The son of a goldsmith, Piero was born in Florence and apprenticed under the
artist Cosimo Rosseli, from whom he derived his popular name and whom he
assisted in the painting of the Sistine Chapel in 1481.
In the first phase of his career, Piero was influenced by the Netherlandish
naturalism of Hugo van der Goes, whose Portinari Triptych (now at the Spedale of
Santa Maria Novella in Florence) helped to lead the whole of Florentine painting
into new channels. From him, most probably, Cosimo acquired the love of
landscape and the intimate knowledge of the growth of flowers and of animal
life. The manner of Hugo van der Goes is especially apparent in the Adoration of
the Shepherds, at the Berlin Museum.
He journeyed to Rome in 1482 with his master, Rosselli. He proved himself a true
child of the Renaissance by depicting subjects of Classical mythology in such
pictures as the Venus, Mars, and Cupid, The Death of Procris, the Perseus and
Andromeda series, at the Uffizi, and many others. Inspired to the Vitruvius'
account of the evolution of man, Piero's mythical compositions show the bizarre
presence of hybrid forms of men and animals, or the man learning to use fire and
tools. The multitudes of nudes in these works shows the influence of Luca
Signorelli on Piero's art.
During his lifetime, Cosimo acquired a reputation for eccentricity—a reputation
enhanced and exaggerated by later commentators such as Giorgio Vasari, who
included a biography of Piero di Cosimo in his Lives of the Artists. Reportedly,
he was frightened of thunderstorms, and so pyrophobic that he rarely cooked his
food; he lived largely on hard-boiled eggs, which he prepared 50 at a time while
boiling glue for his artworks. He also resisted any cleaning of his studio, or
trimming of the fruit trees of his orchard; he lived, wrote Vasari, "more like a
beast than a man".
If, as Vasari asserts, he spent the last years of his life in gloomy retirement,
the change was probably due to preacher Girolamo Savonarola, under whose
influence he turned his attention once more to religious art. The death of his
master Roselli may also have had an impact on Piero's morose elder years. The
Immaculate Conception with Saints, at the Uffizi, and the Holy Family, at
Dresden, best illustrate the religious fervour to which he was stimulated by
With the exception of the landscape background in Rosselli's fresco of the
Sermon on the Mount, in the Sistine Chapel, there is no record of any fresco
work from his brush. On the other hand, Piero enjoyed a great reputation as a
portrait painter: the most famous of his work is in fact the portrait of a
Florentine noblewoman, Simonetta Vespucci, mistress of Giuliano de' Medici.
According to Vasari, Piero excelled in designing pageants and triumphal
processions for the pleasure-loving youths of Florence, and gives a vivid
description of one such procession at the end of the carnival of 1507, which
illustrated the triumph of death. Piero di Cosimo exercised considerable
influence upon his fellow pupils Albertinelli and Bartolomeo della Porta, and
was the master of Andrea del Sarto.
Vasari gave Piero's date of death as 1521, and this date is still repeated by
many sources, including the Encyclopædia Britannica. However, contemporary
documents reveal that he died of plague on April 12, 1522.
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