National Gallery – From The Valley Of Umbria To The Summit Of Art

To speak broadly, Umbrian art was an art of one century. Before the fifteenth century there was little which could be called strictly Umbrian; at any rate, the school is hardly recognized before that, and after the middle of the sixteenth century it was no more considered as distinctive. Raphael was the culmination of the school of Umbria, and his influence spread more in Rome than it did in his native province.

The first Umbrian painter of note whom we find in the National Gallery is Niccolo da Fuligno, who painted in the late fifteenth century. He was a pupil of Fra Angelico, and some influence of the master may be traced in his work. In the Crucifixion, No. 1107, the action is theatrical, the writhing of the principal figures is painful, and the distressing attitudes of the angels who are about the top of the cross are much overdone, impairing the dignity of this otherwise formal composition. The only figure which is restrained is St. Francis, who grasps the foot of the cross. The picture is rather an apotheosis of suffering than a promise of redemption. The backgrounds of the little panels, as well as the central one, are taken from real nature, and are striking. The Umbrians developed more feeling for landscape than most of the Italian schools, for they lived every day in the midst of the most picturesque nature, in hills, valleys, and rivers, which could not fail to make its impression on their plastic souls.

An early example of the treatment of landscape is in the Baptism of Christ, No. 665, by Piero della Francesca, a friend of Uccello (1415 – 92). The picture is rather stiff, and not illuminating in its rendering. More interesting is a portrait, No. 758, representing the Contessa Palma of Urbino. The quaint head and the embroidered garments help to make this an individual study, though far from beautiful. The best example of the work of Piero, however, is the charming Nativity, No. 908. Al-though unfinished in certain parts, it is in most essentials a very complete picture. The Madonna, kneeling and adoring the infant, is pleasing and simple in treatment. The choir of angels standing by, playing on celestial instruments, are full of dignity; but it is a human dignity; it is the dignity of a later and more realistic style than Fra Angelico’s. An interesting anecdote is told of this picture and how it came to be part of the collection in London. Sir William Fraser happened to be at an auction, where he saw this picture for sale. He says : ” I was so charmed with it that I bid up to two thousand pounds; ” at this point he stopped, not daring to trust his judgment to bid higher. The picture was bought at two thou-sand four hundred and fifteen pounds. ” A few days afterwards,” writes Sir William, ” I met Mr. C. Having noticed him in the crowd, I said, ` Do you happen to know who bought that Francesca? ‘ ` I did. Disraeli told me to buy it for the National Gallery.’ ” The angels in this picture are sturdy human beings. There is no nimbus about the head, nor are there any wings visible. Piero della Francesca had a passion for blue; in some of his pictures he seems to have used it as a problem, as Gainsborough did in the Blue Boy.

Melozzo da Forli is best known by his paintings of angelic beings, but he was also a good delineator of a superb human type. His two pictures here are symbolic figures of Music and Rhetoric, Nos. 755 and 756. In each case the science is represented by a woman, mounted on a throne of ornate beauty; the faces are fine in con-tour and expression. In the first, Rhetoric, it is interesting to note that the book which she presents to a kneeling youth is open, — clear, — to be read by all. Her gaze is alert ; the whole impression of the picture is that of a practical demonstrable science which can be imparted by rule and square. In the picture typifying Music, however, the book is closed the elect only may open it. The ex-pression on the face of the woman is dreamy. She directs the youth, with a languid gesture, to a little organ which stands near. There is thoughtful discrimination in the planning of these two valuable panels, which were painted originally for the Ducal Palace of Urbino, — that centre of genuine culture in the days of the Renaissance.

Fiorenzo di Lorenzo was an Umbrian painter from whom it is quite easy to trace the æsthetic pedigree of Perugino. Fiorenzo was his instructor, and his work has many of the qualities which appear in Perugino’s earlier pictures. No. 1103 is our only example of Fiorenzo in London. It is a fine one. It has much of the affectation of pose which characterized the pupil as well as the master. The arched brows and turned-back thumbs are of a type often observable in his painting.

