UMBRIA is a land of late development in the history of Italian painting, and of a sharp division in the character of its art. No town of the importance of Siena, second only to Florence, held sway in that part of Italy, nor do we find any name in its early history which we can place side by side with Giotto, Orcagna, or Duccio di Buoninsegna. It is difficult to account for this : the Umbrian plains were indeed ravaged again and again with blood and carnage, were seized upon, now by this party, and now by that ; but all acquaintance with the art of the Renaissance bears in upon us that art as a rule only flourished more strongly when fed by war and ruin. One tyrant after another, as he rested from his conquests, became the patron of the painters. Pictures were painted to immortalise great victories, the altar-piece upon which the fame of Duccio chiefly hangs, was ordered by the Consiglio of Siena as a thank-offering to the Virgin after the battle of Monte Aperto.
The accounts of the cathedral at Orvieto give us names of artists who devoted themselves to its decoration towards the end of the fourteenth century others were working in Perugia, painting effigies of traitors, hanging head downwards on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico, but we have no reason to rank them higher than those who have left traces of their work in the little votive chapels that lie in the hills and out-of-the-way corners of Umbria. Some of these, going back to 1393, are not without a character of their own, guiltless indeed, of technique, but naive, vivid, and full of energy ; yet they show little of that gradual growth which marks the Florentine school, nor do we find in them any trace of the fine, precise touch, which the early Sienese painters drew from the school of Byzantium. According to Mariotti, the art of miniature painting and illumination was carried on with great enthusiasm in Perugia, in the fourteenth century. Dante speaks of Oderisio of Gubbio :
” Non se’ tu Oderisi, L’Onor d’Agobbio, e l’onor di quell’ arte, Ch’ alluminare è chiamata in Parisi ?”
Then, when the fifteenth century was unfolding, two streams of art sweep across the province, distinct, yet mighty, mingling like the waters of the Rhine and Rhone. The many scattered towns of Umbria led to a far greater variety of type, individuality was more frequently maintained, influences spread more fitfully and partially than in those parts of Italy where all studied together, and practice and theory flew like wildfire from one to the other, emulations flourished, traditions were quickly formed and earnestly followed.
Gentile da Fabriano stands forth among the dearth of talent in Umbria at the dawn of the century, as the one master who was great enough to add realism to glowing colour and vivacity of fancy, and who, taking the old missal-painting character as a groundwork, could transplant all the pride of pageantry of the Middle Ages on to his panels, and give us in the gold brocades and velvet robes, in fairy princes and beautiful ladies, tropic birds and strange beasts, such a scene of joyous gallantry that, as in the ” Adoration of the Magi,” we can hear the tinkle of bells and the clang of gilded trappings, as the long procession winds down the gay hillside.
After a space, while a dainty colourist like Ottaviano Nelli painted enlarged miniatures and vapid angel faces, there arose a few miles off, at Arezzo, one of the strongest of masters ; Piero della Francesca set a star of grand simplicity as a constraining guide, calm and broad, before those men who had the gift of the open eye. The character of that art was as exacting as it was scientific. It was as much geometrical and mathematical as artistic, and was occupied more with problems than with religious feeling. Its power was felt over a wide area, and moved even those who were least naturally alive to it. There seemed a likelihood that Umbrian art would, on the one hand, become absorbed in the Florentine character, hardly distinguishable from it, and, on the other, degenerate into puerile prattle ; but there had wandered to Montefalco, one from Florence, who, to the enlightenment and the conscious effort drawn from those who clustered round Donatello and Masaccio, added a temper which appealed directly to the native feeling of Umbria. Benozzo Gozzoli was not a great painter, but his talent for narrative painting set a new model before those whose aptitude in that direction responded to the impulse. A school arose which combined in curious harmony the love of decorative detail of the miniature pictures, the space effects of Piero’s large and airy settings, and the story-telling proclivities of the naive and garrulous Florentine.
