Piero di Cosimo and Fra Angelico in Romola:

15th Century Representations of 19th Century Art Discourse

by Kaitlyn Page

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

George Eliot’s novel Romola, set in fifteenth-century Florence, positions the artists Piero di Cosimo and Fra Angelico as having opposing ideas about politics and art in their time. Eliot makes Piero di Cosimo anti-religious, while she has Fra Angelico’s art inspire the premier religious figure in Florence at the time, Girolamo Savonarola. Eliot’s characterization of these two artists represents two opposing artistic movements in Eliot’s own late nineteenth-century England. Eliot’s Piero di Cosimo appears significantly less religious than the devout Fra Angelico, and Piero di Cosimo’s religious paintings get ignored in the novel. By making the fictional Piero di Cosimo less religious, Eliot emphasizes aspects of both artists to make Fra Angelico represent Victorian moralism and to make Piero di Cosimo represent the “art for art’s sake” movement. Eliot achieves this goal by mentioning both the artists’ art and the places the artists are connected to. By examining fictional depictions and histories from the novel alongside the real histories and artwork from Piero di Cosimo and Fra Angelico as well as primary sources from both Renaissance Italy and nineteenth-century England, Eliot’s goal with her novel Romola becomes clear: to capture the tension between two artistic movements in her own time.

Eliot, Romola, Piero di Cosimo, Fra Angelico, Savonarola, art

In the late nineteenth century when George Eliot was writing, two opposing movements gathered popularity: the idea of “art for art’s sake” and the push for a new sense of moralism rooted in religion. The main debate regarding art between these two groups was whether beauty should serve a didactic or higher purpose. Those who supported the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” (i.e. the Aesthetic Movement) believed that art does not need a purpose other than to inspire and be inspired by beauty; those advocating for Victorian moralism considered beauty in art as “part of the eternal beauty and joy of the universe which God has made.”1 Eliot sets her novel Romola in late fifteenth-century Florence, where a similar debate took place under the rule of Savonarola, who maintained that beauty must be made as a way of serving God. In Romola, Eliot uses the Florentine artists Fra Angelico and Piero di Cosimo to represent these two different philosophies on beauty in art, characterizing the two artists and their work in a way that demonstrates these competing philosophies in both Renaissance Florence and in her own Victorian England.

Eliot often sets interactions between Savonarola and other characters in the convent of San Marco. As these interactions occur, Eliot draws attention to the frescoes on the wall made by Fra Angelico, reminding the reader that Savonarola does not support the idea of an artless world but rather a world in which art is made in the style of Fra Angelico. In the novel, Fra Angelico’s frescoes are described “as if they had been sudden reflections cast from the ethereal world, where the Madonna sat crowned in her radiant glory, and the Divine infant looked forth with perpetual promise.”2 Here Eliot emphasizes how Fra Angelico’s paintings honor God by using the words “ethereal,” “radiant glory,” “Divine,” and “perpetual,” all of which point to the holiness of the frescoes. In a sermon from Romola, the character Savonarola urges the citizens of Florence to “see no wisdom but in thy eternal law, no beauty but in holiness.”3 Eliot’s fictional sermon reflects a sermon given by the actual Savonarola in which he condemned those who “put their trust in human things” since work made should be for “Him Who is in Heaven.”4 Echoes of Savonarola’s sermon, both real and in the novel, were heard in the convictions of the Victorian moralism of Eliot’s time, which upheld the idea that in art “the vision is of God” since “beauty is also a revelation of God.”5 Savonarola and those who championed Victorian moralism saw their goals realized in Fra Angelico’s frescoes, and, to fully understand these ideas, one must look closer at the art of Fra Angelico.

The religious focus of Fra Angelico’s works is evident when looking at the details of his frescoes. In The Annunciation (Fig. 1), the halos are easy to identify, being solidly golden and decorated. Since the halos attract the attention of the eye by being so easily seen, the holiness of the Madonna and the Archangel are also readily apparent. Similarly, Fra Angelico’s choice to have the sun’s rays come down carrying the dove toward the Madonna heightens the holiness of the Madonna as there is a direct line from the Madonna to Heaven. Even though the lighting of the painting adheres to the location of the sun in the upper left corner, the extended ray of sun does not. The shadows of the vault ceiling appear on the opposite side of the sun, and the same effect is on the palm tree: the side of the tree away from the sun appears darker. Meanwhile, no shadows appear on the ground, which indicates the presence of the extended ray of sun, a ray that exists beyond the confines of Earth and belongs to the Heavens. 

