Pintoricchio – First Period In Rome

A FACT that another has once discovered and substantiated seems so obvious to those who come after, that they can hardly understand how it could so long have remained unrecognised. To Morelli belongs the credit of having swept away the tradition that in Signorelli and Perugino were to be found the authors of the two frescoes, ” The Journey of Moses ” and ” The Baptism,” on either side of the altar-piece in the Sixtine Chapel. After four hundred years of gathering oblivion came one who looked with open eyes, disregarding all mere tradition, and who saw the handwriting of Pintoricchio writ large upon the walls, waiting there, full within sight, yet overlooked, till, after centuries, the truth is acknowledged, unmistakable, supported not only by internal evidence but by drawings and studies direct testimony affording conclusive proof of their authorship.

It is perhaps owing to Melozzo da Forli being court painter to the Vatican in 148o that we may attribute the preference shown in the first instance to Umbrians in the choice of decorators for Sixtus IV.’s new chapel. To Perugino the direction seems to have been given in the first place, he and his assistants arriving in Rome in October 1482. Here they would have had a great deal to prepare, the spaces to plan, the Pope’s directions to consider, the ornamentation of the windows and the niches for the martyred Popes to decide upon. The scheme of the type and anti-type which balances the opposite walls, is very probably due to the Pope and his advisers. Pope Sixtus was a writer on theology, was esteemed a man of profound scholarship, and had in the years immediately preceding written several books on important points of doctrine. Perugino was at that time the undisputed head of the school of Umbria, and his religious spirit and conventional treatment of sacred subjects was likely to be much more acceptable to the Holy See than the new spirit of scientific inquiry. The contract between him and the Pope makes it probable that at first he and his assistants were to be entrusted with the entire work. Whether the Pope got impatient and wished to see his chapel more speedily completed, or for what other reason, is uncertain ; but when Giuliano della Rovere went to Florence in December, he agreed with a number of Florentines to resort to Rome, and the whole company of artists was gathered there by the year 1483. Foremost among these was Sandro Botticelli, and from documents which have recently come to light we gather that the superintendence of the entire scheme was finally entrusted to him and not to Perugino.

Among the assistants brought by Perugino, were ” Rocco Zoppo and Bernardino Betti, called il Pintoricchio.” The operations of the first were limited to certain portraits of the Rovere family in the altar-piece, which at that time represented the “Assumption,” by Perugino, with the ” Finding of Moses” and the ” Nativity of Christ ” as the beginning of the two sacred histories. Pintoricchio’s place, in his master’s estimation, was a very different one. We have no reason to doubt that he was Perugino’s right hand man. From the degree to which he has imbibed his style, he must have been working with him for some time before, and the drawings in the Venetian sketch-book, as it is generally called, so long erroneously attributed to Raphael, make it clear that he supplied Perugino with designs for several of his principal figures, which the master altered slightly to suit his taste when he came to transfer them to the plaster.

Vasari tells us that Pintoricchio worked with Perugino in the Sixtine Chapel, and took a third of the profits, but this testimony afforded no clue to former critics, and for some centuries ” The Journey of Moses ” was attributed to Luca Signorelli. Burckhardt was the first to dispute this claim, and to ascribe the fresco with more vraisemblance to Perugino.t Crowe and Caval-caselle repudiate the attribution to Signorelli. They see in both this and “The Baptism” the work of Perugino, but in parts, in the young man stripping, and in the youth by his side, they recognise a likeness to Pintoricchio, though in the children of ” The Journey ” they profess to see plainly the hand of Bartolommeo della Gatta.

The attribution of these two great frescoes to the younger master has made a great difference to his place in art. In some ways they are the finest and truest works he has left us ; it is curious that they are the first that can with certainty be ascribed to him.

