Piero with him to Rome, when he was summoned thither by Pope Sixtus in order to paint the scenes in his chapel; in one of which Piero executed a very beautiful landscape, as was related in the Life of Cosimo.
And since Piero drew most excellently from the life, he made in Rome many portraits of distinguished persons; in particular, those of Virginio Orsino and Ruberto Sanseverino, which he placed in the aforesaid scenes. Afterwards, also, he made a portrait of Duke Valentino, the son of Pope Alexander VI; which painting, to my knowledge, is not now to be found ; but the cartoon by his hand still exists, being in the possession of the reverend and cultured M. Cosimo Bartoli, Provost of S. Giovanni. In Florence, he painted many pictures for a number of citizens, which are dispersed among their various houses, and of such I have seen some that are very good; and so, also, various things for many other persons. In the Noviciate of S. Marco is a picture by his hand of Our Lady, standing, with the Child in her arms, coloured in oils. And for the Chapel of Gino Capponi, in the Church of S. Spirito at Florence, he painted a panel wherein is the Visitation of Our Lady, with S. Nicholas, and a S. Anthony who is reading with a pair of spectacles on his nose, a very spirited figure. Here he counterfeited a book bound in parchment, somewhat old, which seems to be real, and also some balls that he gave to the S. Nicholas, shining and casting gleams of light and reflections from one to another; from which even by that time men could perceive the strangeness of his brain, and his constant seeking after difficulties.
Even better did he show this after the death of Cosimo, when he kept himself constantly shut up, and would not let himself be seen at work, leading the life of a man who was less man than beast. He would never have his rooms swept, he would only eat when hunger came to him, and he would not let his garden be worked or his fruit trees pruned; nay, he allowed his vines to grow, and the shoots to trail over the ground, nor were his fig trees ever trimmed, or any other trees, for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature; and he declared that Nature's own things should be left to her to look after, without lifting a hand to them. He set himself often to observe such animals, plants, or other things as Nature at times creates out of caprice, or by chance ; in which he found a pleasure and satisfaction that drove him quite out of his mind with delight ; and he spoke of them so often in his discourse, that at times, although he found pleasure in them, it became wearisome to others. He would sometimes stop to gaze at a wall against which sick people had been for a long time discharging their spittle, and from this he would picture to himself battles of horsemen, and the most fantastic cities and widest landscapes that were ever seen; and he did the same with the clouds in the sky.
He gave his attention to colring in oils, having seen some works of Leonardo's, executed with that gradation of color, and finished with that extraordinary diligence, which Leonardo used to employ when he wished to display his art. And so Piero, being pleased with his method, sought to imitate it, although he was afterwards very distant from Leonardo, and worlds away from any other manner. It may be said, in truth, that he changed his manner almost for every work that he executed.
If Piero had not been so solitary, and had taken more care of himself in his way of living than he did, he would have made known the greatness of his intellect in such a way that he would have been revered, whereas, by reason of his uncouth ways, he was rather held to be a madman, although in the end he did no harm save to himself alone, while his works were beneficial and useful to his art. For which reason every good intellect and every excellent craftsman should always be taught, from such an example, to keep his eyes on the end of life.
Nor will I refrain from saying that Piero, in his youth, being fanciful and extravagant in invention, was much employed for the masquerades that are held during the Carnival; and he became very dear to the young noblemen of Florence, having improved their festivals much in invention, adornment, grandeur, and pomp. As to that kind of pastime, it is said that he was one of the first to contrive to marshal them in the form of triumphal processions; at least, he improved them greatly, by accom- panying the invention of the story represented, not only with music and with words suited to the subject, but also with a train of incredible pomp, formed of men on foot and on horseback, with habits and orna- ments in keeping with the story ; which produced a very rich and beauti- ful effect, and had in it something both grand and ingenious. And it was certainly a very beautiful thing to see, by night, twenty-five or thirty pairs of horses, most richly caparisoned, with their riders in costume, according to the subject of the invention, and six or eight grooms to each rider, with torches in their hands, and all clothed in one and the same livery, sometimes more than four hundred in number; and then the chariot, or triumphal car, covered with ornaments, trophies, and most bizarre things of fancy; altogether, a thing which makes men's intellects more subtle, and gives great pleasure and satisfaction to the people.
