Perugino – The Story Of The Pillage

THERE are two noteworthy circumstances that affect the biographer of Perugino. On the one hand is the fact that so many of his pictures are dated, and hence along the story of his life stand out clearly defined certain pieces of definite evidence, marking his progress and his years. On the other hand is the opposing circumstance that most of his altar-pieces have been taken to pieces, removed from their original home, and scattered in all directions throughout Europe, so much so that the task of reconstructing the most important, that of S. Agostino, is one of serious difficulty.

This scattering has enormously increased the troubles of the biographer, obliging him to journey from Paris to Marseilles, from Grenoble to Bordeaux, from Strassburg to Tarbes in order to inspect all the parts of even one picture, and even in Perugia itself renders it almost impossible to speak definitely of the history of certain altar-pieces.

It is from the French occupation of Italy that all these difficulties result. There was a time prior to 796 when Perugia was very rich with the works of her adopted son Pietro Perugino. At that time almost very church possessed pictures by the master ; the altar-piece painted in 1495 for the magistrates’ chapel was still in situ, and the public buildings in the city were possessed of rich decoration, the work of that artist whom Perugia had delighted to honour and employ.

After the armistice of Bologna had been signed in 1796, French commissioners were sent through Italy to demand and select pictures and other works of art which Napoleon required as spoil from his defeated enemies.

Perugia, as a city rich in art treasures, suffered greatly. The treaty of Tolentino (1797) demanded urgency, and, without any delay, a commissioner, Tinet by name, descended upon Perugia, and, on the very day on which the treaty was signed, addressed a letter to the Priori, demanding in the name of the Republic leave of entry into all churches, monasteries, and public places, in order to select such objects as he thought were worthy of transmission to Paris. He did not confine himself to an arrangement that had been made in the previous July, that Perugia was to furnish three pictures as its ransom, but demanded free right to take what he pleased. His orders were too pressing to be eluded, and the Priori had no course but to obey. The pillage commenced on the 20th, and lasted for two days, but Tinet was not satisfied. He had a strong impression that many of the best things were hidden from him, and so in even more emphatic terms he demanded that the superiors of St. Augustine and St. Antoine, and the librarians of the religious orders and of the town should give him access in order that he might select their greatest treasures and whatever he thought worthy of adorning the museums of the great republic. Meantime, secretly by night, with urgent haste, the treasures of the religious houses were being hidden away. The altar-pieces were divided and the smaller portions, pictures from the predelle, and panels of attendant saints were carried to private houses, hidden under floors and behind panelling, and secreted in every possible way. Reliquaries and monstrances were in wells, and railings and iron grilles covered over with grease and dirt in order to hide them from the covetous gaze of the commissioner.

Tinet was, however, unfortunately, a very determined man, and a connoisseur to boot, and in the two days’ search, he had obtained the chief treasures in Perugia. It appeared at one time as though that notable picture, the altar-piece in the Magistrates’ Chapel, painted in 1495, would be overlooked, but he remembered it at the very last moment and it was included. To add insult to injury, the Perugians were ordered to pack and transmit their treasures, but every possible effort was made to delay the work and prevent their being sent off. Much correspondence ensued, and the Priori did their utmost to raise difficulties, but all was to no purpose, and on March 27th six carriages drawn by twenty-four oxen and attended by six peasants, quitted Perugia amid the tears and lamentations of the people, carrying with them the greatest treasures of the city, lever to be seen again within its walls. The very magnificent proportions of many of Perugino’s pictures rendered it impossible for them to be concealed, their predella pictures and pilaster saints were in some instances safe, but the central panels it was impossible to guard, and in the thirty-two pictures carried off to Paris, there were included twelve of the greatest of the master’s works, and also the famous ” Sposalizio ” from the chapel of the Anello, and the “Palladium” of the city, the altar-piece from the Magistrates’ Chapel. Drawn by the great white Umbrian oxen, and slowly journeying across Europe, these heavily-laden vans took their way, and the pictures that for three hundred years had been objects of devotion and delight to the good people of Perugia, and were cruelly torn from their resting places, went to swell the vanity of the terrible conqueror in Paris.

