Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

This panel, along with a companion showing the Discovery of Honey, was probably commissioned as a nuptial gift to adorn the bedchamber in the Florentine palace of Giovanni Vespucci and his bride; both panels are described by the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari in his Life of Piero di Cosimo. Wasps (vespe in Italian) adorned the family’s coats of arms, and the scenes were certainly chosen as humorous but cautionary tales for the newlyweds. The story is based on passages from Ovid’s Fasti, where Silenus, looking for honey, climbs on the back of his donkey to reach into the hollow of a tree. Inside, he discovers a wasp’s nest, setting off a series of misfortunes: the branch on which he was leaning breaks, and he falls from his donkey, is kicked by an ass, and is stung by the wasps he disturbed. At the left of this panel, Bacchus and Ariadne watch as Silenus’s stings are treated with mud.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Piero di Cosimo, Italian (Florence (?), Italy c. 1462 - 1522 Florence(?), Italy)
The Misfortunes of Silenus
Work Type
c. 1500
Creation Place: Europe, Italy, Tuscany, Florence
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2540, European Art, 13th–16th century, The Renaissance
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Physical Descriptions
Oil on panel
80.1 x 129.3 cm (31 9/16 x 50 7/8 in.)
frame: 97.2 x 147.3 x 8.9 cm (38 1/4 x 58 x 3 1/2 in.)
Possibly commissioned from the artist to Guidantonio di Giovanni Vespucci, Florence, c. 1500, gift; to Giovanni di Guidantonio Vespucci and Namiciana di Benedetto Nerli on the occasion of their wedding, Florence, 1500, acquired; by Piero Salviati (1), Florence, 1533, bequeathed; to his wife, Ginevra Bartolini Salimbeni, Florence, 1564, bequeathed; to her daughter Maddalena Salviati, by descent; to Giovanni de’ Bardi di Vernio and his wife, Lucrezia Salviati (daughter of Piero Salviati), by descent; to Cosimo Ridolfi (son of Piero Ridolfi and Maddalena Salviati) sold; to the Baglioni family, acquired; by [Monte Comune (public bank)] to Lodovico Incontri (1676). [Giovanni Freppa, Florence, by 1851]. Sir Thomas Sebright, Beechwood, England, by 1857, by descent?; to Sir Giles Sebright Beechwood, England, until 1935, sold; to Mrs. (Jean) R. Langton Douglas, London and Waycross, Georgia, and Vitale Bloch, London, each as 50% owners, by 1937, sold; to Fogg Art Museum, 1940. (2)


(1) Vasari records seeing the painting, along with its companion “The Discovery of Honey” in the Worcester Art Museum (1937.76) in the Palazzo Salviati c. 1550.

(2)The paintings in the Worcester and Harvard Art Museums shared a common provenance until the “Discovery of Honey” was sold in 1937 to the Worcester Art Museum and the “Misfortunes of Silenus” was sold in 1940 to the Fogg Art Museum. The Fogg Art Museum purchased the painting directly from Mrs. Douglas.

Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing Fund and Friends of Art, Archaeology and Music
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Galleries and cabinets of art in Great Britain: being an account of more than forty collections of paintings, drawings, sculptures, mss., &c. &c. visited in 1854 and 1856, and now for the first time described, John Murray (London, England, 1857), p. 327

Giorgio Vasari, Le Vitte de'più eccellenti pittori scultori ed architettori, ed. Gaetano Milanesi, G. C. Sansoni, Editore (Florence, 1879), pp. 141-142

Hermann Ulmann, "Piero di Cosimo", Jahrbuch der Königlich Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin--Preussischer Kulturbesitz (1896), Vol. 17, pp. 120-142, p. 129

Fritz Knapp, Piero di Cosimo: ein Übergangsmeister vom Florentiner quattrocento zum cinquecento, Verlag von Wilhelm Knapp (Halle, Germany, 1899), pp. 86-87

Paul Schubring, Cassoni: Truhen und Truhenbilder der italienischen Frührenaissance, Ein Beitrag zur Profanmalerei im Quattrocento, Verlag von Karl W. Hiersemann (Leipzig, 1915), p. 312-313, no. 392 [as by Bartolommo di Giovanni]

Erwin Panofsky, "The 'Discovery of Honey' by Piero di Cosimo", Worcester Art Museum Annual (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1936-1937), Vol. II, pp. 33-43, pp. 34-36, 41, 43, fig. 2. fig 9,

"The Discovery of Honey", Worcester Art Museum News Bulletin and Calendar (Worcester, MA, October 1937), Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 1-2, p. 1

Georges Pudelko, "Piero di Cosimo, Peintre Bizarre", Minotaure (Paris, May 15, 1938), Vol. 5, No. 11, p. 24, repr.