Among these spectacles, which were numerous and ingenious, it is my pleasure to give a brief description of one, which was contrived mostly by Piero, when he was already of a mature age, and which was not, like many, pleasing through its beauty, but, on the contrary, on account of a strange, horrible, and unexpected invention, gave no little satisfaction to the people: for even as in the matter of food bitter things sometimes give marvellous delight to the human palate, so do horrible things in such pastimes, if only they be carried out with judgment and art; which is evident in the representation of tragedies. This was the Car of Death, wrought by him with the greatest secrecy in the Sala del Papa, so that nothing could ever be found out about it, until it was seen and known at one and the same moment. This triumphal chariot was an enormous car drawn by buffaloes, black all over and painted with skeletons and white crosses; and upon the highest point of the car stood a colossal figure of Death, scythe in hand, and right round the car were a number of covered tombs; and at all the places where the procession halted for the chanting of dirges, these tombs opened, and from them issued figures draped in black cloth, upon which were painted all the bones of a skeleton, over their arms, breasts, flanks, and legs; which, what with the white over the black, and the appearing in the distance of some figures carrying torches, with masks that represented a death's head both in front and behind, as well as the neck, not only gave an appearance of the greatest reality, but was also horrible and terrifying to behold. And these figures of the dead, at the sound of certain muffled trumpets, low and mournful in tone, came half out of their tombs, and, seating themselves upon them, sang to music full of melancholy that song so celebrated at the present day: "Dolor, pianto, e penitenzia." Before and after the car came a great number of the dead, riding on certain horses picked out with the greatest diligence from among the leanest and most meagre that could be found, with black caparisons covered with white crosses ; and each had four grooms draped in the garb of death, with black torches, and a large black standard with crosses, bones, and death's heads. After the car were trailed ten black standards ; and as they walked, the whole company sang in unison, with trembling voices, that Psalm of David that is called the "Miserere."
This dread spectacle, through its novelty and terror, as I have said, filled the whole city with fear and marvel together; and although at the first sight it did not seem suited to a Carnival, nevertheless, being new and very well arranged, it pleased the minds of all, and Piero, the creator and inventor of the whole, gained consummate praise and commendation for it ; and it was the reason that afterwards, going from one thing to another, men continued to contrive lively and ingenious inventions, so that in truth, for such representations and for holding similar festivals, this city has never had an equal. And in those old men who saw it there still remains a vivid memory of it, nor are they ever weary of celebrating this fantastic invention. I have heard from the lips of Andrea di Cosimo, who helped him to carry out the work, and of Andrea del Sarto, who was Piero's disciple, and who also had a hand in it, that it was a common opinion at that time that this invention was intended to foreshadow the return of the Medici family to Florence in the year 1512, since at the time when the procession was held they were exiles, and, so to speak, dead, but destined in a short time to come to life; and in this sense were interpreted the following words in the song
whereby men wished to signify the return of that family (a resurrection, as it were, from death to life), and the expulsion and abasement of their enemies; or it may have been that many gave it that significance from the subsequent fact of the return of that illustrious house to Florence so prone is the human intellect to applying every word and act that has come previously, to the events that happen afterwards. Certain it is that this was the opinion of many at that time; and it was much spoken of.Morti siam come vedete, Cosl morti vedrem voi; Fummo gia come voi siete, Voi sarete come noi, etc.
