Perugino – Birth, Masters, And Environment

IT is not quite certain when Pietro Vannucci (called from the name of his adopted town Perugino) was born, but the place of his birth he himself announces in his signature. Probably his birth took place in 1446 or 1447 at the little town of Castello della Pieve, now called Città della Pieve, as it was raised to the dignity of a city in 1601 by Clement VIII. His signature preserves, in the words ” Petrus de Castro Plebis,” the older name of his birthplace. Vasari gives his father’s name as Christofano, and tells us that he was a poor man ; but Mariotti reminds * his correspondent that the family, although a poor one, was not of low condition, as it had enjoyed the rights of citizenship since 1427. He also mentions that one Pietro Vannucci was in 1424 a member of the Guild of Stone-workers, and that in 1428 a member of the family signed himself proudly as citizen of Perugia. It is probable that Vasari’s story of the boy having been brought into Perugia at a tender age and put as shop drudge with a painter in that city is correct. Città della Pieve is not more than some twenty-five miles from Perugia, and although the town is near to Chiusi, yet Perugia, as the capital of the district of Umbria, is the more important place, and to it naturally would the lad be taken. Vasari speaks of the unknown painter to whom the youthful Pietro Vannucci was sent as one who “was not particularly distinguished in his calling, but who held the art in great veneration and highly honoured the men who excelled therein.”

It would be very interesting to know the name of this painter, as, according to Vasari, he had great influence upon Pietro. ” He did not cease,” Vasari continues, ” to set before Pietro the great advantages and honours that were to be obtained from painting by all who acquired the power of labouring in it effectually, and kindled in the mind of his pupil the desire to become one of those masters.” We enter upon a curious speculation when we begin to surmise the name of this master. Lanzi speaks of an artist known as Pietro of Perugia, but conjectures that Niccolò of Foligno (known also as Niccolò Liberatore, and incorrectly as Niccolò Alunno) may have been Perugino’s first master. Mariotti attaches much more importance to the early teaching of Bonfigli. Fanelli, quoted by Lupattelli,* speaks of “a poor and obscure youth from Città della Pieve in the school of Alunno receiving instruction from Niccolò Alunno and becoming eventually the immortal Perugino, master of Raffaello.” Crowe and Cavalcaselle take Bonfigli as this early master, while later writers, notably Mr. Berenson, attach far more importance to the training of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo.

Leaving out of consideration for a space the question of what Perugino learned from Piero della Francesca and in the botegas of Florence, it may be well to briefly glance at the influences already named.

Niccolò da Foligno was perhaps the originator of the school of Umbrian painters in which Perugino thereafter took so important a place. He was clearly a pupil of Benozzo Gozzoli, who derived his training from Beato Angelico ; but into the sweetness, harmony, and tender feeling of these earlier masters Niccolò forced a fiercer spirit, an uncompromising realism, which is at times almost painful in its stress. Niccolò was a man of forceful spirit, earnest and powerful, and with a certain dry technique and rigid definition that is in full accord with the penetrating spirit that composed the pictures. Foligno is quite close to Perugia, and there is no difficulty in realising the presence of Niccolò at times in that city. His influence is marked in Perugino’s early work, but it does not stand alone, and has associated with it characteristics that could not have come from the Folignate botega. Bonfigli (Benedetto Buonfiglio), to whom Vasari once refers at the conclusion of his life of Pinturicchio, was the prominent painter of Perugia. He was greatly esteemed in that city, and so largely confined his labours to his native place that even now it is impossible, save in the gallery of that city, to gain anything like an adequate knowledge of his art.