Still, however, Perugia now so poor in her master’s works, was too rich for envious eyes. The peace of Vienna had been signed, there was a pause in the warfare in Europe prior to the invasion of Russia in 1812, and some attention was given to internal affairs. On the 25th of February 1811 appeared an Imperial decree, requiring that the treasures in the department of the Trasimène (as the district under its new French rulers was styled) should be brought together in order to ornament the picture galleries that Napoleon had erected. With cruel irony the decree stated that, doubtless, the people of Perugia would rejoice that their pictures were deemed worthy to ornament the galleries of Paris.

Napoleon himself had a great admiration for the works of Perugino, and the pictures he owned by the master made him desirous of possessing more; and as with the conqueror to desire was to obtain, he immediately issued this decree regardless of the feelings of his newly conquered subjects. The Count de Champagny, who was the minister charged with the execution of the decree, passed on to Count Daru, his subordinate in the ” French” city of Rome, a list of pictures that had been prepared by Baron Denon, the director of the gallery, who had passed his youth in Italy, and being a great connoisseur, had an excellent memory of what fine Italian pictures were left in the plundered city.

Count Daru was to pass on the list to Baron Roederer, prefect of the Trasimène, who on his part was to see at the Sub-Prefect Spada gave every assistance to ne, Tofanelli, who was to select and transmit the pictures.

Tofanelli arrived in Perugia September 30th, 1812, and one day sufficed for him to make his selection. forty-eight pictures were selected, and packed in cases ready for transmission, an agreement entered into between him and the town, signed by himself and counter signed by the mayor, and a contract sealed between him and Signor Franceschini for removing the pictures t. Rome, and then Tofanelli hurried off back to Rome. The pictures were to be sent immediately, but upon Tofanelli’s departure, a long series of delays and negotiations commenced, suggested and arranged by the mayor in order to save the pictures. This worthy man, Ceasarei, deserves better recognition today in Perugia. He worked valiantly for the city, and now his name is nearly forgotten. While Tofanelli was in Perugia, he dissembled his feelings, aided the commissioner, signed a y papers that were presented to him, had the pictures packed, and gaily saluted Tofanelli as he left the city ; but once the commissioner had gone, he determined to do his very utmost to prevent the forty-eight pictures gathered from the shrines of his city leaving its gates. H appealed to the bishop and to the government, he worried the prefect and the sub-prefect, and eventually obtained a promise that those pictures which were specially dear as objects before which the Perugians paid their devotions might be retained. Forthwith the cases were opened, and these pictures replaced in their original positions, to the great joy of the people.

Hardly had this been done than the permission was countermanded. The mayor was regretting that he had asked for so little, and that the pictures in the sacristies and corridors of the monasteries would not be grouped with those taken from the churches. He was explaining that all the pictures were equally dear to the Perugians, when again an order arrived to send on all the pictures. Once more the mayor dissembled. He promised to send the cases as soon as he could obtain carriages, but at the same time wrote, to the Count Daru, to the Director of the Police in Rome, and to the Count Baglioni Oddi, one of the deputies in Paris, invoking the interests of religion and of art of the province and of the capital to save his beloved pictures. Again he won a temporary success. On August 26th an order arrived from headquarters, permitting Perugia to retain twenty out of the forty-eight pictures chosen by Tofanelli. Once more there was rejoicing, but again came disaster. Count Daru intervened, every concession was overturned, and a fresh order from even higher authorities reached the mayor, ordering him to send on without delay to the Capitol at Rome, every picture selected by Tofanelli. These instructions the mayor stated he could not understand. He wrote on November 16, stating that, of course, this last order did not include the pictures just given back to Perugia, and appealing to Baron Roederer for consideration, adding as a reason that he could not be responsible for the people should the pictures that they cherished be taken away.

To this appeal Roederer turned a deaf ear. He wrote on December 4, again on December 8, and again on December 13, stating that it was impossible to admit any reasons, and he must demand that all the pictures be sent at once. The mayor, indefatigable as ever, wrote again and again, raised all kinds of difficulties, continued to warn the authorities that the people would make a tumult, and that he could not be responsible for their tranquillity, and finally sent letters from the clergy of San Severo and San Costanzo supporting his statements.

All was of no avail. On November 6th, 1813, final definite orders arrived, and the precious cases had to be sent to Rome.

A few more days’ delay would have saved the pictures, as at the moment that the cases reached Rome the Neapolitans under Murat entered the city, and French dominion in Rome was at an end. Even then the irony of circumstance continued, for, when, on January 6th, 1814, the pictures arrived in Paris, the allied forces arrived also, and Baron Denon was ordered to restore to their lawful proprietors the pictures that had been stolen.

