The power and beauty of nature are depicted in this extensive landscape as the terrifying spectacle of a burning forest creates fear and panic among birds, animals and human beings. The treatment of the fire is remarkable, with white-hot, exploding tree trunks, burning branches, flames licking at foliage and smoky, charred remnants. Distant views open out on either side, with the effects of the fire evident in the lines of fleeing animals and the wheeling birds in the sky; on the right human habitation is threatened. More striking is the range of animals and birds depicted: wild and domestic, growling, roaring and calling. Among them a deer and a pig mysteriously have the heads of satyrs, legendary inhabitants of the forests.
Born in Florence, Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522) is recorded in the studio of the painter Cosimo Rosselli in 1480, from whom he took his second name. He was renowned for his fantasy and inventiveness, and his patrons in Florence enjoyed his playful or strange variations on mythical or classical themes. He made a number of paintings that featured forest fires, with men, satyrs, centaurs and wild animals. They were inspired by ideas about primitive man and the beginning of communal life found in classical literature, notably De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of the Universe) by the Roman philosopher Lucretius (c. 99–55 BC).
The satyrs’ heads on the deer and pig many suggest the wilderness of the distant past. The singling out of these animals may alternatively be witty references to family emblems. The heads were added by Piero at a late stage.
The Forest Fire, Piero di Cosimo
Oil on panel
71.2 x 202 cm
Presented by the Art Fund, 1933