Figure 1. The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. View here: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-annunciation/f8e45a6f-7645-4e53-9fd5-cbdae7e8faac

If Fra Angelico’s art represents Victorian moralism in Romola, then Piero di Cosimo’s art symbolizes the Aesthetic Movement. Although Eliot had read Vasari, evident from her reference to Piero di Cosimo’s love of eggs, she reduces the importance of Piero di Cosimo’s religious paintings, choosing instead to focus on his attraction to mythological paintings despite Piero di Cosimo being considered a practicing Christian.6 Eliot gives Piero di Cosimo the distinction of being “the artist who at that time was pre-eminent in the fantastic mythological design.”7 By having Piero di Cosimo be known in the novel for his dedication to the myths, Eliot puts him in opposition to Savonarola; Piero di Cosimo’s art in the novel is that of the “wisdom” which Savonarola condemns. This tension also puts Piero di Cosimo’s work in opposition to Fra Angelico’s frescoes. Additionally, Eliot’s decision to make Piero di Cosimo the artist with whom the protagonists primarily interact seems purposeful as much of Piero di Cosimo’s work places an emphasis on the natural, or “human,” world. The Aesthetic Movement valued this “return to nature” and deemed “curiosity and the desire of beauty” as worthy motivations for creating art.8 While the landscapes between Fra Angelico and Piero di Cosimo likely differ because Piero di Cosimo began creating his work later, for George Eliot’s purpose of having the respective artists’ style stand in for Victorian Moralism and the Aesthetic Movement, this time difference does not matter so much.

Piero di Cosimo was said to have created paintings in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, particularly following Leonardo da Vinci’s instructions on landscapes.9 In The Adoration of the Child (Fig. 2), Piero di Cosimo paints the tops of the mountains darker than bottoms, adhering to Leonardo da Vinci’s rules for painting. The edges of the mountaintops are lined with a darker shade of green, while the insides of the mountain are so light they are more yellow.10 Importantly, the whole of the mountain is tinted blue, as a way of reflecting the sky.11 Piero di Cosimo’s grass and flowers within the grass also follow the rules of Leonardo da Vinci, as the flowers and grass decrease in clear detail as the eye moves further into the background. Looking at the small, yellow flowers below the Madonna, a variety of different, distinct types of flowers appear. As the eye moves up the painting, however, these various yellow flowers become less clear as distance grows, appearing as yellow points in the grass. The same can be said for the grass. As the eye moves further back, individual blades of grass become less discernible, and the variety in the shapes of grass decreases. These artistic decisions create the illusion of perspective in Piero di Cosimo’s work, but more importantly they show his dedication to the landscape aspects of his painting. Fra Angelico, by contrast, paints his grassy land with less attention to perspective. In The Annunciation, Fra Angelico also included small flowers, but unlike Piero di Cosimo, the level of clear detail remains the same as ground moves toward the horizon. Rather than utilizing the landscape to add to perspective, Fra Angelico tends to use a similar pattern of plants to serve as the ground in his paintings. In Last Judgement (Fig. 3), for example, the plants on the ground not only resemble the plants in The Annunciation—though with less variety—but they also repeat themselves. The palm-frond-like plants create a pattern on the ground, rather than creating a naturalistic version of grass. The difference in landscapes between Fra Angelico’s frescoes and Piero di Cosimo’s painting represent how, unlike the Victorian Moralists, the Aesthetic Movement prized the beauty of nature not as a creation of God but as something worthy of devotion purely because of its beauty.   

Figure 2. The Adoration of the Child by Piero di Cosimo. View here: http://emuseum.toledomuseum.org/objects/54744/the-adoration-of-the-child?ctx=67d6eeb3-a100-4b30-8f14-df20cfd259af&idx=0

