Vasari's Life of Piero di Cosimo

The Documented Life of Piero di Cosimo 

    While Vasari's biography of Piero is one of the most colorful and evocative in the Lives, the known facts of the artist's life are few. He was born in 1461 or 1462, almost certainly in Florence, his date of birth being indicated by property tax or catasto declarations made by his father Lorenzo di Piero d'Antonio in 1469 and 1480, in which Piero is described as eight and eighteen years old respectively. Although Vasari describes Lorenzo as a goldsmith, he seems rather to have been a toolmaker, an artisan of modest means who, in his first catasto declaration of 1457, stated that he and his brother rented a workshop, and had no property other than the tools of their trade. In 1461, however, Lorenzo bought a house in the Via della Scala in Florence, and by 1469 he had also acquired a workshop in the Por San Piero quarter of the city. In that year, he was living in the house in Via della Scala with his wife Alessandra, the eight-year-old Piero and three younger children, Giovanni, Girolamo and Vanna.

    By 1480 Piero had left the family home, and according to the catasto declarations of that year was working without pay in the studio of the painter Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), from whom he took the di Cosimo of his name. The date of his entry, into Cosimo's studio, and the precise nature of his position in it are unknown. In the first edition (1550) of the Lives, Vasari states that Piero joined Cosimo at the age of twelve, the usual age for apprentices to enter the workshop of the master; in the second edition, however, he states only that Piero entered as a boy. The fact that Piero was still working for Cosimo without pay at the age of eighteen might suggest that he entered later in his adolescence, and was still an apprentice, rather than an assistant, at this date. In his Life of Cosimo Rosselli, however, and in the Life of Piero, Vasari also records that, just over a year later, Piero was working as an assistant to Cosimo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where he painted the landscape in Cosimo's fresco of the Sermon on the Mount and the Healing of the Leper, and portraits of Virginio Orsini and Roberto Sanseverino in Cosimo's Crossing of the Sea. Piero is said by Vasari to have painted a number of panel portraits of Roman notables during the same period, including Valentino, son of Pope Alexander VI, which suggests that he had already begun to establish a name as an independent master. None the less, if Vasari's testimony is to be believed, Piero retained close links with Cosimo's workshop until the latter's death in 1507, after which he became increasingly withdrawn, shutting himself away to devote his time to the finer problems of his art.

Subsequent to this period of work in the Sistine Chapel no documentation exists for Piero's life or artistic undertakings until 1489 when, on 13 October, the woodcarver Chimenti del Tasso received six gold florins for making the frame of an altarpiece destined for the Capponi Chapel in S. Spirito in Florence. This can almost certainly be identified with Piero's Visitation, now in Washington, and since the likelihood is that the frame was made first, the document establishes a terminus post quem for the execution of the altarpiece, which can probably by dated to c. I49O.

    By 1498 Piero was living in the family house in Via della Scala, and made his own tax declaration as the head of the household, in which he also claimed to own a house and land in nearby Carmignano. Between 1503 and 1505, and by then over forty years of age, he joined the Confraternity, of St. Luke, an informal religious brotherhood for painters, and on 8 May 1504 he became inscribed in the painters' official guild, that of the Doctors and Apothecaries. On 25 January that year he served on the committee of thirty, artists and other citizens convened by the Florentine Signoria to decide on a site for Michelangelo's marble statue David, together with Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi, Granacci, Lorenzo di Credi, Andrea Sansovino, Loslmo Rosselli and Giuliano da Sangallo. The individuals included in the committee provide a fair indication of the richness and diversity of artistic talent in Florence at the time, and the complexity of the cultural situation that existed when Piero was at the height of his career.

    On 10 March 1506 Piero was paid fifteen gold florins by the convent of the Suore Muntalve at S. Cresci in Valcava for a painting of the Virgin. The painting was being sent to Naples, presumably to a sister convent, but it cannot be securely identified with any extant work. On 12 February 1507 he received the first of several payments from his patron Filippoo Strozzi the younger in recompense for his part in designing a procession for the Glovemakers’ Guild. Vasari himself records that, as a young man, Piero was much sought after as a designer of processions, and claims that he was the first too arrange them in the form of triumphal entries. He describes one such, a Triumph of Death, in great detail, noting that it was still talked about in his own day for its inventiveness and originality, and that it had been said at the time to symbolize the return in 1512 of the Medici from exile. The payment from Filippo Strozzi, and a further payment made to Piero on 8 December 1515 for his contribution to the triumphal entry of Leo X into Florence, would seem to confirm Vasari's report, even though on this occasion the amount paid to Piero was small in relation to what most of the other artists involved received.

