Perugino – Age, Infirmity, Dignity, And Death

I ARRIVED in Perugia, Pietro’s first work, as we are told by Mariotti and Orsini, was to collect certain sums of money due to him for pictures he had painted. From the town authorities for the ” Cambio ” he drew 350 ducats. From Città della Pieve he claimed twenty-five florins, but accepted, on March 29th, 1507, a house from the municipality in settlement of his claim. To the town of Panicale he wrote for payment of the balance due to him for the ” San Sebastian,” but in his letter made a generous offer to the authorities. Two years before, says Mariotti, he had lent fourteen painted banners to Panicale for a Corpus Christi procession, and he now wrote that the town might, if it desired so to do, keep the banners as a gift from him, but that if that was done he considered he ought to be paid the balance of the eleven florins that was still due to him. The Priori accepted his kindly offer, and on September I st, 1507, sent him the eleven florins, for which he gave them a receipt, and they accepted his gift of the banners.

An interesting commission reached him in Perugia in 1507. The executors of one, Giovanni Schiavone, a master carpenter, commissioned an altar-piece for Sta. Maria Nuova de Servi, and this commission Perugino executed with great care.

The picture, which now hangs in the National Gallery, is a remarkable one in many ways. The painter was over sixty years old ; he had just finished a very poor and slovenly work. He was, a little later, to execute some works even more strange in their stiffness, formality, and want of accurate drawing, but in this picture much of his old fire is to be seen. The colouring is notable, as the picture is full of that living golden haze or glow which marks his finest works, and is so typical of them. It has caught and imprisoned the sunshine, and is forever brightening the room in which it hangs. The composition, too, is original ; the two angels in the air do not appear in other pictures. As far as I know never did Perugino, save in this picture, represent the Madonna being crowned by angels, nor did his angels bear palms. In the figure of St. Francis he does not follow his usual type or pose, and the divine Child possesses far more vigour of life, and is far better drawn and proportioned than is generally the case. Is it possible that the master’s old studies and cartoons were still in Florence or en route for Perugia, and that in their absence he was compelled to design a work of unusual character, and on original lines ?

The Schiavone picture completed, Perugino left for Foligno, where a ” Baptism of Christ ” had been commissioned for the church of SS. Annunziata. It was commissioned by one Giovanni Battista, whose name appears upon it, and who was probably Giambattista Caporali of Perugia, but the church is now disused and neglected, and the fresco is in very damaged condition.

While at Foligno, Perugino received orders to come to Rome. Pope Julius II. desired him to decorate some ceilings in the Vatican, but it is not very clear what the instructions really were. One ceiling we know he decorated, that in the Camera dell’ Incendio, because when Raphael completed the decoration of the series of rooms he spared this ceiling out of respect to his old master. The Holy Father, prior to Raphael’s arrival in Rome in 1508, had been employing the chief well-known artists of the day in his schemes ; Piero della Francesca, Bramantino, Sodoma, Luca Signorelli, and others had received commissions. Raphael, who, then only in his twenty-fifth year, was heard of through Bramante, was summoned to Rome to assist the others, but his work so delighted the Pope that the other artists were dismissed, and Raphael was ordered to destroy their frescoes and to replace them with his own. One, however, of Perugino’s ceilings Raphael spared as just recorded.

This ceiling decoration consists of three tondi within borders and decoration of flowing arabesque design, and both composition and figures are marked by the master’s early methods, and do not reveal the power of his more mature work. Their composition is more crowded than was Perugino’s wont, but the exquisite beauty of the figures is unmistakable, and it was a graceful act on the part of Raphael to spare this fine ceiling as a memorial of his master’s work in the Vatican stanze.

Two at least of the Uffizi drawings were prepared, I believe, for this ceiling. What else Perugino did in Rome on this his second visit, or how long he stayed, is not known. We are, however, told that he lodged in the Palazzo San Clemente, that he met Luca Signorelli and Pinturicchio, and that they dined together at Bramante’s house, and the scene is described by Giambattista Caporali in his comments on Vitruvius. Perugino at this time introduced his pupil Caporali to the artists in Rome.

