BOOK REVIEW / Eggshells in the fireplace, castles in the air: 'Piero Di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasia' - Sharon Fermor: Reaktion Books, 29 pounds

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THERE IS a vivid fictional account of the working habits of Piero di Cosimo, the 15th-century painter of bizarre, quasi-mythological subjects, in George Eliot's novel Romola. The heroine's husband, Tito Melema, visits Piero di Cosimo in Florence to commission a triptych and finds him living in exotic squalor, surrounded by a mass of painterly props: skulls, rusty armour, peacock feathers and fragments of marble. The painter also shares his rooms with several tame pigeons, three corpulent toads and a white rabbit, the latter being the model for the animal nuzzling Cupid in Piero's famous depiction of Mars and Venus.

The source of George Eliot's account was the short biography of Piero di Cosimo in volume II of Vasari's Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550. From Vasari she took such details as the heap of broken eggshells in Piero's fireplace, a reference to his habit of eating nothing but boiled eggs - he liked to cook 50 at a time to save on fuel. She also gave his apartment an iron knocker muffled with wool to protect his ears, an embellishment of Vasari's observation that Piero could not stand certain noises - babies crying, men coughing, bells ringing, monks chanting. Taken together, Vasari's short account of Piero di Cosimo's life and Eliot's elaboration of it suggest a misanthropic man whose extreme eccentricity denied him the esteem his talent deserved.

Sharon Fermor's stated intention, in the first book on Piero di Cosimo in English for four decades, is to question this portrait of the artist as an unsociable outsider. She points out that Vasari's purpose in the Lives was overtly didactic as well as biographical. The two artists he most admired, Michelangelo and Raphael, each came close to his notion of an ideal. Piero di Cosimo certainly fell short, sharing neither Raphael's graceful manners nor Michelangelo's intense concentration on the human form, and he was roundly ticked off for it in the Lives. Vasari reported that his conversation was often tedious, his painting style inconsistent, and that his 'brutish ways' made people think he was mad.

Fermor's book sounds a useful cautionary note about Vasari's wilder claims, and his exaggeration of the oddness of Piero di Cosimo's life. Apart from Vasari, though, we have almost no biographical information about the painter at all, and Fermor swiftly moves on to the analysis of his paintings which makes up the bulk of her book. She is particularly good on his secular works, which number 18 of the 50 or so surviving pictures, and provides a scholarly analysis of his sources - chiefly such classical writers as Ovid and Lucretius - and his idiosyncratic interpretations of popular myths.

Some of the best-known pictures are spalliera panels, painted in oil on wood or canvas and intended to be set at eye-level in the wainscoting of private houses. They include the so-called 'Early Man' panels, which depict various stages of primitive civilisation: two scenes from the life of Vulcan, two hunting scenes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Forest Fire, which is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The latter painting is a disturbing landscape through which a variety of animals, some with human faces, flee from a conflagration in a wood; its dreamlike quality, and the lack of any obvious central focus, are characteristic of Piero's work and do much to explain his popularity with the Surrealists.

Viewing the paintings in this lavishly illustrated volume, the bizarre sea monsters and freakish land formations, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Piero's work represents an unusually personal vision for an artist of his time. This goes against the grain of current art-historical thinking, and, indeed, Sharon Fermor warns against any such interpretation, arguing that it 'would ascribe to the artist an unprecedented degree of freedom in his choice of themes'.

Yet this may be one of the points on which we should trust Vasari, who recorded, laconically, that this artist 'was never happy except when, wrapped up in his own thoughts, he could pursue his own ideas and fancies, and build his castles in the air'. Perhaps in exercising this freedom, as in his fascination with landscape and non-human forms of life, Piero di Cosimo was simply far ahead of his time.