Morelli, in appealing to the internal testimony of the frescoes in the Sixtine Chapel, tells us it was their landscape backgrounds which first opened his eyes. He further cites the overcrowding in the composition ” a fault which Pintoricchio very often commits, Perugino hardly ever.” Even the falcon in the air is repeated by Pintoricchio in his frescoes at Siena. The children he compares with those in the chapel in Ara Coeli. He sees the character of the master plainly stamped on many of the individual figures, and on the plan of the composition. Evidence more minute and conclusive is derived from the book of drawings to which I have already alluded. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century these, on the authority of Professor Bossi, were assigned to Raphael. Bossi bought the book at a sale, and deciding that they were studies by the great Urbinate, was full of elation at the acquisition of such a priceless treasure. When at Bossi’s death they were bought by the nation, Passavant, Count Cicognara, and Marchese Estense, all noted connoisseurs, unhesitatingly pronounced them to be by Raphael, and for his work they still pass in the Accademia in Venice.

It would take far too much space to go with Morelli through all the fifty-three drawings, with a circumstantial criticism which leaves only three (detached and on different paper) to the younger master. We must content ourselves with examining those which Pintoricchio used for figures in frescoes which remain to us. A number of these examples occur in “The Journey of Moses.” On one sheet is a sketch for the woman kneeling with outstretched arms, who performs the rite upon the little son of Moses. On another page is a study for the drapery of the seated woman. Again, the heads of four women are drawn on one sheet ; no less than three of these are introduced in the fresco. One of the two upper heads is used for the woman bearing a jar, the position being very slightly altered ; while of the two lower heads, that on the left is a study for Zipporah leading her child, the other for the head of the woman with the child upon her knee. The quaint head-dresses are reproduced to a nicety : one with outstanding bows on either side, and the loose, flying scarf, knotted in front, the other with the scrolled cornucopia-like ornament curling round the ear. For “The Baptism ” we have a study of the seated woman in the background, and for two of the nude figures of youths. For Perugino’s fresco, ” The Giving of the Keys,” Pintoricchio has left two drawings for St. John, standing with his hand upon his breast ; one of the two is ruled in squares for transferring to the wall, and this is the one adopted by Perugino. From two other studies figures have been introduced ; the cloaked man, third from the left, and two just above, in the background. There is also an elaborate drawing for the Madonna in the altar-piece in Santa Maria del Popolo, and a drawing for the lion in a scene from the life of St. Jerome in the same church. We thus have no fewer than thirteen heads and figures, clearly recognisable as studies for frescoes painted before Raphael was six years old.

The drawings, fine and delicate as they are, have the stiffness, the careful, square-crossed hatching which is found in others by Pintoricchio, also his shape of hand and foot, and the narrow, elongated forms and in-bent knees.

Pintoricchio was now twenty-eight. He must already have produced a great deal of work, but not only have we no trace of it, but what is left is almost all known to be of later date. However obscure his life before he came to Rome, his proceedings after that are well known, and there is hardly a year unaccounted for, or which cannot be almost certainly filled up from inference.