Lorenzo da San Severino was the second of his name. His picture, No. 249, deals with the subject of the Marriage of St. Catherine. It is signed ” Laurentius II. Severinus.” It is quaint, serious, and charming. The Divine Mother has assumed an attitude of benediction and grace, as she turns with the Child toward the kneeling figure of the saint in her monastic robes. This is not St. Catherine of Alexandria, who is frequently seen in art as the Bride of Christ, but St. Catherine of Siena. The feeling in the picture is very Sienese, and might have been executed under the spell of Matteo. Behind the throne a crescent-shaped group of angels are gathered, and the arrangement is very harmonious.

And now we come to the father of Raphael, Giovanni Santi. His little Madonna and Child, No. 751, is chiefly interesting because it proves that Raphael’s genius was within himself, and not inherited ! But the hard, careful finish of this picture proves another thing, —”the infinite capacity for taking pains,” which has been said to be inseparable from genius. So we may infer that the father at any rate bestowed upon his son that valuable inheritance of an early training in thoroughness ; he must have impressed upon him the importance of trying to do his best at all times. And an early start of this sort might develop many artists of talent into a much nearer approach to genius than they ever attain.

We come next to a consideration of Perugino, Pietro Vanucci, who was the teacher of Raphael, and who is the leading light of the school of Umbria. For Raphael is beyond schools, — his early work was Umbrian, and, indeed, Peruginesque, but his own independent development cannot be classified in any didactic way, — one can hardly claim Raphael as a member of the school of Umbria, although his beginning was there.

Perugino founded a distinct style, which has been perpetuated in numerous followers and pupils, — rich and yet tender, glowing and yet soft, full of atmosphere, though close in finish and enamel-like in surface, his best works are among the loveliest creations of Italian art. His outlook upon life was a cheerful one. No note of melancholy is seen, except in a certain artificial dejection in some of his attitudes; but this is rather the dejection assumed from a sense of religious fitness, than an emanation from the personality of the painter. Perugino painted often in tempera, and in this his thinly glazed transparent tones remind one of Botticelli in quality, although not in the method of their employment. In order to perfect himself in oil-painting, Perugino went to Venice in 1494 to study. His home life was all that could be de-sired. He had a family of seven children, and with admirable foresight his wife brought him a dowry of five hundred gold ducats. He took pride in her, and spent much money upon her, — an attention which is sometimes overlooked by those whose wives bring money into the treasury. Perugino was a man of determination, patience, and an iron will. He had ambition, for his early days had been poor, and he had felt the spur of need. He died, probably of the plague, in a hospital, in 1523.

The earliest specimen of Perugino in London is No. 181, painted in tempera; it is a sweet little Madonna, but not in his fully perfected style. No. 288 is his masterpiece. It is equal to anything that he painted in oil. It is a magnificent altar-piece, in three compartments, the Virgin Adoring the Infant in the central division, while on either side are the archangels Raphael and Michael, the former leading Tobit. This altar-piece was painted for the Certosa of Pavia, and consisted originally of six parts; of these, one is still in its place, while the other two have been lost. It was executed between 1496 and 1500, — when the artist was just at the zenith of his powers, in the vicinity of fifty. The picture has in it the qualities which Ruskin has so happily defined : ” Endless perspicuity of space, unfatigued veracity of eternal light, perfectly accurate delineation.” The colouring is extremely brilliant. Nothing could be more exquisite than the confiding attitude of the boy Tobit.

The beautiful Madonna Crowned by Angels, with the Sts. Jerome and Francis, is one of the later pictures of the master, No. 1075. This was painted when he was sixty-one, and he had lost some of his enthusiasm. He made no effort to be original. The angels are very disinterested, as they hang above the Virgin; judging from their attitudes, they might be suspended by strings with hooks in the backs of their garments. But Perugino had by this time attained a mastery over colour which enabled him to paint the very glow of heaven, and the crowning glory of golden atmosphere is what constitutes the charm of the picture. It is positively liquid effulgence, scintillating and almost dazzling.

There is a beautiful minute work, too, the Baptism of Christ, No. 1431, and a fresco, No. 1441, which was brought from the church in Fontignano in 1843 ; this is claimed as the last work of Perugino. It is delicious in its atmosphere, with a sentiment reminding one of that in certain pictures by Corot. It is quite possible that it may be the last thing Perugino painted ; but one likes to cling to the old legend, that, after the death of his immortal pupil, the aged Perugino went in sacred sorrow to the little Church of San Severino, where he painted those six saints at the foot of the first fresco that Raphael ever executed, and that afterward Perugino painted no more. This, however, is not an age of sentiment, and we should doubtless be superior to crediting such flowery legends. On the other hand, Perugino had as much sentiment as ever fell to the lot of a mortal. Perhaps the story is true.

