Heading Boldly into the Unknown

Ad fontes! Ad fontes! So goes the cry of the Italian Renaissance. It was a time in which people were going “back to the sources,” and Piero di Cosimo did exactly that with his landscape painting, The Forest Fire. The painting is housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, and it dates back to about 1505. This painting, along with two of his other paintings, The Hunt and The Return from the Hunt which are now in the Metropolitan Museum, all deal with the history and origin of humanity. Cosimo gets his inspiration from a passage from Book 5 of De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) by Lucretius, who lived from 98 to 55 BC. Lucretius’s work, of course, also deals with the origins of humanity and earth as a whole. Piero paints a poetic interpretation of Lucretius’s classical work (The Ashmolean Museum).

Book Five of Lucretius’s passage “describes how the origins of civilization were laid when early man conquered his fear of fire and learned how to use it to work metal” (Andrew Graham-Dixon). A similar theme was developed by Vitruvius, the Roman architect, in which he wrote about the “olden days” when men and wild beasts lived similar lives in caves and groves and were both “kept alive by eating raw food” (Andrew Graham-Dixon). However, when man conquered his fear of fire, and was then able to create a more advanced society, he quickly began to “rule the earth,” as it were, due to the human race’s ingenuity. Lucretius’s story, and Cosimo’s poetic interpretation of it via landscape art has universal implications for the future of mankind in many ways.
Piero di Cosimo was an Italian born in 1462 and died in 1522. He was a major figure of the Italian Renaissance, which began to sprout during his time period, and ended in the late 1500s. The word renaissance means “rebirth.” It is important to understand with greater depth the story behind Lucretius’s story before we can understand Cosimo’s painting. In the New Yorker, Stephen Greenblatt writes about his time as a student in Yale and he found Lucretius’s two-thousand-year-old-poem marked down to ten cents. He quickly bought it, and it turned out to be one of the most important pieces of literature he has ever read. He writes that this poem gave him the strength and “the means to elude the suffocating grasp of [his] mother’s fears and the encouragement to take deep pleasure in my brief time on the shores of light” (Greenblatt). Greenblatt tells us in the article that his mother was afraid of an early death. It had a great impact on him at a young age: “the dread of her dying had become intertwined with a painful perception that she had blighted much of her life––and cast a shadow of my own––in the service of her obsessive fear” (Greenblatt). Lucretius’s poem spoke to him because he says it spoke a singularly clear message to him: “Death is nothing to us” (Greenblatt).
For a long time this poem was overlooked and intentionally suppressed because, for a long time in European history, the Church was so intertwined with the political life. Therefore, the art had to reflect the beliefs of the Church, and this poem by Lucretius sure did not reflect those beliefs. In fact, it very much contradicted them because Lucretius’s poem told a very modern and evolutionary story of the origin of man. It did not posit that humanity was the crown of God’s creation. In Lucretius’s world, there is no Great Chain of Being or any belief that man is made of God’s image. In Lucretius’s world, all of nature (including humans) is made of the same stuff: atoms. Lucretius was very much an Epicurean, and thus believed that man should pursue pleasure. There is no idea of a master plan or divine architect or intelligent design. In Lucretius’s world, all we have is the material world, and therefore, we should enjoy that material world for all that it is worth and not worry about the rewards and punishments that may or may not be handed out by God or gods that may or may not exist. This is what made Stephen Greenblatt’s mother’s life a tragedy, and her son decided to not follow her path. It taught Greenblatt to live “not in fear of the gods but in pursuit of pleasure” (Greenblatt).
Greenblatt is keen to realize that the same shift took place during the Renaissance. He argues that this new pursuit of pleasure changed the dress and etiquette of the courtiers, the liturgical language, and quotidian designs and decorations. Even more broadly, the cultural shift of the Renaissance is what imbued Da Vinci’s scientific and technological explorations, Galileo’s astrological findings, Francis Bacon’s new and daunting research ideas, Richard Hooker’s theological mind, Machiavelli’s politics, and so forth. Greenblatt thinks that the one thread that ties all these seemingly unrelated and influential people together is that their ideas “were crafted in such a way to produce pleasure” (Greenblatt). It was a turn away from Christian ascetism in which people were burdened with what an angel or a demon might think, and a turn towards a new aesthetic that questioned the authorities and the status quo.