Though Pintoricchio’s early years are obscure, little doubt can exist as to his artistic derivation from Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, who combined the characteristics of the newly developed school in a pre-eminent degree. Rumohr ascribes Pintoricchio’s style primarily to the school of Niccolò da Foligno. This attribution is founded partly on the ” Altar-piece of Santa Maria dei Fossi,” the arrangement of which is similar to some of Niccolò’s great anconas, the Madonna and Child enthroned in the centre, saints in panels on either side, a Pietà above, which divides an Annunciation into two parts. The types in this last scene certainly resemble Niccolò’s, and were constantly repeated by Bernardino ; but the angels in the Pietà are from Fiorenzo, and the whole spirit is opposed to that of the intense and austere Folignate. It was painted, too, so long after Bernardino’s art was fully formed that it can hardly serve to illustrate any early influence. No doubt, when he visited Foligno at this time, he took many ideas from what Niccolò had left there. Something too he owed to Benedetto Bonfigli ; the cheerful naiveté, the quaint adornments of dress and garland which attract us in Bonfigli, are traits which we find in Pintoricchio. The little oval, pointed face, with its arched brows, and small, close shut mouth, the type to which Bonfigli is constant, is that to which Pintoricchio adheres for his Madonna and angels ; but this type is to be found too in Fiorenzo’s earlier work, as in his ” Adoration of the Child” in the Gallery in Perugia. If we compare this picture with Pintoricchio’s ” Nativity” in San Girolamo’s Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, we see at a glance the resemblance that underlies a few superficial variations. The whole construction of the two groups is similar. The Madonna’s bent head, elbows squared, joined palms and finger-tips, the Child, lying partly on His Mother’s robe, the position of the grey-bearded St. Joseph and the shepherds everywhere Pintoricchio has been guided by the earlier master, though instead of the donor and two young men, who may have been his sons, and who kneel with their great hound behind them, he has substituted St. Jerome and his lion, and shepherds of a more acceptedly religious type, while the group of singing angels overhead is transferred from Fiorenzo’s panel to that other Nativity at Spello.
Over the door of the Sala del Censo in the Palazzo Pubblico at Perugia, is a lunette of a Madonna and Child by Fiorenzo, which might well be Pintoricchio’s own. It has his full touch and copious brush. We find the Mother again in the exquisite little fresco over the door of the Hall of Arts and Sciences in the Borgia Apartments, transplanted almost without alteration of line or expression ; while the two angels on either side are those which he uses to support the dead Christ in the Pietà at the top of the polyptych painted for Santa Maria dei Fossi.
We have no trace of Pintoricchio himself ever having visited Florence, but the water flowed to him none the less from the fountainhead, and he assimilated it in his own manner. Fiorenzo, we feel sure, must have been there, and that in those years when Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo approached most nearly to one another ; and it was Fiorenzo, and not Perugino, who was the channel through which Florentine influence filtered to Pintoricchio. We recognise Verrocchio in the wide and swollen nostrils, the broad head, the hooking of the little finger, and the treatment of the hair which Fiorenzo adopts ; while we perceive that Pollaiuolo has aroused a wish to show more animated action. From Pollaiuolo, too, comes the careful hand-ling of brocaded stuffs, the little, crab-like, clutching hands, the delight in using the costume of the day in all its fantastic picturesqueness. Even more striking is the architectural influence which Fiorenzo conveyed to Pintoricchio. The masters of Umbria became singularly alive to the charm of airy architectural space, and such classic settings as we may date from Brunelleschi’s visit to Rome in 1403, and more especially attribute in their working out, to the high, imaginative faculty and Greek spirit of Leo Battista Alberti, whose spacious arcades are often used merely as decoration. At Urbino, in the court of the Ducal Palace, the Umbrians had one example of the highest interest : here was the taste which Lauranna drew from the Florentines, and which passed onwards to Bramante. Piero della Francesca shows, in his ” Flagellation” at Urbino, how keenly he feels the charm of placing groups in this wide, distinguished setting ; but none assimilates his teaching so fully in those early days as Fiorenzo, whose remarkable series of small panels of the miracles of San Bernardino, give us, as Dr. Schmarsow says, ” the first step, without which Pintoricchio is unthinkable.”
