Florence, Perugia, And Città Della Pieve

THE date 1500 is attached to the great Vallombrosan altar-piece, and it must, therefore, have been executed immediately after the completion of the Cambio. Whether it was painted in Vallombrosa itself or not cannot be stated with accuracy ; but the general impression given by the documents relating to the picture is that it was executed within the precincts of the religious house. Vasari states clearly that the picture was done at Vallombrosa, but his statements of this sort have always to be accepted with caution. It is, however, in this case more than probable that he is correct.

The picture, now in the Accademia, is one of the finest that Perugino ever produced. It presents, of course, many of Perugino’s favourite figures and arrangements. The mandorla recalls the altar-pieces of Borgo and of Lyons. The Eternal Father above is similar to the scene in the ” Prophets and Sibyls ” fresco in the Cambio. The angels with musical instruments will be found again in the SS. Annunziata picture, and the archangels attending upon the Eternal Father have already been seen several times in earlier works. The general scheme of the picture is the one which Pietro made somewhat hackneyed, but there are certain special features that must not be overlooked. The Virgin is seated in the skies within a glowing radiance of pure white light, and this of itself is an unusual feature. Never has Perugino painted the Madonna so finely. There is a celestial beauty upon her face, and her hands and robe are depicted with the utmost skill and care. The angels are somewhat loosely drawn, insipid in countenance, and lacking in proportion, especially in their attenuated legs, and in the large size of their hands ; but the artist’s main attention has been given to three points in the picture—the figure of the Virgin, the four figures on the ground, and the landscape in the rear. Crowe and Cavalcaselle speak of the four attendant saints as ” magnificent as isolated creations,” and the words are none too strong.

The four figures are superb ; they are well-balanced and stand firmly on their feet ; their draperies are in easy folds, and are painted with unusual care, especially in their delicate gradations of colour ; the pose is in each instance suitable and sufficient, and there is tender, reverent beauty in the faces, and the utmost dexterity and feeling in the painting of the hands.

Still greater work, however, Perugino executed at Vallombrosa. He painted the portraits of the Abbot Baldassare, and of Don Biagio Milanesi, and triumphantly proved his right to be termed a great portrait-painter. If all other works of Perugino had perished and we possessed these two heads only the genius of the artist would be revealed by them as of the highest order.

They are painted with the lightest of touch and with extraordinarily little colour. The tone is that of old yellow parchment, and each picture contains only the upturned head and a few inches of the brown monastic robe ; but the effect is perfect. The marvellous feature, however, of each portrait is its absolute truth and its perfection of modelling. There is no accessory ; there is no cap, or hood, or costume ; there is only a plain brown background : but the effect is that of living, breathing life. The very slightest touches reveal the bones of the face and the corresponding hollows of the tightly-drawn skin. The bare, shaven head, with its narrow tonsure, allowed no opportunity for careless drawing. There was no hair with its rich shimmering colour to hide inaccuracies of line or to cover up faults in execution ; but the master needed none of these excuses. The task was a stern one, uncompromising in its severity ; but it is nobly executed, and two delineations of character are presented. Already allusion has been made to the portraits of Francesco delle Opere and of the artist himself, and if to them be added these two, and the faces of the standing figures in the Vallombrosan altar-piece, a careful student can hardly fail to acknowledge that the artist was, above all, a portrait-painter in the truest sense of the term.

There is a very puzzling picture which was probably painted at about this time, and which was executed for San Francesco in Perugia and hangs now in the Vatican Gallery. Vasari ascribes it to Perugino. Orsini suggests that Raphael had a hand in it. Crowe gives it entirely to Raphael as a very early work, and Morelli ascribes it entirely to the hand of Lo Spagna. In the midst of so many conflicting theories it may be allowable for me to agree with Vasari. It is not very likely that in all his work Perugino would preserve the same level of beauty. The master had, as was most natural, his successes and his failures. At times his commissions were so numerous that some of them were carelessly executed ; at another time a subject was given him which did not altogether appeal to his mind ; at another he worked con amore, and put his whole soul into his labour. We see. fine results in the Cambio, and in the Vallombrosan pictures, and I take it these are followed by this ” Resurrection,” which is weak and unsatisfactory, and by others which are even at a lower level. Later on we shall see important work at Rome, in the Louvre, and at Città, followed by poor, inadequate work at Spello. Then comes a recrudescence, of which the great altar-piece at St. Agostino is the result, and this is followed by final work which is weak and monotonous, but which still retains the perfume of the master’s nobler days.

