Pintoricchio – Panel Paintings

IT is difficult to arrange Pintoricchio’s pictures into distinct groups. He wandered backwards and forwards between Rome and Umbria for so many years, and his art, during the whole time, though showing variations, never undergoes any radical change or development. He arrived early at a point which satisfied his employers, and there he remained. He did not attempt to try experiments, or to unravel new problems. He was almost always engrossed by great undertakings, and had little time to think of anything beyond getting them creditably executed in a given time.

“La préoccupation d’ être original n’ empêchait pas de dormir, encore moins de travailler, les artistes d’ alors. Leur personalité ne s’ élaborait que sur le tard, quand ils réussissent sans le chercher beaucoup à le faire éclore.”

This constant employment on fresco accounts for the small number of panel paintings he has left, nor do we hear of more than one or two, other than those which have come down to us. I have already noticed the “St. Christopher” and the “Madonna” in the Gallery at Valencia. His finest work in tempera is the great polyptych or ancona, painted in 1498 for the monks of Santa Maria dei Fossi, and which is an extraordinarily dainty piece of work. The heavily-gilt framework is divided into compartments. In the central one the Madonna is enthroned, the Child sits upon a little cushion on her knee, half-draped in a striped and brocaded mantle. With one hand He offers the mystic pomegranate to His mother, with the other grasps a jewelled cross, held by the little St. John Baptist, who, with his cloak clasped upon the breast, sandals on his feet, his eyes uplifted in devotion, strides forward, with the air of one starting on a pilgrimage. This attractive little figure is borrowed from the Bernardino Mariotto, with whom Pintoricchio was so often confused. The Virgin’s eyes are cast down, and both her face and that of the Child are rather expressionless.

The upper part of the framework is filled by a Pietà, which nearly equals the middle panel in size and importance. The half-length of the dead Christ is draped with a striped cloth, above the open tomb. It is reminiscent of Perugino’s beautiful Pietà in the same Gallery. The hands have the backs turned outwards, displaying the palms instead of the backs, as the northern painters usually represent them. The arms are supported by angels, who are adapted from the over-door by Fiorenzo in the Sala del Censo. The pathetic figure of the Saviour is the most satisfactory rendering of the nude that Pintoricchio produced. The muscles are carefully modelled, the flesh is firmly painted, and the touch of the angels convincing, the group is full of repose, sad dignity, and refinement. The Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation” on either side are a reduced replica of those in the Borgia Apartments and at Spello. Though painted in tempera, this work is extremely full and vivid in colour, almost resembling oils, and is executed throughout with minute delicacy.

The contract is dated February 14, from the house of Diamantis Alphani de Alphanis. ” Messer Bernardino de Benedecto of Perugia il Pintoricchio, for himself and his heirs, promises and agrees with Brother Jerome of Francesco, Venice, Sindico and Procurator of the Frate Capitulo and Convent of Santa Maria dei Fossi, de Porta San Pietro, to paint an altar-piece over the high altar of the said church with the here inscribed figures. The picture divided into parts : in the major part the image of our most glorious Lady with the Child. On the right side of our Lady, the figure of the glorious San Agostino in pontifical habit, and in the left place, San Girolamo in cardinal’s habit. Above the middle shall be a Pieta, and on either side the Angel and Our Lady of the Annunciation. Above, and in front, the transmission of the Holy Spirit to the Annunciation. In the predella of this picture shall be painted eighteen figures. In the first place, on one side, San Baldo, San Bernardino, in canonicals. In a row the Pope and five cardinals in state, with five brothers at their feet. All ornamented to taste with gold and colours, at the charge of Messer Bernardino, who also promises, in the background of these pictures, to paint a landscape, etc.”

Though the contract was drawn up, the master, strong in the sense of his value to the Papal Court, postponed its execution to his own convenience. With his fame at its height, he was called upon in all directions. The Council of Orvieto saw the moment was come for securing the finishing of the fresco for which they had been waiting for four years. On his way back from Perugia, Pintoricchio once more took up his work in their cathedral, under a fresh contract to add the two doctors to the two evangelists. There thus to-day remain traces of a St. Mark and a St. Gregory on the right hand of the choir, and traces of one or two angels so restored as to have lost all character, but for which the work of the Umbrian master has doubtless served as foundation. The sum he agreed to take in payment in March was fifty ducats, and the convent books record Nov-ember 1496 as the date of the last payment.

