Perugino – Technique : Pigments : Vehicles

WE now come to the year 1494 ; but before dealing seriatim with the pictures painted at that time it will be well to refer briefly to a question of technique. Crowe and Cavalcaselle make a definite statement to which I can -give no adherence. They speak of Pietro’s work changing from tempera to oil work, and they allude to his inability at this time to use the new medium in all its complexity, and later on to his complete mastery over oil-painting and his constant. use of it. Mr. Herbert Horne, on the other hand, states with an equal assurance that ” all Perugino’s pictures were painted in tempera on a gesso back-ground,” and I find it as difficult to accept this statement as that of Crowe and Cavalcaselle as a sufficient explanation of the question.

It is quite clear to a careful observer that the technique of the Albani picture differs from that of the triptych in the National Gallery, for example ; but the difficulty is then only stated. It is an extremely puzzling question to determine from an old master painting whether it was painted in tempera or not. Even Ruskin once admitted that he had for a long time been holding up for admiration as the finest oil-painting what he finally discovered to be tempera. The repeated oiling and varnishing to which Italian pictures have been submitted renders the task of discriminating the original medium one of the greatest perplexity. When to this is added the further statement that in some pictures it would appear that the under-painting which gives the shadows is in tempera and the glazes in oil colour, the danger of making such dogmatic statements as those already mentioned, is still more apparent.

The information which we possess as to tempera painting in the fourteenth century is derived from the ” Trattato ” of Cennino Cennini, and this has just been re-translated by the one person in England, who, more than anyone else has practised and understands tempera work. Mrs. Herringham, who has for years worked in tempera and copied the Quattrocento pictures in the National Gallery, has discussed this abstruse question, and from her knowledge, derived both from personal conversation and from her invaluable book,* I have obtained much information, and have coupled it with close personal examination of the pictures, and some interesting experiments. I think, in considering tempera painting, one factor, that of climate, has not always received sufficient attention. Mr. Spencer Stanhope has informed Mrs. Herringham that tempera never dries completely in this country, and should not be varnished, but this has not been her experience. It, however, expresses in crude statement the difficulty there is in this moist climate in using tempera satisfactorily, and there is little doubt that part of the success of Italian tempera work is due to the climate in which the artists worked. It is quite clear from Mrs. Herringham’s work, that tempera painting, by which I mean strictly yolk-of-egg painting, is capable of the soft transparent effects which are to be seen in Perugino’s pictures, and that no admixture of another vehicle with the egg is needful. It is not, however, clear whether the whole of many of his pictures were painted with yolk of egg alone.

I was in hopes at one time that a careful study of cracking and a comparison of the shape and formation of the cracks on different pictures would give me some definite formulae by which the medium used could be detected, but a very careful examination only gave inadequate results. There appear to be certain thick ridge – like formations in the darker colours especially at the very edges of the draperies, which it is very difficult to imitate in tempera, and while the landscape is most clearly put in quite lightly in tempera, yet the draperies are so different in handling as to give the impression that another medium was used for them. There is also a curious variety in Perugino’s pictures as to hatching, especially after 1500, and the hatching which till then only appears in the flesh, is later on to be seen in other parts of the picture. Blending of one colour with another is also to be seen in some of the later pictures to an extent that the earlier pictures never show, as with pure tempera painting the paint ” cannot be moved and blended as in oil work,” but ” it must be put on and left alone till it is dry.” I do not pre-tend to have touched more than the fringe of this subject, but my opinion is that Perugino did many of his pictures wholly in tempera, and that with others he used tempera for the under-painting and oil for the glazes, and that there are also pictures where size has been used as a medium for the draperies when great solidity and heavy cordy outline was desired. The question of oil colours cannot be dismissed in a sentence. Perugino probably learned a good deal as to the use of colours from the Gesuati, who were, as Vasari informs us, well practised in the art of colours, and conversant with glass-painting and enamel work, but the mystery remains as to how it is that the very fugitive colours he used have stood and remained as brilliant as ever.