The figure of the Saviour is inaccurate and badly drawn, the face is quite unsatisfactory, the mandorla clumsy and rigid, the angels poor and lacking in expression, and their draperies feeble. The colouring of the picture, the landscape, the faces and hands, the wonderful detail, the composition, the balance, and, above all, the technique, speak to me strongly of the master, to whom I ascribe the picture unhesitatingly. I can see no hand of Raphael in it, and while I see no special reason for our crediting the story that gives the sleeping soldier on the right the face of Raphael, yet even that statement but renders it less likely that Raphael had a hand in the picture itself, while I believe that a close comparison of the Cambio portrait with that of the flying soldier on the left will dispose of the theory that in his face we have delineated the countenance of the master himself.

We must now retrace our steps and look at the artist at Perugia. Mariotti records that in 1501 Perugino was one of the Priori of the City, and, being salaried officers, the Priori were obliged, according to Marchesi, to reside in the Palazzo Comunale, and give daily attendance for magisterial business. This involved a good deal of civic duty, and doubtless consumed a great deal of time, and probably during 1501 Perugino did little painting. He was concerned also in domestic matters, as Orsini states that in two deeds, dated December 11th, 1501, and February 24th,1502, he divided up certain property that had belonged to his uncle, Giovanni, and which devolved to himself and his two nephews, Agnolo and Giacomo di Giovanni. However, if he was at the moment unable to paint, he was pre-pared to make contracts for future work, and Mariotti records several of his interesting engagements,

One dated September 10th, 1502, is for some saints and angels around a large crucifix carved in wood, belonging to the convent of San Francesco al Monte, and for a ” Coronation of the Virgin ” to form the reverse side of this altar-piece. For that he was to have 120 florins. In the same year he agreed to supply to Baccio d’ Agnolo designs for the intarsia work in the stalls of St. Agostino, which Baccio was to make in one year for 1120 florins, and for the due performance of his task Perugino became surety. He was also to paint a double altar-piece for St. Agostino, and was to design a frame for it which Tommaso was to carry out.

By another contract he agreed to paint a “Sposalizio” for the Duomo. This latter part of the contract I do not believe he ever carried out, and the St. Agostino altar-piece was not finished for nearly twenty years, as there is a record of its completion in a letter dated September 1521, written to the Podesta of Trevi, advising him that the Prior of St. Agostino had appointed a valuer for the picture, and begging him to apprise Perugino, who was then at Trevi, of the fact.

Other commissions recorded by Mariotti were the decorating of the doors of the palace, and the painting up of the arms of Pope Julius II., who three years after was to visit Perugia in state, and also the designing of a silver ship or nef, to be used as a credence table. Of all these various works he certainly executed at this time the double altar-piece for the Minorites at San Francesco al Monte, which has been removed to the Pinacoteca. Probably little more than the design for one side of this altar-piece was the work of Pietro, the execution being done by his pupils. The picture is in very bad condition, and in places seriously damaged, but there are certain features about it that distinguish it from Perugino’s own work. The long chain of flowers and pearls carried by the angels is not Peruginesque. The master would have used a ribbon. The cloud which cuts across the mandorla in two places, the awkward, sentimental-looking faces of the disciples and women, the ill-drawn feet, and weak draperies, all reveal the hands of a pupil, yet the idea of the picture is distinctly Perugino’s, and here and there are traces of firmer, stronger work, which may well be due to the master himself. The reverse side of the picture may, how-ever, be safely ascribed to Perugino. The Virgin is the same as in the Pazzi “Crucifixion,” while the figures of St. Mary Magdalen, St. Francis, and St. John, are to be found in other altar-pieces by Pietro in the same gallery. In its original condition the picture must have been a really fine one, and although terribly damaged, enough remains to show how tender and sympathetic must the whole composition have appeared. There is a rough grandeur about the quattrocento carved wood crucifix which is laid on the canvas ; and the four figures and two angels grouped about it, so placid, and calm, and so full of simple sorrow, must have formed a very impressive work. The landscape is delicate and sunny, and there is every reason to consider this picture entirely the work of the master, and to regret very much that by reason of exposure, damp, and neglect it has so seriously suffered.

