“The Liberation of Andromeda” by Piero di Cosimo. (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence Alinari / Art Resouce, NY)
Art and architecture critic

In the fourth and most dramatic room of the National Gallery of Art’s captivating Piero di Cosimo retrospective, the walls are devoted to paintings in the round, a form known as a tondo. Some of these are on a grand scale, and one of them, borrowed from the Toledo Museum of Art, is in exceptional condition. The Virgin Mary looms large in “The Adoration of the Child,” resplendent in a brilliant red dress and sumptuous blue cloak. Her hands are held closely together, but the fingers don’t quite touch, a gesture that captures something between the otherworldliness of prayer and the tangible, maternal desire to reach out and caress her sleeping child. Beneath the two figures tadpoles swim in a dark but limpid pool.

Details pile up in this painting, as they do in almost every work by Piero. Many of them come freighted with Christian allegory and symbolism, including the tadpoles. Their metamorphosis into frogs was closely associated with Christ’s miraculous Incarnation. Yet nothing in this magnificent image feels pedantic, or overstuffed. Detail, in Piero’s work, can feel idiosyncratic, even surreal — Andre Breton once called him the “spiritual ancestor” of modern surrealism. But it never feels arbitrary or willful. Even if you can’t decode the meaning of every flower, animal or errant tool — and in many cases it is simply impossible to get to the bottom of some of Piero’s references — they still function in a visually and poetically satisfying way. They draw the eye in, the mind inevitably follows and soon you realize you’ve been standing in front of one painting for a long time indeed.

This exhibition includes 44 paintings of some 55 to 62 extant works of varying degrees of attribution. It is, surprisingly, the first major retrospective devoted to a painter who was among the most renowned in Florence during one of the greatest moments in the history of Western art. Piero was born in 1462, and he produced much of his best work in the 10 years on either side of the turn of the 15th century. During his lifetime, Florence came under the spell of Northern European painting, with its brilliant colors and meticulous clarity and realism. Piero was active during the age of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Filippino Lippi and Perugino, and for better and worse Piero was among the artists memorialized in Giorgio Vasari’s essential but not always reliable “The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.”

The facets of Piero

But Piero’s name remains if not a footnote, rather lower on the page than it deserves to be. This exhibition should change that, reintroducing a figure whose work has never before been seen in this proximity, with several key pieces that have never left Italy, related panel paintings and an altar piece reunited, a thorough overview of both his sacred and mythological works, and material spanning a career of some 30 years. It is well laid out, sensibly organized, beautifully designed and there isn’t a room in it that isn’t arresting on multiple levels.

It is inevitable, however, that it will leave visitors baffled, just as scholars and critics have been baffled by his work for half a millennium. Vasari emphasized Piero’s eccentricities, his strange domestic habits, his whimsy, imagination and odd flights of fancy. If one knows only Piero’s mythological and invented scenes — filled with lascivious satyrs, primitive men in violent struggle with nature, pagan and legendary scenes stuffed with invented creatures — history might leave Vasari’s judgment undisputed. But Piero was capable of scenes of great serenity. And while there are wonderfully odd details in his major altarpieces and sacred works, their primary impact is a sense of great order, balance and canny construction.

Piero di Cosimo. “The Adoration of the Child,” c. 1490-1500 oil on wood panel. (Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

Critics have also stressed the strange twists and turns of Piero’s style, and there are some rooms in which one may feel that multiple painters are present. Several of his first works to arrive in the United States came here attributed to other painters, and Piero’s stylistic divagations have made attribution and dating difficult. Some angels and shepherds, and the two saints in his early “Madonna and Child with Saints Lazarus and Sebastian,” once attributed to Lorenzo di Credi, seem to have wandered in from Botticelli. His delight in distant landscapes and even specific poses in which he placed his subjects suggest strong affinities with Leonardo. And the strangely diffuse, even hazy style of his later years are often diagnosed as signs of decline.

And so what makes a Piero a Piero? A cogent essay by Elizabeth Walmsley in the catalog details the particulars of Piero’s painting technique, the sharp contrast in his use of highlights, his ma­nipu­la­tion of paint with his fingers and other markers that have emerged through infrared and scientific analysis. One can also simply tally a list of his thematic and visual quirks, as Vasari did. But perhaps the answer lies more in an overlapping set of intellectual preoccupations. Like many painters of his day, his secular work was preoccupied with stories from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” which yielded one of the painter’s most distinctive masterpieces, “Liberation of Andromeda,” painted around 1510-1513. It depicts an episode from Ovid in which a beautiful princess, chained to a rock and about to become lunch for a vicious sea creature, is rescued by the hero Perseus.