Rome had no cinque-cento painters of her own ; but none the less, the great traditions of the past, which that century was fast reviving, made her the Mecca of the artists of Italy. That the two frescoes in the Sixtine Chapel were Pintoricchio’s first great commission is probable, and it must have been with exultation that he set to work to give free play to his decorative instincts on the large bare walls. Though the whole is imbued with Perugino’s spirit, and full of motifs copied from him, the composition is not the least like his calm, glowing landscapes and well – ordered, symmetrical groups. The background is all reminiscent of Fiorenzo the toppling rocks, the little bushy trees, the joyous air of the little figures frolicking on the hillside, the palms and cypresses, the beautifully shaped hollow of the valley, the falcon in the air pursuing smaller birds. The crowded groups are in Pintoricchio’s style ; the want of concentration of interest, the narrative spirit running through the whole are just what were most dear to his genius. There has been much discussion as to whether his master helped him. Did Perugino paint the figure of the woman busied with the rite of Circumcision, and of Moses looking on ? Or did he execute the heads of any of the Florentine colony who are brought in, and who might have preferred to have their portraits from the hand of the master rather than from that of the pupil ? I can find very little trace of Perugino’s own hand, unless it be in the head of Moses on the right, in which the execution of the hair is more in his manner, though not nearly as fine and rippling as he paints it in the frescoes of the keys. The action of the angel in the centre is quite in the manner of Pintoricchio, and Perugino never would have placed the hand of Moses in such an awkward attitude of expostulation. The children are like his in the Buffalini Chapel in the Libreria and Borgia apartments, and contrast favourably with Perugino’s fat, unshapely babes. As a whole, it would be difficult to find a more attractive piece of decorative painting than this. The various scenes, the shepherds dancing at the marriage feast, Jethro and his household taking leave of Moses, the departure of the leader of Israel with his family, and the rite of Circumcision are pressed into one harmonious scene. The background melts naturally into the foreground without appearing confused, and the vigorous white-robed messenger of God, with shimmering hair and wings, drawn sword and outstretched arm, divides the two foreground groups in a manner as original as it is sufficient. Moses, clad in the traditional yellow robe and green mantle, stopping at the angel’s command, is a fine, grave figure of marked personality. The two women occupied with the child on the right, Zipporah leading the little boy, the damsel on the left balancing her jar, are some of the most beautiful and graceful forms that Pintoricchio has given us. The draperies are less voluminous than in later pictures, and fall in straighter, simpler folds, resembling the more statuesque drapery such as we find in the ” St. Thomas and the Saviour ” of Or San Michele, and which Perugino, on his return from Florence, imparted to his pupil in place of Fiorenzo’s sharply-cut-up folds. Here, too, Pintoricchio proves himself to be, what he was evidently considered in Rome, a landscape-painter of the first rank ; and it is especially by the landscape that Morelli tells us he made out the identity of the painter of this fresco. Nothing up to this time had been seen so lovely as this background, on one side, the low purple hills, touched with golden gleams, running down into the soft distance, on the other, a clear, grassy space, giving a sense of air and gaiety to the little pastoral. Both the frescoes in the Sixtine have under-gone such repeated cleanings and restorations that little of the original colour remains, and the effect is somewhat faded and grimy ; but we are still able to see with what skill white robes are made use of an art in which Pintoricchio excels in many of his paintings.

The scene on the opposite wall of the ” Baptism of Christ” is much fuller of figures than the ” journey of Moses.” Separated incidents are more largely made use of, in the archaic mode which the artists of the Renaissance soon after this abandoned. That the central figures are a copy of Perugino’s ” Baptism ” at Rouen need be no argument that the latter had an active share in it himself. The angels overhead are the same that Perugino and all his school have reproduced many times, and this interchange or imitation was merely a proper compliment between master and pupil. Pintoricchio here owes no more to Perugino than the latter does to Verrocchio, of whose ” Baptism,” in Florence, with the angels kneeling by, we are strongly reminded. St. John is a type of great freshness and individuality : the long lean form has simplicity and directness of action, the shape of hand and foot, the blacker and more angular draperies, are all unlike the master and like the pupil. St. John pours the water with a painstaking, literal intention. In the frescoes by Perugino at Foligno and at Rouen, his eyes are raised, his body thrown gracefully on one side, and the little cup is raised aloft with a sort of symbolical wave, while the contemplative angels kneeling around are very unlike Pintoricchio’s prim little attendants.

In the groups in the background on either hand, listening to the preaching of the Baptist and the Saviour, only one the St. John on the left, with head raised and inclined and hand on breast, reminds us at all of Perugino. We have a great many of the figures the younger master is so fond of, turning their backs and enveloped in the voluminous folds of great cloaks a motif which is not common with Perugino, but which Pintoricchio makes lavish use of in the Libreria, and which he derives from Fiorenzo, who often brings it in. Here we find the seated woman, for which he has left the drawing, who, with the children clinging to her, looks up and listens to the Baptist on the right, and who, in her gracefully swathed garments, is beautiful enough for the pencil of Botticelli or Agostino di Duccio. We also find a study for the nude figure at the back with outstretched hand. These nudes are among Bernardino’s few attempts at anatomical drawing, to which he never takes kindly. We cannot say that they show much real acquaintance with form, though it is evident that they are from the living model, which at this time he was faithfully seeking to render. Many of the portraits are admirable. It would be difficult to find stronger, more satisfactory heads, more solid in drawing and more full and interesting in expression, than three or four of the heads in the group standing a little way behind Christ, or the old man grasping his napkin on the opposite side, in whom Dr. Steinmann suggests we see the Pope’s brother – in – law, Giovanni Basso della Rovere, who died this year, and whose shrewd features and close shut mouth we recognise again in his tomb in Santa Maria del Popolo. The deepest interest of the picture centres in these fine portraits of men of the time, and in the landscape which, though this fresco is the most injured of all, is still beautiful in its varied light and shade, and in the lie of the ground in hill and slope and distant vale.

