1902 Encyclopedia > Pietro Perugino

Pietro Perugino
Italian painter of the Umbrian school

PIETRO PERUGINO (1446-1524), whose correct family name was VANNUCCI, one of the most advanced Italian painters immediately preceding the era of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, was born in 1446 at Citta della Pieve in Umbria, and belongs to the Umbrian school of painting. The name of Perugino came to him from Perugia, the chief city of the neighbourhood. Pietro was one of several children born to Cristoforo Vannucci, a member of a re-spectable family settled at Citta della Pieve. Though respectable, they seem to have been poor, or else, for some reason or other, to have left Pietro uncared for at the opening of his career. Before he had completed his ninth year the boy was articled to a master, a painter at Perugia. Who this may have been is very uncertain; the painter is spoken of as wholly mediocre, but sympathetic for the great things in his art. Benedetto Bonfigli is generally surmised; if he is rejected as being above mediocrity, either Fiorenzo di Lorenzo or Niccol6 da Foligno may possibly have been the man. Pietro painted a little at Arezzo; thence he went to the headquarters of art, Florence, and frequented the famous Brancacci Chapel in the church of the Carmine. It appears to be sufficiently established that he studied in the atelier of Andrea del Verrocchio, where Leonardo da Vinci was also a pupil. He may have learned perspective, in which he particularly excelled for that period of art, from Pietro della Francesca. The date of this first Florentine sojourn is by no means settled; some authorities incline to make it as early as 1470, while others, with perhaps better reason, postpone it till 1479. Pietro at this time was extremely poor, and his prospects of rising in his art, save by the exercise of incessant diligence day and night, were altogether dim ; he had no bed, but slept on a chest or trunk for many months, and, bent upon making his way, resolutely denied himself every creature-comfort.

Gradually Perugino rose into notice, and in the course of some years he became extremely famous not only throughout all Italy but even beyond her bounds. He was one of the earliest Italian painters to practise oil-painting, in which he evinced a depth and smoothness of tint which elicited much remark; he transcended his epoch in giving softness to form and a graceful spacious-ness to landscape-distances, and in perspective he applied the novel rule of two centres of vision. The Florentine school advanced in amenity under his influence. Some of his early works were extensive frescos for the Ingesati fathers in their convent, which was destroyed not many years afterwards in the course of the siege of Florence; he produced for them also many cartoons, which they executed with brilliant effect in stained glass. Though greedy for gain, his integrity was proof against temptation; and an amusing anecdote has survived of how the prior of the Ingesati doled out to him the costly colour of ultra-marine, and how Perugino, constantly washing his brushes, obtained a surreptitious hoard of the pigment, which he finally restored to the prior to shame his stingy suspicious-ness. Another (and possibly apocryphal) anecdote, to show that he was not incapable of rising superior to all sordid considerations, is that he painted some excellent frescos for the oratory annexed to S. Maria de' Bianchi and would only accept an omelette as a gratuity. A third anecdote (but it belongs to a late period of his life) is that, as he would trust no one, he was accustomed to carry his money about with him in travelling after he had received a pay-ment, and on one occasion was robbed and had a narrow escape of his life; eventually, however, the bulk of the money was recovered. A good specimen of his early style, in tempera, is the circular picture in the Louvre of the Virgin and Child enthroned between Saints.

Perugino returned from Florence to Perugia, and thence, towards 1483, he went to Rome. The painting of that part of the Sixtine Chapel which is now immortalized by Michelangelo's Last Judgment was assigned to him by the pope; he covered it with frescos of the Assumption, the Nativity, and Moses in the Bulrushes. These works were ruthlessly destroyed to make a space for his suc-cessor's more colossal genius, but other works by Perugino still remain in the Sixtine Chapel,—Moses and Zipporah (often attributed to Signorelli), the Baptism of Christ, and Christ giving the keys to Peter. This last work is more especially noted, and may be taken as a typical example both of Perugino's merits and of his characteristic defects, —such as formal symmetry of composition, set attitudes, and affectation in the design of the extremities. Pintu-ricchio accompanied the greater Umbrian to Rome, and was made his partner, receiving a third of the profits; he may probably have done some of the Zipporah subject.

Pietro, now aged forty, must have left Rome after the completion of the Sixtine paintings in 1486, and in the autumn of that year he was in Florence. Here he figures by no means advantageously in a criminal court. In July 1487 he and another Perugian painter named Aulista di Angelo were convicted, 'on their own confession, of having in December waylaid with staves some one (the name does not appear) in the street near S. Pietro Maggiore. Perugino limited himself, in intention, to assault and battery, but Aulista had made up his mind for murder. The minor and more illustrious culprit was fined ten gold florins, and the major one exiled for life. The next recorded incident in his career is also not wholly honourable to Perugino,—that of his undertaking but not fulfilling a contract to paint in Orvieto ; as the commission fell through we need not pursue the details.