It was not, however, from Bonfigli that we consider the strong influence came that affected Perugino’s work. Much of Bonfigli’s work was quite beautiful ; there is a fascinating grace about many of his figures ; there is a tenacious hold upon the laws of perspective, rich, varied, and charming colouring, and a general pleasing result in composition and in effect. There is, however, little virile force, very slight depth of feeling, and, above all, an absence of the open space which is so characteristic of later Umbrian art, and which has such a wondrous effect in the pictures of the great Umbrian artists. Bonfigli’s pictures are crowded, Perugino’s never were crowded. Bonfigli’s are illustrations, records, decorative effects ever full of figures, and of detail, and with the beauty of certain single faces or separate groups swamped by the crowd of ordinary objects. Perugino’s pictures, whatever may be their faults, never deserve this condemnation.

Fiorenzo di Lorenzo on the contrary, must certainly have been a master from whom Perugino received no slight influence.

Once again it is needful to go to Perugia in order to study the works of this artist, as away from the hill-top city the pictures of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, are few and far between.

In England there is one that is noteworthy, a “Virgin and Child,” belonging to Mr. George Salting.

In the works of this artist we are at once struck by the aloofness that distinguished Perugino. Single figures stand apart one from the other, each slightly connected as by a thread of thought, and similarly each with the central feature of the picture, but in every other way self-contained. Here again are the placid Umbrian landscapes with which later on we shall become so familiar, and the tall slender youths and sweet women full of tender grace, that make their first appearance in Umbrian art. There is a grace and charm in the work of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, that is far removed both from the fierce truth of the Folignate’s pictures and from the crowded stress of Bonfigli, and those panels that tell the story of Bernardino in the Accademia at Perugia, and which represent the artist at his very best, are possessed of a fascination both in line, in colouring, and in movement that are impressive to the highest degree.

Occasionally the artist was able to attach two or more of his figures to one another by a gesture or a movement that formed a distinct and noticeable link ; but it was left for Perugino to still further develop this power and to link his figures one by one into a single group when he so desired, or at his will to keep them aloof one from the other, and to the successors of Perugino to complete this power which Fiorenzo so slightly commenced and which Perugino so greatly improved. In another way can be seen the influence of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. The typical Umbrian landscapes which are so important a feature in Perugino’s pictures first make their appearance in the works of this artist. The special treatment of the landscape will be referred to in fuller detail later on ; but we may here mention that those expansive broad landscapes, with distant hills bathed in a blue mist and revealing long stretches of level fertile land on either side, with single trees, standing silhouetted against the sky, which, like a vast arch of blue, frames in the lovely scene, are noteworthy in Fiorenzo’s pictures.

Finally, there is the pale golden sunlight to be seen in his works, a sunlight which bathes all purely Umbrian art, but which does not appear to any marked extent in the works of the Foligno school.

Having now briefly glanced at the leading characteristics of these artists, it will be well to examine the work of one who was far greater than either of those already named, and whose influence on Perugino is very marked. I allude to Piero della Francesca. Whether, as Morelli -suggests, Perugino journeyed to Arezzo, where Piero was at work, and aided him in his work, or placed himself under his tuition, or whether Perugino met Piero at Borgo San Sepolcro or in Perugia, is immaterial. It will suffice to understand that, somewhere near at home, and in the early days of his training before Perugino journeyed to Florence, the two men must have met, and Perugino learned much from the Tuscan-Umbrian master and profited largely by his instruction.

One of the main features of Piero’s art was his accurate knowledge of perspective. He was, above all, a mathematician, well versed in arithmetic and geometry, and the author of several treatises on the science.

He rejoiced in complicated problems of perspective, in long vistas of columns stretching away into the far distance, in mysterious hollows, in exquisite alcoves, curves, and embrasures, in the perfectly accurate drawing of roofs and rooms, and in the grouping of his figures in such geometric array and such careful receding proportion as made clear the charm that such mathematical arrangements had over the mind of the artist.

There are, however, other characteristics of Piero’s work, that must be carefully noted in making a survey of his style. There is a wonderful gravity and solemnity about his figures, a preoccupied look in most of their faces, and we trace also the very beginning of that power already mentioned, of linking figure to figure and group to group.