The natural features of Umbrian scenery, its high-skied plains, its wide valleys, account in a measure for the pre-eminent feeling for space shown by its artists, and for their power to give air and atmosphere to those lofty structures in which they love to place their personages. These little panels, painted at Fiorenzo’s finest period, are sharp and strong, yet fine as miniatures. The figures stand well on the stage. The point of sight is very low, at scarce a third of the whole, so that we have an undue pro-portion of airy surrounding, though all is on such a small scale. The perspective drawing shows how well-fitted Fiorenzo was to ground his pupil accurately in this, however insufficient his study of anatomy may have been. The drawing of the architecture is fine and true throughout, but in the figures, even if we allow for variations in Fiorenzo himself, we can hardly avoid seeing two different hands. They have all the charm of his manner, a manner essentially Umbrian, while we see a very distinct spirit, a spirit which was shared by Bonfigli, and by such a lesser master as Boccatis da Camerino, a naive and cheerful tone, a direct simplicity, which is as far removed from the melancholy which broods in the eyes of the rapt saints of Siena, as it is from the scientific temper that ruled within sound of the Arno. Many of the figures are childish in their desire to express emotion, and are almost grotesque in detail, the hair is in a mop, exaggerated till it looks like a huge bird’s nest, the hands are cramped and claw-like, but here and there we meet with graceful, well – proportioned beings, keeping their slender grace, without the angular and unpleasing length of limb which marks their companions. In the panel where San Bernardino raises a youth from the dead, a child playing with a dog recalls Pintoricchio’s putti on the pilasters at Siena. The young man on the right in the same scene, is supple and gracefully draped ; a contrast to the wooden movements and stiff draperies of his fellow-pages. Even better is the youth reasoning, in a repetition of the same miracle, with his hand upon his hip and a dark cap perched upon his rippled curls.
We begin to speculate as to whether Pintoricchio, who was a young man of twenty-two at this time, was helping Fiorenzo ; and to ask, Have we here the sign of that talent which was marked by Perugino, with whom he must have been for some years, before he was chosen as his chief assistant in the Sixtine Chapel ? Above all, Pintoricchio’s landscape is derived from Fiorenzo. The open distance, cut up by small hills and trees, the winding streams flowing through the valleys, and, most characteristic, the poised and toppling rocks, forming archways and overhanging masses, often set about with houses and peopled with tiny figures. An examination of the ” Crucifixion ” in the Borghese, illustrates the difficulty at this time of distinguishing between Fiorenzo and his pupil. The hard brightness of colour, the drawing of the crucified figure and that of St. Christopher, the heavily marked folds of drapery, the landscape all recall Fiorenzo ; but the figure and head of St. Jerome, the hands, the expressive head of St. Christopher, the free and natural attitude of the Child, are something better than we look for in the earlier painter. If we may really accept this panel, as both Morelli and Berenson assert, as Pintoricchio’s work, we may place it as his earliest on his arrival in Rome. The St. Christopher and the Moses of the meeting with the angel in the Sixtine, seem drawn from the same model. The round fore-head, full mouth, shape of jaw and broad throat are identical, and it is a very individual face.
His knowledge of architecture, his composition of landscape, the type of many of his figures, Pintoricchio derived from Fiorenzo, and Fiorenzo’s was the influence that remained with him most strongly ; but though permeating him less thoroughly, less akin to his own temper, Perugino, his elder by only four years, a much greater master, both as regards form and colour, had something to say to his development. We cannot tell when the two first came into contact, but Morelli considers that Perugino went to Florence about 1470. Milanesi, in his notes on Perugino’s life by Vasari, says that he received a commission to paint in the Palazzo Pubblico in Perugia in 1475. He was certainly working in 1478 at Cerqueto, in Umbria, so that most likely it was about that date that Pintoricchio joined him, which would have given them at least four years together, before the time came to go to Rome.
We have so little knowledge of any work of Pintoricchio’s before his Roman period, that it is difficult to certainly assign paintings to this time. The “Crucifixion ” shows no trace of Perugino, but the boy’s head at Dresden, which Morelli believes to be an early work, has the solid character and realism which distinguish Perugino’s portraits. His influence comes out fully developed in the Sixtine frescoes. That the two men had been working together for some time is obvious, not only by the importance of the share with which the younger was entrusted, but also by the number of drawings which he prepared for Perugino’s own frescoes. The elder painter’s guiding hand is apparent in the draping, simpler and larger than that of Fiorenzo, the more careful drawing and calmer dignity.