In the obscure little town of San Severino in the Marches, we find another altar – piece which was probably produced about the same time. No record of its acquisition is to be found in the archives of the cathedral, though an accurate account is kept of commissions executed about this period by Bernardino Mariotto, and others. It is remarkable that, considering Pintoricchio’s fame in his lifetime, such a possession as an altar-piece from his hand should have remained unchronicled. It seems most likely that it was produced at Perugia, and found its way later to its present position in the sacristy. However this may be, we must rejoice over this unmistakable and charming example of his art, well preserved and not very much retouched. It is the least known of all his pictures ; it has only recently been photographed, and, from the position of San Severino, far off the beaten track, is not easily visited.

The “Madonna della Pace” wears a blue mantle lined with a rich shade of green, and a rose-red dress. She bends over the Child, who, clad in white with a grey and gold drapery, stands on a little cushion on her knee. He holds a transparent glass ball in His left hand, and with the other blesses the donor, who kneels on the right, dressed in a scarlet robe. An angel with hands crossed on the breast bends towards the Child, while another stands with folded hands behind the Mother. Behind is a spring landscape, a town, and the usual rocky archway with a cavalcade passing under it.

The face of the Madonna in this painting is indescribably soft, young, and tender (even a good photograph does not do it justice). The face and figure of the Child are full of expression ; the angels are exquisite types, reminding us of Lorenzo di Credi. The Cardinal-donor is a man in the prime of life, with a firmly-drawn face, brown complexion, and strongly-marked features. The face is rendered with great care, the vein in the temple, every mark and wrinkle, the neck of one past youth, are observed, and as a portrait the head compares well with the painter’s best efforts. The colour of the panel is gay yet tender. The faces have an exquisite transparency, with melting shadows. The face of the angel in the background is entirely in luminous shade. The little landscape is delicately finished. The fine, decisive drawing, and the feeling, simple and unstrained, show Pintoricchio at his best. In retouching, the face of the donor has been thrown out against a dark ground, which somewhat impairs the effect.

The ” Madonna ” in the Museum at Naples is a full-length figure standing on the clouds, surrounded by a mandorla of cherubs, flanked by six angels playing musical instruments, who recall those in the Buffalini Chapel. The group below of the apostles, St. Thomas kneeling in front, clasping the sacred girdle, is strongly reminiscent of Perugino, as in the background, where the favourite features of Fiorenzo have for once been abandoned.

The “Head of a Boy” at Dresden must, I think, be an early work, when Perugino’s manner was felt in all its freshness. Though the hair is hard and wiry, and not worthy of the rest, the morbidezza and elastic plumpness of youthful flesh are given by very subtle modelling, and the moody, young face is treated with most delicate tonality. The landscape and receding distance and tall slender trees are in Perugino’s style.

The ” Madonna and Child,” in the National Gallery, I take to be a very early work. It is dry and thin, with a hard black line outlining the flesh, a peculiarity of which Pintoricchio is not often guilty. The landscape is hard and dull in treatment, and the expression of both Mother and Child is formal and precise. The figures and the Virgin’s hands are stiff. It cannot stand comparison with the beautiful group in the Borgia Hall of Arts and Sciences, and hardly with the much more freely handled ” St. Catherine of Alexandria, with a Donor,” which hangs beside it.

This last, probably painted during the early part of his stay at Siena, judging by the glimpses of scenery and the likeness of the St. Catherine to the maid in the fresco of the Baptistery, is good in colour, painted with a fuller brush and more viscous medium.

Away from the sumptuous surroundings of the capital, back among the plains and mountains of Umbria and Tuscany, he returns to a simpler manner. The little altar-pieces at Spello are suitable to small parish churches. They have something homely in their character. The ” Madonna” in the little panel in Santa Maria Maggiore has a gentle, rustic countenance, and no embroidery on her mantle. The Child is quite undraped. The Madonna in the larger panel is very beautiful, and is more akin in face and the whole treatment to the figures personating the Arts and Sciences in the Vatican, but has none of the painter’s usual richness of ornament. In San Andrea, the neighbouring church of the ex-Minorites, hangs the large altar-piece which Pintoricchio was painting in 1508 when Gentile Baglioni summoned him to return to Siena. The Madonna is raised on a throne which recalls the niches in which the Arts in the Borgia Apartments and the sibyls in the Baglioni Chapel are placed. The Child stands on her knee, clasping her neck. St. Andrew, with his cross, stands by St. Louis of Toulouse ; opposite are St. Francis and St. Laurence grasping his gridiron ; a little St. John sits on the step on the middle. On a carelessly-drawn wooden stool in the foreground lies the letter of Cardinal Baglioni, legibly copied ; other small objects lie about a knife and scissors, an ivory seal, a bottle of ink and a pencase on the step by St. John. It is the only ” Santa Conversazione ” Pintoricchio ever painted. The figures are weak and unstructural, and we recognise the repetition of old types in the saints and angels. The little St. John is bright and attractive. The idea of his figure is borrowed from Mariotto, who, though poor in colouring and draftsmanship, was original in finding motifs, and supplied Raphael with many, as well as his immediate contemporaries.