Certainly, in the long processions that form so essential a part of the frescoes at San Francesco in Arezzo, there is a certain connection running through the group of figures which are arranged in processional order especially in the ” Visit of the Queen of Sheba,” the ” Invention of the Cross,” and the “Exaltation of the Cross,” but individually the figures composing these groups are separate and distinct from one another, engaged in their own concerns and holding no converse one with the other. In these respects it was left for the later men, beginning with Perugino, to pull the picture together and make it one harmonious whole.

When to this aloofness, this curious want of sympathy between the central group or scene in the picture and all the attendant groups or figures, we add a severe absence of emotion, an impassiveness in the faces of all the figures, together with a simple dignity of style and a power of delineation that is very attractive, we begin to understand Piero della Francesca. He never considered whether the faces of his figures were specially suited to the group in which he used them. He is quite unmoved by any ideas that the spectator may have as to fitness in the picture, and he never reveals his own views as to the scene and its appropriate presentation. Rage, pity, scorn, amazement, jealousy, passion, or even the depth of devotion, are no part of Piero’s repertoire, but a quiet self-contained hauteur, a learned solemnity, and a religious calm characterise his figures, both men and women. There is abundance of dignity, stately form, earnest but impassive determination, but, even in the battle scenes, nothing of the Sturm und Drang which would have been expected.

All these characteristics had direct influence upon Perugino, but even beyond them can be seen other marks of this master’s tuition. The fantastic head-dresses that are to be seen in Piero’s frescoes find their counterpart in the frescoes of the Cambio ; the very same scheme of composition in ” The Resurrection of Christ” in the Borgo San Sepolcro Gallery is to be seen in one of Perugino’s pictures ; and the long vistas of arches and careful geometric proportion and the absolutely accurate drawing of arches and columns are to be equally realised in Piero’s picture in the Gallery at Perugia and in Perugino’s altar-piece in the Villa Albani. Even in the shape of the hand, the clear cameo-like profile of the faces, and the detail of the feathers on the angels’ wings, the relationship between these painters is marked, and comparison between the frescoes at Arezzo and the paintings in the Accademia will be found to reveal these and other points of close contact.

In these early days of Perugino’s life, it is therefore to the influence of Niccolò Liberatore, of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, and, above all, of Piero della Francesca, that we attribute the growth of his art and the success of his later life.

One more artist he must have met in these days, as Luca Signorelli, who was some five years his senior, was probably at Arezzo with Piero della Francesca.

Certain pictures of Perugino, notably the ” Crucifixion,” at La Calza, and the similar scene painted around a carved crucifix now at Perugia, the ” Pietà ” in the Accademia, and the ” Love and Chastity ” in Paris, be-tray in their vigour, hardness, and movement some of Signorelli’s influence, an influence that only occasion-ally was to be seen in the great Umbrian master.

Morelli considers that Perugino’s journey to Florence ,after his Perugian training, of which Vasari speaks, took place in 1470, at which time Perugino would be about twenty-five years old. His name is recorded in the roll of St. Luke in 1472, and in the roll of the Physicians in 1499.

Vasari states that it was to Verrocchio that he went. Lanzi and Orsini confirm this ; Morelli gravely doubts it ; Resta distinctly denies it ; Berenson rejects it ; and certainly there is but little trace of such a tutor in Perugino’s work.

In the “Baptism ” at the Accademia, which is an absolutely authentic picture, although perhaps partly the work of Leonardo, and in the ” Madonna and Child ” in the Uffizi, also attributed to Verrocchio, we find nothing that would appear to have influenced Perugino, or that can be recalled by his work, but if the magnificent bronze panel in the Carmine Church at Venice is accepted as the work of Andrea del Verrocchio then there is evidently a feeling in this work such as Perugino would naturally have appreciated, and which does appear many times in pictures by the Umbrian master. The position of the Christ on the ground, and that of the women who bend over Him, the silent meditative devotion of the two men and of the child who kneel on the right, the attitude, wings, drapery, and movement of the flying angels, and their very position with regard to the cross, all find answering echoes in Perugino’s work that are unmistakable in their clearness. What is, however, of special importance to notice at this juncture is that Perugino did not go to Florence in 1472 as a mere pupil or scholar. Young in years as he undoubtedly was, he must have also been mature in experience and in knowledge ; giving evidence of that ability which marked all his work, and which was to receive its reward eight years later on when Sixtus IV. sent for him and engaged him upon the fresco decoration in the Sistine Chapel.

