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Overview

Best known for his portraits, altarpieces, and religious and mythological narratives, Piero di Cosimo created only one surviving allegory. In this painted personification of abstract concepts, a winged woman, largely nude despite her two layers of mantles secured by knots, extends a sprig of juniper and daintily holds a rearing stallion by a string. She has been convincingly identified as Chastity, who effortlessly contains the forces of Lust embodied by her virile steed. The figures occupy a rocky island adorned with barren trees, surrounded by a misty waterscape. The double-tailed mermaid who energetically parts the seas before them may be understood as a siren symbolizing the dangers of carnal passion.

In the Renaissance, recondite allegories such as this often adorned the covers and reverses of portraits, testifying to the virtues of their sitters. Piero’s panel may originally have decorated his likeness of Simonetta Vespucci in the guise of Cleopatra (Musée Condé, Chantilly). The work’s spare execution and delicate gray tonalities, punctuated by the brilliant red of the lady’s costume, would befit this secondary function. The evocative, even impressionistic atmosphere that envelops the figures is typical of Piero, whose powers of fantastic invention are matched by careful attention to the natural prospect.

Provenance

Casa Gravaghi, Parma, by 1870. [1] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence and Rome); sold 1935 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York, NY; gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1938
Piero di Cosimo, Schaeffer Galleries, New York, 1938, no. 6.
Bibliography
1941
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 152-153, no. 271.
1942
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 245, repro. 167.
1944
Frankfurter, Alfred M. The Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1944: 40, repro.
1945
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 62, repro.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 76, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 103.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 91, repro.
1968
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XV-XVI Century. London, 1968: 118-119, fig. 287.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 268, repro.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 24, pl. 5.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: I:368-369, II:pl. 267, as The Propagation of Coral.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 104, no. 75, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 311, repro.
2007
Galli, Aldo. “Tavole toscane del Tre e Quattrocento nella collezione di Alfonso Tacoli Canacci.” In Invisibile agli occhi. Atti della Giornata di studio in ricordo di Lisa Venturini. Firenze, Fondazione Robert Longhi, 15 dicembre 2005. Florence, 2005. Nicoletta Baldini, ed. Florence, 2007: 13-28, esp. 28 n. 69; repro. fig. 31.