Piero di Cosimo, exh. cat., Schaeffer Galleries (New York, 1938), p. 26, under cat. no. 5

Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press (NY) and Oxford University Press (UK) (Oxford, England, 1939), pp.59-60, repr. as fig. 32, plate XVIII

Jane Watson, "News and Comment", Magazine of Art (Washington, D.C., May 1940), Vol. 33, pp. 304-10, 317, pp. 304-306, repr. p. 304

Carol Rothschild, "Recent Museum Acquisitions", Parnassus, College Art Association of America (May 1940), Vol. 12, No. 5, pp. 46-50, 56, pp. 47-48, repr. p. 47

The Fine Arts: The Misfortunes of Silenus, by Piero di Cosimo, Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, April 13, 1940), Part Five, p. 7, repr.

R. Langton Douglas, "The Fall of Man by Piero di Cosimo", The Burlington Magazine (June 1945), Vol. 86, No. 507, pp. 134-139, pp. 137-138

Robert Langton Douglas, Piero di Cosimo, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL, 1946), pp. 61-64, repr. as plates XLIV and XLV (detail)

Paola Morselli, "Ragioni di un pittore fiorentino: Piero di Cosimo", L' Arte (Milan, 1958), pp. 3-65, pp. 21, 49

Paola Morselli, "Saggio di un catalogo delle opere di Piero di Cosimo", L'arte (Milan, January - March 1958), Vol. 23, pp. 67-92, p. 76

Bernard Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: a list of the principal artists and their works, with an index of places. Florentine School., Phaidon Publishers and New York Graphic Society (Greenwich, CT, 1963), p. 175

Everett Fahy, "Some Later Works of Piero di Cosimo", Gazette des Beaux-Arts (Paris, April 1965), pp. 201-212, pp. 201-203, 211

Mina Bacci, Piero di Cosimo, Bramante (Milan, Italy, 1966), pp. 92-93, cat. no. 36

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri, Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA, 1972), p. 164

Andrea Kirsh, "Worlds Below: An Investigation of Infrared Reflectography" (thesis (certificate in conservation), Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, April 1973), Unpublished, pp. 1-25 passim

Mina Bacci, L'opera completa di Piero di Cosimo, Rizzoli (Milan, 1976), pp. 92-93, no. 35, repr. as tav. IL, L (detail), and LI (detail)

Paul Barolsky, Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art, University of Missouri Press (Columbia and London, 1978), p. 49, repr. as fig. 2-16

Everett Fahy, Italian Paintings at Fenway Court and Elsewhere, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, 1978), p. 41

Caroline Houser, Dionysos and His Circle: Ancient Through Modern, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 62-64, cat. no. 42, repr. p. 63

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), no. 170, p. 151, repr.

Richard Wollheim, "Painting as an Art [The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1984]", Bollingen Series (Princeton, NJ, 1987), Vol. 35, No. 33, p. 56, repr. as fig. 33 and 34 (detail)

Edgar Peters Bowron, European Paintings Before 1900 in the Fogg Art Museum: A Summary Catalogue including Paintings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990)

Sharon Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention, and Fantasia, Reaktion Books (London, 1993), pp. 81-86, repr. as fig. 29

Anne B. Barriault, Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 153, cat. no. 11.2, repr.

James Cuno, Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Ivan Gaskell, and William W. Robinson, Harvard's Art Museums: 100 Years of Collecting, ed. James Cuno, Harvard University Art Museums and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (Cambridge, MA, 1996), pp. 166-7

Masterpieces of world art : Fogg Art Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1997

Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art, Allen Lane (London and New York, 2005), pp. 231-232; repr. in b/w as fig. 85

Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven and London, 2006), pp. 21, 82-83, 100-106, 125, 302 n. 184, and 317 n. 104; repr. in color p. 103 as Fig. 71.

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 64, repr.

Maurizia Tazartes, Piero di Cosimo: "ingegno astratto e difforme" (Florence, 2010), p. 91 repr. in color as fig. 40

"Frame by Frame: Out on a limb with 'Discover of Honey'; Treasures Tucked Away in our Museums' Permanent Collections", The Boston Globe (Boston, June 21, 2011), p. G3

Antonio Natali and Serena Padovani, Piero di Cosimo 1462-1522: Pittore eccentrico fra Rinascimento e Maniera, exh. cat., Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence, 2015), cat. no. 35b; repr. p. 283; repr. 191, fig. 9; pp. 36, 154, 175, 181, 186, 192

Dennis Geronimus and Gretchen Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 2015), pp. 5, 10, 18, 48, 52-53, 75, 77-78, 87-88, 144-48 as cat. 15b, 151, 174, 195, 204 and repr. in color pp. 74 (detail), 144 (detail), and 147

Nicholas Hall, Dawn Ades, Oliver Berggruen, and J. Patrice Marandel, Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art, exh. cat., David Zwirner Books (New York, 2018), pp. 31-33, repr. p. 32 as fig. 1

Exhibition History

Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1977 - 08/31/1977

Dionysos and His Circle: Ancient through Modern, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 12/10/1979 - 02/10/1980

Re-View: S422 Ancient & Byzantine Art & Numismatics, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 04/12/2008 - 06/18/2011

32Q: 2540 Renaissance, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/07/2015; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/01/2016 - 01/31/2017; Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/18/2018 - 01/01/2050

Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522): Painter-Poet of Renaissance Florence, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 02/01/2015 - 05/03/2015; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 06/23/2015 - 09/27/2015

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

Related Works

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