Pintoricchio – Siena And The Last Of Rome

FEW painters of the fifteenth century had received so great a share of Roman patronage as Pintoricchio, and the favour now shown him, which changed the whole of his life, came from a Cardinal who had doubt-less become familiar with his Roman work.

Nearly fifty years earlier, AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini, son of a noble but impoverished house of Siena, had been created Pope by the title of Pius II. Before his elevation he had led a life full of stirring events in his rise to greatness he had reinstated his exiled family and restored it to wealth and honour. AEneas was a man of unbounded ambition, and not always scrupulous in the means by which he obtained advancement, but he seems to have been a man of affectionate character and charming personality, his learning was deep and his taste highly cultivated ; on the whole, he was honest and upright, while he was truly enthusiastic in his efforts to uphold the liberties of Christendom in the East against the dreaded advances of the Moslem. It is no wonder that his own family regarded him as a saint and hero. His nephew, Francesco Piccolomini, whom he had made Cardinal, and who eventually became Pope Pius III., decided, some forty-eight years after his uncle’s death, to erect a great family memorial to him. In 1495 he had built the rich chapel of St. John in the nave of Siena Cathedral, and soon after set to work on a Library, into which he moved all the collections of books and MSS. left him by his kinsman. Lorenzo di Mariano, a Sienese sculptor, was entrusted with the marble work. The interior wood – carving was by Antonio Barili, and Antonio Ormanni designed the bronze doors. The interior was to be richly frescoed, and the Cardinal, recollecting the achievements of Pintoricchio in the service of three Popes, passed over the painters of Siena and summoned Messer Bernardino of Perugia to undertake the great piece of work at Siena.

The contract made between the Cardinal and the painter, and dated June 29th, 1502, was discovered about twenty years ago in the Sienese archives by Sig. Milanesi. It offers many points of interest ; the chief conditions are that during the time the painting is in progress he shall not undertake any other work of painting of any kind or in any place. He is to work the vaulting with fantasies and colours ” which he shall judge most hand-some, beautiful, and lively,” to paint designs ” nowadays styled the ` Grottesque.”‘ To draw a coat-of-arms of the Cardinal in the centre of the vaulting, ” to gild it and make it fine,” to make in fresco ten Histories, for which the life of the Pope shall be given him as guide, with other minute details as to the gold, ultramarine, enamel blue, azure, and greens to be used, and the framework and gilding to be added. He is bound to draw all the designs with his own hand, both in cartoon and on the wall, and to paint, retouch, and finish all the heads him-self, and the epitaphs are to be placed in an oblong space between each pilaster, with the indication of the history painted above.

In return for the vaulting of required perfection, and the ten pictures of such richness and excellence as is fitting,” the Cardinal promises him one thousand golden ducats, to be paid in instalments, the first for buying gold and colours “in Venice,” and the rest from time to time as the work progresses. A dwelling in Siena is to be provided, ” a house hard by the Cathedral,” with scaffoldings and the materials. Such wine, grain, and oil as he needs he shall be bound to take on account and in part payment from the factor of the Cardinal. His goods, movables, and fixtures are to be pledged as security for the due performance of the contract.

During the autumn and winter of 1502 Pintoricchio was making his preparations for an undertaking which must occupy him for some years. We have no indication of any visit to Venice to buy colours ; but he returned to Perugia, probably finished up certain panel paintings at this time, gathered his workmen and assistants, his garzoni, together, and moved his household goods to Siena.

In the spring of 1503 he was hard at work at the ceiling. In the middle we see the coat-of-arms of the Piccolomini family, as provided by the contract, surmounted by the Cardinal’s hat. Francesco became Pope on September 21st, 1503, so that evidently this part of the work was then already finished, otherwise the tiara would have replaced the Cardinal’s hat. Only three weeks later Pius III. died, so that though he may just have seen the splendour of the ceiling, and no doubt had inspected the cartoons, the frescoes would hardly have been begun in his lifetime.

The work was stopped for a time, but fortunately for Pintoricchio and for posterity the contract had contained a clause binding the Cardinal ” in his goods and heirs,” as well as personally, to carry out the agreement. The Pontiff had also ratified this in his will, and his two brothers, acting as his executors, prepared to carry out his wishes. Some unavoidable delay there was, and during this time Pintoricchio, being absolved for the time being from the promise to take no other commissions, applied himself to various works for rather more than a year.

The chief among these was the decoration of the beautiful little chapel dedicated to St. John the Baptist in the cathedral at Siena. Its frescoes were the gift of Alberto Aringhieri, a Knight of Rhodes, who has had his portrait as a young man painted on one side of the door and in advancing years on the other. The other frescoes have been entirely repainted, excepting the one of the “Birth of St. John,” and on this, which has been much retouched, it is so evident that two hands have worked that I do not believe Pintoricchio himself painted any part except the maid, and possibly the Infant. The maid is drawn with a much stronger and more precise touch than any of the rest, and instead of the veil or drapery with which he usually covers the heads of his sacred personages, she has an Italian dress and headgear, with loops and bows. The same model has served for her face and head as for the ” St. Catherine ” in the National Gallery, and apparently both are from life. The interest of the chapel centres in the two portraits of the donor, and both these go to increase the painter’s reputation. The young knight keeping his vigil, in full panoply, his plumed helm and steel gauntlets lying by his side, the great white cross of St. John of Jerusalem upon his crimson surcoat, is a creation full of chivalrous fancy. The old knight, kneeling opposite, in a dress of a dignitary of the cathedral, and a black skull cap, is a strong, well-drawn figure, well felt under the robes. Both are small in size and reserved in treatment. The back-grounds are full of detail, with buildings, meant to be Eastern, and palm trees. The colour of the figures is very harmonious the soft greys of the armour, and the dull red of the scarf against it; all the links of the chain mail executed with the dainty care of a miniature. In both frescoes the light and dark are massed with unusual judgment. This was paid for September 8th, 1504.