Fra Angelico, Last Judgement

Figure 3. “Fra Angelico, Last Judgement, c. 1431, tempera on panel, 105 x 210 cm (Museo di San Marco, Florence)” by Emme Debi is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Unlike Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation, Piero di Cosimo’s The Adoration of the Child has halos that are much fainter and even hard to notice at first. The internal shading on the body and clothes of Piero di Cosimo’s Madonna has deeper shading than Fra Angelico’s Madonna in The Annunciation, particularly when looking at the drapes of the clothes and the hands. Piero di Cosimo’s sun is not present in the sky, although still clearly providing light, and this is reflected in the lighting choices of the landscape. As the painting lacks a specific source of light, the trees are darker internally and lighter around the edges to indicate the all-over presence of the sun’s light. Again, this references Leonardo da Vinci’s advice on how best to paint a landscape, reiterating Piero di Cosimo’s desire to reproduce accurately the image of nature and reflecting the Aesthetic Movement’s goal of reproducing the beauty seen in the world.12

At the same time, Piero di Cosimo’s The Adoration of the Child is still a religious work that does indeed achieve the goal of honoring God. The halos are still present, though faint, and the lighting still highlights the Madonna and Child. While paying attention to the way lighting works in reality, Piero di Cosimo makes the background and nature in the painting darker than the Madonna and Child. The grass and trees are all quite dark green, in some places bordering on black, while the brightest highlights of the painting, aside from the sky, are found on the skin and drapery of the Madonna and Child. By making the Madonna and Child the lightest part of the painting, Piero di Cosimo draws the eye there first, emphasizing their importance. By creating a more naturalistic view of the Madonna and the Child than that of Fra Angelico’s, Piero di Cosimo also achieves a more humanistic image, bringing them closer to the world of the viewer. In doing this, Piero di Cosimo exemplified the Victorian Moralist position that God “must be behind all the wonders of nature.”13

In Piero di Cosimo’s painting The Incarnation of Christ and Saints (Fig. 4), he again uses naturalistic techniques to bring attention to the Madonna. In terms of composition, the Madonna is centered in quite a symmetrical painting: on either side are three saints and a hill in the background. Even the clouds create symmetry in the painting, while also avoiding the space above the Madonna, as the holy light that shines on her parts the clouds themselves. Like Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation, light from the sun shines onto the Madonna, with a dove flying through it. Noticeably absent from Piero di Cosimo’s painting is the sun itself. The style of the light itself seems much more naturalistic than Fra Angelico’s, as it is much softer and more light-like. More importantly, the lighting of the painting follows according to the beam of light that descends on the Madonna. Her face is significantly light, with shadows on her neck underneath her face. The shadows on the tree on either hill both have shadows on the opposite side from where the light descends. Unlike Fra Angelico’s holy beam of light, Piero di Cosimo’s light seems to exist within the confines of Earth, or at least adhere to the rules of Earth. This adherence to the rules does not distract from the holiness of God’s work but rather demonstrates the exceptional creation that is Earth as made by God’s hands.

Figure 4. The Incarnation of Christ and Saints by Piero di Cosimo. View here: https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/the-incarnation-of-jesus-and-the-saints-philip-benizi-john-the-evangelist-catherine-of-alexandria-margaret-peter-and-antoninus-pierozzi

By ignoring the religious aspect, Eliot depicts Piero di Cosimo as almost anti-religious in her novel—simplifying to make a connection between the artistic debates in Renaissance Florence and the artistic debates in Eliot’s own Victorian England. At one point in Romola, the character of Piero di Cosimo goes to the Duomo while Savonarola is preaching, but he “took no heed of the preaching” and instead observes an escaped prisoner who later gets included in one of his paintings.14 By having Piero di Cosimo more interested in the prisoner and what’s happening outside of the Duomo than in the religious message shared inside the Duomo, Eliot makes Piero di Cosimo seem like a character with complete disinterest in the Catholic faith. Eliot also emphasizes Piero di Cosimo’s interest in mankind; he appears fascinated watching the celebrations that take place throughout the year in Florence. However, there is validity to Eliot’s characterization of Piero di Cosimo’s opposition to Savonarola’s preaching. Savonarola dismisses those “who had the names of Jove, Juno, and Venus in their mouths together with Christ’s.”15 In Romola, Piero di Cosimo discusses several different myths with other characters, including the Roman god Mars, the myth of Bacchus and Adriane, and Oedipus. The non-fictionalized version of Piero di Cosimo did indeed produce many of these mythological paintings, such as his painting A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph (Fig. 5). In this painting, Piero di Cosimo depicts a scene with mythological creatures, likely a scene from Ovid. This subject and painting conflict with Savonarola’s ideas of morality and the Victorian Moralistic concept of creating art that favored “above all the worth of simplicity and hard labor.”16 A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph expresses human emotion and showcases Piero di Cosimo’s skill at landscape. In the painting, both the satyr and the dog in the foreground bend their head towards the nymph in sadness, with the satyr gazing mournfully down at the nymph and the dog closing its eyes dejectedly. Like his other paintings, A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph has detailed and varied plant life in the foreground that follows the rules of perspective. Taller plant life frames the two sides of the paintings, with the red flowers on them matching the red cloth that covers the nymph. The background has a hazy blue tint all over, with ships, birds, and a town also painted according to the rules of perspective. The lighting is even, not drawing the eye to one specific spot on the painting, allowing for a slow perusal of all the details in the painting, including the precise pattern on the nymph’s clothes.