Crowe thinks that from Rome Perugino went to Assisi, where, at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, on the rear wall of the portiuncula, facing east, he painted a fine ” Crucifixion.”

Few events in his life show the very high reputation enjoyed by the master more clearly than is shown by this commission. To be called in to decorate the very wall of the sacred little house that in the sixth century had sheltered St. Benedict and in the thirteenth century St. Francis, and which even at that period had become one of the great shrines of Christendom, was honour indeed. The ” Crucifixion ” somewhat closely resembled the one in the Accademia painted for the monastery of St. Jerome, but hardly anything of the artist’s work now remains. The upper part of the fresco was destroyed in 1 700 during the demolition of the old choir to make way for the present building, and the lower part which remains was entirely restored by Castellani in 1830. From Assisi Perugino went to Siena and painted a picture for the Vieri family for the church of San Francesco which was completed September 5th, 1510, and which was burnt in 1655. One fragment only remains of this picture, a face of very considerable beauty, which belongs now to Miss Hertz, and is in her home in Rome.

In Siena, also, Perugino painted a “Crucifixion” for the Chigi altar in San Agostino, for which he was paid 200 ducats. This is still in existence, but is a stiff and formal piece, especially if compared with his earlier renderings of the same dread scene. Two features distinguish it from other crucifixions. The pelican in its piety with its three young in their nest surmounts the Cross, a piece of symbolism used nowhere else by the artist, and the floating angels carry with them double twisted ribbons instead of a single one. Orsini, at this stage, says that Perugino went to Florence, but he was soon back in Perugia (1512), where he purchased two farms and a house.

Mariotti records the transaction. The total sum was 1600 florins, but Perugino could not pay the entire sum at once, and paid down a deposit and gave over a house in Porta Santa Anna which he had received in payment for a picture, and promised to pay other sums at fixed times till he had cleared off the amount.

In this same year we find the wandering artist at the little hill town of Bettona, so difficult of access, and situate near to Assisi, and the pictures which remain in proof of his visit are extraordinary and remarkable ones. (See page 134.)

The chief one is a votive picture commissioned by a Perugian captain who had been taken prisoner by the French but released. The picture represents a gigantic figure of St. Anthony, calm and almost expressionless, and then a curious dwarfish figure of the captain kneeling at his feet, gazing up into the face of his patron saint to whom he renders his thanks. The other one is a Madonna, who is also of abnormal size, gathering under her ample cloak kneeling figures of San Manno and San Girolamo, together with much smaller figures of the man and his wife who commissioned the picture. These pictures are in very bad condition, but distinctly interesting, as they differ so much from Perugino’s ordinary work. Still journeying around Perugia, we find our artist visiting in 1512 and in 1513 his native town of Città della Pieve.* How long he stayed there is not clear, nor whether he went again and again to the town or remained there for a year or two. There are two pictures at Città dated 1513, another done in 1514, and a fourth in 1517, and a fifth without date. The “Virgin and Child with four saints,” St. Protasius, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Gervasius, painted for the cathedral of St. Gervasius, is marked by that formal, and, although sweet, yet sickly sentimentality that distinguished much of Perugino’s later work. It is terribly formal and stiff, and only detached parts of it, such as the faces of Our Lady, the Child, and St. Peter, are really beautiful.

It was ordered by the Prior, and is signed and dated. The other one in the Duomo, bearing the same date, is of the ” Virgin and Child with four saints,” and then in a chapel is one of the “Baptism,” which clearly belongs to the same period and is as formal and superficial as the other two.

In the church of St. Peter, over the altar, is the picture which was painted in the following year, and is in far better condition than are the other three, and distinguished by a grace that is absent from the others. The face of St. Anthony is benevolent and expressive, but little more can be said in favour of this picture. There is, however, some strength and some tenderness in what remains of the ruined fresco in the church of St. Servi. Nearly all the fresco is gone. Part has been cut away to make a door, part has faded, part has crumbled away, part has been picked off the wall, but what remains is wonderfully beautiful. It is but a fragment, a ruined, faded bit, but it differs entirely from every other “Crucifixion” that Perugino ever painted and is full of graceful figures. The chief part that is left is the group of the holy women assisting the Virgin as she sinks to the earth in a swoon, and it is worth all the journey to Città to see this group. There is life and vigour here, this is real anguish of spirit and bitter grief depicted in the faces, and we do not in the least wonder that not only M. Broussolle, but Mrs. Vaughan and Miss Duff Gordon, who are amongst the few who have penetrated to this remote town and absorbed its spirit and its beauty, speak in words of reverence of the pathos of this scene.