Between 1486 and 1499 Perugino resided chiefly in Florence, making one journey to Rome and several to Perugia. He had a regular shop in Florence, received a great number of commissions, with proportionate gain and fame, and continued developing his practice as an òil-painter, his system of superposed layers of colour being essentially the same as that of the Van Eycks. One of his most celebrated pictures, the Pietà in the Pitti Gallery, belongs to the year 1495. From about 1498 he became increasingly keen after money, frequently repeating his groups from picture to picture, and leaving much of his work to journeymen. In 1499 the guild of the Cambio (money-changers or bankers) of Perugia asked him to undertake the decoration of their audience-hall; and he accepted the invitation. This extensive scheme of work, which may have been finished within the year 1500, com-prised the painting of the vault with the seven planets and the signs of the zodiac (Perugino doing the designs and his pupils most probably the executive work), and the representation on the walls of two sacred subjects—the Nativity and Transfiguration—the Eternal Father, the four Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Forti-tude, Cato as the emblem of wisdom, and (in life-size) numerous figures of classic worthies, prophets, and sibyls. On the mid-pilaster of the hall Perugino placed his own portrait in bust-form. It is probable that Raphael, who in boyhood, towards 1496, had been placed by his uncles under the tuition of Perugino, bore a hand in the work of the vaulting ; but, besides Raphael, the master had many and distinguished scholars acting as his assistants. The Transfiguration in this series has often been spoken of as the latest work of eminent excellence produced by Peru-gino, and from about 1500 he declined in a marked degree; this, however, is not to be accepted as true without some qualification, as we shall see in the sequel. It may have been about this time (though some accounts date the event a few years later) that Vannucci married a young and beautiful wife, the object of his fond affection ; he loved to see her handsomely dressed, and would often deck her out with his own hands. He was made one of the priors of Perugia in 1501.

While Perugino, though by no means stationary or unprogressive as an executive artist, was working con-tentedly upon the old lines, and carrying out, almost to their highest point of actual or potential development, the ancient conceptions of subject-matter, treatment, style, and form, a mighty wave of new art flooded Florence with its rush and Italy with its rumour. Michelangelo, twenty-five years of age in 1500, following after and distancing Leonardo da Vinci, was opening men's eyes and minds to possibilities of achievement as yet unsurmised. Vannucci in Perugia heard Buonarroti bruited abroad, and was impatient to see with his own eyes what the stir was all about. In 1504 he allowed his apprentices and assistants to disperse, and he returned to Florence. It was not in the nature of things that he should simply swell the chorus of praise. Though not openly detracting, he viewed with jealousy and some grudging the advances made by Michel-angelo ; and Michelangelo on his part replied, with the intolerance which pertains to superiority, to the faint praise or covert dispraise of his senior and junior in the art. On one occasion, in company, he told Perugino to his face that he was "a bungler in art" (goffo neiT arte). This was not to be borne, and Vannucci brought, with equal indiscretion and ill success, an action for defamation of character. Put on his mettle by this mortifying trans-action, he determined to show what he could do, and he produced the chef-d'œuvre of the Madonna and Saints for the Certosa of Pa via. The constituent parts of this noble work have now been sundered. The only portion which remains in the Certosa is a figure of God the Father with cherubim. An Annunciation has disappeared from cog-nizance ; three compartments—the Virgin adoring the infant Christ, St Michael, and St Raphael with Tobias— are among the choicer treasures of the London National Gallery. The current story that Raphael bore a hand in the work is not likely to be true. This was succeeded in 1505 by an Assumption, in the Cappella dei Rabatta, in the church of the Servi in Florence. The painting may have been executed chiefly by a pupil, and was at any rate a failure : it was much decried ; Perugino lost his scholars; and towards 1506 he once more and finally abandoned Florence, going to Perugia, and thence in a year or two to Rome.

Pope Julius II. had summoned Perugino to paint the Stanza in the Vatican, now called that of the Incendio del Borgo; but he soon preferred a younger competitor, that very Raphael who had been trained by the aged master of Perugia ; and Vannucci, after painting the ceiling with figures of God the Father in different glories, in five medallion-subjects, found his occupation gone ; he retired from Rome, and was once more in Perugia from 1512. Among his latest works one of the best is the extensive altar-piece (painted between 1512 and 1517) of S. Agostino in Perugia ; the component parts of it are now dispersed in various galleries.