In 1503, Perugino left Perugia, so Mariotti records, completing in the October of that year the arms of Julius II. on the gates of the palace and on the five entrances to the city. He settled down in Florence in the Pinti quarter, and early in the year, on January 25th, 1504, was present at the meeting called to choose a place for Michel Angelo’s gigantic statue of ” David.” This meeting resulted in some bitter controversy. There were eighteen artists present, amongst whom were Andrea della Robbia, Lorenzo di Credi, Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, and Ghirlandajo. Various positions were suggested for the statue, and a place under the Loggia met with the greatest approval. Lippi and the goldsmith Salvestro di Lavacchio having suggested that Michel Angelo himself would probably have given grave consideration to a site, Piero di Cosimo proposed that he should be given his choice. He chose the place occupied by the ” Judith,” which was removed, and the “David” taken to the Palazzo Vecchio. With this selection and decision Perugino did not agree, nor did those who voted with him for the position in the Loggia, and a party came into existence opposed to Michel Angelo and disliking his style. Many of these objectors were in the habit of meeting in the botega of Perugino’s old friend, Baccio, the worker in intarsia, and on one of these occasions, when some remarks antagonistic to Michel Angelo were passed round, the sculptor, roused to exasperation, turned to Perugino and pronounced his paintings to be “absurd and antiquated.” In the light of the new classic influence the statement was doubtless true, but it grievously annoyed Perugino, and he was foolish enough to appeal to the Council of Eight, but obtained no redress and only exposed himself to ridicule and sarcastic remarks.

Within a few days after these occurrences Perugino left Florence again, and went to Perugia. Here a letter reached him from the Priori of his birthplace, Città della Pieve, begging him to come and paint a fresco for them. On February 20th, 1504, he replied, stating that a fresco such as they required would cost two hundred florins, but that, in consideration of the commission being from his native town, he would reduce his charge to one hundred florins, twenty-five to be paid at once, and twenty-five every year for three years, and that he was prepared to start at the work as soon as he heard from the Priori. The price, even so reduced, was more than the Guild could afford, and further correspondence ensued. Eventually, Perugino wrote again, on March 1st, 1504, agreeing to abate another twenty-five florins and execute the work for seventy-five, and this the town of Città accepted. The two letters to which reference is made were discovered by Signor Guiseppe Bolleti of Città, in 1835. He was excavating a terrace of earth that made the wall damp on which is the famous fresco, and found in this earth a number of paint pots, and a tin tube of about 4 inches long containing these two letters, and a third one. Two are still preserved between sheets of glass at Città, and the third is in the gallery at Perugia, and my friend, Signor Andrea Ceccheti of Città della Pieve, has, by permission of the authorities of Città and of Perugia, photographed the three letters, so that I am able to present them in this book. Two are reproduced for the first time, the third was in Mezzanotte’s scarce volume. The fresco covers a wall space of about 22 feet square. It is dated 1504.

There is in the centre the usual late Perugino erection, under which the scene takes place, and away in the distance is the customary Umbrian landscape. The whole picture is suffused with a delicious, sunny light, and is very pleasing to behold. The fresco is a cherished possession of the city of Città, and its inhabitants are always glad for the great curtains to be drawn back that cover it, in order that they may feast their eyes upon the picture. I cannot, however, refrain from mentioning how touched I was by the exquisite and genuine courtesy of the people of this city, so characteristic as it was of the Italian country-folk. The little crowd that followed me into the oratory seemed to acknowledge possession on my part in the picture for the time being, and begged my permission, with many apologies, that they might look at the fresco which I had paid to have uncovered. They eagerly took me through their town, and pointed out every treasure that they possessed, giving up gladly to me a considerable portion of their day, and only too anxious that I should join with them in admiring the work of their great artist.

