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mjhurst  mjhurst is offline
Join Date: 24 Jul 2003
Location: California, U.S.A.
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Vasari on Piero di Cosimo

If we are to believe Vasari, the triumph of Death as an actual Carnival feature was an unheard of novelty in 1511, when Piero di Cosimo planned one for the Carnival in Florence.
(Moakley, p.97.)
As Moakley saw it, using the Triumph of Death in Carnival was initially deemed inappropriate because it merged the solemnity of Lent with the festivity of Carnival. The Three Living and Three Dead, the Triumph of Death, and various forms of the Dance of Death were painted "in cemeteries, churchyards, cathedrals, and churches, all over Europe and as far as Scotland and England...." In any case, here is Vasari's description.

Vasari's Lives of Artists
Piero di Cosimo (1461-1521)

Cosimo, being extremely fanciful and abounding in the most singular inventions, was perpetually called upon to give aid in those maskings which are customary during the Carnival: when he rendered himself highly acceptable to the young nobles of Florence, by the various improvements which he effected in the decorations required, and by the great increase of pomp and variety which his inventions imparted to that kind of amusement. Piero is said to have been the first who gave the character of a triumphal procession to these maskings, or who at least ameliorated them to such a degree that he may be said to have perfected them: for not only did he add appropriate words and music to the representation of the events chosen as the subject, but he also caused the procession to be accompanied by large trains, consisting of men on foot and on horseback in vast numbers; these were all clothed in magnificent habits, selected with much judgment and carefully adapted to the character supported by the wearer. The effect of this was exceedingly rich and beautiful, and had altogether something very ingenious in its varied details; nor was the show without a certain grandeur in its character which was certainly imposing. To see at night, by the light of innumerable torches, twenty-five or thirty pairs of horses richly caparisoned, with their riders splendidly arrayed, according to the subject represented, was without doubt an attractive and beautiful spectacle. Six or eight attendants, also on horseback, accompanied each cavalier, all clothed in the same livery and each bearing a torch in his hand; of these there were sometimes above four hundred: next followed the triumphal chariot, elaborately decorated with trophies and fanciful ornaments of various kinds, a thing which was not without its utility, in sharpening the wits of the contrivers, while it gave infinite pleasure and delight to the people.

Among these spectacles, which were numerous as well as ingeniously arranged, I am inclined briefly to describe one, which was, for the most part, invented by Piero, when be had already attained to mature age; this show was not of a pleasing or attractive character, but, on the contrary, was altogether strange, terrible, and unexpected: it gave no small pleasure to the people nevertheless, for as in their food they sometimes prefer the sharp and bitter savours, so in their pastimes are they attracted by things horrible; and these, provided they be presented to us with art and judgment, do indeed most wonderfully delight the human heart, a truth which is made apparent from the pleasure with which we listen to the recitation of tragedy. The spectacle here alluded to was the Triumph of Death; the car was prepared in the Hall of the Pope by Piero himself, and with so much secrecy, that no breath or suspicion of his purpose got abroad, and the completed work was made known and given to view at one and the same moment. [footnote: From what Vasari has said in other places, and from the different allusions to this Masquerade, it maybe inferred to have taken place during the Carnival of the year 1511. -- Ed. Flor., 1832-8.] The triumphal Car was covered with black cloth, and was of vast size, it had skeletons and white crosses painted upon its surface, and was drawn by buffaloes, all of which were totally black: within the Car stood the colossal figure of Death, bearing the scythe in his hand, while around him were covered tombs, which opened at all the places where the procession halted, while those who formed it chanted lugubrious songs, when certain figures stole forth, clothed in black cloth, on these vestments the bones of a skeleton were depicted in white; the arms, breast, ribs, and legs, namely, all which gleamed horribly forth on the black beneath. At a certain distance appeared figures bearing torches, and wearing masks, presenting the face of a death's head, both before and behind; these heads of death, as well as the skeleton, neck beneath them, also exhibited to view, were not only painted with the utmost fidelity to nature, but had besides a frightful expression which was horrible to behold. At the sound of a wailing summons, sent forth with a hollow moan from trumpets of muffled yet inexorable tones, the figures of the dead raised themselves half out of their tombs, and seating their skeleton forms thereon, they sang the following words, now so much extolled and admired, to music of the most plaintive and melancholy character:

Dolor, pianto, e penetenzia, &c.

Before and after the Car rode a train of the dead on horses, carefully selected from the most wretched and meagre animals that could be found, the caparisons of these worn, half-dying creatures were black, covered with white crosses; each was conducted by four attendants, clothed in the vestments of the grave; these last-mentioned figures, bearing black torches and a large black standard, covered with crosses, bones, and death's heads. While this train of the dead proceeded on its way, each sang, with a trembling voice, and all in dismal unison, that psalm of David called the Miserere.

The novelty and the terrible character of this singular spectacle, filled the whole city, as I have before said, with a mingled sensation of terror and admiration, and although at the first sight it did not seem well calculated for a Carnival show, yet being new, and within the reach of every man's comprehension, it obtained the highest encomium for Piero as the author and contriver of the whole, and was the cause as well as commencement of numerous representations, so ingenious and effective, that by these things Florence, acquired a reputation for the conduct of such subjects and the arrangement of similar spectacles, such as was never equaled by any other city. The old people who still remain, of those by whom the procession above described was witnessed, retain the most lively recollection of the scene, and are never weary of extolling the extraordinary spectacle presented by it. I remember to have heard Andrea di Cosimo, who assisted Pietro in the preparation of the show, and Andrea del Sarto, who was Piero's disciple and also took part in it, affirm that this invention was intended, as was believed at the time, to signify and prefigure the return to Florence of the Medici family, for at the time when this triumph was exhibited, the Medici were exiles, and so to speak dead, but dead that might be expected soon to arise again, in which sense were interpreted certain words of the verses sung on that occasion, and which are as follow:

Morii siam, come vedete,
Cosi morti vedrem voi :
Fummo gia come voi stele,
Voi sarete come run, ec.

We are dead, as you see;
Just as dead we shall see you;
We were once as you are;
You shall be as we.
[Moakley's translation]

whereby they desired to intimate their own return, as a kind of resurrection from death to life, with the expulsion and abasement of their enemies and rivals; or it may have been that this signification was attributed to the words, from the fact of that illustrious house having returned from exile about that period, seeing that the human intellect is much given to apply words spoken previously to actions succeeding them, as if the one were the effect of the other; be this as it may, certain it is, that such was the opinion prevailing at the time, and it is spoken of even yet.
(Jonathan Foster translation, pp.416-419, 1871)
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