Perugino's last frescos were painted for the monastery of S. Agnese in Perugia, and in 1522 for the church of Castello di Fontignano hard by. Both series have dis-appeared from their places, the second being now in the South Kensington Museum. He was still at Fontignano in 1524 when the plague broke out, and he died. He was buried in unconsecrated ground in a field, the precise spot now unknown. The reason for so obscure and unwonted a mode of burial has been discussed, and religious scepti-cism on the painter's own part has been assigned as the cause; the fact, however, appears to be that, on the sudden and widespread outbreak of the plague, the panic-struck local authorities ordained that all victims of the disorder should be at once interred without any waiting for religious rites. This leads us to speak of Perugino's opinions on religion. Vasari is our chief, but not our sole, authority for saying that Vannucci had very little religion, and was an open and obdurate disbeliever in the immortality of the soul. Gasparo Celio, a painter of the 16th century, cites Niccolô delle Pomarance (whose wife was related to Perugino's wife) as averring that the aged master on his deathbed rejected the last sacraments, and refused to confess, saying he was curious to know the final fate of an unconfessed soul, and therefore he was buried in uncon-secrated ground. For a reader of the present day it is easier than it was for Vasari to suppose that Perugino may have been a materialist, and yet just as good and laudable a man as his orthodox Catholic neighbours or brother-artists; still there is a sort of shocking discrepancy between the quality of his art, in which all is throughout Christian, Catholic, devotional, and even pietistic, and the character of an anti-Christian contemner of the doctrine of immortality. It is difficult to reconcile this discrepancy, and certainly not a little difficult also to suppose that Vasari was totally mistaken in his assertion ; he was born twelve years before Perugino's death, and must have talked with scores of people to whom the TJmbrian painter had been well known. We have to remark that Perugino in 1494 painted his own portrait, now in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, and into this he introduced a scroll lettered "Timete Deum." That an open disbeliever should inscribe himself with " Timete Deum " seems odd; one's first im-pression is either that he cannot have been a disbeliever or else that he must have been a hypocrite as well, which, however, is still inconsistent with Vasari's account of the facts. It is possible, after all, that a man might fear God and yet have no confidence in immortality, or in many of the things which seemed in 1494 to be essentials of religion. The portrait in question shows a plump face, with small dark eyes, a short but well-cut nose, and sensuous lips; the neck is thick, the hair bushy and frizzled, and the general air imposing. The later portrait in the Cambio of Perugia shows the same face with traces of added years. Perugino died possessed of coniderable property, leaving three sons.

The character of Perugino's art is, as we have just said, through-out religious, although, in some instances already indicated, he strayed outside the circle of Christian history and tradition. His art is reserved, self-contained, not demonstrative, yet conspicuously marked by a tendency to posing and balance, and to little artifices wherein the graceful merges in the affected. He had a particular mastery over abstracted purism of expression ; this appears con-stantly in his works, and, wdiile it carries the finer of them to a genuinely ideal elevation, it leaves upon many a mincing and mawkish taint which it is not easy to view without some impatience, Perugino did not recruit his strength from study of the antique ; his drawing, though frequently solid and able, is unequal, and there is a certain littleness of style in his forms, especially (with rare exceptions) the nude. His technical attainment was excep-tional, and in colour he may be regarded as standing first in his generation in central Italy if we except Francia. Perugino does not leave, upon us the impression of personal greatness ; he does not seem to have had struggling within him a profounder message to convey than he succeeded in conveying. There is neither massiveness of thought, nor novel initiative, nor glowing intensity, though there is some fervour of inspiration. Still, within his own province, he is a rare and excellent master.

Among the very numerous works of Perugino a few not already named require mention. Towards 1501 he produced the picture of the marriage of Joseph and the Virgin Mary (the " Sposalizio ") now in the museum of Caen ; this served indisputably as the original, to a great extent, of the still more famous Sposalizio which was painted by Raphael in 1504, and which forms a leading attraction of the Brera Gallery in Milan. A vastly finer work of Perugino's than his Sposalizio is the Ascension of Christ, which, painted a little earlier for S. Pietro of Perugia, has for years past been in the museum of Lyons ; the other portions of the same altar-piece are dispersed in other galleries. In the chapel of the Disciplinati of Citta della Pieve is an Adoration of the Magi, a square of 21 feet containing about thirty life-sized figures ; this was executed, with scarcely credible celerity, from the 1st to the 25th March (or thereabouts) in 1505, and must no doubt be in great part the work of Vannucci's pupils. In 1507, when the master's work had for years been in a course of decline and his performances were generally weak, he produced, nevertheless, one of his best pictures—the Virgin between St Jerome and St Francis, now in the Palazzo Penna. In S. Onofrio of Florence is a much-lauded and much-debated fresco of the Last Supper, a careful and blandly correct but not inspired work ; it has been ascribed to Perugino by some connoisseurs, by others to Raphael; it may more probably be by some different pupil of the Umbrian master.

Our account of Perugino follows in its main lines that given by Crowe and Cavalcaselle in their History of Painting in Italy, vol. iii. Vasari is, as usual, by far the most graphic narrator, but lax in his facts (though not so much so as in several other instances). Other leading authorities are Orsini, Vita, &c., di Pietro Perugino e degli Scolari, 1S04, and Mezzanotte, Vita, &e\, di Pietro Vannucci, 1836. (W. M. R.)

The above article was written by: W. M. Rossetti.

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