Perugino – Saint Sebastian

THERE is a tradition in Umbria that upon two occasions Perugino painted miniatures on vellum, and that these works formed pages in two missals or Books of Hours. Several times the story was repeated to me, in Florence, in Perugia, and in other places, and it appears that at one time manuscript evidence of the fact existed in Rome, and may still exist. Of one of these pages I can give no information, as the most diligent inquiry has failed to identify it ; but the other one, the earlier of the two, according to the Roman story, is now in England.

Its history is decidedly a romantic one. The volume to which it belongs was once in the possession of Cardinal Giovanni Girolamo Albani, and from him was called the Albani manuscript. He died in 1591, and the manuscript, which tradition says at one time came into the hands of Clement XI., passed on down to the possession of another Cardinal Albani, Giovanni Francesco, at whose death in 1809 it was sold. A small dealer in curiosities obtained it, and Mr. Denistoune, the great collector, saw it in his shop near the Ghetto in Rome, and bought it for 22 scudi, about £5 sterling. Mr. Denistoune brought the book to England, and offered it, so the family story goes, to the British Museum for £250, but failed to persuade the trustees to purchase it ; and so ten years afterwards when he returned to Rome he took the manuscript with him.

Gregory XVI. had by this time died, and the carelessness which existed in his time as to the purchase of art treasures in Rome had become a thing of the past. The new Pontiff, Pius IX., was much more particular, and he was ably seconded by Count Rossi in his endeavour to retain in the Eternal City its chief artistic treasures. Count Rossi heard of the Albani book, and Mr. Denistoune,. alarmed for the safety of his treasure, wrapped it up in paper, addressed it to his bankers in London, and, explaining that it was his bank pass-book, gave it over to a lady friend who was leaving for England, to convey to London.

Within three or four days of the lady’s departure, the agents of the Vatican called on Mr. Denistoune to demand the surrender of the treasure which had, they declared, been stolen from the Library in the Vatican of Clement XI. Mr. Denistoune declared he had not got the book they wanted and gave them permission to search his house. So accurate had been their information that they went at once to the very place in the bookcase whence the volume had been so lately removed, and, not finding it there, they searched the house from top to bottom.

A charge of theft was then formulated against Mr. Denistoune, and he was taken off to the Castle of St. Angelo, and there confined. Mr. Denistoune, however, at once appealed to the English consular authorities, who quickly gave the police to understand that they had exceeded their powers, and, after two days’ imprisonment, Mr. Denistoune was liberated, and at once left for England. The late Earl of Ashburnham then heard of the book, and tried hard to get its owner to sell it to him. At last, in an unguarded moment, Mr. Denistoune cheerily said that years before he had offered it to the British museum for £250, and he should not be content with less than three times that price now. Lord Ashburnham jumped at the figures, produced a bundle of notes, and in a few moments obtained the coveted treasure for £750. Until a year or two ago, the little volume rested at Ashburnham Place, but it was privately sold quite recently, together with several other fine manuscripts, to Mr. Henry Yates Thompson. It is now in his famous and most wonderful collection, and it is to his kindness that I owe the privilege of handling and describing the book. The story has been pieced together from several narratives told me in Italy.

There are four splendid illuminated pages in the volume, each by a different hand, and each page the work of some great artist at his very best. There are also borders and other illuminations, which are probably the work of yet a fifth miniaturist.

The Perugino page is signed :

PETRVS PRVSINVS PINXIT,

and represents Saint Sebastian fastened to an upright pillar of wood, and being shot at by two archers.

These archers are gaily dressed : one, wearing a cap, has long red stockings, brown shoes, and a blue vest and a brown drapery around his waist ; the other, who is bareheaded, has blue stockings, yellow boots, a red vest, and green drapery around his waist.

Above, in the air, are two angels, one of whom is turning towards the martyred saint. One angel has a drapery of puce, with green sleeves, and has yellow wings ; the other wears orange, with red sleeves, and has green wings. The drapery around Saint Sebastian is puce colour. In the distance is a lovely typical Perugino landscape, extensive, and full of light and air ; there are hills and rocks, trees and water, exquisitely painted, and revealing, in their wonderful effect of never-ending distance, the best work of the artist. The silhouetted effect of the trees is particularly characteristic. Above is the lofty dome of blue sky, bearing upon it the strange, frilled, fleecy clouds in which the artist so delighted, and illuminated by the glow of light that he was so easily able to produce.

The work I attribute to the 1500-1523 period, as the puce colour, the colouring of the angels’ wings, and the shape of the clouds, all are characteristics of that period, as well as the subject itself and its treatment.

It is important to refer briefly to the way in which Perugino painted Sebastian. There are : 1. the Cerqueto fresco of 1478 ; 2. the Fiesole picture, now in the Uffizi, of 1493 ; 3. the Wantage figure, of about 1498 ; 4. the Borghese picture, of about 1500 ; 5. the Panicale fresco, of 1505 ; 6. the Perugia fresco, of 1518 ; 7. the manuscript in question ; and the drawing of an archer at Christ Church, Oxford. (I leave out of this consideration the effeminate St. Sebastian, in the Perugia gallery, Sala XI., No. 16.)

The Cerqueto one, and all the others save No. 2, represent St. Sebastian tied to a column of wood ; but the Cerqueto fresco is far more robust in its delineation, more Signorellesque in its muscular power than any of the others. The bend of the neck and the upward gaze of the face are distinctive of all seven.

The Uffizi picture alone (2), in which St. Sebastian is one of the two attendant saints, standing one on either side of the enthroned Madonna, represents the figure with his hands, as usual, bound behind him, but he is not bound to a column. In Nos. 2, 3, and 4 the saint stands on the ground ; in the others, 1, 5, 6, and 7, the wooden post is elevated above the ground. The position of the feet differs in every case, but in each instance the face is upturned, the hands bound behind the back, the body nude, save for a loin-cloth, and the flesh pierced by arrows. In No. 7 there is but one mark of an arrow to be noted. The page in question most closely resembles the Perugia picture, No. 6. This came ‘ from the church of San Francesco al Patro, and was painted in the year of a great visitation of plague, and the selection of the plague saint is thus accounted for. In this picture there are the two archers only (whereas at Panicale there are four), and there are the two angels, which in the Panicale fresco ccrtainly appear, but are in attendance upon the Eternal Figure, whose representation appears in the lunette above. One angel in the Perugia picture (6) bears a crown. It is impossible to say what the other one carries, as the fresco is so damaged ; but the colouring of these angels very closely resembles the gay colouring in the manuscript. The column was a very persistent type, as in structure the one painted in 1478 appears over and over again later on. The column in this manuscript very closely resembles the central limb of Perugino’s crosses in his crucifixion scenes ; and in this detail Lord Wantage’s picture resembles most closely the manuscript; but the landscape, which is but slight and loose in this picture, is very fine in the manuscript and almost identical with the Città della Pieve landscape, and with the Bettona one, and closely resembles the repainted Borghese picture (4), which has also the frilled clouds that are so distinctive in the manuscript.

Mr. Thompson’s manuscript is in perfect order, and is a most beautiful work. I have no hesitation in accepting it as a genuine work of Perugino, and the very folds of the drapery, when compared with the same arrangement in other pictures, will be found to ratify the attribution.

Comparison with the Perugia fresco (6), will give the probable date of the manuscript, and will afford a striking example of the readiness with which Perugino used over and over again the same theme, treated in the same manner, varying each representation in some slight, characteristic way, and yet preserving the same general effect which had pleased him so much in days gone by.