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Frame by Frame: Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus"

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 20, 2011 09:06 AM

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discovery honey.JPGWORCESTER. Piero di Cosimo, who painted this enchanting picture at the Worcester Art Museum, doesn't quite fit into the parade of Renaissance greats like Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Raphael.

Granted, they all had their eccentricities. But Piero, if we are to believe the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, was a genuine oddball. He disliked hot food and lived on hard-boiled eggs, which he cooked in large batches then stored in a cupboard. His studio was a shambles. He let his garden run wild and, and wouldn't even pick the fruit from his trees because he hated to "interfere with nature."

A bachelor until his death at 60 (he died in 1521), he took long walks by himself while building, in Vasari's words, "his castles in the air," and he loved everything in nature that seemed strange and idiosyncratic. (One feels sure, from such descriptions, as much as from the evidence of his pictures, that he would have loved the Jesuit poet and author of "Pied Beauty," Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

Worcester's painting is related to a similar, unfinished-looking work in the Harvard Art Museum, called "The Misfortunes of Silenus." Both pictures, and probably some others, were painted by Piero for the Vespucci family at the very end of the 15th century and displayed in a house formerly owned by the Medici family.

This painting shows an adult and baby satyr on the main branch of a gnarled old tree and another satyr below, all making a loud din with household utensils in order to encourage bees to settle in the tree. The story, which culminates in the discovery of honey, derives from Ovid's poem, "The Fasti."

On either side of the central tree (it's matched by a similar tree in the Harvard picture) we see a crowd of couples and revelers: On the right, there's the tubby old Silenus smiling atop his donkey (he is more the center of attention in the Harvard picture), and in the foreground the handsome Bacchus with his arm around the goddess Ariadne.

The purpose of Ovid's original poem is to account for the origins of Roman holidays and customs. Bacchus, as Erwin Panofsky explained in the first serious interpretation of the painting, is in the picture for a simple reason: After his followers made a noise which attracted the bees, it was he who trapped them in a hollow tree. Honey was his prize, and that is why, according to Ovid, the rites of the Feast of Bacchus include the eating of sweet cakes known as "liba" (their name derives from Bacchus's Latin name, "Liber.")

The story illustrates an episode in the evolution of man. It's given a dramatic frame by two background details: on the left, a serene hilltop town, symbolizing civilization; and on the right, a higher rocky outcrop, with threatening weather, symbolizing wild and threatening nature.

Clearly a lover of nature, Piero was allegedly terrified of lightning but loved heavy rains.

The picture is at Worcester Art Museum, Worcester (508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org).

Three afterthoughts: 1). The family name of Piero di Cosimo's patrons, the Vespucci, deries from the Italian word for "wasp," and wasps were part of the family's coat of arms. The painter seems to make reference to this in the related Harvard picture, which describes Silenus's misfortune in stirring up a wasps' nest shortly after the happier discovery of honey.

2) I happened upon these lines by Rilke, which seem apt - perhaps as descriptions of all art-making?: "We are the bees of the invisible. Tremulously we gather in the honey of the visible to store up in the great golden hive of the Invisible."

3) Michelangelo almost certainly saw this painting, and seems to have used the female figure at far left breast feading her infant as the basis for a similar pair in his famous drawing "A Children's Bacchanal." 

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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