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The Renaissance with a twist

Piero di Cosimo’s “Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci” 1490
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

He’s not a household name like his colleagues Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Piero de Cosimo wasn’t like them in a lot of way. For one thing, unlike his contemporaries who worked on commission, Cosimo painted mostly for himself, famously saying that he found inspiration in stains on walls.

And even when he painted on commission, his imagery came out like no other. His portrait of the noblewoman and a Medici’s mistress, Simonetta Vespucci, is bare-breasted – something unheard of in Renaissance portraits. Contrast the painting of Simonetta to the one of Mona, painted only a dozen years later, and you know how offbeat Cosimo’s work was. Throw in Simonetta’s necklace entwined with two black snakes and her ornate hairdo, and the unadorned Mona she’s not.

A retrospective of Cosimo’s work coming to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in February is billed as the first-ever comprehensive show of his paintings. Called “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence,” the show offers 40 works on subjects both heathen and holy.

Ultimately, Cosimo’s work is vintage Renaissance in that he represents states of mind along with well-formed bodies. But he was thought a weirdo in his day. Reclusive and disinterested in everyday tasks such as food preparation, he was known to live on boiled eggs, cooking up to fifty at a time while boiling his glue to make best use of the fire.

He was often so focused that when a topic was being discussed, it was necessary to go back to the beginning and restate everything for him. And he was known for never being happy unless wrapped in his own thoughts.

It goes without saying that he couldn’t stand for anyone to see him work. On one occasion, when he refused a patron’s request to see the progress of a painting, the patron threatened to withhold payment. Piero countered with his own threat to destroy what had already been done, which forced the patron to his will.

To hear Renaissance historian Vasari tells it, “If Piero had not been so abstracted... he would have won recognition for the great talent he possessed, whereas through his brutish ways he was rather held to be a madman. “

Clearly, Cosimo was born at the wrong time. A couple of years ago, Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation-Y, proclaimed weirdness the new cool. Living in our time, Cosimo would likely be a big get on all the late night talk shows.

NOTE: You might like to read a column I wrote on the Hampton Art Hub about the problems of the Museum of Contemprary Art in North Miami. Here's the link:

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