Works of the pupils of Perugino may also be seen in the National Gallery. A little Madonna, No. 1220, was painted by his pupil from Assisi, Andrea di Luigi.

Of the piquant Pinturicchio, we have here one of the very earliest works and one of the very latest. It is interesting to trace the line of development from the exquisite Madonna, No. 703, which was painted about 1480, to the fresco of the Return of Ulysses, No. 911, which Pinturicchio did not execute until 1508, only a few years before his death. The changes in his style are almost like relative changes in a person who grows old. In the first is expressed the exuberance of youth, —the adoration of beauty (for there is no more youthful or prettier Madonna in the whole gallery than this), and the clear head and steady hand of a fresh ardent spirit. In the fresco the tints are more subdued, — the faces, even of the young Telemachus, have marks of character and experience, — the whole execution is less sharp and more facile. A life’s work has intervened between the two pictures, and it has told, both for better and for worse. There is no overpowering conclusive improvement, the style has mellowed, and the touch is less laboured, but the drawing is less careful, too ; there is lacking that marvellous growth in the power of the artist which may be seen by comparing an early and a later work by Raphael or Perugino. Pinturicchio was not supreme; but he has painted many delightful pictures. His St. Catherine of Alexandria, No. 693, is very pleasing. Pinturicchio worked with Perugino, and imbibed much of his grace.

In the Annunciation by Manni, No. 1104, it seems as if we had come face to face with the Virgin of Perugino, — Manni, who was a native of Perugia, greatly admired his famous townsman, and used to paint pictures in the same spirit. He certainly succeeded in copying his model closely.

Raffaello Sanzio was born in Urbino in 1483. The earliest influence in his life was that of beauty; of beauty as seen in rural nature and in art, and to such a degree as seldom enters into the life of men at any age. Bellori, an early authority, indicates for us what were the childhood surroundings of this great creator of beauty. Federigo Feltri, Duke of Urbino, had built a magnificent palace on the rugged slopes of the Umbrian hills. ” The structure had the reputation of being the finest that Italy had seen up to that time. Not only did the duke enrich it with tasteful and appropriate ornaments, but enhanced its splendour by a collection of antique marble and bronze statues and choice pictures, and with vast expense got together a great number of most excellent books.” This, then, was the first environment in which the young artist moved ; bred among the most charming hills and plains, amid treasures of art and literature, wonderful artificial gardens, and choice examples of all the best products of the culture of centuries. The little city of Urbino was called the ” Athens of Umbria,” and it is not marvellous that the young Raphael should have responded to the circumstances in which he was placed, especially as his father was a painter, and knew how to foster the genius that he saw budding in his son. The refining influence of this noble court had much to do with the purity and elevated character of his early work; in Urbino the beautiful and clever Duchess Elisabetta presided over a society of thoroughly well-bred and honest people, — the truest aristocrats that Italy has ever known.

There has been much discussion as to whether Raphael’s first teacher was Timoteo Viti, and the general concensus of opinion seems to be in favour of this theory. In his Vision of a Young Knight, No. 213, which is our earliest picture here from his hand, the manner of Perugino does not appear, and we have, hanging by this exquisite little gem, the pricked drawing from which it was traced. This drawing represents the figures in ordinary clothes, which was a custom of Timoteo Viti, and is a method which a pupil would be liable to adopt. This picture, though so small, is wonderfully full of thought. Two female figures, symbolical of duty and pleasure, stand by the sleeping youth, each offering him her richest gifts. The answer is not suggested. Will he wake a devotee to luxury, or will he grasp the sword of conflict against evil?

Raphael was sent to the school of Perugino (then, in 1495, the leading painter of his country), and for some years worked under the guidance of this devout and skilful teacher. It is certain that he attained some local fame, for in 1503 he was invited to go to Siena and paint with Pinturicchio in the Cathedral Library. One of the disputed points of artistic history has been whether Raphael really went to Siena or not; at any rate, he would not have been invited unless he had showed a marked degree of ability. His early Madonnas show some influence of Leonardo, but more of his master, Perugino. They are solemn and reverent; they are painted with a deep religious feeling, and appeal to the loftier emotions and the purer dictates of the heart.

