The primitivist paintings of Piero di Cosimo: a gallery

One of the first articles I read in my study of the primitive hut was a piece by Erwin Panofsky,[1] one of ‘the big three’ in art history,[2] in the very first issue of the Journal of the Warburg Institute. I had come across it through Wolfgang Herrmann’s Laugier and eighteenth century French theory (1962), which contains a characteristically useful appendix listing some illustrations of huts.

Panofsky’s paper turned out to not only offer a collection of illustrations of Vitruvius’ origin myth, but also analyse the content of an enigmatic painting (Fig. 1) by the Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). Up to that point it was interpreted as representing Hylas and the nymphs, but after Panofsky’s paper there was no question as to the real subject matter: the finding of Vulcan on Lemnos. Panofsky got to this authoritative verdict by closely scrutinizing the composing elements and coupling it to his extensive knowledge of classical texts and their 15th century reception. Moreover, he linked the painting to another one by the same painter, based on similar dimensions and style: that way he could identify the other panel as depicting Vulcan the arch-craftsman and first teacher of human civilization (Fig. 2). Crucial to that interpretation was the Vitruvian scene in the background, where the frame of a primitive house is built out of unsquared tree trunks.


Fig. 1: The finding of Vulcan on Lemnos

Fig. 2: Vulcan teaching the arts to humankind

Fig. 2: Vulcan teaching the arts to humankind

These weren’t the only works dedicated to the dawn of civilization in Piero’s oeuvre. Panofsky goes on to discuss a series of three panels destined to be hung on the walls of a room (Figs 3-5). According to him, these paintings portray ‘the phase of human history which preceded the technical and social development brought about by the teachings of Vulcan, in other words, the age of stone in contrast with the age of metal.’ The central motif of all three panels is the raging forest fire ravaging the woods and frightening away the animals, which was an established part of classical origin myths, including that of Vitruvius in book 2. The panels show a sequence from ultra-primitive life, where all fight against all, to a more tranquil existence, with boats being built and with women present. The last panel shows the first tentative steps towards civilization, with a tiny hut and some primitive boats depicted.

Fig. 1: Primitive hunting scene

Fig. 3: Primitive hunting scene

Fig. 3: Return from the primitive hunt

Fig. 4: Return from the primitive hunt

Fig 3: Forest fire

Fig 5: Forest fire

Although Piero’s patron for these three panels had his reasons to commission this particular subject, Panofsky supposes that their extraordinary composition and attention to detail was mostly due to Piero himself. As we know from Giorgio Vasari’s account of the painter’s life and character, he was quite the primitivist. Piero had a ‘mad’ love for animals and everything in nature, despised human company, hated the noise of the city (especially church bells) and preferred living a secluded life. He frequently took long, solitary walks, according to Vasari because ‘when he was thinking on his own he could go ahead fantasizing and building his castles in the sky’. Piero hated interfering with nature and was contented seeing it wild and uncorrupted, which led him to leave the plants in his garden untrimmed, the fruit on the trees unpicked, and his workshop uncleaned. He disliked cooked food, living on hardboiled eggs that he prepared in great quantities in order to save fire, which he feared more than anything.

Vasari obviously didn’t have much patience with this kind of ‘bestial’ living, and even used Piero’s example to warn against mental derangement. Meanwhile, it was exactly this ‘derangement’ that led to some extraordinary paintings of the primitive life. Being very in touch with his own primitive side, Piero felt no need to depict these remote times as an idealized Golden Age or Arcadia, but made an effort to render them as realistic and concrete as possible. For this, he studied all that was available in his days in terms of evolutionistic theories (such as those of Lucretius) and archaeological research. As Panofsky puts it:

In his pictures we are faced, not with the polite nostalgia of a civilized man who longs, or pretends to long, for the happiness of a primitive age, but with the subconscious recollection of a primitive who happened to live in a period of sophisticated civilization. While reconstructing the outward appearances of a prehistoric world, Piero seems to have re-experienced the emotions of primeval man, both the creative excitement of the awakening human and the passions and fears of the caveman and the savage.

After painting the panels above, Piero remained fascinated with the early history of humankind. In 1515 he produced two more paintings on the subject, this time focusing on the Prometheus-legend (Figs 6 and 7). The panels show the human shape Prometheus fashioned from mud and clay, and the punishment he received from Zeus: an eagle pecking at his liver. Since these two stories come from two different episodes in the myth of Prometheus, it is not unlikely that the panels were originally part of a larger series. The eagle is usually described as punishment for Prometheus’ stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to humankind, a myth first encountered in the works of Hesiod (6th century BC) and worked out in greater detail by Aeschylus (5th century BC). Only in the fourth century BC authors added the episode in which Prometheus was involved in the (re-)creation of humankind.

Fig. 6: Prometheus panel 1

Fig. 6: Prometheus panel 1

Fig. 7: Prometheus panel 2

Fig. 7: Prometheus panel 2

[1] Erwin Panofsky, “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero Di Cosimo,” Journal of the Warburg Institute 1, no. 1 (1937): 12–30. The article also appeared in Studies in Iconology (1939), pp. 33ff
[2] The other two: Rudolf Wittkower and Ernst Gombrich.


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