Pintoricchio – Biographical Information

PINTORICCHIO is not one of the most famous painters of the Italian Renaissance, and perhaps no painter who has left us such a mass of work, and work of such interest, has attracted so little criticism and inquiry. From the time of Vasari’s slighting biography onwards, he has been included among minor painters and passed over with very superficial examination. No separate life of him in English exists, no attempt has been made to consider his work in anything like exhaustive detail, or to define his charm. It would be idle to claim for him a place in the first rank : some may question his right to stand in the second ; in some of the greatest essentials he will not pass muster — yet charm he does possess, qualities whose fascination draws those who are open to it back to him again and again with fresh pleasure ; and for this, and because he presents us with so true a type of the Umbrian painter of the Renaissance, it is worth while trying to unravel his history.

Before we try to disentangle the origin of his art, before we compare his different periods and examine the paintings he has left us, we must make some attempt to arrive at his personality, to see the man as he was, to gain what clue we may, by this means, to the work in which his life was spent.

Nothing can be more meagre than the few hints we have of his origin and early history, and yet we can probably construct a pretty correct outline of their chief features. Vermiglioli in 1837 made a careful examination of the archives of Perugia and Siena, and was the first to endeavour to rehabilitate the artist, and to re-awaken that public interest which was so liberally bestowed on him in his lifetime. He was born at Perugia about 1454, if we are to believe Vasari, who tells us that when he died in 1513 he was in his fifty-ninth year. His father was one Benedetto or Benedecto, and he was christened Bernardino Benedetto (afterwards shortened to Betto or Betti). The famous saint, Bernardino of Siena, had died ten years earlier and was canonised in 1550. During his last years his preaching had made a great sensation in Perugia, and no doubt numbers of children born at this time were dedicated to him. A document of 1502 exists at Siena, in which Pintoricchio is styled the son of Benedetto di Biagio, so that we thus learn the bare names of his father and grandfather. We have no means of knowing their standing, but the entire absence of any mention of relatives or inheritance makes it probable that he came of poor people, and was not blessed with any close family ties. We know nothing of what was the childhood of the “little painter,” only the nickname of “il sordicchio,” the deaf one, suggests that this infirmity may have been one reason why he was dedicated to an artist’s career ; but the deafness could hardly have been very remarkable, as it is never alluded to otherwise, nor does it appear to have hampered Bernardino’s intercourse with the world. There is a faint tradition * that his home was near the Porto San Christoforo, which, while hardly worth notice, indicates that his youth was passed in Perugia.

From the tendencies which all his life clung about his work, we surmise that he began his artistic career under one of the miniature painters who then flourished in Perugia. Vermiglioli refers to a series of miniature paintings belonging to his family, which Orsini, in his researches into the history of Umbrian painting, had already mentioned as resembling Pintoricchio’s work, especially in the use made of architecture. At the time he was growing up there was a flourishing college of miniaturists in Perugia, which had reconstructed its statutes in 1436.

Vasari thus comments upon Bernardino : “Some are helped by fortune, without being much endowed by merit ; . . . one knows that Fortune has sons who depend on her help without any virtue of their own, and she is pleased that they should owe their exaltation to her favour, when they would never have been known for their own merit.” t But Vasari evidently knew nothing of the good or bad fortune of Pintoricchio’s early days, and was merely balancing his own estimate of the artist against the consideration he received in later years.

Natural bent and circumstance combined to form Bernardino Betti into an Umbrian of the Umbrians, placing him on the less powerful but more indigenous side of the sharply-divided line which ran through the artistic life of the country. There is sufficient suggestion of Benedetto Bonfigli in some of his work, to make it probable that he joined the school which Bonfigli had established in Perugia in the early part of the fifteenth century. Vasari speaks of him as an assistant and friend of the older master. Here he would have been brought into close contact with Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, who must have been considerably the senior of Pintoricchio, as he was undertaking important commissions as early as 1472. It is this master whose influence is most strongly stamped upon him. Afterwards, as we shall see, he constantly transferred figures from Fiorenzo’s panels to his own, while in the older man’s compositions we can pick out others which have more of Pintoricchio than Fiorenzo ; but the latter, though full of originality and attraction as he is, never advances beyond a certain point, and always retains something of the archaic.

It is in 1482 that Bernardino first emerges from the realm of conjecture, and appears, forming part of that brilliant group which was gathered together in Rome to decorate the walls of Sixtus IV.’s newly-built chapel.