In all his life Perugino never painted anything more tender and sweet than he did at St. Servi in his old home, and the fragment that remains should be guarded with infinite care, for, damaged as it is, it is most precious.

One work only remains that can be definitely attributed to the next year, 1518, and then for two years we know nothing of Perugino, although we, are able to surmise as to the work that engaged his time. The 1518 picture was painted in Perugia for the great church of San Francesco al Prato. It represents San Sebastian bound to a column and attacked by archers, and is signed and dated. During the next two years, it may well be imagined that Perugino was hard at work at the great altar-piece for St. Agostino, which had been ordered before 1512.

One of the most puzzling questions which arises in a book about Perugino is how this ancona is to be reconstructed. It is scattered far and wide over Europe, and only important parts of it are now in Perugia.

One altar-piece, which is stated to have come from San Agostino, must have, I think, belonged to another altar and had nothing to do with that double ancona. It represents the Madonna with St. Nicolas, St. Bernard, St. Jerome, and St. Sebastian, and had the space below left for the tabernacle, the mark of which can still be seen.

Perhaps to this same period belongs the fantastic “St. John Baptist, with St. Anthony of Padua, St. Sebastian, St. Jerome, and St. Francis,” painted for San Francesco al Prato. The St. Sebastian here has degenerated into a girlish fop, with elaborate head-dress and boots, and although the faces of the other three saints are pleasing and thoughtful, yet the picture is terribly degenerate, and the landscape in the rear hardly exists at all. The same faults are to be found in the typical late pictures to be found at Spello, in the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore. They are both signed and dated, and belong to 1521, and can only be admired for their colour and for the knowledge that even they reveal of the possibilities of space.

The tale of the 1521 pictures is not yet, however, nearly complete, but in the works now coming under consideration an improvement will be perceptible.

The six figures of St. Scholastica, St. Jerome, St. John, St. Gregory, St. Boniface, and St. Martha, which Perugino added in the church of San Severo, below the fresco painted by his great pupil in 1505, are dignified and impressive. They are far removed from the power of early work ; there is a cumbersomeness about their draperies, and a sameness in pose and style, but the face of St. Boniface is lovely, and those of St. Jerome and St. John solemn and grand, while all the figures are well-proportioned, and stand well on their feet.

It was a melancholy duty to complete the unfinished and early work of the great pupil who had so far surpassed his master, but evidently the old master did it as well as he could, lingered lovingly over its details, and proudly recorded his name upon his work. The whole fresco is of notable interest, as the combination of the works of master and pupil, with the inscriptions recording the names of the artists and of the patrons who employed them, is unique. Sixteen years had passed since the upper fresco was painted. Raphael had mounted on from glory to glory, leaving behind him all his contemporaries, and had been reckoned as the king of them now ; and now, in the year after his death, his old master is called up to complete the work, and he gives to the commission the best abilities of a fading old age.

Perhaps his neighbours commiserated too much with him, or taunted him with the decay of his powers. Whatever may have been the cause, it is quite clear that, rising superior to the quaintness, stiffness, and formality of Spello, Perugino suddenly wakened up into some old vigour, and much of the old spirit is to be seen in his last works.

In the church of San Francesco at Montefalco is his Presepio, which it is absurd to give to Tiberio d’ Assisi, Lo Spagna, or Manni. Works by all these men hang close by in the deserted church, which now forms a wonderful picture gallery, and the comparison can easily be made.

