The Death of Procris

The Death of

A very characteristic work by Piero, called di Cosimo, after his godfather and master, Cosimo Rosselli. Piero's peculiarities are well known to all readers of George Eliot's Romola, where everything told us about him by Vasari is carefully worked up. The first impression left by this picture—its quaintness—is precisely typical of the man. He shut himself off from the world, and stopped his ears; lived in the untidiest of rooms, and would not have his garden tended, "preferring to see all things wild and savage about him." He took his meals at times and in ways that no other man did, and Romola used to coax him with sweets and hard-boiled eggs. His fondness for quaint landscape ("he would sometimes stand beside a wall," says Vasari, "and image forth the most extraordinary landscapes that ever were") may be seen in this picture: so also may his love of animals, in which, says Vasari, he took "indescribable pleasure."

The Death of Procris.

Piero di Cosimo.

The subjects of his pictures were generally allegorical. In Romola he paints Tito and Romola as Bacchus and Ariadne; here he shows the death of Procris, the story in which the ancients embodied the folly of jealousy. For Procris being told that Cephalus was unfaithful, straight-way believed the report and secretly followed him to the woods, for he was a great hunter. And Cephalus called upon "aura," the Latin for breeze, for Cephalus was hot after the chase: "Sweet air, O come," and echo answered, "Come, sweet air." But Procris, thinking that he was calling after his mistress, turned to see, and as she moved she made a rustling in the leaves, which Cephalus mistook for the motion of some beast of the forest, and let fly his unerring dart, which Procris once had given him.

But Procris lay among the white wind-flowers,
Shot in the throat. From out the little wound
The slow blood drained, as drops in autumn showers
Drip from the leaves upon the sodden ground.
None saw her die but Lelaps, the swift hound,
That watched her dumbly with a wistful fear,
Till at the dawn, the hornèd wood-men found
And bore her gently on a sylvan bier,
To lie beside the sea,—with many an uncouth tear.
Austin Dobson: Old World Lyrics.

A Popular Handbook to the National Gallery (London and New York, 1888).





The point that connects him with Botticelli is the romantic treatment of his classical mythology, best exemplified in his pictures of the tale of Perseus and Andromeda.16 Piero was by nature and employment a decorative painter; the construction of cars for pageants, and the adornment of dwelling rooms and marriage chests, affected his whole style, rendering it less independent and more quaint than that of Botticelli. Landscape occupies the main part of his compositions, made up by a strange amalgam of the most eccentric details—rocks toppling over blue bays, sea-caverns and fantastic mountain ranges. Groups of little figures upon these spaces tell the story, and the best invention of the artist is lavished on the form of monstrous creatures like the dragon slain by Perseus. There is no attempt to treat the classic subject in a classic spirit: to do that and to fail in doing it, remained for Cellini....17 The same criticism applies to Piero's picture of the murdered Procris watched by a Satyr of the woodland.18 In creating his Satyr the painter has nothad recourse to any antique bas-relief, but has imagined for himself a being half human, half bestial, and yet wholly real; nor has he portrayed in Procris a nymph of Greek form, but a girl of Florence. The strange animals and gaudy flowers introduced into the landscape background further remove the subject from the sphere of classic treatment. Florentine realism and quaint fancy being thus curiously blended, the artistic result may be profitably studied for the light it throws upon the so-called Paganism of the earlier Renaissance. Fancy at that moment was more free than when superior knowledge of antiquity had created a demand for reproductive art, and when the painters thought less of the meaning of the fable for themselves than of its capability of being used as a machine for the display of erudition.

The Renaissance in Italy (London, 1877).


16 Uffizi Gallery.

17 See the bas-relief upon the pedestal of his 'Perseus' in the Loggia de' Lanzi.

18 In the National Gallery.

Mythology Images

Dictionary of Greek Mythology

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