These frescoes might possibly be taken for Perugino’s, but scarcely for Fiorenzo’s and though Pintoricchio still adheres to the traditions of the latter in his treatment of the details of landscape, he begins to formulate his own scheme of colour and composition. In his angels flying forward from above, on either side of a group of sacred persons, Perugino is copied almost stroke for stroke (allowing for Pintoricchio’s heavier touch) in the assimilation of motifs drawn from older masters. The fold of drapery falling between the knees and narrowing to a point, the over-sleeve flying out in a sweeping curve, the draped tunic and the fluttering ribbons, all become a formula of Perugino’s manner adopted by all his followers Lo Spagna, Tiberio d’ Assisi, and the rest. Yet, where the treatment approaches most nearly, there remains a constantly differing type. Perugino, in a half-profile, almost invariably inclines the head one way or another, giving to the eye a peculiar ecstatic upward gaze. Pintoricchio rarely uses this attitude. In his drawing of St. John, for Perugino’s fresco, of the giving of the keys, this is just the change the older master, on adopting it, has made to suit his fancy. Pintoricchio has an ineradicable tendency to bring the knees of his figures together. They sway with a peculiar, knock-kneed grace. If we contrast the central group in the ” Baptism of Christ” in the Sixtine, with those of Perugino at Rouen, or that at Foligno, painted many years later, we note the sweep inward from the hips, and out-ward from the knees in the first, while the inclined head and upward gaze in Perugino’s St. John gives place to a more simple and direct expression in that of his pupil. We are always conscious, too, of a less strong, less confident spirit one more nervous, more personally reflective of moods and idiosyncrasies.
The golden atmospheric effects which were Perugino’s greatest gift to art, the feeling for distance, and for the sun-warmed calm of summer, taught Pintoricchio new methods, modified without effacing the teaching of Fiorenzo, and certainly led to a more natural treatment. That Fiorenzo was impressed by the vigorous art of Signorelli, his neighbour of Cortona, is to be seen in his late work, “The Adoration of the Magi.” The young men, more strongly drawn than is customary with him, the kings in Eastern dress, the heads of Joseph and of the old king, the drawing of the hands and the Madonna’s draperies all show a freer and closer study of nature, all point to some fresh impulse, the impression of a strong talent upon a weaker one.
The problems which absorbed the great master of Cortona had never much attraction for Pintoricchio, who had not a scientific mind, and whose artistic education, deficient to begin with, was brought to a premature end by his sudden popularity. Yet something he drew from Signorelli, a firmer treatment of the youths in hose and doublet, some attempt to study limbs and muscle. The series left by Benozzo Gozzoli at Montefalco, the paintings of Perugino and Signorelli, were the best examples of form which came in Pintoricchio’s way. They could not succeed in making him very strong, but when he draws frankly from the life, you need hardly wish for more telling portraits.
It would be absurd to claim for him sublime creative power, tactile values, mastery over form and movement. He has none of these. His persons rarely stand firmly upon both feet ; his pages, his kings and queens, are too often drawn and even coloured like playing-cards ; his crowds are motley and ill-arranged. The dry and purely scientific student of the schools of Italy will find it more than easy to demonstrate Pintoricchio’s shortcomings : it is less simple to analyse the charm that triumphs in spite of them, and which gives keen pleasure to one side of the artistic nature.
J. A. Symonds says of him that he is a kind of Umbrian Gozzoli, and in his clear and fluent presentation of contemporary life brings us into close relation with the men of his own time. No one loved better than Gozzoli to assemble contemporary celebrities ; and in the feeling for incidents of everyday life, in the joy of living, in fondness for garrulous narrative, his frescoes must have been full of suggestion for the Umbrian master of the next half-century, who, in his love for the narrative and the picturesque, surpassed all who had gone before. In Florence, if he had made his trial there, he might have gained more of strong and true study, he might have learned the laws of grouping, of aerial perspective, he might have gained a better knowledge of anatomy, yet in mastering all these, he might have lost something that he possesses : that freshness of feeling which is the spring and sap of all art, that young and winning joy that carries him through scenes of magnificence without losing sense and spirit.
There is in the art of Pintoricchio a direct simplicity of expression and gesture that saves him from conventionality and cloying sweetness. His persons are not above criticism as far as technicalities are concerned, but they have in them this, that they are occupied and absorbed in the business in hand. You may fancy at first that they are artificial, but that is merely their environment ; they themselves are simple, they do not pose or look upwards or out of the picture with an affected appeal for admiration. This quality gives to Pintoricchio a truthfulness where he lacks depth. To the last he has a sincerity which underlies his conventionality, just as his dainty care in detail counterbalances his want of freedom and rhythm. His forms lack the nobility of Perugino’s, his religious emotion is less deep, but he is not self-conscious, he has a freshness and raciness which saves him from fatiguing by monotonous sweetness. He does not make his paintings a series of excuses for the solution of scientific problems, so that they are more spontaneous, more the outcome of the man’s natural unfettered inclination, than are the works of some of those who made greater discoveries in the field of painting.