But to return to the art and actions of Piero; he was given the commission for a panel in the Church of the Servite Friars, in the Chapel of the Tedaldi, where they keep the garment and the pillow of S. Filippo, a brother of their Order; wherein he depicted Our Lady standing, raised from the ground on a pedestal, and uplifting her head towards Heaven, with a book in her hand, but without her Son ; and above her is the Holy Spirit, bathing her with light. Nor did he wish that any other light than that of the Dove should illumine her and the figures that are round her, such as a S. Margaret and a S. Catherine, who are on their knees, adoring her, while S. Peter and S. John the Evangelist are standing, contemplating her, together with S. Filippo, the Servite Friar, and S. Antonino, Archbishop of Florence. Moreover, he made there a landscape that is very bizarre, what with the strange trees and certain grottoes. And in truth, there are some very beautiful things in this work, such as certain heads that reveal both draughtsmanship and grace; besides the colouring, which is very harmonious, for it is certain that Piero was a great master of colouring in oils. In the predella he painted some little scenes, very well executed; and, among others, there is one of S. Margaret issuing from the belly of the Dragon, wherein he made that animal so monstrous and hideous, that I do not think that there is anything better of that kind to be seen, for with its eyes it reveals venom, fire, and death, in an aspect truly terrifying. And certainly, as for such things, I do not believe that any one ever did them better than he, or came near him in imagining them ; to which witness is borne by a marine monster that he made and presented to the Magnificent Giuliano de' Medici, which is so extravagant, bizarre, and fantastic in its deformity, that it seems impossible that Nature should produce anything so deformed and strange among her creations. This monster is now in the guardaroba of Duke Cosimo de' Medici, as is also a book, likewise by the hand of Piero, of animals of the same kind, most beautiful and bizarre, hatched very diligently with the pen, and finished with an incredible patience; which book was presented to him by M. Cosimo Bartoli, Provost of S. Giovanni, who is very much my friend, as he is of all our craftsmen, being a man who has always delighted, and still delights, in our profession.
He also executed, round a chamber in the house of Francesco del Pugliese, various scenes with little figures; nor is it possible to describe the different fantastic things that he delighted to paint in all those scenes, what with the buildings, the animals, the costumes, the various instru- ments, and any other fanciful things that came into his head, since the stories were drawn from fables. These scenes, after the death of Francesco del Pugliese and his sons, were taken away, nor do I know what has become of them; and the same thing has happened to a picture of Mars and Venus, with her Loves and Vulcan, executed with great art and with an incredible patience.
Piero painted, for the elder Filippo Strozzi, a picture with little figures of Perseus delivering Andromeda from the Monster, in which are some very beautiful things. It is now in the house of Signor Sforza Almeni, First Chamberlain to Duke Cosimo, having been presented to him by Messer Giovanni Battista, the son of Lorenzo Strozzi, who knew how much that nobleman delighted in painting and sculpture; and he holds it in great account, for Piero never made a more lovely or more highly finished picture than this one, seeing that it is not possible to find a more bizarre or more fantastic sea-monster than that which Piero imagined and painted, or a fiercer attitude than that of Perseus, who is raising his sword in the air to smite the beast. In it, trembling between fear and hope, Andromeda is seen bound, most beautiful in countenance; and in the foreground are many people in various strange costumes, playing instruments and singing ; among whom are some heads, smiling and rejoicing at seeing the deliverance of Andromeda, that are divine. The landscape is very beautiful, and the coloring sweet and full of grace. In short, with regard to the harmony and gradation of the colors, he executed this work with the greatest possible diligence.
He painted, also, a picture containing a nude Venus, with a Mars, likewise nude, who is sleeping in a meadow full of flowers, and all around are various Loves, who are carrying away, some here, some there, the helmet, armlets, and other pieces of armour of Mars ; there is a grove of myrtle, with a Cupid that is afraid of a rabbit, and there are also the Doves of Venus and the other emblems of Love. This picture is at Florence, in the house of Giorgio Vasari, who keeps it in memory of that master, whose caprices have always pleased him.
The Director of the Hospital of the Innocenti was much the friend of Piero ; and wishing to have a panel painted, which was to be placed in the Pugliese Chapel, near the entrance into the church, on the left hand, he gave the commission for it to Piero, who brought it to completion at his leisure ; but first he reduced his patron to despair, for on no account would he let him see it until it was finished. How strange this seemed to the patron, both because of their friendship, and because of his supplying Piero continually with money, without seeing what was being done, he himself showed, when, on the occasion of the final payment, he refused to give it to him without seeing the work. But, on Piero threatening that he would destroy all that he had painted, he was forced to give him the rest, and to wait patiently, in a greater rage than ever, for it to be set in place. This picture contains much that is truly beautiful.