Vasari specially states that the invitation was given because of Perugino’s great fame throughout Italy, and it is clear that a request to work side by side with such men as Ghirlandajo, Cosimo Rosselli, and Botticelli was so high a compliment that it would not be given to one who was merely a student in Verrocchio’s botega. There is no question about the date of this invitation, as the original contract between the Holy Father and the artists has been published, and it contains an undertaking to furnish ” ten stories ” between October 27, 1481, and March 15, 1482.

Prior to these dates we hear of two other works executed by Perugino. The earliest of all is recorded by Milanesi in his notes to the life in Vasari. He states that in 1475 Perugino was commissioned to paint certain frescoes in the Palazzo Publico in Perugia ; but of these works not a trace remains, and there is no evidence to support the learned author’s statement.* Milanesi, moreover, further records the fact that in 1478 Perugino worked at Cerqueto, painting some frescoes in a chapel there, and one solitary figure of “San Sebastian” bearing that date only now remains out of the entire decoration.

To this interesting figure, the earliest known work of the master, a reference will be made later on when consideration is given to other representations of the same saint, but a record must here be made to the Foligno, and to the Signorelli influence that this figure betrays. In direct truth the figure might well be the work of Niccolò Liberatore, and is conceived on the lines of his school. In nervous, tense muscular representation, and in the movement of the limbs, it is strikingly Signorellesque, and the realism of its wounds bespeaks the same characteristic ; but the silky treatment of the skin, the roundness of the limbs, the upturned piteous face, the locks of hair, the extraordinarily exaggerated size of the great toe, and, above all, the intricate puckered folds of the drapery, are Perugino’s and Perugino’s alone.

The painting of the drapery which becomes a mannerism, and one of the most accurate of tests here in the very early days of the artist, takes certain definite forms, and the dark hollows and curious hook-like folds are to be seen in this ” San Sebastian,” not certainly as freely but quite as definitely, as they appear in later days. The picture is but a fragment of what must have been an important fresco, but it is eloquent of better work to come, and shows promise of masterly execution that only three years afterwards was to be revealed at Rome in the Sistine Chapel. No other work exists to bridge over the time between Perugino’s early training in Umbria, his sojourn in Florence, and his return as a well-known artist to the town and neighbourhood of Perugia, although there is said to be a picture near Naples dated 1460, but the date is probably apocryphal.

In Florence the artist would probably have met Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi. If he attended at Verrocchio’s studio he certainly would have met them. In Florence also, Resta tells us, he studied Masaccio’s work, and we may be quite sure he used every endeavour to perfect himself in his art ; and it is to this period of residence that Giovanni Santi refers in his oft quoted lines :

“Due giovin j’ar d’ etate e Jar d’ amore Leonardo da Vinci e’i Perusino Pier, della Pieve ch’ è un divin bittore.”

“Two youths alike in age and love Leonardo di Vinci and the Perugian Peter of Pieve.” He is mentioned in Florence in 1490 in one of the books relating to the Cathedral, and there is a story of his having been fined for fighting in Florence in 1488.

In the only picture that remains to us of the series executed by Perugino in Rome for Sixtus IV. we see the result of all this Florence training, but we are also confronted at once by the great characteristic of the Umbrian school—free open space.