Already he may have been confused in Umbria with the very inferior master, Bernardino Mariotto of Perugia, who lived for many years at San Severino, where he had a school in the monastery of the old town. His paintings have often been assigned to his contemporary, and this is very likely the reason that the latter always signs and calls himself Pintoricchio. While he endeavoured to guard against being credited with works he had not produced, he has been robbed of those really due to him. It is strange indeed that for several centuries the part he took in such a great work as the Sixtine Chapel should have been ignored, for it was the success of these frescoes which sufficed to establish his fame in Rome, and for some years after this we find him in full employment there. The chapel was completed in 1485, but Pintoricchio’s part was probably finished earlier, and it is at this time that most critics concur in placing his work in the church of Ara Coeli. He had commended himself to the patronage and friendship of Domenico della Rovere, brother of Pope Sixtus, and was a guest at his house in the Palazzo di SS. Apostoli, where he painted a decoration, and he was also employed at this time in the Palazzo Colonna. In the two following years, Pintoricchio was employed in the Belvedere of the Vatican by Pope Innocent VIII. He painted there the series of pictures of towns owning the papal sway; which Taja mentions as existing, though in a much injured condition, in 1750, and which was repainted under Pius VII.* In the years immediately following he was decorating the chapels in Santa Maria del Popolo, doing much with his own hand, but already employing assistants and superintending their share.

A document in the archives of the cathedral at Orvieto, as to which Vasari knew nothing, or was silent, dated 1492, informs us of an agreement made with the chapter to paint two evangelists and two Fathers in the cathedral. The price was to be a hundred ducats. There was a good deal of coming and going between Rome and Orvieto, and in that year he was paid fifty ducats for the portion of work done, and also began a small picture in the tribune, but fell into a violent quarrel with the ecclesiastics, who averred that the first part of the work was not painted according to agreement. Their real objection seems to have been that they were getting frightened at the quantity of gold and ultramarine employed, which was more than the chapter could afford. There was some talk of taking the work from him, and it was certainly interrupted for a time. He was probably very willing to return to Rome, for a third Pope was now providing him with work, no less a personage than Alexander VI., who, as Cardinal Borgia, had already given great encouragement to the artist in Rome, and who now entrusted Pintoricchio with the decoration of his private apartments. The quarrel with the monks at Orvieto must, however, have been made up, and he returned to finish their transept, for we find Pope Alexander writing to the Orvietans in March 1494 to beg that they will release Pintoricchio and let him come back to Rome to finish what he had begun in the Borgia rooms.

In this year the Pope remunerated him by adding to the money paid in the contracts a grant of an ample piece of land, situated at Chiugi near Perugia, at an annual rent of thirty baskets of grain.t The Borgia rooms could but just have been completed when, in January 1495, the Pope was driven to take refuge from the French king’s invasion of his city in the fortified castle of Sant’ Angelo. His court painter would naturally have gone with him, and when the Pope fled to Orvieto and Perugia in the summer of 1495, Pintoricchio went homewards in his train. In the next few months, an altar-piece for the monks of the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli must have been under discussion ; for in February 1496 the contract was signed for the great polyptych now in the Gallery at Perugia. The fulfilment of this contract had to await the master’s leisure ; for a month later, on March 15th, he signs a fresh contract with the Orvietans for two Fathers of the church to be painted in the great chapel over the principal altar. He was to receive fifty ducats, six quarters of grain, such wine as might be necessary, and to have the use of a house, besides what gold and ultramarine he might require. The archives of the cathedral contain minute records of every payment made, and on the 15th November of that year he received the last instalment. The documents contain allusions to other paintings by him, but the only traces that remain are a St. Gregory, a prophet, and two angels which have some likeness to his school or his followers.

In 1497 we have a deed, issued October 24th, commuting the tax levied upon the painter’s grant of land. In this is recited and set forth Pintoricchio’s complaint that the tax is too heavy, and that it swallows up all the revenues. The claim is admitted to be well founded on the part of ” a faithful and devoted servant of Alexander and the Church, to whom a recompense is due for his art in painting and adorning the apostolic palace and our residence in arc castri Angeli.” Instead of the grain, a yearly tax of two pounds of white wax was adjudged on July 28th, to be paid on the Feast of the Assumption, for two years, by decree of the Cardinal Camerlengo.* A further endorsement shows that the municipal authorities were inclined to ignore the papal decree ; but a third brief, in May 1498, confirms the tenure of the land and tenements, and in February 1499 the first commutation is extended for a further term. After all these gracious concessions, it is surprising to find the tax-gatherers in the same year again trying to exact the condoned thirty baskets. Pintoricchio once more appealed to the Pontiff, with whom he was in high favour, and Alexander ordered that restitution should be made in effects or money, according to the price at which grain was valued on the Piazza in Perugia on the first Saturday in August ; and in September we find Pintoricchio receiving of the vice-treasurer, Bonifazio Coppi, eighty florins in return for the tax extorted in opposition to the papal behest.

