Saturday, February 7, 2015

Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through May 3, 2015

I was a bit relieved to read the wall notes about Piero di Cosimo and find out that he's been so overshadowed by his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, that very few people are familiar with his work.  I'd been feeling a bit embarrassed that I'd never heard of the man before reading about this show, but now I don't feel so bad!  I might not have the knowledge of the art world that a collector or art scholar would, but I don't know any less than the average person.

Cosimo's works are an intriguing combination of realistic human figures and allegorical animals and objects, in a wide array of settings.  You might see a mythological subject or a religious painting, a damsel threatened by a sea monster or two saints meeting.  His human faces are full of expression - they look like real people, so you might expect that they would be placed in a realistic background.  Not always so, they might be surrounded by unusual (or wholly imaginary) animals or by objects that clearly had some meaning for him, but what?

Many of his works feature tools, even where you wouldn't expect to find them.  Is that a nod to the fact that painting is hard work?  Or an attempt to appeal to or recognize those who work for a living?  I suppose we'll never know, but it's fun to speculate.

I was amused to see a painting of St. Nicholas ordering the destruction of a tree used in pagan worship.  One doesn't think of good old Santa Claus exhibiting anti-Christmas Tree behavior!  I realize this is a frivolous interpretation, but it made me smile.

The show is good size, so allow time to wander around.  It's set up in a circle, which I don't know that I've seen before here, so you'll wind up back in the second room.  If you see the painting with the giraffe twice, you'll know you've been all the way around.

Verdict: Worth a trip - the paintings repay close attention - the allegory is in the details.

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