Perugino – Early Days

THERE are three pictures, one of which is especially named by Crowe and Cavalcaselle, which seem to belong to the early days of Perugino.

Not that they should be ascribed to the Cerqueto period, or to the Sistine Chapel time, but it is probable that they were painted between 1480, when the master was in Rome, and 1491, when he produced on his second journey to the Eternal City the magnificent altar-piece now in the Villa Albani. Crowe and Caval-caselle refer to the tondo in the Louvre, and to it we add the somewhat similar work at Verona and the “Baptism” at Vienna.

There is a certain immaturity in these three pictures, a straining after effect, a poorness in colouring, and a rigidity in the draperies, together with a niggling technique, with hard tight outlines, that was to give place so speedily to far more breadth. At the same time, thus early, if my surmise as to date is correct, can be seen the characteristics of Perugino. All three pictures are full of open-air effect, the one at Verona especially. The group in Paris of ” Madonna and Child” with two saints and two angels is a little cramped and crowded. The Verona one omits the two saints and introduces as another child St. John Baptist.

In the Vienna ” Baptism,” which has been repainted in places, there is a hardness in the draperies, a stiffness in the attendant figures, and an unfinished character to the landscape ; but in each of the three there is sweetness, calm, and devotion, and they mark the beginning of quite a new movement in Italian art. It will be noticed that both in Paris and Verona the under draperies are regular and hard in their pleating, that the head-dresses are merely conventional and stiffly angular and that ornaments, decoration, and jewellery have received an amount of fine laborious detail work, which renders them somewhat too conspicuous, and shows that the artist had not yet realised the sense of proportion in the various parts of his pictures that distinguished him later on.

From consideration of these three pictures, remarkably interesting and thoroughly typical as they are of the new school of work just unfolding, it will be well to pass on to more definite ground and consider some dated pictures which follow in due course.

There is an amusing story in Mariotti respecting one masterpiece that should be mentioned here. The Priori of Perugia desired to have an important altar-piece for their Capella dell’ Magistrato, and in the predella of the picture, or else introduced into the altar-piece itself, were to be the portraits of the worthy Priori.

A local artist, one Pietro di Maestro Galeotto, was selected for the work, and on the 7th of June 1479 a contract was made with him for it, the price to be 200 florins, and the picture to be completed in two years under a fine for non-compliance of 50 golden ducats.

Galeotto from time to time drew payments on ac-count from the Priori, and three years passed away and yet there were no signs of the altar-piece and no mention of the fine. On June 29th, 1482, another year’s grace was granted to Galeotto on the plea that there had been some contagious disease in Perugia and he had struck work and absented himself ; but in May 1483 Galeotto died, whether from this plague or not is not recorded, but when inquiry was made of his heirs as to the picture nothing could be found of it but the frame. Shortly after this time Perugino visited Perugia, and to him the Magistrates turned for help ; and, bringing much pressure to bear upon him, prevailed upon the artist to sign a contract dated 28th November 1483 binding himself to produce the picture in four months for 100 florins. The details of the picture are all given in the contract, and the names of the four Saints, who were to surround the Madonna and Child, and, above all, the portraits of the Priori were not to be omitted. But by this time Perugino had received the commands of Pope Sixtus IV. to come to Rome, and so a few days after signing the contract Perugino left Perugia without giving any further consideration to the wishes of the worthy Priori or the text of the contract. Even the first section of the work, containing the portraits which he had faithfully promised should be ready in December 1483, was quite forgotten.

The term of office, however, for which the Priori were elected was rapidly nearing its close, and there were still no signs of the portraits of these eminent men. In despair the Priori turned to a third artist, Santi di Polonio del Celandro, and in a contract dated 31st December 1483 they bound him to supply the picture and complete it within a year, but inserted a clause that all the portraits together with that of their notary were to be painted within a fortnight.