The most unfortunate part of the story has now to be told. Instead of forcing France to restore the booty at her own cost and at once, the allies, in more merciful mood, simply demanded that she should send for the Italian representatives and permit them to take away their property. Only ten days were allowed in Paris for the booty to be secured, packed, and transmitted, and, as envoys arrived from all parts of Italy, and each was eager to obtain what he could as quickly as possible, very many pictures were left behind. The pictures sent to Paris in 1797 had been more in number than could be accommodated in the gallery, and, as it is so easy to give away other people’s property, the government had distributed as marks of favour and bribes for tranquillity many of the best Italian pictures amongst the provincial museums in France. Many of these pictures Canova, who was sent by the Holy See, failed to trace ; others it was impossible to obtain, as, although the allies were in possession of Paris, they were not equally masters of the distant provinces in France, and, consequently, in France these pictures remained. Even of those twenty-one pictures stolen from Perugia in 1812 but two were returned to Italy, and those only got as far as Rome.

Englishmen may well feel proud of their part in this transaction. It was the firmness of the British government that enabled the Vatican Gallery to take its position as one of the great picture galleries of the world. They not only enforced the restitution by the French of the plunder accumulated in the Louvre by the rapacious arms of Napoleon, but even contributed some £30,000 to defray the expenses of the removal, which the finances of Pius VII. could ill afford, no other allied power contributing one farthing.

Canova gathered up, in the short time at his disposal, and with the limited means that he possessed, all the fine pictures that he could obtain, and the treasures now in Rome are the proof of his zeal and exertions.

Meantime the Priori of Perugia waited for two years, hoping against hope that their treasures might come back to them. At length, in September 1816, they wrote to Canova, and he replied to them on the 20th. His letter explained how encompassed with difficulty he had been in Paris, how short a time had been allowed him in which to remove the pictures, how small were the means at his disposal, how scattered were the pictures, and how impossible it was, without force of arms to travel from department to department and take possession of the property.

With regard to one notable picture about which the Perugians were specially anxious, the “Ascension,” from San Pietro, he explained that the people of Lyons had appealed to the Pope for permission to retain it. They set forth their attachment to the Holy See, their zeal for the Chief Pontiff, and the singular affection which they had manifested toward His Holiness whenever he passed by Lyons. Their petition received attention, and the cardinal secretary wrote, on November 13th, 1816, an authorisation to the city of Lyons to retain the picture which had been so disgracefully torn from its resting-place in Perugia.

Canova was evidently as anxious as were the Perugians to obtain back all the pictures ; but events were too strong for him, and the poor Perugians never again possessed the great treasures of art which, prior to 1797, made their city one of the richest in Italy.

Cesarei, the indefatigable mayor of Perugia, who had been appointed gonfaloniere year after year in order to obtain restitution of the pictures, did not give up hope of obtaining his end for some years. He tried hard to obtain the two pictures which English generosity had restored to Italy, and he worried the Holy See with repeated letters and appeals.

At length Cardinal Consalvi, on October 8th, 1817, closed the whole episode by a letter to Cesarei. He explained that the pictures were all presented by the allied forces to the Sovereign Pontiff as the Head of the Pontifical states from which they had been taken, and that they were exposed in Rome for the education of the students who came from all over Europe to study in the Queen of Cities. In consequence, the Papal Government had the right, the Cardinal continued, to retain the pictures.

It may be added that, even if the Holy See had not the right to retain the pictures, it had too much business on hand at that time to be able to give attention to works of art, and insufficient money in its depleted treasury to pay for their removal.

Such is the story, with all its mournful details, of the pillage of Perugia, and it will now be easily understood why the provincial museums of France are so rich in the works of this master.

To reconstruct the great altar-piece of St. Agostino means that visits must be made to Lyons, Grenoble, Toulouse, Nantes, and Perugia. For another altar-piece it is necessary to visit Rouen, Lyons, Perugia, Rome, and Paris ; while yet other pictures are at Caen Nancy, Tarbes, Bordeaux, Strassburg, Marseilles, Lille, and Chantilly.

The scattering is not now wholly confined to France, for pictures at one time in France are now at Altenburg, Frankfort, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, while odd pieces of these self-same pictures remain to-day in Perugia.