To understand the hill towns of Umbria, and to see them in all their peaceful, sunny slumber, a visit must be paid to Città della Pieve. Perugino’s works find a more fitting resting-place in his old birthplace than in any place that I know. The town is solemnly quiet and strangely beautiful. It is like a petrified city, suddenly stopped in its growth, left high and dry by the moving waters of civilisation. It is untouched and unspoiled, and the visitor to-day finds the town very much as it was when Perugino left it. It is a city of peace, and the peace glows on the faces of the people. They are the kindest and most courteous of people ; many of them look as though they had stepped from the master’s pictures : they stand in quiet, meditative postures, and in church kneel in solemn ecstacies of prayer. They are purely a pastoral people, working hard in the day, coming quietly home at night, and full of tender devotion in their religion, of ardent faith, and of deep domestic love in their family circles. The very influence of Perugino’s pictures seems still to dwell in this little Umbrian town.

Another little town is Panicale, and here, in the following year, Perugino painted a ” San Sebastian.” Lo Spagna, his pupil, is said to have lived in this town, and therefore, Crowe suggests, had a hand in the work ; but the fresco is signed by Perugino, dated on the columns A.D. MDV., and is thoroughly typical of Perugino’s work in every way. There is no need to look for Lo Spagna’s hand in the fresco, or to expect it ; but it is, of course, quite possible that he assisted Perugino in painting it.

This work is not a true fresco, but a secco—that is, it was painted on the dry wall.

The church of San Agostino, in the same town, contains a fresco of the “Virgin and Child,” and here the spectator will be safe in attributing the greater part of the work to Lo Spagna.

It was in 1504 that Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, Duchess of Mantua, commissioned a picture for her boudoir in the Ducal Palace. She gave very definite instructions as to its subject, writing to the artist in the following words : ” My poetical idea, which I desire you should paint, is a battle of Chastity against Love—that is, Pallas and Diana fighting against Venus and Love. Pallas must have almost conquered Love ; after breaking to pieces the gold arrow and silver quiver that she has cast down before her feet, she holds him with one hand by the bandage that the blind one wears over his eyes, and she raises her other hand to strike him. Between Diana and Venus victory must seem to be doubtful ; Venus shall be injured in some part of her dress only ; as to Diana, her clothes shall be set on fire by the torch of Venus, but the bodies of the two goddesses shall suffer no wound.”

In June 1505, Perugino wrote to the Duchess from Florence, having come there from Panicale, explaining that he had executed her commission in tempera, as he had deemed that to be the best medium in which to depict the scene. He received eighty ducats for the picture, and it remained in the Palace at Mantua La Gloriosa until the time of the plunder in 1630, when it was removed to the castle of Richelieu, where it remained down to the time of the Revolution, and it now hangs in the Louvre. The master was evidently in this picture ” cribb’d and confined” by the terms of his commission. His genius was not allowed its own proper development, and he was bound down to certain scenes, which his patron had indicated so precisely. The consequence is, that there is no heart in the picture. It is pleasing in a superficial way ; the landscape and the trees are delightful, although the latter are lacking in proportion ; but the composition is far too crowded, weak in drawing, and careless in execution.

There is a real sense of movement in it, and its colouring is pleasant ; but the closer the picture is scrutinised the less it will be liked ; and faults in drawing abound on all hands. Most noticeable of all, perhaps, is the carelessness shown in the sizes of the figures. They are of all heights, some gigantic, and out of all proportion, others far too small and grotesque in shape, and others again, in the middle distance, far too gigantic for their position. There is a skilful bit of movement in the figure of Mercury in the sky, and there is some shrewd originality in the various fables represented in the background ; but the picture is far from satisfactory, and not worthy of the master.

A fortnight after he had written to the Duchess he met Lorenzo di Credi at the Duomo in Florence, as the two artists had been called in to decide as to the respective merits of two heads in mosaic intended for the chapel of San Zenobius.

Twice during the master’s life was he called upon to complete another man’s work, once at S. Severo toward the end of his life, as will be seen later on, and in the year now under consideration for the church of Santissima Annunziata.