For the whole work he was to have one hundred florins. This time the Priori kept their eye on the artist ; there was no time to lose. Shortly they would go out of office, and then the chance of having their portraits forever adorning their chapel walls would be gone, and so the poor Celandro had to paint the eleven portraits within fifteen days, under pain of a very heavy fine. Somehow or other he accomplished the work ; the portraits were done, and temporarily remained in the chapel standing against the wall waiting for the completion of the rest of the pictures. But, having accomplished this part of the work, Celandro took no further heed of the contract, and the Priori having obtained their desire, troubled no further as to the Madonna and saints, or were powerless to force Celandro to complete the work. Twelve years actually passed away, and the chapel still lacked its altar-piece, and Celandro, like Galeotto, died.* In 1495 Perugino was again at Perugia, full of honour and fame ; and once more the decoration of the Capella was resolved on. The Priori-quite a new body to the one which had originally planned the picture, entered into another contract with Perugino, dated 6th March 1495—for him to paint the altar-piece on the same scheme as before, but with far higher remuneration. Perugino was to do the work in six months, was to receive one hundred gold ducats in three payments, and, in lieu of the Mother of Mercy in the lunette, was to paint a Pietà, and for that purpose —alas for the poor Priori—the portraits in fresco by Celandro which filled the space allotted to the Pietà were to be removed, broken up, and carted away. All, therefore, that remains concerning these notable Priori of 1483 whose portraits were to have been handed down to perpetuity, are their ten names re-corded by Mariotti, and the name of Rubino di Giacomo, their notary ; but of their portraits nothing is left.

Perugino at last set to work, and the beautiful altar-piece now in the Vatican is the result. There is the Madonna and Child on the throne, and near by there are the four great saints. The picture is exquisitely beautiful, full of Perugino’s special charm, and bearing marks of the Piero della Francesca influence in the arches that support the canopy, while below the feet of the Madonna, to make quite clear as to who painted the picture, is the signature in somewhat remarkable form :


Inasmuch as consideration of this finished picture brings our chronological survey up to 1495, it will be desirable for us to retrace our steps to the time that Perugino spent in Florence.

Vasari records many works executed in that city, but his chronology is so perplexing that it is difficult to say whether they were all executed at the time to which we refer, or later in the artist’s career.

Probably the frescoes in the Convent of the Frati-Gesuati beyond the Pinti Gale, a house that was destroyed in the siege of Florence in 1529, were early works, inasmuch as the panel pictures that were saved from the church, and which now rest in the Accademia, were painted in 1492-93.

There were, however, as already mentioned, three pictures on panel executed for the same convent, and these, fortunately, are still in existence. They were carried, at the time of the siege, to the gate of San Pier Gattolini, where the monks were provided with a refuge in the church and convent of San Giovannino, now known as La Calza. These three pictures are the ” Crucifixion,” now in La Calza, the ” Pietà,” in the Accademia, dated 1493, and the “Christ in the Garden,” also in the Accademia. Of these three early pictures the one in La Calza is in some ways the most interesting. It is a very puzzling picture. Vasari describes it so clearly that there is no possibility of error as to the picture he names. He speaks of the “infinite care with which it is executed. He refers to its being carried for safety to the church, where it still rests, and he mentions its condition as injured by numerous cracks, but the difficulty is that, while much of the picture is distinctly Peruginesque, three of the figures might have been painted by Luca Signorelli, so great a resemblance in general characteristics do they bear to his work. Crowe and Cavalcaselle hesitate to ascribe it to either master, inclining more to the view that Raffaelino del Garbo may have painted it, but with this last ascription I cannot at all agree. The composition is that of Perugino, the open air effect and the distance, the single detached trees and the high rocks are all Umbrian. The draperies of the four standing figures and of the Christ have the distinctive folds that are so thoroughly characteristic of our painter, and the borders to the garments are equally noteworthy. The attitude of St. Francis and of S. Giovanni Columbini are thoroughly in accordance with Perugino’s methods, but when we turn to St. Jerome and St. John Baptist the case is very different. In these figures the fierce strength and muscular development is foreign to Perugino’s ordinary work, and he appears to have been painting under Signorelli’s influence, and even endeavouring to introduce into faces and limbs the virile power and movement of Signorelli, which at that time was specially attractive to him. The figure of the Magdalen (strangely termed by Crowe and Cavalcaselle the best figure in the picture) is, I consider, a much later addition by quite another hand. The picture composes perfectly without it, and a very close inspection convinced me that it was not originally in the design, and that the draperies of S. Giovanni Columbini can be traced through the draperies of the Magdalen. In no way does the Magdalen recall Perugino. The attitude is not his ; the draperies have entirely different folds ; the hands are quite different in their structure ; and the hair is painted with entirely altered technique.