    A further documented date relating to work by Piero is 11 September 1510, when he received six gold florins for unspecified work in Filippo Strozzi's antechamber. At the same time, the sculptor and woodcarver Baccio d'Agnolo was paid for work on some wooden chests, described as cassoni con spalliere, and it may be that Piero was involved in painting them. Piero’s panel of the Liberation of Andromeda was in all likelihood also painted for Filippo Strozzi the younger, intended too decorate the spalliera, or wainscoting, of a room. Vasari identifies Filippo Strozzi the elder as the patron of this work, but since he died in 1491--which, on stylistic grounds, it is generally agreed is to early a date for the painting -- it seems likely that Vasari confused the two men, and that the patron was again the younger Filippo.

    The year of Piero's death is undocumented. Vasari puts it at 1521, and states that the artist was buried in S. Pier Maggiore in Florence. while this date cannot be verified, and Vasari certainly exaggerated Piero's age at his death, describing him as around eighty years old, none of Piero's works shows an awareness of artistic developments post-I 520, and it seems unlikely that he was active for very long after this date. In the family's tax returns of 1534 Piero's name is not mentioned, the declaration being made by his brothers Bastiano and Raffaello, both of whom were shoemakers

    Little is known of Piero beyond these documented facts; thus it is difficult to say whether his life and career were in any sense unusual in relation to those of other painters of his time. The late date of his entry, into both the Confraternity of St. Luke and the painters' official guild may mean that he had relatively little interest in the public life of artists, and this is supported by Vasari's image of him as a solitary man, keeping himself apart from the artistic community as a whole. It is possible, however, that Vasari exaggerated this aspect of Piero's personality to suit his own purposes, and it is worth noting that both Peru gino and Botticelli entered the painters' guild well into their careers, a fact that may be attributed to certain fluctuations in the strictness with which regulations were enforced. If Piero did avoid contact with his fellow artists, this does not appear to have affected his reputation as a painter or his ability to attract prestigious patrons, despite Vasari's claim that his bizarre behavior prevented the proper recognition of his talent. His inclusion in the committee of 1504 may itself bear witness to the esteem in which he was held, and in his Life of Piero's pupil, Andrea del Sarto, Vasari states that at the beginning of the sixteenth century Piero was considered to be one of the finest masters in Florence. He certainly received commissions from Some of the city's most prominent and discerning patrons, among them the Strozzi, the Capponi and the del Pugliese, while his works were later acquired by the Medici, as well as by Vasari himself. His popularity as an artist is also attested by the numerous copies of his works produced in the first decades of the sixteenth century.

    Piero does not appear to have had a large workshop, or to have employed many assistants: Vasari names both Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo as his pupils, while drawings by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio after Piero's compositions suggest that he too may have been a pupil or assistant at some stage. His work undoubtedly had an influence on a number (If his contemporaries, particularly Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli, but he does not appear to have been a particularly active teacher, or to have had many collaborators. This may have been because his temperament made it uncongenial to him, as Vasari suggests, although here again his comments should be treated with caution. More important, perhaps, is that Piero did not undertake the type of large-scale fresco commission that necessitated using large numbers of assistants of different grades from time to time. After his period with Cosimo Rosselli in the Sistine Chapel, Piero appears to have abandoned fresco, although a set of drawings showing scenes from the life of Joachim could possibly have been executed in preparation for a fresco cycle, perhaps the decoration of a private chapel.

    The bulk of Piero’s commissions consisted of religious works for private devotion and secular scenes for domestic settings, although he also painted a number of important altarpieces, and, as we have seen, Vasari suggests that he was frequently involved in designing triumphal entries. his account of Piero’s time in Rome suggests that he was also in demand as a portraitist, although no trace of the Roman portraits remained at the time Vasari wrote, with the exception of the drawing for that of Duke Valentino, son of Pope Alexander VI, which Vasari records as being in the procession of Cosimo Bartoli, provost of the Babtistery in Florence. However, Piero’s extant portrait of his friend the architect Giuliano da Sangallo, and his posthumous portrait of Sangallo’s father, the musician Francesco Giambert, as well as the portrait-like heads of some of his religious figures are evidence of his skill in this respect, and it is likely that a number of other portraits existed at one time.