While this interesting decision was in the balance, Bernardino was once more in Rome, and able to plead his own cause, for about July 1497 he was recalled there, and spent a year frescoing the castle of Sant’ Angelo for the Pope, but in the following year he was back at home, and finished the polyptych for Santa Maria dei Fossi. Probably about this time he married, and he may also have visited Spoleto, besides producing a good many panel paintings, for no very definite work can be assigned to these years in Perugia. He was very naturally engrossed with his new wife, and busy with his little property, and not undertaking any important commissions.

In October of the following year, Caesar Borgia, son of the painter’s great patron, was encamped at Deruta, the little town that lies out among the hills, a few miles west of Perugia. Pintoricchio visited him here while he was resting after his campaign in the Romagna, and obtained an order desiring the vice-treasurer to get permission for him to sink a cistern in his house in Perugia. What interests us even more than this domestic detail is Caesar’s statement that he has ” again ” taken into his service Bernardino Pintoricchio of Perosa, whom he always loved because of his talents and gifts, and he desires that in all things he shall be treated “as one of ours.” Caesar’s expression that he had “again” taken him into his service, suggests that he had not quite recently been retained by the Pope.

Very soon after his visit to the Borgia’s camp, he was in treaty with the Cardinal of Spello, thirteen miles from Perugia, to decorate the chapel of his House ; but before leaving home he was elected Decemvir of the city, a proof of how high he stood in repute among his fellow-citizens. It could only have been an honorary distinction, for his work in Spello must have taken all his remaining time in Umbria to accomplish. One short visit he was to pay to his own province, but early in 1502 the summons reached him which changed the course of his life. Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini made him the offer which caused him to move to Siena and begin one of his most important undertakings.

Siena is a long journey from Perugia across the hills and plains that lie around Lake Thrasymene, past Chiugi, and so through the breadth of Italy. It brought the painter into new surroundings, and took him quite out of the beaten track. The long and elaborate contract between the Cardinal and the painter must have taken no little time to discuss and agree upon, but it was finished and signed June 29, 1502. During the following autumn and winter, he made his preparations, gathered his workmen and assistants together, and by the spring of 1503 was hard at work in the building, beginning with the ceiling, which we are able, with tolerable certainty, to determine was nearly completed by the autumn.

This part of the work may have been just seen by the Cardinal, who became Pope, September 21st, 1503, dying three weeks later, and bringing Pintoricchio’s work to a standstill. His patron’s death freed him for the time from his inability to take private orders, and he promptly accepted one from the family of Aringhieri, and between this autumn and the following August, painted the frescoes in the Chapel of San Giovanni in Siena Cathedral ; while on March 13th, in the spring of 1505, he was paid for the design of Fortune for the cathedral pavement. Rather before this, the work in the library had been begun, as it was only in abeyance for a little over a year ; but the death of Cardinal Andrea Piccolomini in June 1505 again delayed its progress for a short time. Pintoricchio started thereupon on a visit to Rome, which must have been crowded with work if he now accomplished the decoration of the choir of Santa Maria del Popolo, and returned early in 1506 to continue the work in the library. It now went on with no further hindrance. In May or June 1508 all the compartments were finished, and the building handed over to the Piccolomini family, from whom the last payment under the contract was received in January 1509.

There is no document to show exactly when he married, but from the table in Milanesi’s edition of Vasari, a daughter, Adriana, who had married a Perugian, died in 1519. She, and probably two others, Faustina and Egidia, must have been born before he left for Siena. There is, however, no trace in the Perugian archives of his wife or children, and Mariotti, writing in 1788, suggests that a search among the documents of Siena may determine the question. Here it is that we find entries of the birth of those children born after he moved to Siena, Giulio Cesare, Camillo Giuliano, and a second Faustina. His wife, as we learn from the petitions she presented after his death, was Grania, daughter of one Niccolò of Bologna or Modena. From the number of her children, and the unhappy relations which seem to have existed between husband and wife, we surmise that Pintoricchio married a woman much younger than himself. If three children were born before 1502, he probably married about 1496-98, at which time he was living in Perugia, after his return from Rome, when he would have been forty-two to forty-four years of age.

