The brutal fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs, as described by the first-century Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, is displayed on this panel. The story starts with the wedding feast of Pirithous, King of the Lapiths. During the celebrations, the centaur Eurytion, drunk and possessed by lust, seized the bride by her hair.
Piero di Cosimo has actually relegated this scene to the right, showing the bride partially naked in a blue robe with the centaur grabbing her hair. All the commotion seems superfluous to the centaur couple embracing in the middle of the composition. In Ovid’s story these figures are secondary, but Piero di Cosimo has centred them, capturing a tender moment amid the violent commotion.
This picture was probably made as a spalliera panel, which would be set into wall panelling, and commissioned around the time of a young Florentine couple’s marriage. Displayed in the husband’s camera (chamber) in their family palace, Piero’s painting would have warned the couple how not to behave.
This brutal fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs, as described by the first-century Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, is displayed on this panel. The story starts with the wedding feast of Pirithous, King of the Lapiths. During the celebrations, the centaur Eurytion, drunk and possessed by lust, seized the bride by her hair.
Piero di Cosimo has actually relegated this scene to the right, showing the bride partially naked in a blue robe with Eurytion grabbing her hair; Theseus, founder and king of Athens, hurls a decorated vessel at him. All the commotion seems superfluous to the centaur couple embracing in the middle of the composition: this is Hylonome, who kisses her lover Cyllarus as he dies from a javelin wound. These figures are secondary in Ovid’s story but Piero di Cosimo has centred them, capturing a tender moment amid the violence. The artist’s decision to divide the scene into scattered groupings of figures contradicted contemporary art treatises that emphasised the importance of a unified composition – in Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), for example, the action is focused in the middle of the picture. In contrast, Piero has focused on the tragic love story of the two centaurs.
The background figures are also directly based on Ovid’s tale. On the right, centaurs use a burning shrine, the leg of a table, the antlers of a stag and a chandelier from a nearby sanctuary as weapons. The brawl in the middle, unfolding on the rug where guests were feasting, is a blur of fighting figures. Slightly to the left is the centaur who, according to Ovid, slipped while running and fell on an ash tree, where he was crushed by a rock thrown by a Lapith. Finally, on the far left is Hercules with his laurel wreath and lion skin, about to attack a white centaur.
This panel was made as a spalliera, which would be set into the panelling of a wealthy man’s camera (chamber) in his family palace. It was probably commissioned at the time of the man’s marriage. The story of the Lapiths and centaurs was chosen as a lesson to the husband and wife on how not to behave. The people who commissioned this work were probably familiar with the tale – the Metamorphoses had been translated into Italian, and it was not only known by those who had a classical education. Ovid’s stories were part of popular culture, and they would also have been familiar to many women, who were often illiterate at this time.
Piero was fascinated by natural history and the early history of mankind. Hybrid, fantastic and semi-human creatures occur in many of his paintings. Similar fighting figures appear in the The Hunt (Metropolitan Museum, New York), where satyrs and humans team up to chase the animals. Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance biographer of Italian artists, highlighted Piero’s interest in oddities, and his fondness for depicting strange men and beasts.
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