The old Pope died before the paint was dry upon the walls of the chapel by which his name is best remembered; but long before his companions had got down to the west end, Pintoricchio must have done his share, though he may still have worked at draperies and minor details in his master’s allotment. What he had achieved had established his reputation, and when he went forth it was as an independent artist, himself an employer of assistants, soon to be the honoured recipient of papal commissions.

To this time we may assign the panel painting of the ” Madonna teaching the Child to read,” which is now at Valencia. Indeed, Dr. Schmarsow holds it to be his earliest known work. It was formerly at Xativà, and was sent as a present to his native city by Roderigo Borgia, and was placed later in a chapel which his brother Francesco built to his memory. The crest of the Borgias shows that it was painted for that house, and the donor himself, as a comparatively young man, kneels on the right, with his mitre on the ground by his side.

We can trace the likeness to that other kneeling Pope in the Borgia apartments, though the features are less strongly marked. In this little panel, both the Mother and Child are standing, He mounted on a chest, upon which the crest is painted ; she with one hand tenderly placed on His shoulder, while the other holds the open book. She has the same type to which Pintoricchio was faithful, the egg-shaped face, arched brows and close shut mouth. The heavy folds of the mantle are starred and edged with gold, and the Child’s robe is of rich gold brocade. The picture is full of feeling, but is stiff in drawing and almost Byzantine in style. The delightful little lunette in Sant’ Onofrio in Rome, painted about i 505 by one of his scholars, is adapted from this picture, of which the master must have retained a sketch. The same follower was employed on the apse, where scenes by Peruzzi alternate with several in Pintoricchio’s manner, though they are far too ill-drawn to be from his hand.

We have no means of deciding what was the first important commission the young painter undertook after he left the Sixtine Chapel. The German critics, however, agree in placing the Buffalini Chapel in Ara Coeli as his next work. Morelli thinks it was later on account of the decoration of ” grottesques,” but it has a simplicity and absence of ornament more akin to the Sixtine work than to Pintoricchio’s later gorgeous achievements, and he uses much of the same soft grey colour. It is not unlikely that he would have brought a special commendation from the Buffalini of Perugia to those members settled in Rome, and it is easy to see how fresh in his mind were the architectural traditions of Fiorenzo. The chapel, being painted almost entirely by his own hand, looks as if he had not yet gathered together so many assistants, and a little later, loaded with papal commissions, he would hardly have had time to devote to a private citizen.

It seems to me that we have scarcely any work of his for which we can feel such unalloyed admiration as that in this little chapel in the dim old church upon the Capitoline Hill, where from the midst of classic marbles and pre-historic legends, you pass into the quiet side aisle, and the level rays of the golden evening sunshine that pour through a little west window, light up the story of the mediaeval saint as illustrated by his Umbrian name-child.

Hardly any saint could have been more dear and familiar to the sons of mid-Italy than San Bernardino of Siena, the disciple of their beloved St. Francis, and one who had exercised such a strong and recent influence over his followers. He died only nine years before Pintoricchio was born, and as he grew up the little Bernardino must have heard ardent references to his holy patron from men who had crowded round the pulpit outside the cathedral in Perugia. His gonfalon, painted by Bonfigli, hung in the Church of San Bernardino. His thin face, with its pinched mouth, was familiar to every one, and stories of his wisdom, his virtue, his miracles, were fresh on men’s lips. Pintoricchio must have been well acquainted with the history of the saint’s amicable arrangement of a deadly feud which had raged between the Buffalini and the fierce Baglioni of his native town, and both as a protégé of San Bernardino and as a Perugian, the commission to paint a chapel in honour of the saint and to commemorate the healing of the quarrel must have made a special appeal to his quick and sensitive fancy. The chapel was probably the gift of Lodovico Buffalini, advocate to the papal consistory, who, we find from an inscription on a stone in the pavement, died in 1506. The painting was for many years almost concealed by a hideous wooden hatchment, and only reopened again in the last century, which accounts for the excellent preservation it is in.