“Metamorphoses” also inspired an intriguing pair of panels devoted to the hapless drunkard Silenus and another about Prometheus and the creation of man. But one senses metamorphosis in Piero as more than an Ovidian concern. His religious work is also preoccupied by changes of form. The idea of metamorphosis is, of course, at the heart of Christianity, in its basic tale of God becoming man and in its fundamental ritual, the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

But Piero’s curiosity about sudden shifts in form, especially with a leap from the real to the divine, or the lifeless to the living, or the unformed to the useful, is worked out in smaller details, too. In one of his most lovely images, the 1500-1505 “Saint John the Evangelist,” the androgynous saint makes a sign of blessing over a golden chalice, above which a snake has curled its body into the perfect circle suggested by a communion wafer. The detail recalls an apocryphal legend about John being challenged to drink from a cup of poison. John blesses the cup, miraculously changing the poison into a snake, which slithers away harmlessly.

In a curious painting from about 1510, “Volto Santo,” Christ is seen fully robed and regally crowned, hanging weightlessly on the cross, recalling a miraculous vision of Jesus’s ultimate triumph. The image conflates three metamorphoses essential to Christian theology, from God to man, from living man to corpse, from death to resurrection and divine life. It makes a curious counterpoint to the two Ovidian panels devoted to Prometheus, his fashioning of man, theft of inspiriting fire and subsequent punishment. Like “Volto Santo,” the two secular panels capture multiple transmutations from lifeless to living, with intimations of the sacred, all rendered in a moment of perpetual simultaneity.

Change and the viewer

An underlying interest in metamorphosis may be related to his delightful interest in tools, which are seen scattered throughout his work. Piero was the son of a tool maker, which helps explain part of his interest, but tools also recall man’s identity as Homo faber — man as creator — which is a powerful theme in Piero. In the background of “Volto Santo” is a tiny figure of an artist painting on the wall of a distant building, and perhaps even more in the background of many of Piero’s works is anxiety about the arrogance and hubris of what it means to be a maker of images.

A late painting, “Building of a Palace,” isn’t just a carnival of tools, it may connect metamorphosis and the power of pictures to capture simultaneous moments of time with yet another preoccupation: the age in which Piero worked and its exuberant and anxious relation to the classical past. The figures in “Building a Palace” are seen in both contemporary and ancient costume, apparently putting the finishing touches on a classical palace surrounded by a commanding colonnade.

Piero di Cosimo. “The Building of a Palace,” c. 1514-1518, tempera on wood. (Courtesy The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art)

But it is the details that detain you. The foreshortened figures of statues lying in the foreground look in fact more like corpses, and nothing at all like the elegant statuary that ornaments the arcade. And it’s a rather odd building, not one massive palace, but two disconnected wings linked only by a rigid geometry of columns that fill a cluttered courtyard. In the middle of the painting, seemingly unrelated to anything else, a rider clings to a horse that rears up on its hind legs, about to bolt straight out of the picture into the space of the viewer.

There’s no sorting this out definitively, but there are possibilities. The double form of the palace suggests a bifurcated life, perhaps a temporal division between past and present, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian. The effort to connect them is awkward, unfinished, inelegant, but ongoing. The horse and rider intimates a future, without any clear sense of optimism or pessimism, merely energy and exuberance.

If nothing else, the rather crudely rendered horse and rider — coming straight at us — reminds us of our implication in the simultaneity of the painted image. We are at once in our own moment and in the moment depicted in the painting, in our own space and in the space of the painting, connected the painter’s world for as long as we look, and remember.

Piero’s late works, such as this one, can be visually disappointing. But I find that rider powerful, a suggestion perhaps that the painter’s concerns had turned away from the niceties of representation to more philosophical, historic and poetic questions. I would like to believe that the horse and rider are in pursuit of something, perhaps me, or at least my attention, and that an artist who seemed well aware of the dangerous potential of being an artist was equally aware of the desire and neediness of being a viewer.

Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence Through May 3 at the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-737-4215. www.nga.gov.