In considering this great feature, the most note-worthy characteristic of Umbrian art, it is impossible to avoid reference to Mr. Bernhard Berenson’s pages and to his definition of what he terms “space composition,” which he defines in this way : ” Space composition differs from ordinary composition in the first place most obviously in that it is not an arrangement to be judged as extending only laterally, or up and down, on a flat surface, but as extending inwards in depth as well. It is composition in three dimensions and not in two, in the cube and not merely on the surface.”*

Farther on he remarks: “This art comes into existence only when we get a sense of space not as a void, as something merely negative such as we customarily have, but on the contrary as something very positive and definite, able to confirm our consciousness of being, to heighten our feeling of vitality.”

It is the wonderful art of space composition which so distinguishes Perugino from his Sistine Chapel days down to the end of his life.

The power is so well expressed by Mr. Berenson that nothing is needed to further define it, but he still further emphasises ” space composition ” when he states that it is an “intrinsically religious art” capable of “communicating the religious emotion” and able to “awaken in those who looked at the pictures a consciousness of preference for a life holy and refined.”

In this first great picture “Christ giving the Keys to St. Peter,” all the power of this marvellous capability is at once apparent.

It produces a sense of vastness, of spaciousness, of broad, free, open air enclosed only by the blue arch of Heaven, and therefore gathers up and retains all the higher emotions of the spectator.

There are the grand figures in the foreground, majestic and wonderful in their dignity ; beyond them are others in the receding distance, smaller and smaller as the eye notes the vast distance expressed in the picture. In the centre rises the wonderful temple. Bramantesque and stately, and beyond it, disappearing away into the horizon are the everlasting hills that bound and yet seem to extend the broad space of the Umbrian landscape, the utmost distance of which is lost in the blue haze of the sky.

The two triumphal arches at the sides serve to emphasise the great space that the picture embraces, and the effect is that of gazing through an open window in Perugia or at Montefalco.

There is no sense of crowding, the space is so vast that the populace of a country could not crowd it, and the air circulates in.. and around every group and serves to give the greater open-air charm.

There is a soothing quiet about the whole, a self-restraint and a stillness, and even though figure stands apart from figure and each one hardly notices the other, yet there is a fine thread of common interest to be seen connecting the whole of the foreground group and linking the spectators to the two central persons, Christ and the Foundation of His Church.

It is well when mentioning this great picture to state as a personal opinion that it is not possible to appreciate Perugino adequately, or even to understand him properly, without a visit to Umbria itself.

The country differs so much from other parts of Italy that mere comparison with parts better known is useless, but when once the student has sojourned in the country the charm of its landscape is felt and under-stood. There is a vastness about its open spaces, an immensity of view, boundless and yet enclosed, that must be seen to be understood.

To linger on the fortifications of Montefalco, to look out from the public square of Trevi, to wander along the road that divides San Girolamo from Spello, to drive along the plains of Foligno, to stay at Nervi, Deruta, or Bettona, to gaze out over the plains around Assisi, or to appreciate the wonderland that is mapped out around lofty Perugia—all these are so many lessons to the right understanding of Perugino. Away and away in the rolling distance are those vast plains, not flat surfaces, but a luxuriant country-side, irregularly marked by the contours of hills and valleys, dotted with tiny fortified towns crowning each its own hill and looking down upon its neighbour. Great white winding roads meander hither and thither, single trees stand out in sharp tall silhouette against the intense blue of the sky, and around as far as eye can reach stretch the half-hidden, half-revealed mountains clothed in a purple haze while the golden glare of sunlight bathes all the intervening space in its mystic light, tinging with gold the very grass of the fields, the grey drab of the roads, the ruddy brown of the buildings, and the radiance of the distant towers and houses.

All the Umbrian artists felt the charm of this scenery, but no one save Perugino so fully and so consistently expressed it.