Another piece of work with which these months were occupied was the design of “Fortune,” for one of the spaces on the pavement of Siena Cathedral. The pavement of Siena is a remarkable production differing from any other work of art in existence a mixture of intaglio or engraving on stone, varied by intarsia or inlay of marbles. The work had been long in progress, and designs for the various scenes had been furnished by artists from 1369 onwards. One painter of Umbrian extraction, Matteo di Giovanni, had already supplied his favourite subject of the “Murder of the Innocents.” Pintoricchio’s design is reproduced in the fourth space as we walk up the nave. It is an allegory of the excellence of Wisdom and the folly of Pleasure. The sky is of pure black marble, the island of grey, the fields, the sea, and the figures of pale marble, engraved with dark lines and inlaying. In the middle sits Wisdom, crowned with flowers, and bearing a palm branch and a book. On one hand Socrates receives from her the palm ; on the other a philosopher casts a collection of trinkets and baubles into the sea. On a lower plane, a company of pilgrims, the foremost of whom is presumably a portrait, climbs a path set with stones and thistles, and beset with serpents, lizards, a tortoise, and a snail. One sits down and falls asleep, another turns to shake his fist at Pleasure, a fair, naked woman, holding a cornucopia of flowers, and spreading a sail to catch the passing breeze. One foot rests on the ball of Fortune, as she steps off the shore on to a rudderless boat, and a young man, the last in the procession, casts back a wistful glance in her direction. This design is significant as showing what the painter could do when colour was denied him. The balance of the groups is kept with great art, and the outline of Pleasure is full of grace and daring. The general shape of the reliefs, in light against dark and as furnishing a pattern, is treated with perfect success.

In this same September an altar in the chapel of San Francesco at Siena was unveiled, but this chapel was destroyed by fire, with other works of art, in 1655.

With the spring Pintoricchio again began the painting of the Library frescoes, but he had not proceeded far when Andrea Piccolomini, one of the late Pope’s executors, died. That this must have necessitated a further re-adjustment, and meant another period of delay, we may gather from finding that, in June 1505, Pintoricchio was once more in Rome. The ten months that followed must have been very busy ones, and no doubt the master, after the repeated hitches under his new patrons, was relieved to find himself once more working for those earlier ones in whose service he had always had good fortune.

He was again installed in Santa Maria del Popolo, that church which had been such a favourite piace of devotion of Sixtus IV. and other churchmen of the House of Rovere.

The choir, which now absorbed him for some months, and which is the most perfectly preserved and the most untouched of all his works, is a wonderful piece of ceiling painting, in the style in which he had lately adorned the Library ceiling at Siena. In the middle a “Coronation of the Virgin ” recalls Fiorenzo and, still more, Bernardino Mariotto, the Umbrian with whom Pintoricchio is so constantly confused. Round this middle octagon the four Evangelists alternate with four sibyls, and at each corner the four Fathers of the Church sit on thrones. The sibyls are graceful types of young Italian women of the Renaissance full of sweetness and refinement the women Messer Bernardino knew in the mannered and highly-cultured palaces : no beings of a weird and wild prophetic race. They half recline in the mapped-out divisions ; each perfectly fills the space without crowding, and assists the geometrical coup d’ceil which is the first impression of the ceiling in its entirety, yet the pose of each is extremely easy and unconstrained, and the lines soft and flowing. Of the Evangelists, each painted in a tondo, St. Matthew with a beautiful angel holding the ink, and St. Luke painting the portrait of the Virgin, are both singularly clear and excellent figures. The stately Fathers of the Church sit on throned seats like those of the Arts and Sciences, or the Sibyls at Spello. Their robes ring the changes on beautiful dashes of colour white, rich green and rose, scarlet and dark blue. The whole is set in a bold pattern of grotesques in gold and vivid colours, scrolls mounted by women’s busts, quaint birds growing out of acanthus branches, putti riding on griffins, and a score of other fantastic devices. The impression is at once gay, graceful, and distinguished, excellent in decorative effect, and delicate in detail.

This was Pintoricchio’s last work in Rome. Here he laid down the brush which he had first taken up in the Sixtine Chapel twenty – three years before. Even now there is more of his art there than that of any painter except Raphael, and at that day how proudly he could pass through the long series of great halls and chapels, which owed their beauty in greatest part to his brush and to his fancy.

Pintoricchio’s last frescoes were three, painted for the palace of Pandolfo Petrucci, in succession to a series nearly completed by Signorelli and Girolamo Genga. They represented classical subjects, and of them there only remains ” The Return of Ulysses,” in the National Gallery. The fresco painting in this is rough and slight, the figures have little modelling, but are almost like patterns upon the background, the limbs of the suitors are unstructural even for Pintoricchio, yet the whole effect is charming. The head of the principal suitor is fine and expressive, and is very probably a portrait from life — perhaps one of the sons of the house. Penelope, bending over her web, is natural and life-like— a careful study of a girl in the costume of the day. The scene is drawn in clever perspective, and there is much conscious humour in the accessories ; the cat playing with a ball ; the sirens grasping their two tails in their hands, as they warble round the galley, to the mast of which Ulysses is bound ; the young man in another boat diving headlong into the water, unable to resist their fascination ; and the island where the wanderer is interviewing Circe and her swine. Here Pintoricchio is once more fresh and unconventional, fertile in fancy. The bold manner in which the lines of the loom are placed right across the picture is as daring as it is successful. The attitudes and relations of the figures are full of originality, and the uncompromising square of the window lets a flood of light and space into the fore-ground, so full of action and movement.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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