Text by Geoffrey Smith
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'… living more like a wild beast than a man. He would never have his rooms swept, eat just when he felt hungry, would not have his garden dug or the fruit trees pruned, but let the vines grow and their branches trail on the ground, and seemed to find pleasure in seeing everything as wild as his own nature … in all his works there is a spirit very different from that of others, and a certain subtlety in investigating nature regardless of time or fatigue, only for his own pleasure. And indeed it could not be otherwise, for, enamoured of nature, he cared not for his own comfort …' Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists
The dimensions of this painting suggest that it was a spalliera, a panel which either formed the backrest of a bench or the backboard of a cassone (a large chest) most often produced on the occasion of a wedding. Many painters created such works for Florentine patrons towards the end of the 15th century and into the 16th when they were fashionable items – one famous example is Botticelli’s depiction of Venus and Mars (in the National Gallery, London) which was probably made for the influential Vespucci family. However Piero di Cosimo seems to have specialised in this niche market as a number of examples by him have survived including A Hunting Scene and The Return from the Hunt (also in the Metropolitan) which were almost certainly made as a pair, as well as The Forest Fire now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (which seems to be related to the two Metropolitan panels although perhaps not painted at the same time) and A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph in the National Gallery, London. His choice of subject matter for these works and his treatment of that subject matter was inventive and unconventional (as one would expect from the highly eccentric artist described by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as surviving on a diet of nothing more than hard boiled eggs). However, the iconography for A Hunting Scene may have been specified by his patron.
The panel is filled with action – almost pandemonium. Satyrs and primitive men are engaged in hunting a great profusion of game. They inhabit a mixed landscape of open countryside and woods with a rocky outcrop to the left. In the middle distance the wood or forest has erupted into flames – which is perhaps responsible for the fortuitous concentration of every type of prey. In any event, men and satyrs are making the most of the situation.
It is probable that this scene is the first in a cycle of works which depict the very beginnings of civilization; Piero, in his masterly rendition of a raging conflagration may be illustrating the fact that the control and harnessing of fire was the first step on the road from barbarism to civilization. One of his sources, no doubt supplied by his patron (probably Francesco del Pugliese), was the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius whose monumental De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe) contains, in book 5, a vivid description of a forest fire as well as an account of how early man discovered the beneficial uses of fire for warmth and cooking from which flowed the beginnings of a sense of community. Piero, it must be remembered, was producing work for patrons in the most sophisticated and cultured city in Europe. In such rarefied humanist circles, knowledge of, and familiarity with, such texts was taken for granted.
1500 Albrecht Dürer: Self Portrait, Munich, Alte Pinakothek
1500 Giovanni Bellini: The Madonna of the Meadow, London, National Gallery
1500 Hieronymus Bosch: Ship of Fools, Paris, Musée du Louvre