An important “Descent from the Cross ” had been commissioned by one Jacopo Federighi, a Knight of Malta, for the brethren of SS. Annunziata de Servi, and the instruction given to Filippino Lippi. In 1503 he commenced the work, but in 1505 he died, leaving it half finished, and the monks called in Perugino to complete it, giving him also a commission to paint an “Assumption” of the same size for the reverse of the altar-piece. The first commission he executed well, the second so carelessly that Vasari states that the monks gave the place of honour to the picture begun by Filippino Lippi. Of this picture, now in the Accademia, Lippi did the upper part, Perugino the lower, and it is right to add that he so well blended his work with the work of Lippi that the picture is harmonious and delightful.

The swooning of The Virgin on the left is not well drawn or pleasingly represented, but the faces are good.

The kneeling Magdalen is almost dramatic, while the action of Joseph who is supporting the dead Body as it is removed from the Cross is excellent. Faces, feet, and hands are all good in this picture, those of the two men especially, and in the completion Perugino evidently did his utmost, and succeeded. The ” Assumption ” is, however, far different. Vasari expressly records the story that ” when the picture was first uncovered, all the new artists censured it greatly, principally because Pietro had again adopted the same figures that had been previously painted in other of his works, for which his friends reproached him not a little, declaring that he had taken no pains.” Pietro’s reply was : “I have painted in this work the figures that you formerly commended, and which then pleased you greatly ; if they now displease you and you no longer extol them, what can I do?”

Our artist was, however, only begging the question. His habit of repetition must by that time have been well known and understood. We have already seen how the same figure appears again and again, in some-what different pose in his pictures, and the fault is a common one, especially in the Umbrian school ; but at least the pictures are different in other respects, in arrangement, in grouping, in composition. Here, how-ever, the case is altered. The resemblance between this “Assumption” and the “Ascension” at Lyons, the “Ascension” at Borgo and the “Coronation” at Perugia, is so close as to show that the artist had hardly troubled to make any change. The groups of angel musicians around the mandorla in the “Assumption” and two “Ascensions” are practically identical. The flying angels and cherubs below are also alike, and the changes made in the group of apostles on the ground are but slight. The Virgin who stands beneath the Christ in the ” Ascension ” is replaced in the “Assumption” by St. Thomas, who stands in the identical pose.

The empty tomb is, of course, introduced ; the mandorla is composed of rays instead of cherubs, and the emblems of St. Peter and St. Paul are omitted ; but in general effect the pictures are the same, and the group in the “Coronation” at Perugia, attributed in the catalogue to Perugino, closely resembles the group in the other three pictures. When to all this is added the fact that the “Assumption” is painted in a slovenly way, the landscape hardly more than suggested, the clouds streaky and wooden, and the draperies formal and stiff, it will be seen that the complaint made by both monks and artists was a well-founded one. The picture is certainly charming in general effect and colouring, especially in its present high position over a side altar ; but it will not bear inspection, and is no credit to the artist.

He was, however, becoming careless and indifferent to his work, and, growing old, was more sensitive to the remarks of the younger and more popular men. The satirical verses that this latest picture evoked, and the complaints of his patrons and friends, were a cause of constant irritation to him ; and although, as Morelli records, he had taken a house, and purchased in this very church, the SS. Annunziata, a burial-place for himself and his descendants, he turned his back upon Florence, and retired in great indignation to Perugia. His name appears no longer on the rolls of the painters guild in Florence, but in 1506 is again recorded on the similar rolls of Perugia.

A curious feature about this incident is that in the Uffizi appear several drawings and studies which, it is said, were prepared for this very picture. If it were so, it would imply that Perugino took great pains in the preparation of the picture, and made elaborate studies for it. At the first glance a drawing of five apostles, which is the most important of these studies, might readily bear the name attributed to it, but on very close scrutiny, it will be found that it does not exactly or even closely resemble any group in the Annunziata picture, nor in the “Ascensions” at Lyons or Borgo San Sepolcro, nor the “Coronation of Our Lady” at Perugia. It much more closely resembles, and is in parts identical with Perugino’s later work at Rome, in the Camera dell’ Incendio, and it is for this work that I believe the studies were prepared, which the Uffizi catalogues to the Annunziata picture.