It is in all his works, and as one gazes out upon this “buoyant spaciousness” of view, the wondrous creatures of his conceptions, holy women, saints, prophets, apostles, religious guilds, praying populace, seem once more to people the earth, and away in the eternal immeasurable sky can be seen the Assumption, the angels, the mandorla of cherub faces, the comforting seraphim and the glowing cherubim, as Perugino saw them, and the sky is again the scene of the glories which faith enabled Perugino to visualise and depict.

It is the knowledge of his own country and the wonderful power of space composition that marks Perugino’s pictures so emphatically as to enable us to determine that the ” Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter ” is the only fresco from the master’s hand in the Sistine Chapel. It was Morelli who first pointed out that Crowe and Cavalcaselle were in error in attributing ” Moses and Zipporah” and the “Baptism of Christ” to Perugino, and I accept his teaching in this matter quite readily. A careful study of the Sistine frescoes has convinced me that Morelli was right and Crowe and Cavalcaselle wrong. Even the two central figures in the disputed ” Baptism,” those of Christ and St. John, which are compared with the two similar figures in the predella at Rouen, which is undoubtedly authentic, and with the same scene in the National Gallery, which I consider a copy only of the master’s work, betray the hand of Pinturicchio rather than that of Perugino.

In the fresco at Rome, the two figures are crowded closely together ; the arm of Our Lord almost rests on St. John’s head, the face of the saint is weak and feeble, the limbs are skinny and badly drawn, there is no sense of security in the feet, the hands are out of proportion and the draperies entirely lack the hook folds of Perugino, and are loose and inadequate. Above all, neither figure stands upon its two feet ; in the case of the Christ one foot alone supports the whole body, a mistake which Perugino never makes. The whole picture is crowded with figures and hemmed in with hills. It is pictorial certainly, and effective, but it entirely lacks the spaciousness of Perugino. There is a feeling of crush and crowd such as Perugino never gives, and a total absence even in the landscape of that extensive vista of scenery, that breadth of treatment which is so important. Even the representation of the Eternal Father within the mandorla of cherubs and attended by angels. is not placed high up in the illimitable aërial space, but almost touches a neighbouring hill, and serves but to overfill the picture and make its crowded composition a wearisome burden. Compare for a moment the predella at Rouen. The two central figures stand apart one from the other, and. therefore stand out clearly and distinctly, while yet near. enough for their mutual actions to be closely connected. They stand firmly and well balanced on their feet, the figures having a sense of security in their position ; they are well-proportioned and accurately drawn, and the water flowing by is clear and limpid, glittering in the sunlight which floods the picture. Around are the kneeling angels and attendant figures, eight only in number, carefully graduated in size according to position, aloof, serious, quiet, and still. Away and beyond is the rolling landscape, with its exquisite hills and dainty detached trees standing out clear against the sky. On and on the eye travels, eager to reach the limits of this limitless vision, and impressed more and more by the skill that painted in so tiny a compass so vast a scene. Above is the sky free from any crowd of spirits, and reaching up to unimagined heights.

Here is undoubtedly Perugino’s work ; but at Rome we see merely a clever overcrowded picture, an illustration simply, and most evidently the work of Pinturicchio. Three other frescoes in this chapel Perugino did undoubtedly paint for Sixtus IV., covering the eastern wall. They depicted the ” Assumption,” into which he introduced the kneeling figure of the Pope, the “Nativity,” and the “Finding of Moses,” but all these works were swept away during the Pontificate of Pope Paul III. to make way for the tremendous work of Michel Angelo, ” The Last Judgment.” It is infinitely to be regretted that no replica of these frescoes was retained, as the “Delivery of the Keys” is so superb a composition, that it but increases the desire of the spectator to know what Perugino’s other frescoes were in the same chapel.

The payment for the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel was not authorised till August 8th, 1489, as Mariotti records that at that time Perugino was entitled to draw on the Apostolic camera at Perugia for 18o ducats, being the balance of money due for pictures in the Apostolic chapel. On the 5th of March 1490 Perugino gave a receipt in Perugia for that money.