In the year that his first son was born, Pintoricchio matriculated at the College of Painters at Perugia. He is there described as Bernardinus Becti, detto il Pinturicchio, whose habitation was at the Porta San Angelo.* In December of the same year, the magistrates of Siena approve of the Commune of Monte-massi making him a donation of twenty ” moggie ” of land of Fortified, doubtless, by his success in combating Perugian taxes, he immediately applies to the Council of Siena to free the grant for thirty years from taxes of “dazzi and gabelli.” This was conceded, with the exception of the gate tax. The petition runs ::

“Bernardino Pintoricchio, who now addresses the most respected officials (of the Balia), is the servant of your Lordships, and not the least among renowned painters ; for whom, as Cicero has written, the Romans in early times held but little. Yet after the increase of the empire, and in consequence of Eastern victories and the conquest of the Greek cities, they called the best from all parts of the world, not hesitating to seize all the finest pictures and sculptures which they could discover. They admitted painting to be supreme, similar to the liberal arts, and a rival to poesy. And artists being usually esteemed by those who govern republics, the said Bernardino has elected Sienna to be his home, hoping to live and reside there ; (therefore) confiding in the clemency of your Lordships, and considering the adverse nature of the times, the smallness and diminution of profits, and the weight of his family ; having heard also that craftsmen taking up their abode here receive grants of immunities, he prays exemption for thirty years from all taxes what-ever, whether present or to come.”

In the spring of 1508 he was back across Italy to little Spello, where, in the transept of Sant’ Andrea, he left an altar-painting, a Madonna and Saints, which does not add materially to his reputation. On a little stool in the foreground of the picture is painted a letter of Cardinal Baglioni, dated April 8th, 1508, written from his castle of Rocca di Zocco, full of affectionate assurances, and asking the painter to return to Siena. Its inclusion has been imputed to Pintoricchio’s vanity; but a man who had been friends with Popes, and who had long been courted on all sides, was hardly likely to be uplifted by the friendship of a simple Cardinal-bishop. It is more likely that he was bitten with a rather inartistic fancy for painting objects lying about; to deceive the eye, and hit upon this as an appropriate one.

He now paid his last visit to Rome : Pope Julius II. had summoned him, together with Perugino, Signorelli, and others, to consider the decoration of the Vatican rooms. Giambattista Caporali, the historian, speaks of a supper at which they were all present at the house of Bramante. Their host was the man who had introduced young Raphael to the Pope, and Pintoricchio, among the rest, had the mortification of seeing himself superseded in the city where he had been foremost . few years earlier. He and Signorelli returned to Siena together, and the master of Cortona stood sponsor to the child born in January 1509. In October, Pintoricchio had sold a house in the third ward of the city to Pandolfo Petrucci for 420 florins. He was in close contact at this time with that great merchant prince, and was employed with Signorelli on Petrucci’s new palace, where he painted the frescoes, of which one, the ” Return of Ulysses,” in the National Gallery, is all that remains. We find him buying land in Siena and selling it in Perugia, making his will, and arranging his affairs. In the last year of his life he painted that brilliant and tender little picture of ” Christ bearing the Cross,” now in the Borromeo Palace at Milan. He was suspicious and unhappy about his wife’s behaviour, and a fresh will was made, to which a codicil was added in September and another in October. In the first he deprived her of some of the money he had already left her, but he returned it in the last addition.