The little Gothic chapel at the extreme west end of the church lighted by a small west window, has an arched roof with crossed pieces ; the side walls are divided by painted pilasters. The whole architectural decoration is in monochrome, in pale brownish grey upon a rich brown ground. On the pilasters on either side is a beautiful decoration of fruits and seed-pods in great masses, tied in with ribbons adapted from the antique, and resembling a framework by Mantegna in the Eremitani Chapel at Padua. The frescoes on the walls are separated by long slender candelabra with flaring flames, the stems formed of grotesques, masks grave and grimacing, climbing stags and gambol-ling putti. The arches of the roof have been profusely enriched with gold, and culminate in a blue and gold boss. Below the altar is a long procession, also in monochrome, captives and warriors, a soldier on horse-back dragging a nude woman, others laden with spoils and torches, a conqueror on a triumphal car, with a naked captive bound behind ; these are painted with almost impressionist touches, and the horses are much better drawn than we usually expect from Pintoricchio.

In the roof, in four triangles, are the ” Four Evangelists ” : St. Matthew looking up as for inspiration, dipping his pen in the ink held by a beautiful kneeling angel-figure at his side. Both this figure and that of St. Luke are very broadly and freely painted. Steinmann points out that we find them almost repeated, apparently by a scholar, in the sacristy of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. This church has been closed for two years for repairs I have not been able to see the frescoes.

On the west, on either side of the tall narrow window, are two simulated windows. From that nearest the altar the figure of ” God the Father,” surrounded by cherubs and golden rays and holding a globe, looks into the chapel and towards the fresco below on the right. The panel to the right is filled by a long row of arches in side-long perspective, and on the top of a pedestal straddles a charming little putto, reminding us of Mino da Fiesole’s children on monuments, who bears an axe and shield with the buffalo head, the crest of the Buffalini. In the background there is a trace of landscape seen through a ruined arch, and above, a lunette of the ” Madonna and Child,” His foot rests on the heads of two cherubs. In the foreground kneels the small thin figure of “San Bernardino” receiving the monastic habit of the Franciscan order from a father, while his cast-off scarlet robes, his money and box of jewels, lie beside him on the ground. Following the line of the father’s gesture across the wall, we find that it is directed towards St. Francis, who kneels to receive the stigmata with an expression of deep devotion and spiritual insight that Pintoricchio has not often repeated. In the middle, under the window, two monks recount a history to three lay listeners, two of whom are evidently portraits, while a procession of horsemen rides across the background. Whether this relates to the miracle of the stigmata, or has some reference to the feud with the Baglioni, is uncertain.

It is on the opposite wall, and on that above the altar, that the painter has put forth his best efforts, and has produced work which, if he ever equalled, he never surpassed.

In the arches above the left hand wall is ” San Bernardino” as he arrayed himself in camel hair and sackcloth and went into the wilderness to study, leaving his rich home and his gay companions in Siena. The population of the city comes out to interview him, grave elders with turbaned heads, young men dressed in the height of fantastic fashion. The saint, absorbed in the study of his Bible, does not even perceive them as they gaze on him with wonder mixed with reverence, recalling the devotion he has already shown during the visit of the plague to Siena. The grass on which he walks is besprinkled with spring flowers, arums with their red seed-pods, hyacinths and anemones; a little stream trickles through the green past mossy tree stumps, and the tall towers of Siena are seen afar in the valley. Below, the whole breadth of wall is devoted to the burial procession of the saint. Here is a great market – place surrounded with airy buildings, such buildings as Fiorenzo had used in those other legends of San Bernardino, which Pintoricchio would naturally have thought of as he drew his design ; indeed, we have little difficulty in tracing those which he specially adopted.

