Piero di Cosimo’s Hunting Scene
William M. Griswold Director
A Hunting Scene c. 1494–1500. Piero di Cosimo (Italian, 1462–1521). Tempera and oil transferred to Masonite; 70.5 x 169.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Robert Gordon, 1875, 75.7.2. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Resource, NY
Although he was a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and only a few years older than Michelangelo and Raphael, Piero di Cosimo followed his own path, diverging from the idealization of form and the emphasis on balance and harmony that characterize works by the three artists most closely associated with the High Renaissance in Italy. Piero is the subject of one of the most colorful accounts in The Lives of the Artists by the 16th-century Florentine painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari; according to him, he was a misanthropic eccentric. The fertility of Piero’s imagination is apparent in works such as A Hunting Scene, evidently painted about 1494–1500, and for the next three months on view in Cleveland courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As was the case with most of his contemporaries, Piero was regularly called upon to paint devotional images of the Virgin and Child, as well as altarpieces for chapels in the churches of Florence and its environs. However, his most arresting works are those that vividly evoke scenes from classical mythology or the early history of man that were drawn from the literature of the ancient world, which was a springboard for the revival of antiquity, a hallmark of Renaissance art.
Here, Piero sought inspiration in De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), a text written in the first century bc by Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, an edition of which was published in Italy in the third decade of the 15th century. Lucretius describes a prehistoric world in which man struggles to survive, only gradually rising above a bestial existence, finally taming savage nature with his wits. In A Hunting Scene, animals savagely attack animals, while the ancestors of man, working alongside and sometimes in concert with satyrs and centaurs, subdue their prey by means of primitive clubs and their brute strength. A forest fire blazes in the distance, and the dramatically foreshortened corpse in the right foreground reminds the viewer that mankind is engaged in mortal combat.
A companion to A Hunting Scene, The Return from the Hunt (of almost exactly the same dimensions and also in the Metropolitan Museum), depicts a slightly later moment in the story. It shows the exhausted hunters returning to their women with the animals that they have slain, marking the peaceful denouement of the dramatic tale that unfolds in the other panel.
Piero’s A Hunting Scene is in all likelihood one of the pictures that Vasari describes as having been created to adorn a room in the palace of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Pugliese. It and The Return from the Hunt would originally have been spalliere, or decorative paintings set into a large piece of furniture or the paneling of a wall, perhaps (despite the grisly subject) in the nuptial chamber of the patron and his wife.
The Return from the Hunt c. 1505–7. Piero di Cosimo. Tempera and oil on wood; 70.5 x 168.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Robert Gordon, 1875, 75.7.1. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Resource, NY
November 1, 2016–January 31, 2017