For his Cantor Lectures in I892, Dr. A. P. Laurie carried out some remarkable experiments with certain fugitive colours and certain oils and balsams, with a view to ascertaining whether any oil varnishes were impervious to moisture, and securely locked up the colours against change. Many of these experiments I have repeated, and I have had some interesting conversation with Dr. Laurie, and agree with him absolutely that the only vehicles which lock up the colours against moisture and against the action of sulphuretted hydrogen are those composed of balsams. The stickiness of colour ground in balsam to which he alludes can, I have ascertained, be overcome by a few drops of pure linseed oil and a morsel of wax, and the result can then be used easily with a brush. Experimenting with the balsams of the larch and of the silver fir, I have been able to protect verdigris, orpiment, and kermes lake securely, and the experiments have been mainly conducted with verdigris and orpiment as notoriously fugitive colours and yet colours which it is quite clear Perugino used.

It may be well perhaps to allude here to Vasari’s story respecting the artist’s use of ultramarine. The colour was so costly that in several of his contracts Perugino expressly stated that his patron was to pro-vide it, and Vasari states that when he was painting in the cloister of the Ingesuati, the Prior, who himself prepared and supplied the ultramarine, was mean and mistrustful as to Perugino’s use of it, and would always be present when it was used. The artist took the Prior’s distrust to heart, and by constantly washing his brush in a bowl of water allowed more colour to be precipitated than he was using in his fresco. Having punished the Prior in this way, he gathered up the blue from the water and returned it to him with the words, ” This belongs to you, father ; Learn to trust honest men, for such never deceive those who confide in them, although they well know how to circumvent distrustful persons like yourself when they desire to do so.” Pliny records a similar story about vermilion. Perugino’s skies were painted with ultramarine, and put on very thinly, and they have a peculiar formation of cracking which is quite recognisable.

As regards grounds, I believe that all Perugino’s panel pictures are upon gesso laid upon panel, but in many of them it seems to me that linen has been used between the panel and the gesso as if to bind them together. Verdigris is, I believe, the only colour that will produce some of Perugino’s greens, and, as far as I have experimented, the balsams, as Venice turpentine and olio d’ abezzo, are the only varnishes that protect this very beautiful but most fugitive colour unchanged against the action of sulphuretted hydrogen and moisture.

These few statements as to technique are only suggestive. I am not a chemist, and the subject demands prolonged experiments in a laboratory ; and such experiments should result in most interesting discoveries. Resta calls Perugino’s colouring dry and sparing ; Lanzi alludes to what he terms its skimpiness, but the very thinness of it is but proof of the artist’s complete mastery of his medium, and that this medium was always mainly tempera, and was never what we know as oil painting is my distinct opinion, based upon an examination of almost every one of his works in Italy.


CROWE and Cavalcaselle, in speaking of the beautiful picture at Cremona dated 1494, refer to it as executed in Florence and sent to Cremona, but there are grave reasons against accepting this statement. It is quite clear that in that year Perugino was in Venice, and it is more natural to believe that he painted the picture in Cremona itself. The picture is one of great beauty, but is singularly unlike most of the painter’s other creations in a sturdy robustness of pose and countenance, both in the Madonna and in the Child, unlike the calm and slightly insipid composure of other works. This characteristic may perhaps be attributed to the recent influence of the works of Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina.

The picture represents the Blessed Virgin and Child on a throne, while St. James is on one side, St. Augustine on the other of the central figures. It is signed 1494, and still hangs in St. Augustine’s Church, Cremona, on the altar of the Roncadelli family.

In 1496 Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, was anxious to obtain the services of another painter for the rooms at the Castello, and he wrote to his envoy in Florence for information. The envoy replied, giving to the Duke information as to the leading characteristics of each of the greater Florentine artists. Of Perugino he wrote : “He is a rare and singular artist, most excellent in wall painting. His faces have an air of the most angelic sweetness.” Ludovico Sforza at once decided to employ Perugino, and wrote to his friend Guido Arcimboldo, Archbishop of Milan, who was then in Venice, begging him to inquire about Perugino, and, if possible, engage him. The Archbishop replied on June 14th to say that Perugino had left Venice. Unable to secure his services himself at that time, the Duke recommended Perugino to the monks of the Certosa at Pavia, and commissioned a great altar-piece from him. Accordingly, in October 1496, we hear of Perugino being at Pavia working at the altar-piece. In the following year, 1497, Il Moro again tried to secure the services of Perugino for the Castello, and wrote to one of the Baglioni, who at that time ruled over Perugia, begging him to send Perugino to him ; but the artist was then at work in Perugia, and so full of commissions that he declined Il Moro’s offer, and never went to the Castello.