There is a record of a visit from Perugino to the town en route for Trevi in this very year, and with him came two at least of these pupils, but no pupil ever painted this Presepio, although it is most probable that the lunette above it is by Tiberio d’ Assisi. The lower picture, however, glows with golden sunshine, and the landscape is full of beauty, and represents, as was so often the case, the view to be seen from the very walls of this wonderful old city. Some of the faces are formal, the draperies are coarse and stiff, and show signs of hurried work, but the sense of distance pro-claims the author of the fresco, and the faces of St. Joseph and of the Virgin and the dainty decoration of the columns are, with the landscape, really good pieces of work, and a wonderful improvement upon the pictures at Spello, Bettona, or in the Duomo at Città della Pieve.

Outside Montefalco is San Fortunato, where Tiberio d’ Assisi painted the cloisters, and here probably Perugino stopped, and one figure in the ceiling is certainly his work, perhaps done to show Tiberio a suggestion as to the decoration, or put in at the pupil’s own request. Then he journeyed on to Trevi, another delightful hill town, full of charm and beauty, and there, an old man of seventy-five, in the church of Sta. Maria delle Lacrime, outside the town, he painted his ” Adoration of the Magi.” It is the old, old design. There is the wooden erection, the enthroned Madonna and Child, the kneeling Magi, the crowd of attendants. In the distance are the servants with horses and camels, and away beyond are the blue hills, the river, and the sky.

Certainly it is degenerate work ; but which of the men of his time could do such work ? No one else could so present the continuous space of nature, the spaciousness and vastness of the distance, or bathe his pictures in the dreamy sunlight of summer. I lingered long before this fresco, loth to leave it, its tranquillity is so marked, its airiness is so impressive.

It was while completing this picture that the message as to the San Agostino ancona reached Pietro. Back he came to Perugia in 1522, painted the “Transfiguration” for Sta. Maria Nuova, and its three predella panels now in the Perugia Gallery, and the frescoes in the Nunnery of S. Agnese (where he had relations who were Nuns), which I have not been able to see, as the Convent is now strictly cloistered.

Three more frescoes only remain for mention. A harsh and hurried one in the cathedral of Perugia, in which the Magdalen’s face is the redeeming feature, a faded but lovely ” Nativity” in the Alfani Rooms (Room 13) in the Perugia Gallery, which is full of exquisite feeling and tender, reverent grace, and finally, the last and unfinished work which now hangs in the National Gallery. This is a huge fresco transferred to canvas, and measures 19 ft. 6 in. long. It was executed at Fontignano in 1523, and is said to have been the last work of the artist. The hand had not lost its cunning, and there is much of the early sweetness in this huge fresco. There is the charm of its faded blues and purples, the haze of its shimmering sunshine, and the tender reverence of the kneeling figures.

There are just the same accessories as were adopted by Perugino in earlier ” Adorations,” very much the same grouping, and almost identical figures, and in these respects the two last pictures that the artist painted are almost copies, one of the other, differing only in proportions. The Perugia fresco is small, the London one very large ; but both are really lovely compositions, full of mysterious charm, and it is pleasant to know that the artist’s last works were not the queer, quaint ones of Spello and Bettona, but the wonderful, scenes of the “Adoration,” painted with much of his old vigour and with all his earlier charm.

Mariotti tells us that Perugino died at the Ospedale of Fontignano, and Orsini suggests that it was of plague. There were various traditions as to his burial ; even in Mariotti’s time, Vasari states, he was honourably buried at Città della Pieve, but there is absolutely nothing to support this statement. The artist was, according to local account hurriedly buried in a field, as at that time all town funerals were forbidden on account of the violence of the epidemic. In the following year, his sons, desirous of affording him an honourable burial, according to the rites of Holy Church, tried to make arrangement for the removal of the body.

On December 30th, 1524, they entered into a contract with the monks of San Agostino, who were still in their . father’s debt 50 scudi, that they should remove his body from Fontignano and bury him in their church, and the sons agreed to pay for the Mass. Mariotti says that there was in his time no proof that that ever was done, but the very fact of the contract proves that nothing could be said to the discredit of Perugino’s life or character, and refutes idle rumour as to his atheism.