The ” Coronation ” in the Vatican was painted about 1505 for the nuns of La Fratta (Umbertide). Only the upper part is believed to be by the master’s hand. Among the most beautiful of the Madonna paintings is the “Assumption,” executed during the later years at Siena for the monks of Monte Oliveto, and now at San Gemignano. The Madonna in this is an exquisite creation. She sits on high, surrounded by cherubs, with a lovely smiling landscape behind her, and is in Fiorenzo’s style. Her face is sweet and expressive, and the colour of the whole is soft, with rosy pinks and delicate greens of spring. Below kneels a Pope with his tiara on the ground, and a bishop in a white robe clasping his pastoral staff. The foreground is dark and rich, and contrasts with the clear and lovely tones beyond.

Another thoroughly satisfactory work is the little panel painted for the nuns of Campansi, and now in the Accademia at Siena. It is a small tondo, in the painter’s most naive and charming manner. Joseph and Mary sit side by side, in a flowery meadow. He holds a barrel of wine and a loaf. She has a book on her knee, but is turning to speak to the two children —St. John in his little camel-hair garment, and the Christ-Child dressed in a white dress falling to the feet. The two children are represented arm-in-arm, carrying books and a pitcher, and are wandering away from the side of their elders. So poetic and innocent is their aspect, they recall the old legend of the little St. Teresa and her brother going out into the world to seek martyrdom. The figure of the Divine Child, with long fair hair falling round the face, and exquisitely drawn baby hands and feet, is one of the sweetest imaginable. Mary’s head is uncovered a very rare variation with Pintoricchio. The folds of the draperies are unusually large and simple. The composition, the delicate restraint of gesture, combined with natural feeling, are very striking in this delightful little painting. Dr. Steinmann reminds us that Raphael may have seen it when he visited Siena, and it may be remotely responsible for his Madonna groups, seated in the fields, the idyllic feeling of which it certainly foreshadows.

In the ” Reliquary” at Berlin, the figures of the saints are too short. The heads are of a type which had become rather hackneyed, but the angels are lightly and crisply drawn, and it is a solid little work. The other panel at Berlin, a ” Madonna and Child,” is not ascribed without dispute to Pintoricchio. Neither the face of the Mother nor the figure of the Child recall his manner, and while it is most unusual for him to paint the Virgin’s head without the shading veil, the hair here is dressed in the Italian fashion of the time, as nowhere else in his works. The Child’s feet and the Mother’s hands, however, essentially remind us of Pintoricchio ; the draperies have his lines, and the gouged-out folds we find in some of his later panels, and we see the peculiar, dainty touch of fingers, holding Child and globe as if they were egg-shells.

The “Madonna and Saints” of the Louvre, which Mr. Berenson assigns to Pintoricchio, Dr. Steinmann believes to be by the same painter who helped him with the “Descent of the Spirit” in the Vatican. The heads certainly differ widely from Pintoricchio’s type, but if we apply Morelli’s test, the very peculiar left hand is reproduced line for line, in the Penelope of the Petrucci fresco. Notwithstanding, it is difficult to believe this to be a genuine work of the master. The little panel in the Pitti (the ” Adoration of the Magi “) is much too feeble to be anything but an imitation, and the Virgin and Child are entirely unlike his type. The others of his works which are not questioned are a “Madonna and Cherubs” at Buda-Pesth ; “St. Michael,” Leipzig ; a “Madonna and a Crucifix” at Milan ; ” St. Augustine and two Saints” at Perugia. Mr. Berenson gives him a ” God the Father ” at Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi, and (doubt-fully), the “Portrait of a Boy” at Oxford.

