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Pietro Perugino

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Pietro Perugino (1446-1524), whose family name was properly Vannucci, Italian painter, was born at Città 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 region. Pietro was one of several children born to Cristoforo Vannucci, a member of a respectable family settled at Città 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 Niccolò 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 de Vinci was also a pupil. He may have learned perspective, in which he particularly excelled for that period of art, from Piero de Franceschi. 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, push the date to 1479. Pietro at this time was extremely poor; he had no bed, but slept on a chest for many months, and, bent upon making his way, resolutely denied himself every creature comfort.

Gradually Perugino rose into notice, and became famous not only throughout Italy but even beyond. 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; and in perspective he applied the novel rule of two centres of vision. Some of his early works were extensive frescoes 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 ultramarine, 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 suspiciousness. 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, in about 1483, he went to Rome. The painting of that part of the Sistine Chapel which is now immortalized by Michelangelo's Last Judgment was assigned to him by the pope; he covered it with frescoes of the Assumption, the Nativity, and Moses in the Bulrushes. These works were ruthlessly destroyed to make a space for his successor's more colossal genius, but other works by Perugino still remain in the Sistine Chapel; Moses and Zipporah (often attributed to Signorelli), the Baptism of Christ, and Christ giving the Keys to Peter. Pinturicchio 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.

Perugino, now aged forty, must have left Rome after the completion of the Sistine 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 streets near Pietro Maggiore. Perugino merely intended assault and battery, but Aulista meant to commit murder. The more illustrious culprit, guilty of the lesser offence, was fined ten gold florins, and accomplice was exiled for life.

Between 1486 and 1499 Perugino resided chiefly in Florence, making one journey to Rome and several to Perugia. He was in many other parts of Italy from time to time. He had a regular shop in Florence, received a great number of commissions, and continued developing his practice as an oil-painter, his system of superposed layers of color 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 by the year 1500, comprised the painting of the vault with the seven planets and the signs of the zodiac (Perugino being responsible for the designs and his pupils most probably for the execution) and the representation on the walls of two sacred subjects: the Nativity and Transfiguration; in addition, the Eternal Father, the cardinal virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude, Cato as the emblem of wisdom, and numerous life-sized 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. 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 contentedly upon the old lines and carrying out the ancient conceptions, 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 mens 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 returned to Florence. Though not openly detracting, he viewed with jealousy and some grudging the advances made by Michelangelo; 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 nell arte). Vannucci brought, with equal, indiscretion and ill success, an action for defamation of character. Put on his mettle by this mortifying transaction, he determined to show what he could do, and he produced the masterpiece of the "Madonna and Saints" for the Certosa of Pavia. 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 cognisance; three panels, the Virgin adoring the infant Christ, St Michael, and St Raphael with Tobias, are among the choicer treasures of the National Gallery, London. The current story that Raphael bore a hand in the work is probably untrue. 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 room in the Vatican, now called the Stanza 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 the church of S. Agostino in Perugia, the component parts of which are now dispersed in various galleries.

Perugino's last frescoes were painted for the church of the Madonna delle Lacrime in Trevi (1521, signed and dated), the monastery of S. Agnese in Perugia, and in 1522 for the church of Castello di Fortignano. Both series have disappeared from their places, the second being now in the Victoria and Albert 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 scepticism 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. 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 neighbors or brother-artists; still there is a strong 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 twenty years before Perugino's death, and must have talked with scores of people to whom the Umbrian 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. The portrait in question shows a plump face, with small dark eyes, a short but well-cut nose, and sens-~ous 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 considerable property, leaving three sons.

Among the very numerous works of Perugino a few not already named require mention. Towards 1496 he painted the Crucifixion, in S. Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, Florence. The attribution to him of the picture of the marriage of Joseph and the Virgin Mary (the Sposalizio) now in the museum of Caen, which indisputably served as the original, to a great extent, of the still more famous Sposalizio painted by Raphael in 1504 that forms a leading attraction of the Brera Gallery in Milan, is now questioned, and it is assigned to Lo Spagna. A vastly finer work of Perugino's is the Ascension of Christ, which, painted a littler earlier for the churche of 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 Città della Pieve is an Adoration of the Magi, a square of 21 ft. containing about thirty life-sized figures; this was executed, with scarcely credible celerity, from the 1st to the 25th of March (or thereabouts) in 1505, and must no doubt be in great part the work of Vannucci's pupils. In 1507, when the masters 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 Saint Jerome and Saint Francis, how in the Palazzo Penna. In the church of S. Onofrio in Florence is a much lauded and much debated fresco of the Last Supper, a careful and blandly correct but uninspired 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.

In addition to Crowe and Cavalcaselle, see Di Pietro Perugino e degli scolari (1804); Mezzanotte, Vsta, etc., di Pietro Vannucci (1836); Mariotti, Lettere pittoriche Perugine (1788); Claude Phillips (in The Portfolio) (1893); G.C. Williamson, Perugino (1900 and 1903).

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 01:09:20
Last updated: 02-26-2005 20:28:43