I look upon this La Calza ” Crucifixion ” as one of the earliest, if not the very first of Perugino’s works in Florence that survives.

In the Accademia (two pictures) we are on quite different ground. Here can be seen the hand of Perugino in every part and the wonderful power of space composition can be realised to the full. The receding arches in the ” Pietà,” bespeaking the influence of Piero della Francesca, the exquisite landscape in the background, the curious aloofness of each figure, and the delicate chain of sympathy that binds them all together, the tender sorrowful face of the Madonna seated in the midst bearing on her knees the dead body of her Son, all of Perugino’s best.

The third picture, the “Christ in the Garden,” is fuller still of the genius of space composition. Far off are the hills that girdle the landscape, and the eye is carried on from one to the other, each step revealing new beauties, till in the extreme distance the sky and land melt into one another. In the immediate foreground are the three disciples sound asleep in the attitudes that convince you of heavy slumber. In the centre of the picture is Our Lord kneeling on a hillock deeply engaged in prayer, and above is an angel flying toward Him bearing the chalice of sorrow. Below and still further removed from the eye of the spectator are groups of soldiers on the one hand and of priests and people on the other rapidly moving toward the central figure. Their proportions are finely adjusted to their distance and position, and there is an admirable sense of movement in all. Beyond them are the distant town, the hills, the country, and above, with its depth and arch and vastness, suggested in most subtle manner by the light fleecy clouds and by the very curves of the angel’s figure and the movement of his wing rises the blue vault of the heaven.

All the genius of Perugino exists in this picture. Later on there is a greater sweetness in some of the faces, there are more figures, there is a purer and more exquisitely sunny colouring, but in composition this early work contains all the characteristics of the master.

These two must be attributed, however, to a later period than the frescoes and La Calza picture already mentioned, which were for the same convent, and in the interval between painting the frescoes for the Gesuati and the La Calza picture and these two Accademia pictures, Perugino had declined a commission at Orvieto, and had been to Rome and painted there for Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, afterwards Julius II.

Once more we must retrace our steps and tell the story of the Orvieto contract.

It is unnecessary to refer to the work done in Orvieto Cathedral by Beato Fra Angelico ; but after his death the work remained unfinished, and the authorities of the cathedral could not find anyone who was prepared to complete the scheme of decoration and whose work appeared to them worthy of its place. Forty-four years had passed away, and then Perugino visited Orvieto. He was asked to examine the chapel and give a price for its decoration. He did so ; at 1500 gold ducats for the whole chapel, provided that scaffolding, lime, gold, and ultramarine were furnished to him. He agreed to use such subjects as were submitted to him, and to person-ally execute the hands and faces of all the figures. His offer was not accepted in its entirety ; but a contract was made for him to do the ceilings and spaces above the capitals for 200 gold ducats, ten of which were paid him, on the understanding that he began the work in April 1490 and continued it through the whole of the following summer. Perugino, however, having secured the contract, was in no hurry to fulfil it, and as the question was being discussed in Florence as to the completion of the cathedral west front, he left Orvieto, and hurried on to Florence to compete in the proposed work.

The work in Florence, however, did not come off, and Perugino proceeded to Perugia and went on again to Rome. Here he commenced the work for his patron Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, almost all of which has since perished, one notable picture only being left.

The artist seems to have dreaded lest the canons of Orvieto should demand his presence in their cathedral, and it is clear that they made strenuous efforts to lay hold of him.

The Cardinal, very desirous of retaining his services for himself, protected the artist, and when the Orvieto authorities determined to cancel the contract, he wrote to the Priori an exceedingly strong letter, telling them to await the convenience of the artist and himself. This letter of June 2, 1492, was in reply to one sent to Perugino stating that the Priori would appoint some one else in his stead.