Figure 5. A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph by Piero di Cosimo. View here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/piero-di-cosimo-a-satyr-mourning-over-a-nymph

Unlike Piero di Cosimo, Fra Angelico’s frescoes do have the “simplicity” that the Victorian Moralists argued is the best way to depict art. In his fresco “Noli me tangere” (Fig. 6), Fra Angelico uses a similar pattern for his ground plants as in his previously mentioned works. The background has a few simple trees but no extensive details like the town buildings in Piero di Cosimo’s A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph. Fra Angelico exhibits skillful drapery on both the figures of the Madonna and Christ, but both have solid colored drapery. This simplicity compels the viewer to pay attention to the story without getting distracted. The drapery also emphasizes the movement of Christ away from the Madonna: the bottom of the fabric flows backwards into space to demonstrate this movement. Here, Fra Angelico achieves the simplicity that Victorian Moralists wanted Victorian art to achieve.

Figure 6. “Noli me tangere Fra Angelico 1400-1455. Florence” by jean louis mazieres is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Although Eliot may simplify the complexities of Piero di Cosimo’s relationship to the church, she still achieves an accurate sense of the styles of both Piero di Cosimo and Fra Angelico through her descriptions and characterizations. This sense of style thus corresponds with respective movements in Victorian England, which explains Eliot’s need for simplification as well as her placement of the two movements in opposition with each other.


1. Leonard Elliot Elliot-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era, Greenwich, Connecticut: The Seabury Press, 1946, 356.

2. George Eliot, Romola, Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press, 2013, 669.

3. Eliot, Romola, 292.

4. Girolamo Savonarola, Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola, trans. by Anne Borelli and Maria Pastore Passaro. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 327.

5. Elliot-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era, 356.

6. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, trans. by Gaston Du C. de Vere. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1979, 817-818. Vasari tells how Piero di Cosimo “reduced himself to eating nothing but boiled eggs” and “was a most zealous Christian.”

7. Eliot, Romola, 235.

8. “Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, London: Macmillan and Co., 1877, 143. In quoted sections, Pater discusses Leonardo Da Vinci, which is interesting considering Vasari’s statement about Piero di Cosimo being inspired by Leonard da Vinci’s style (see footnote 9).

9. Vasari, Lives of the Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, 811.

10. Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo on Painting, ed. Martin Kemp, trans. Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, 165-166.

11. Leonardo da Vinci, 163-164. He details how paintings should be made with “objects which at distance are clothed in blue.”

12. Leonardo da Vinci, 183.

13. Elliot-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era, 356.

14. Eliot, Romola, 295.

15. Savonarola, Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola, 321.

16. Elliot-Binns, Religion in the Victorian Era, 352.

17. Eliot, Romola, 239.

18. Eliot, Romola, 195.


Angelico, Fra, and Umberto Baldini. L’opera Completa Dell’Angelico. Classici Dell’arte Rizzoli, 1970.

Eliot, George. Romola. Auckland, New Zealand: The Floating Press, 2013. 

Elliot-Binns, Leonard Elliot. Religion in the Victorian Era. Greenwich, Connecticut: The Seabury Press, 1946.

Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo on Painting. Edited by Martin Kemp, Translated by Martin Kemp and Margaret Walker. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. London: Macmillan and Co., 1877.

Piero, di Cosimo, and Mina Bacci. L’opera Completa Di Piero di Cosimo. Classici Dell’art Rizzoli, 1976

Savonarola, Girolamo. Selected Writings of Girolamo Savonarola: Religion and Politics, 1490-1498. Translated by Anne Borelli and Maria Pastore Passaro. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects. Translated by Gaston Du C. de Vere. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1979.

Citation Style: Chicago