The two years, 1 494 and 1495, saw the completion of the altar-piece for the Magistrates’ Chapel in Perugia—now in the Vatican Gallery and already mentioned,—the great ” Entombment ” in the Pitti Palace, the ” Ascension” altar-piece for San Pietro, Perugia, the portrait of Francesco delle Opere in the Uffizi, and the commencement of the greatest work of all, which was finished in 1496, the “Crucifixion” at Sta. Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi.

The ” Ascension ” altar-piece is the first one that we have to consider of that group of Perugino’s altar-pieces which have been divided, the component parts being scattered throughout Europe. To this division and scattering fuller attention is given in the next chapter, and it will suffice here to state that the centre part is at Lyons, the lunette at St. Gervais, Paris, the predella in three panels at Rouen, and the surrounding saints divided, three in the Vatican Gallery and five in the church of S. Pietro, where at one time the complete work rested. The picture at Borgo San Sepolcro is usually spoken of as a replica of the centre piece of this great picture, but I am strongly disposed to take an opposite view of the case.

Vasari records the painting of the Borgo picture, which was, he says, “executed for the Abbot Simone de’ Graziani and transported to the church of San Gilio at Borgo on the backs of porters at very heavy cost.” He also records the painting of the picture for S. Pietro, naming it almost at the close of his biographical notes on the artist; and of this picture he says : “The whole of it is replete with evidences of thought and care, insomuch that it is one of the best paintings in oil executed by Pietro in Perugia.” It is quite impossible to accept the chronology Vasari gives, as he mixes up dates in the most hopeless confusion ; but in this instance I think he is right in putting the Borgo picture before the Lyons one rather than vice versa.

The picture at Borgo is in bad condition : the one at Lyons has been transferred to canvas and very much repainted, and still shows signs of two vertical splits in the panel ; but, despite all these injuries, the Borgo picture is, I consider, the finer of the two, and the Lyons one, although by the same hand, a later and more careless replica.

In the Borgo picture the Virgin is in religious garb and has the head covered : in the Lyons picture there is a more secular garb, the head uncovered and short hair to be seen. In the Borgo picture the angels carry loosely looped narrow ribbon carefully and gracefully drawn : the ribbon in the Lyons picture is broader, more coarsely painted, lettered throughout, and falling in awkward folds. The wings of the cherubs in the mandorla at Borgo are painted with exquisite detail, every little scale and feather being carefully represented ; these details are almost entirely absent in the Lyons picture, where the wings of the cherubs appear to be hurriedly painted and lacking altogether in finish. There is far greater sweetness in the faces at Borgo, especially those of the Redeemer, the Virgin, St. Peter, and St. Paul, than at Lyons, where all these four important faces are roughly and even coarsely delineated. In some of the attendant disciples, the hair, which at Borgo is daintily painted in, and flows in slightly ringletted form, hangs loosely at Lyons and is of a harsher texture, and the wonderful trees sharply delineated against the sky and full of exquisite foliage at Borgo, are hardly to be seen at Lyons, and are represented by half-a-dozen dwarfish shrubs.

The mandorla in the Borgo picture is a deep luminous band of mysterious colour, out of which, and against the light fleecy clouds, rise the cherub faces : at Lyons it is a flat band of heavy colour, the clouds are woolly and thick, and the cherub faces, instead of rising from the wondrous depth, lie superimposed upon the mandorla as upon a piece of board.

I am strongly of opinion that the Borgo picture was the original work, the Lyons one, for which he contracted to the monks of Cassino, March 6th, 1495, being either a somewhat hurried replica of it in which the master grew tired of the monotony of repetition, or else that it was a picture in which a certain amount of labour was left to assistants and pupils. There is an important study for three apostles, in the Uffizi, which was clearly prepared for the Borgo picture and not for the Lyons one, as, while closely resembling the former, it differs from the latter in one or two important details. This is not the accepted theory, I know, and it is one that will probably not meet with universal acceptance, but a careful comparison of the pictures leads me to a clear opinion in the matter. With regard to the pilaster saints the case is different. Those at the Vatican are all genuine work of the master and are extremely fine, and the same may be said of three of the five at Perugia, but two of them are not entirely Perugino’s work, and bear traces of a pupil’s hand. The three predella pictures on the other hand, which are at Rouen, are charming examples of the master’s work, and are bathed in that wonderful golden sunlight which is so distinctive of his finest work. In each picture a strip of the foreground which was damaged in transit has had to be restored : in the ” Adoration ” it is the very slightest bit along the front of the whole picture ; in the “Resurrection” it is a wider piece, embracing part of the feet of three of the sleeping soldiers and the edge of the stone slab on which the tomb rests ; but in the third picture, the Baptism,” the damage is serious, as the foreground strip includes the feet of Our Lord and one foot of the Baptist. In all other respects these three panels are exquisite specimens of Perugino’s fine and discriminative work.