Raphael is said to have had three manners; one was the highly finished style in which he painted his early pictures while in Umbria. The next he assumed by degrees under Tuscan influences, while he lived in Florence, where he threw off the yoke of tradition and painted with more naturalism, although still in a finished and smooth way. The third was the Roman manner, when, having gone to Rome to execute the frescoes in the Vatican, he was constrained to use a broader method and a freer touch. Thus, the Peruginesque, or Umbrian, is his earliest manner ; there are only a few pictures of this period remaining. The second, or Tuscan, manner, was the style in which many of his famous Madonnas are painted, and which most people associate with the name of Raphael. The third, or Roman, manner, is seen to its perfection only in Rome.

The famous Ansidei Madonna, which hangs in the National Gallery, No. 1171, is often considered to be the finest altar-piece by Raphael in either his first or second manners. It exemplifies both of these styles. The head of the Virgin is Peruginesque, and the Child also is in the earlier manner, and yet the transition to the second is quite easily distinguished throughout the composition. It is one of the most valuable pictures in the world. The price paid for it was the highest ever given for a painting up to that time. In 1884 it was bought from the Duke of Marlborough for seventy thousand pounds. The attitude of the infant as he sits looking at the little volume which his mother holds open on her knee is most entrancing. The figures of the Baptist and St. Nicholas, who stand on either side, one studying and one adoring, are both serene; the Baptist, through faith and obedience, finds peace; while St. Nicholas de Bari has reached peace through a clear understanding and perfected knowledge. The restfulness and purity of the picture are its greatest charms. A large and beautiful altar-piece hangs near by, which is the property of Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan.

In Raphael’s second manner is the St. Catherine of Alexandria, No. 168. There is something about the foreshortening of the head which interferes with the beauty of the subject, but the woman is noble in bearing in a massive, rather unappealing way, and the lines of the face, especially those subtle and often unsatisfactory lines about the mouth, are well expressed. It was probably painted about 1507.

Raphael’s Roman manner is exemplified in London by his portrait of Pope Julius II., No. 27, a replica of that in the Pitti Palace, and in other galleries, he having painted the same subject nine times, — and by his Garvagh Madonna, No. 744. This picture was originally called the Aldobrandini Madonna, as it hung in the Aldobrandini apartments in the Borgia Palace in Rome, and afterward becoming the property of Lord Garvagh, was known by that name. The change to a greater naturalism is evident, upon comparing this painting with the Ansidei Madonna. This is a practical mother, charming and tender, but not rapt in spiritual exaltation. The two children are living beings, with human tastes, pleased with the pretty carnation which one gives to the other. The ideal is different from the earlier devotional scene; whether this is a step upward or backward depends upon the view-point of the individual. At any rate, it is a very radical change to have taken place in the spirit of a man within a few years. A new influence had come in, — that of Michelangelo, — and the impressionable Raphael was led by it as he had been led by Perugino.

In the portrait of Julius II., one reads the reserve force, and yet the ability to be passive for a moment, which characterized this statesman of the Church Militant. The penetrating eyes, restless even while still, and the drooping corners of the mouth, denote more worldly wisdom than spirituality. Perhaps no portrait has ever been so clever a character study as this masterly rendering of the personality of a great representative of the family Della Rovere.

Truly, as Ruskin says, the ” mediæval principles lead up to Raphael and the modern principles lead down from him.” He is the apex of the art-history of Italy, — of the world. He holds a similar position in relation to painting as that occupied by Shakespeare to literature. He stands isolated as a combination of all the qualities seen separately in others, any one of which is enough to confer the honour of greatness.

After Raphael there are few examples of the Umbrians in the National Gallery. Lo Spagna’s Christ in the Garden, No. 1032, is dignified, showing strong Peruginesque sentiment; while in Bertucci’s Glorification of the Virgin, No. 282, we can easily read an ambition to paint in the style of Raphael. In No. 1051, by the same hand, the action of the figures is too vigorous, and therefore weakens the impression of awe and reverence which should be expressed by Thomas when he beholds the wounds of the risen Lord.