Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 181: The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo

Date: 05-10-2003
Owning Institution: The Ashmolean
Publication:   Sunday Telegraph “In The Picture”    
Subject: Renaissance      

The Florentine Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo was a very eccentric fellow, according to his first biographer, Giorgio Vasari. “He would never have his rooms swept, he would only eat when hunger came to him, and he would not let his garden be worked or his fruit-trees pruned, for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature… He could not bear the crying of children, the coughing of men, the sound of bells, and the chanting of friars.” According to the same source, Piero lived on nothing but eggs, which, in order to save fuel, he hard-boiled fifty at a time on the same fire that he used to boil up the glue with which he sized his panels before painting. So, to mark the start of British Egg Week and the British Egg Information Service’s “Egg a Day” campaign, this week’s picture is Piero’s The Forest Fire.

One of the earliest landscape paintings of the Renaissance, this delightful work may be one of several pictures showing “different fantastic things… drawn from fables” which, Vasari tells us, originally decorated a chamber in the house of the Florentine wool merchant Francesco del Pugliese. The inspiration behind it seems to have been two well-known classical texts. The fifth book of the ancient philosopher-poet Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura describes how the origins of civilisation were laid when early man conquered his fear of fire and learned how to use it to work metal. The same theme was developed by the Roman architect Vitruvius in the second book of his De Architettura:

“In the olden days men were born like wild beasts in woods and caves and groves, and kept alive by eating raw food. Somewhere, meanwhile, the close-grown trees, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches together, caught fire. Terrified by the flames, those who were near the spot fled. When the storm subsided, they drew near, and, since they noticed how pleasant to their bodies was the warmth of the fire, they laid on wood… When, in this meeting of men, sounds were breathed forth with differing intensity, they made customary by daily use these chance syllables. They began to speak because of this fortuitous event, and … a beginning of human association was made, and of union and intercourse… Then some in that society began to make roofs of leaves, others to dig out caves under hills; some, imitating the nests and constructions of swallows, made places, into which they might go, out of mud and twigs. Finding then other shelters and inventing new things by their power of thought, they built in time better dwellings.”

Piero shows a herdsman goading his cattle homewards towards one of the “better dwellings” mentioned by Vitruvius – the silhouette of its eaved roof projecting from woodland at the right of the painting – where other figures, presumably members of his extended family, can be seen gesticulating and drawing water from a well. He carries a wooden yoke with metal trappings, which indicates that the rudiments of metalworking have been mastered by his tribe. He seems unperturbed by the fire blazing in the woods nearby. All around him wild creatures seem almost audibly to growl, chatter and squawk in their terror. The prominence given to their bestial cries is perhaps the painter’s way of emphasising that man, by contrast, has both conquered his fear and acquired language.

Piero di Cosimo was greatly admired for his mastery in depicting flora and fauna. A Forest Fire displays a veritable bestiary of real and imagined creatures. Distant swallows trace wave-like patterns in the sky behind the blazing forest. Other birds include a woodcock, a pigeon, a pair of hovering peregrine hawks, an osprey, a rook and a common crane (now no longer to be found in Italy, but common in Piero’s day). The four-legged creatures shown in flight, or wandering in a daze through open landscape, include the now-extinct aurochs, or wild ox, a family of brown bears, a lion and lioness and two strange hybrids, a pig and a deer with human faces, which may reflect ancient belief that in the earliest times nature produced many such freaks. They have the air of portraits, and infrared examination has shown that they were added by the painter at the last minute. Could they have been included at the patron’s request, as an in-joke or  satirical dig at one or two of his Florentine contemporaries? Francesco del Pugliese was by all accounts a fairly acerbic character, exiled from Florence in 1513 for hurling the Rabelaisian insult “Magnifico Merda” – “Magnificent Turd” – at Lorenzo “The Magnificent” de’ Medici.

It is not known exactly why a wool merchant would have commissioned such an unusual painting from Piero di Cosimo. Sufficient explanation is perhaps to be found in the taste for pictures on recondite classical themes among Florentine patrons of the time. There was too a growing interest in the “wonders of nature”, and a fondness for images of pictorially challenging phenomena such as storms and fires (both subjects recommended to the would-be virtuoso by Leonardo da Vinci, whom Piero greatly admired). But since mythological pictures of this kind were usually commissioned to commemorate marriages, in Renaissance Florence, there may be another level of meaning concealed beneath the surface of the work. Flames traditionally symbolise amorous passion. So perhaps this painted story, telling of fire, and how it led to “a beginning of human association…and of union and intercourse”, is also an allegory of the civilising effects of love.

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