The Cardinal reminded the authorities that they had promised, in reply to a previous letter from Perugino, to wait a few months, and he adds : ” Now Maestro Pietro has stated that, contrary to your word, you in-tend to substitute for him another painter who shall do your work. This is indeed truly remarkable con-duct. We laboured under the impression that you were to be compliant as best suits the love we have ever borne to your community. So we now again exhort and pray that you do reserve this place, which is his due, to Maestro Pietro, and refrain from molesting him for the short time during which he has to expedite our affairs.”

The Orvietans had, however, meantime, been in correspondence with Pinturicchio, but fearing to offend so great a dignitary as the Cardinal, they retained the chapel of S. Brizio for Perugino, giving Pinturicchio work in another part of the cathedral.

Perugino, however, never kept his promise, though it does not appear whether he returned to the Priori of Orvieto, the ten ducats they had advanced him, and eventually, as is well known, Luca Signorelli was employed to decorate the chapel in question.

As already mentioned, but one picture remains of the work done for the Cardinal at Rome. This is the wonderful altar-piece, dated 1491, now the property of Prince Torlonia, and to be seen in the Villa Albani.

It is in six compartments, and is a most beautiful work, full of brilliant colour. In the centre is ” The Nativity,” represented as having taken place beneath a sort of temple with open sides, its roof resting on a series of beautiful arches forming a centre ” and two aisles and springing from square pillars with rich capitals.

The three divisions above contain the ” Annunciation” and ” Crucifixion.” On either side of the cross are St. John the Divine and the Virgin, and at its foot kneels the Magdalen. If with this figure of Mary Magdalen is compared the similar one in the La Calza picture the difference will be apparent. There is a beauty and nobility of face and a grace of posture wholly lacking in the La Calza picture, and the draperies, so sure a mark of Perugino’s hand, are here as true to his method as in the Florence picture they are manifestly different. On one side of the lunette is a panel representing the Virgin kneeling beneath the open arcading of a temple, and on the opposite side a similar panel containing the Archangel Gabriel.

The altar-piece is full of the influence of Piero della Francesca, the fine drawing of the receding arches, the architectural details, the marble of the pavement and the proportion of all the figures mark in unmistakable form the teaching of the man of Arezzo, but beyond all this there is that marvellous charm of open air and composition in depth that is so marked in the best works of our Umbrian master. The lunette gives Perugino at his best in this period, and the distance, with its rocks, pools of water, cities, plains, and hills, is of fascinating beauty, and fills the spectator with amazement. The whole picture is bathed in a haze of golden colouring. The tones, in places almost jewel-like in their transparent brilliancy, are tender and expressive, and there is a serenity and quiet about the work that is quite wonderful and expressive of complete peace and masterful resignation. The picture is signed :


Now for a while we return to Florence, picking up the threads that we dropped a few pages back.

In 1493 Perugino was balloted, so Orsini says, into the municipal council at his native place, Città della Pieve, for May and June, and is said to have served his time there, but in the same year he was painting at Florence, and, according to Mariotti, had a botega in that city and accepted many commissions. To this period belong two notable pictures, one in Florence and the other in Vienna. The face of the Virgin in each picture is identical, and the infant Christ in each is painted from the same model. The picture in the Uffizi was painted for San Domenico in Fiesole, and was the second altar-piece Perugino did for that church, the first, painted in 1488, having disappeared.

It represents the Virgin on a throne bearing the infant Christ on her knees. On one side stands St. Sebastian (to whom reference will be made later on) and on the other, St. John the Baptist. The group stands under the vaulted arching resting on square pillars, of which Perugino was so fond. In the distance is the customary landscape. The picture is signed :


The other work is at Vienna, and bears an inscription denoting the name of the priest who commissioned its execution.

The Blessed Virgin is on a throne in this picture also, but the group is enclosed by high stone walls only open to the sky. On one side stand St. John the Baptist and St. Paul, on the other, St. Jerome and St. Peter. The St. Jerome is the same face as appears in the Albani altar-piece of 1491, and the curious long white beard which he wears, and which hangs in two divisions, will be noticed many times in later works notably at Trevi and Montefalco, and constitutes a mark of Perugino’s own handiwork.