It is no coincidence that the Church did not like Epicurus or any of his followers, such as Lucretius, and many people during Cosimo’s time may not have even heard of him because the Church suppressed his work. The Church depicted Epicurus maliciously because of his odd crew of acolytes that included even women. One account about Epicurus said, “he vomited twice a day from overindulgence” (6). However, this seems very unlikely and specious and many people (especially the Church) have taken his philosophy out of context. Epicurus once wrote to a friend to send him a little pot of cheese so that, when he pleased, he could “fare sumptuously,” and one of his followers even argues that it is not possible to live pleasurably without also living “prudently and honorably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously” (qtd. in Greenblatt). In other words, epicureanism never meant some extreme version of hedonism that justified licentiousness and debauchery, but it did offer freedom from the burdens of the Christian ascetism of the so-called “Dark Ages” that might have very well restricted and stifled many great minds during that time. With this background in mind, one can now see why this painting now signals a big change in art, and represents the essence of the Italian Renaissance. It is a time period when art and ideas flourished immensely.
Jonathan Jones of The Guardian writes about The Forest Fire, “no one can be quite sure what Piero was getting at, but this is more than a straightforward landscape incident; the epic, synthesized panorama makes us feel something of world-historical weight is going on” (1). Like stated before, this painting stands for a time before rigid divisions were set between humans and animals. If one pays close enough attention, one will find monstrous hybrids in The Forest Fire – even “pigs and deer with men’s faces” (2). It is a painting in which anything can happen and it signifies a “time before nature was categorized, classified, and subordinated to human will” (2). Piero di Cosimo was an interesting person, and this picture reflects his personality. Tuscan chronicler Vasari once wrote that he never had his rooms swept, and “he allowed his vines to grow, and the trees to shoot over the ground, nor were his fig trees ever trimmed, or any other trees, for it pleased him to see everything wild, like his own nature” (qtd. in 2). Vasari goes on to write that he spent much of his time observing flora and fauna, and it gave him the supreme “pleasure and satisfaction that drove him quite out of his mind” (qtd. in 2).
One can tell that Cosimo loved nature very much from the tender and awe-inspiring nature of The Forest Fire. I can see why Cosimo was drawn to Lucretius’s work. They were both wild men who dared to think outside of the box, as it were. It is no coincidence that Cosimo would find a work that was suppressed by the dogmatic Church, be inspired by it, and want to find a way to recreate his ideas through art and make it accessible to a new generation. The symbol of fire displays the overall message of Lucretius and Cosimo best. The very thing that the people were afraid of – fire – turns out to be the very thing that leads the people to unprecedented progress. The message is clear: do not be afraid of the unknown, because when you embrace the unknown and the uncomfortable, it leads to true growth, maturation, and knowledge.
This work of art, which is premodern, turns out to be very postmodern also. Modernity, unlike this painting, is a time when all nature and knowledge is classified and subordinated to the human will. The great postmodernist Lyotard realized that these classifications have been used to justify all kinds of evil, which are ultimately displayed in the colonialism, slavery, and the holocaust. Lyotard realized that we as humans must find a new way to structure knowledge that eliminated the binary oppositions that are ripe for blatant abuses and declivity. The object-subject, white-black, human-animal, civilized-barbaric distinctions, just to name a few, must be eliminated. Postmodernist Martin Heidegger, ironically enough, felt the same way. It is no surprise then that he admired the ancient Greek philosophers for their freedom of thought. They lived in a time when people thought without rigid categories. Thales could simply say, “All is water,” and see where the idea went. The boundaries were not there: the arkhe was yet to be found, and minds wandered in wonder for the sake of the pleasure it brought. In other words, in Heideggerean terms, they were in search of dasein. Modernity looked down on that type of thinking and wondering (and look at where it got us), but yet now we are postmodern. The Western World is trying to disassociate from its past, rewrite its history, leave the modernist baggage behind, and began a new and free era. This painting by Cosimo may be a great place to start thinking about the world differently again.


Works Cited:
Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Answer Man.” The New Yorker. 8 May 2011. Web. 21 July
“ITP 181: The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo.” Andrew Graham-Dixon.
http://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com. 10 May 2003. Web. 21 July 2013
Jones, Jonathan. “Take me to your dodo.” The Guardian. 17 July 2002. Web. 21 July
“The Forest Fire.” Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. http://www.ashmolean.org.
Web. 21 July 2013.


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