In the picturesque qualities of his work he is completely a child of the Renaissance. Perhaps none harmonises better with the rich and lavish beauty which haunts us still in every little town of Italy. His feeling, sumptuous yet exquisite, his treatment, naïve yet distinguished, is the prerogative of that age of fresh perception, and of unspoiled acquainttance with the beautiful. It is the fairy tale spirit that so endears him to us. Like the mediaeval singers of romance, he guides us through scenes that have a glamour of some day of childhood, when they may have seemed real and possible. The wistful, wide-eyed youths, the tender, dainty Madonnas and angels, the grave, richly-dressed saints and bishops, might all stand for princes, for maidens, and magicians in some enchanted realm of fairy. He does not take us into the region of the tragic, but his fancy, his invention, and resource are fertile and untiring ; he leads us on, dazzling, entertaining us with a child-like amusement, disarming criticism by a lovable quality which en-lightens us as to the natural sensibility of the painter’s mind, a sort of penetrating sweetness with which he can endow his creations. Perhaps the truest explanation of his charm is to be found in the union of two incongruous elements. The artificial and mannered grace, the search after the exquisite and the splendid, joined to the naïve and childish simplicity, the freshness and arcadian fancy of the Umbrian school. It is such a combination as enchants us in a child masquerading in gorgeous robes, or in a wild honeysuckle dancing over a richly-carved marble column. Certain ‘ it is, that here we possess the very cream of that fantastic aspect of the Renaissance in conjunction with the most distinctive features of purely Umbrian art.
Mr. Berenson has given us a fine appreciation of Pintoricchio’s feeling for space and for space-decoration. In this, so Umbrian a characteristic, he was a worthy follower of Fiorenzo, the not unworthy second to Perugino, and a forerunner of Raphael. The ample and spacious setting of his groups takes off from their cramped and crowded effect. Where the action is awkward, or the colour heavy, the whole spirit is lightened and lifted as you breathe the air of those delicious landscapes, or wander in imagination under those high-poised arcades, or look out from a palace chamber at the freedom and sweet breezes of a mountain distance. It is the more remarkable that Pintoricchio is able to give us this charm of landscape, as he adheres to his early training, and finishes the most distant parts in delicate detail.
It is as a decorator that he holds his own most successfully among his contemporaries. It soon became apparent that no one could cover the walls of palace or chapel with an ornamentation so rich and gay, so advantageous to the position, so homogeneous in character. To find any tout ensemble to compare as decoration with the Borgia Apartments we must look at early mosaics, at the opulence of the little church of San Prassede, or the peacock hues of San Vitale at Ravenna. To estimate his achievement we must weigh what he has made of those rooms, ” si desespèrément carrées,” or of the oblong and barn-like space of the Libreria in Siena.
He is mainly empirical rather than scientific, even in his most successful moments, but that his want of drawing was due to insufficient study of the nude is shown by the fact that his touch is fine and strong, his faces, hands and feet, always well and firmly drawn, his outlines delicate and decisive. He individualises his faces, and the bystanders in his crowded scenes show a most interesting variety and reality.
When not painting fresco he is constant to the use of tempera. Unfortunately, he is too much given to sacrifice the transparency and depth of his colour by a lavish use of retouching a secco. In order to gratify his love for brilliancy, he produces an opaque surface, and is apt to give us a sort of splendid gaiety in exchange for real depth. His use of his gorgeous pigments is extremely skilful, especially towards the middle period. In the Sixtine Chapel frescoes, he has hardly let himself go, and in the Siena Library he inclines to be gaudy and glaring ; but in many of his scenes the greens and peacock – blues, the rich, soft rose-pinks, the purples and autumn gold are those of a man whose nature was keenly alive to the joy of colour. His use of embossed gold is dictated by the same natural bent towards the gay and decorative. This small, mean-looking, deaf man was rarely sensitive to fulness of life, to splendour, and the delight of the eye, and wherever he has covered a wall with his work, or left a panel or an altar-piece, we get a glance back at an age which was not afraid of frank magnificence, guided by a purer taste than we can boast.
Pintoricchio never shows the ear in his female heads. In the men’s it is large, placed high, with the inner cartilage strongly defined. The hand has a short metacarpus and long fingers, the thumb well separated, and the little finger hooked in Fiorenzo’s manner. He paints with a full brush, and has a heavy, liquid touch in fresco, but in working in panel he shows a beautiful surface quality which oil painting could not surpass.
( Originally Published 1908 )
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