A spot was pointed to Mariotti half-a-mile from Fontignano as the place of Perugino’s burial, but he records that, although nothing was found when this spot was examined, yet he could never find any proof that the devout wishes of the three sons, Giovanni Batista, Francesco, and Michel Angelo, were ever fulfilled. It is most probable that owing to the plague and to the war, which at the time were raging in Perugia, the removal of Perugino’s body was delayed, and so eventually quite forgotten. No man, therefore, knows where the great artist was buried, and the burial-place he bought at SS. Annunziata in Florence, was unoccupied. Mariotti states that his only descendant was a grandson, one John Battista Vannucci, whose name appeared as a scholar in the University of Città della Pieve. It is, therefore, quite possible that the plague carried off not only the artist, but shortly afterwards his three sons also. Pietro’s wife was one Chiare Fancelli, a very beautiful girl, whom he married, 1st September 1493, in the Canonica in Perugia. She was the daughter of Luca, an architect and surveyor in the service of the Marquis of Mantua. Tradition states that she was the model for the angel with Tobias in the National Gallery. She brought him a dowry of 500 gold ducats, and had in all seven children ; and Vasari states that Pietro was exceeding fond of her, and so proud of her beauty that he loved to give her beautiful jewels and costly dresses, and to adorn her with his own hands. After his death she wrote in 1524 to the Marchioness of Mantua offering her a picture by her husband (not now known) of ” Mars and Venus discovered together by Vulcan,” which was for sale. This information Braghirolli discovered. She was still living in 1540.

Of Perugino’s scholars who so closely followed their master, it will suffice just to mention Lo Spagna, Eusebio di San Giorgio, Giovanni Batta Caporali, Tiberio d’Assisi, Giannicola Manni, Rocco Zoppo, Baccio Ubertini, but the glory of Raphael has over-shadowed them all.

It may be well finally to review briefly the characteristics of the artist, and of his work. Perugino appears to have been a man of great determination, Lupatelli says of iron will. He had known poverty in his early days, and had faced it. He was determined to push his way and make a living, and, if possible, a great name ; and he succeeded in his purpose. Bruna-monti speaks several times of his desire to go ahead, and it is quite clear that he was ambitious and energetic, and hence his success. There is no proof whatever that he was irreligious, or, as Vasari implies, atheistic, but his face betokens a mind that would not ordinarily be satisfied without argument and examination, and it was perhaps his controversial habits that obtained for him the character that Vasari has recorded. His employment by the Church, not only by the Chief Pontiff but by numerous dignitaries and by many religious orders, and the arrangement just mentioned and entered into by his sons as to his burial, sufficiently refute Vasari’s statements but beyond this, it is inconceivable that such pictures as the Pazzi ” Crucifixion,” the San Severo “Deposition,” the Vallombrosan “Assumption,” to name but three typical ones, could be painted by an atheistic man. I am disposed to consider his portraits as his finest works, and to me the portraits of the two monks of Vallombrosa reveal him as a great master, very skilful, and possessed of wonderful power.

His more popular compositions are many of them of striking beauty, especially in the delineation of faces, in the landscape, and in the colouring, and, above all, in that wondrous genius for representing open limitless space to which attention was given in Chapter I. Perugino is never dramatic, he is always lyric, and the poetical charm of the Umbrian school is at its very zenith in his hands. He is not passionate, as is Botticelli, nor strong, moving, and forceful as is Signorelli.

The delights of movement, the extremes of rage or desire, did not appeal to him. He was not as diversified as was Lippi ; he never reached the stolid impressiveness of Ghirlandajo, nor the ecstatic devotion of Fra Angelico. He was not so purely illustrative as was Pinturicchio, but very far exceeded him both in genius and in power. The emotions of pathos were not beyond his reach, the stateliness of dignity he could represent if he desired, but his charm is in the calm quiet of his pictures, in their tender reverence and exquisite sweetness, in their poetry rather than in their power. His creations are dreamy and contemplative, full of faith, hope, and expectation, and they embody and express the reality of a spiritual world of serene peace and satisfaction which, in its contrast to the world around us, speaks of the revelation of a faith that is true. His execution is masterly, his colouring mystic and glorious, his compositions are complete and united, his sense of decoration is excellent. He was himself sincere in his work, and his pictures therefore embody this sincerity, and their teaching is to lift the soul from sordid thoughts, and to raise it to Heaven itself.