With respect to the lunette it must be noted that Crowe and Cavalcaselle and many other writers are in error in stating that it hangs in St. Germain 1′ Auxerrois in Paris, whereas it is in St. Gervais, a very different church. It is not in good condition, having suffered much from cleaning and repair, and it has a horizontal split which nearly divides it into two pieces. It is nevertheless clearly discernible as a fine work from the master’s hand. There is neither predella nor lunette at Borgo S. Sepolcro. There is no question as to the date of the» S. Pietro altar-piece, as the original contract for painting it is still in existence and appears in full in Orsini.* It is dated 8th March 1496, and recites how the abbot and chapter of the monastery gave out on contract to Perugino the picture of the High Altar for the price of 500 gold ducats. The Borgo picture was therefore, I contend, a little earlier, but perhaps only a year in advance of the other. The picture of Francesco delle Opere belongs to this same period, but as in the chapter on the Cambio it will be further discussed, it may well be passed with brief mention at this place. Finally, as part of the work of these two prolific years, comes one of our artist’s masterpieces, the ” Entombment,” now in the Pitti Palace. Space composition is seen in this picture in its full vigour. How quiet is the atmosphere of the scene, how reverent and tender a mood it creates. How vast is the space in which the episode is placed, and how marvellously is the sense of immeasurable distance produced.

The picture is one of the most beautiful that Perugino ever painted. The composition is very clever, well balanced and well grouped, while the faces are of a serene beauty that was never surpassed in later works. It is well to notice that the dead body of Our Lord retains much of the flexibility of life, while quite as clearly is seen the weight and the looseness of death. The mourners around are full of tender pity, while the grief of the Virgin is too great for words, and evinces itself in the look of deep affection that fills that wonderful face. Each figure is, however, distinct, self-centred, and enfolded in its own grief. It is only the fact that each one is thinking of the great central figure that gives to the picture, as a whole, any real completeness. It is a sober, thoughtful composition, full of sentiment, but lacking any of the strong moving force that other schools gave to a similar representation, and, although the forerunner of Fra Bartolommeo’s greater work, it has none of the intensity that his more emotional nature could present.

Some delightful studies for this picture appear in the Uffizi, marked by most careful study. The clenched hands of one of the two persons who stand close to Nicodemus are very noteworthy. The action is so expressive of intense, but restrained sorrow, and the drawing of the fine, delicate, but muscular hands, is particularly excellent. In the studies the richly-ornamented cap of the youth in the group does not appear. The cap in the drawing is quite plain, and the face, which in the picture is very expressive, is hard and uninteresting. Another large pen drawing for this picture exists, and is in Christ Church, Oxford. By some critics it is not accepted as a work of Perugino’s. It is ascribed to one of his pupils, or to a later man altogether, especially because several of the faces are hard and unimpressive. Let, however, the drapery be closely examined, and the curious formation with dark hollows and oval curves will be recognised at once. The large projecting great toe, and the manner in which it sets away from the other toes, leaving a clear space between it and them, is noticeable, while the limp flexibility of the bare flesh of the Christ is also an important criterion in deciding on the origin of the drawing. To me it appears as a thoroughly genuine work, marking out the general grouping of the picture. The positions of Nicodemus, Mary Cleophas, and the youth, underwent some slight changes, and the other figures near to Nicodemus were introduced, but the picture preserves very closely the original suggestions- of the drawing.

The finished picture was executed for the nuns of Santa Chiara, but when they had obtained it, so highly was it admired, that Vasari records that a rich Florentine, Francesco del Pugliese, offered them three times the price that they had paid for it, as well as a replica from the master’s own hand, but the tempting offer was declined, as Pietro had told them that he did not think he could equal the one they possessed.