" 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 labour, but only for his own delight and for his pleasure in the art. "
- Giorgio Vasari, 1568
Piero di Cosimo’s imaginative gifts expressed themselves in altarpieces, portraits and mythological scenes. These often featured rich landscapes with animals (real or imaginary) strikingly posed. An excellent draughtsman, Piero created fantastic parade designs. Several leading artists were among his pupils.
Piero di Cosimo, son of the toolmaker Lorenzo di Piero d’Antonio, took his name from the artist Cosimo Rosselli. He worked as an apprentice or assistant in Rosselli’s workshop from at least 1480, collaborating with Rosselli and painting portraits. The portrait now called Simonetta Vespucci (Chantilly; Musée Condé) is probably Piero’s painting of Cleopatra, mentioned in the artist’s biography by Giorgio di Vasari. Like other works by Piero, it was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Fra Filippo Lippi. Another influence on Piero’s art was Michelangelo. His pupils included Fra Bartolommeo, Jacopo Pontormo, and (according to Vasari) Andrea del Sarto. Vasari also recorded the artist’s personal eccentricities, an inspiration for George Eliot’s novel Romola (1863) and for the Romantic ideal of the artist as bohemian.
After working with his master Cosimo Rosselli on Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1481-82, Piero di Cosimo worked independently from c. 1489-90, the date of The Visitation with St. Nicholas of Bari and St. Anthony Abbot (Washington, National Gallery of Art). In 1504 he joined the painter’s guild of Florence. Piero displayed his fertile imagination and close observation of nature in the mythological subjects he painted for panels of cassone (chests) and spalliere (the back panels of chests). Among these are The Forest Fire (c. 1505; Oxford, Ashmolean Museum) and The Death of Procris (c. 1500-05; London, National Gallery). He delighted and amazed the people of Florence with his festival designs.