His last known work is the very beautiful little panel in the Palazzo Borromeo at Milan. This was painted at Siena in the last year of his life, and is full of force and colour, glowing like a jewel. The background has an interesting effect of distant sunset behind trees and mountains ; all the notice is concentrated on the red-robed figure and white cross of the Christ. The greens of the ground and the lengthening shadows give a more than usual depth and harmony. The group behind is confused and less well-drawn, but the peasant leading the way is evidently a study from life. On the arabesque in which the painting is set is a cartel inscribed with name and date.

Although Pintoricchio’s art was so much admired during his lifetime, it is difficult to show that it exercised much after – influence. Fascinating as it is in some ways, it represents the last survival of a dying school. The world to which he belonged, the taste which delighted in his creations, disappeared with him, and was replaced by an age of conscious modernism which was eager to sweep aside all that seemed archaic in the immediate past. The thirst for knowledge and for scientific research was waxing intense, and the craze for the display of knowledge with its hidden seeds of decay soon followed. Among his pupils, Matteo Balducci, who we know from Vasari worked with him in Rome, has left several pictures at Siena. These are all Umbrian in treatment, and show the influence of Pintoricchio, but they lack his delicate drawing ; the forms are long and weak, and the colour dim and washy. Pietro di Domenico, a Sienese, has panels in imitation of him ; but the most notable example of his influence is to be found in that series of the “Story of Griselda,” in the National Gallery, painted by an unknown artist, who, as Miss Cruttwell points out, was also influenced by Signorelli, and in whom sense of form and feeling for originality are more developed than in other followers of the Umbrian master. Gerino da Pistoia is mentioned by Vasari as a friend of Pintoricchio, who worked much with him and Perugino, and an altar-piece by him at Pistoia has traces of both masters. Crowe and Cavalcaselle see his cooperation in the “Last Supper” in Sant’ Onofrio in Florence, and account thus for the signs it shows of Pintoricchio’s influence. Giovanni Bertucci of Faenza is another Umbrian whose pictures have often been attributed to Pintoricchio. The Mother and Child in the ” Glorification by him in the National Gallery are not unlike our master’s in Sant’ Andrea at Spello. We can trace many suggestions afforded to Raphael. The “Dispute” in the Borgia Apartments in all probability bent Raphael’s mind to the conception of the ” Disputa” in the Stanze, and inspired the idea of his beautiful classic and sacred medallions set in decorative framework, and of the enthroned figures of Music, Theology, and the rest ; and the use made by Pintoricchio of architectural interiors may have first inspired the supreme setting of the “School of Athens.”

Down to recent years Pintoricchio was quite over looked or treated with contempt, and for the purely scientific school he has still little merit. He certainly is not able to inspire that sort of interest that we feel in painters who worked, looking backward to see what had been done, and forward to discover what yet remained to do. We do not strive with him and triumph with him over defeated difficulties. He was a craftsman, as were all artists worthy of the name at that day, and his work is always painstaking and adequate, with nothing sloppy or careless in its execution ; but painting as a craft, with its secrets and its possibilities, was not his first object, so that, without being able to divide his work into any distinct periods, we find that his earlier life, when he was still learning, was on the whole the time when he was most successful in the artistic sense ; and in such frescoes as the ” Journey of Moses” and the “Life of San Bernardino” he gives promise of an excellence which is not afterwards adequately realised. He was an illustrator, and as such, perhaps, never touched the highest side of painting. We find in him the natural tendency of a decorator who undertakes large commissions as a matter of business, to repeat forms and situations ; yet, with every temptation to mechanical treatment and repetition, it is the true artist in Pintoricchio which saves him from becoming monotonous. To the very last, as in the “Return of Ulysses,” or the ” Holy Family” at Siena, his invention and fancy are alert, varying every accessory, displaying a freshness and an enjoyment in his creations which are irresistibly attractive. In all his illustration the lyric faculty is his. He follows the lives, the history, the fashions of his time with minute persistence, but always with some charm added to prosaic actuality. He is to painting what the ballad-singer is to poetry : slight, garrulous, naive, infectious, he has a haunting melody of his own, and through his eyes we watch the widening of one aspect of that golden day.

Ruskin speaks of the value to us of the impression made by a scene upon the mind of the artist ; it is the impression stamped by the strange and enchanting grace of that world of the Renaissance upon one man, and handed on by him with spontaneity and undoubting delight, which is so precious to us in his work.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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