In the fresco of ” San Bernardino upon his Bier,” the radiating marbles of the great Piazza stretch away to a Bramante-like temple, arch soaring above arch ; flanking the ancestral dwelling of the donor of the chapel, with the buffalo’s head carved above the doorway, and a quaint little scene of a buffalo assaulting the populace on the Piazza. In the foreground stands the bier, upon which, with outstretched feet and folded hands, lies the emaciated figure of the whilom gay young noble of Siena who left all to follow Christ. Round him gather the monks of the order, beggars, women and children. Down from the long loggia on the left, with the blue and gold decoration copied from Fiorenzo, comes the stately figure in cap and gown of Messer Avocato Lodovico Buffalini himself, face keen, precise yet gentle, figure conscious of position, and the rustle of silken robes, observant too of the young sons, the youth and the boy, who also in robes and close caps upon flowing hair, stand on the opposite side of the bier. In the foreground Pintoricchio has broken the monotony of the rich dark green bier by two of his most charming little children with rounded limbs and gestures half saintly, half childish, while by them lies something stuck in as an afterthought, with-out meaning, without perspective, a babe in swaddling clothes in a sort of crib or basket. This is the miraculous bambino of Ara Coeli, the Byzantine doll preserved in the church, which could by no means be left out on such an occasion. The effect of aerial space about the whole composition is very remarkable. The people gather round, life beyond goes its way, and the whole is set in so peaceful and spirit-lifting an environment that it does not need the little sky episode of the saint received into glory to give it spirituality.

So, too, in the ” Apotheosis of San Bernardino,” which occupies the altar wall, the sense of space and largeness is the prevailing quality. Overhead, the stiff mandorla with cherubic heads frames the Saviour, who, standing upon clouds, raises His hand in benediction. This figure, as usual, is not altogether happy in the rendering ; but thin and awkwardly drawn as it is, it is not without force or dignity, and has some-thing earnest and lovable in its expression. It is the direct simplicity of Pintoricchio’s manner which saves from self consciouness, and gives a serious quality that atones for the want of grandeur. The remaining figures leave hardly anything to be desired. Italian art can show us few more beautiful single figures than that of St. Louis of Toulouse. The young bishop in his rich episcopal robes and mitre, his pastoral staff laid against his shoulder, while with absorbed earnest look he turns the pages of his great breviary, is one of the most satisfactory creations, full of dignity, goodness and thought, that any artist has shown us. The face is well and strongly modelled, and the outline is simple and large. Sant’ Antonio of Padua on the opposite side, holding his flaring heart in token of burning love, is a feebler figure, and reminds us of some of Perugino’s weaker saints ; but San Bernardino himself, in the midst, is full of striking individuality, and there is great simplicity and repose in the outlines of all three figures. Nowhere have more beautiful angels been painted. Pintoricchio has shaken himself out of the conventional slavery of Perugino. These figures making music upon the clouds are full of life and vigour, reminiscent of Melozzo da Forli’s energetic inspiration, while the two who, bearing lilies, kneel and between them raise a golden crown above the saint’s head, are Pintoricchio’s own, instinct with his own fresh and delicate feeling for the beautiful, as lovely in colour as they are in form.

The grouping in the burial procession is more successful than usual, and the light and shade more massed. The colouring of all the frescoes is exceedingly harmonious, the greenish greys of the background are very delicate, and the foliage in the fresco over the altar must have been most beautiful. Touches of bright colour are brought in sparingly, and with good effect. Nothing more satisfactory is to be found in the Umbrian school up to now, than the tout ensemble of the altar wall. The unity and balance of the whole, the variety, yet connection of the subject, the ground-work occupied, yet not crowded, free from spottiness and harsh transition. The palm tree filling the space on the right, the cypress on the left, the maintenance of the distances, relieve the fresco of all stiffness and flatness. The landscape is full of light and atmosphere. On the right we look away to a valley which has never lost the freshness of morning, on the left is a fairyland of sea and distant mountains and little far-away towns, gleaming, blue and mysteriously radiant. The whole shape and position of the country at the back is quite excellent, and in happy contrast to the artificial elegance of colonnades and radiating pavement of its neighbour on the adjoining wall.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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