Vasari’s story of the cause of his death, which took place December 11 th, 1513, can be nothing but a fable. He tells us that Pintoricchio was executing some work for the Fathers of San Francesco, and being hampered by a heavy bureau in the room assigned to him, insisted on having it moved. In the transit it broke open, and a treasure of gold was discovered in the secret drawer, so much to the chagrin of the painter that he never held up his head again. The friends who knew the painter in Siena do not allude to any such occurrence ; and the popular master, entrusted with more commissions than he could execute, well paid and honoured by all men, was not likely to be upset by the sight of some gold coins, even if he could persuade himself that he had any right to them. The real circumstances of his death were sadder, if less sensational. Sigismondo Tizio, a Sienese historian, writer of a mass of almost unedited matter, who was his attached friend and his neighbour in the parish of San Vincenzo and Sant’ Anastasia, has left a record of his last illness, in which he accuses his wife Grania of causing his death by her neglect. Tizio says that she went about with her lover, Girolamo di Paolo, nicknamed il Paffo, a soldier of the Piazza at Siena, and that Bernardino was shut up and left to die of starvation ; that some women heard his cries and went to his assistance, and that it was from them that Tizio afterwards learned these particulars. From Tizio’s way of describing it he seems to accuse her of a deliberate attempt to starve her husband ; but as no proceedings were ever taken against her, and she succeeded in peace to her inheritance, we may gather that she was not guilty of actually criminal conduct, though her neglect was sufficient to hasten the death of a man attacked by serious illness and needing careful nursing. Bernardino Betti lies buried in the Parish Church of San Vincenzo, joining the Oratory of the Contrade of the Ostrich. In 183o the Abbé de Angelis put up a plate with an inscription to his memory. Mariotti speaks of a Giovanni di Pintoricchio who was a canon of the Cathedral of Perugia in 1525 ; but Pintoricchio’s own sons would have then been too young to hold such a post, and we hear nothing in later years of his descendants.

After his death Grania lived on in Siena, and two years after, as his executor and trustee, sold two lots of land to one of the Chigi for 1677 florins. Again, in the following year, she sought permission to sell the land which was the portion of her daughter Faustina, and she makes a will which is dated May 22nd, 1518. The man who was said to be her lover afterwards married her daughter Egidia.

We possess several portraits of Pintoricchio from his own hand ; all are sufficiently like one another, though painted at different periods of his life, to assure us that they were like the original. The first is in the fresco of the ” Argument of St. Catherine,” in the Borgia Apartments. The painter at this time must have been about thirty-nine years old. His portrait certainly looks much younger ; but he was a thin, dark man who very possibly looked less than his years, or he may have purposely represented himself so, as we notice this in other portraits. The face is an interesting and sensitive one, with speaking eyes and a melancholy expression. In the striking head which he has signed and placed as a picture on the walls of the Virgin’s chamber in the chapel of the Baglioni at Spello, the face has sharpened and aged considerably, though it still looks young for a man of fifty-two. The lines have deepened, the mouth is compressed, and the face wears a look of ill-health, almost of suffering. It has the dark, arched brows of the artist, and clever, observant eyes which look out at us, side ways, tending to give a suspicious look, though probably it was only that he saw himself so in a mirror. , Again, he stands in the row of portraits in the fresco of the “Canonisation of St. Catherine,” in the Library at Siena. This face, too, has an expression of bitterness and melancholy pinched lips, and sad, regretful eyes.* The self-conscious expression of all leads us to suspect that his was a self-tormenting, morbid nature, such as the artistic temperament and keen sense of beauty might well have combined with a sickly body to produce. In the eyes, too, it is easy to read that fantastic touch which came out in his love for story and for the grotesque, and perhaps there is something of that aloofness which the deafness, which led to his nickname, so often gives.

That he was a lovable man is, I think, evident. We hear of no quarrels with his fellow-artists ; Perugino secured him some of the best positions in the Sixtine, Signorelli was his child’s sponsor. He had clearly the art of managing his assistants, who everywhere worked intelligently under him. With Fiorenzo his artistic relations must have been of the closest. Pope Alexander valued him, and Caesar’s mention is an affectionate one, while the letter of Cardinal Baglioni is full of friendliness. Besides this, few things are more interesting in the history of artists’ friendships than the close confidence and affection which all study of the frescoes at Siena convinces us existed between him and the young Raphael. Sigismondo Tizio, in his MS., gives his opinion that Bernardino surpassed Perugino as a painter, but that he had less sense and prudence than Vannucci, and was given to empty chatter.

A small number of Pintoricchio’s works cannot be dated, and we must be satisfied with mentioning them, and considering the times at which they might have been produced.

His name is written variously in the documents of the time. In the grants of land signed by Cardinal Camerlengo, it is Pentoricchio, and Pentorichio on the fresco of Geometry in the Borgia rooms. Cardinal Baglioni writes it Pintorichio. In Grania’s petition it appears as Pinturicchio. He himself signs his last picture, the ” Cross-bearing Christ ” in the Palazzo Borromeo, Pintoricchio, and to this form I have adhered. In the documents he is usually styled Messer Bernardino.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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