He undertook to paint a panel for a chapel in the Church of S. Piero Gattolini, and in this he represented Our Lady seated, with four figures round her, and two angels in the sky, who are crowning her; which work, executed with such diligence that it brought him praise and honor, is now to be seen in S. Friano, the other church having been ruined. For the tramezzo of the Church of S. Francesco, at Fiesole, he painted a little panel picture of the Conception, which is a passing good little work, the figures being of no great size. For Giovanni Vespucci, who lived in a house now belonging to Piero Salviati, opposite to S. Michele, in the Via de' Servi, he executed some bacchanalian scenes, which are round an apartment; wherein he made such strange fauns, satyrs, sylvan gods, little boys, and bacchanals, that it is a marvel to see the diversity of the bay horses and garments, and the variety of the goatlike features, and all with great grace and most vivid truth to nature. In one scene is Silenus riding on an ass, with many children, some supporting him, and some giving him drink; and throughout the whole is a feeling of the joy of life, produced by the great genius of Piero. And in truth, in all that there is to be seen by his hand, one recognizes a spirit very different and far distant from that of other painters, and a certain subtlety in the investigation of some of the deepest and most subtle secrets of Nature, without grudging time or labor, but only for his own delight and for his pleasure in the art. And it could not well be otherwise; since, having grown enamored of her, he cared nothing for his own comfort, and reduced himself to eating nothing but boiled eggs, which, in order to save firing, he cooked when he was boiling his glue, and not six or eight at a time, but in fifties; and, keeping them in a basket, he would eat them one by one.
In this life he found such peculiar pleasure that any other, in comparison with his own, seemed to him slavery. He could not bear the crying of children, the coughing of men, the sound of bells, and the chanting of friars; and when the rain was pouring in torrents from the sky, it pleased him to see it streaming straight down from the roofs and splashing on the ground. He had the greatest terror of lightning; and, when he heard very loud thunder, he wrapped himself in his mantle, and, having closed the windows and the door of the room, he crouched in a corner until the storm should pass. He was very varied and original in his discourse, and sometimes said such beautiful things, that he made his hearers burst with laughter. But when he was old, and near the age of eighty, he had become so strange and eccentric that nothing could be done with him. He would not have assistants standing round him, so that his misanthropy had robbed him of all possible aid. He was sometimes seized by a desire to work, but was not able, by reason of the palsy, and fell into such a rage that he tried to force his hands to labor; but, as he muttered to himself, the mahl-stick fell from his grasp, and even his brushes, so that it was pitiable to behold. Flies enraged him, and even shadows annoyed him. And so, having become ill through old age, he was visited by one or two friends, who besought him to make his peace with God; but he would not believe that he was dying, and put them off from one day to another; not that he was hard of heart, or an unbeliever, for he was a most zealous Christian, although his life was that of a beast. He discoursed at times on the torments of those ills that destroy men's bodies, and of the suffering endured by those who come to die with their strength wasting away little by little, which he called a great affliction.
He spoke evil of physicians, apothecaries, and those who nurse the sick, saying that they cause them to die of hunger; besides the tortures of syrups, medicines, clysters, and other martyrdoms, such as not being allowed to sleep when you are drowsy, making your will, seeing your relatives round you, and staying in a dark room. He praised death by the hand of justice, saying that it was a fine thing to go to your death in that way; to see the broad sky about you, and all that throng; to be comforted with sweetmeats and with kind words; to have the priest and the people praying for you; and to go into Paradise with the Angels; so that whoever departed from this life at one blow, was very fortunate. And as he discoursed, he would twist everything to the strangest meanings that were ever heard. Wherefore, living in such strange fashion, he reduced himself to such a state with his extravagant fancies, that one morning he was found dead at the foot of a staircase, in the year 1521; and he was given burial in S. Piero Maggiore.
His disciples were many, and one among them was Andrea del Sarto, who was a host in himself. Piero's portrait I received from Francesco da San Gallo, who was much his friend and intimate companion, and who made it when Piero was old; which Francesco still has a work by the hand of Piero that I must not pass by, a very beautiful head of Cleopatra, with an asp wound round her neck, and two portraits, one of his father Giuliano, and the other of his grandfather Francesco Giamberti, which seem to be alive.