Pintoricchio – Spello

IN the beginning of 1501 Pintoricchio left Perugia and went off to Spello, the little town eighteen miles to the south of it. Here the prior of the chapel of the college, Troilo Baglioni, a son of the proudest house in Perugia, had lately been created a bishop ; and, naturally enough, when he wished to decorate his cathedral, he sent for the painter of his native city, who had by now made himself so famous a name. This little chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore at Spello is dark and damp enough, but in its decay it is still possible to divine something of its whilom beauty. As Pintoricchio planned his designs for it, we can see that his mind was still running on the rich work he had left in Rome two years before, and again and again he has adapted ideas from the Borgia Apartments, suiting them, with his own delicate judgment, to the smaller position and to the provincial situation. So cleverly has he managed, that the narrow chapel gains air and space and outlook, and even in its dim ruin we have an instant sense of life going on all round us. He has here used the airy architectural surroundings which he had so happily dwelt upon in the Buffalini Chapel, with the result that his work gains greatly in aerial space, it acquires a freshness and a refinement which is well adapted to the country district in which it is placed, and we lose that sense, which almost oppresses us amid all the fascination of the Borgia rooms, of being shut into a succession of gorgeously-jewelled caskets.

In triangles, formed in the roof by heavy borders of grotesques, Pintoricchio has placed four sibyls, Erythrean, European, Tiburtine, and Samian. Each sits in a carved niche, on a throne with raised steps ; the same thrones, on a smaller scale, as those in the chamber of the Arts and Sciences in Rome. Books, open or clasped, lie about the steps ; at each end of the thrones are erected altars, inscribed with the mystic sayings of the inspired women. The sibyls themselves, as they read or write or look upwards in an ecstasy, are much more elaborate in dress and fashion of hair than the symbolical figures in the Vatican. In style, they approach more nearly to the sibyls afterwards painted in the choir of Santa Maria del Popolo, or to the personages in the Library at Siena.

The three walls of the little side chapel are filled by paintings of the ” Annunciation,” the ” Nativity,” and ” Christ disputing with the Doctors.” From the inscription on the ” Annunciation,” recording the finishing of the chapel, we gather that the painter began at the opposite side, with the Dispute.” He places this scene in the courtyard of the temple, a Bramante like building of rather clumsy proportions, which fills the background, and has a niche on either side, with statues of Flora and Minerva. The group in the fore-ground suggests that Pintoricchio is still full of recollections of the ” Dispute of St. Catherine,” and is dwelling on the contrast he there emphasised between the fragile champion and the old philosophers. The Child is checking His arguments on His fingers in the same way, the doctors press around him in Eastern caps and turbans. On the extreme left an austere dignitary in dark robe and biretta can be no other than the bishop, Troilo Baglioni himself. The books of the learned men are thrown upon the ground, as they listen to the Child’s wisdom. Raphael has used the same incident in his “Disputà.” On the right, Joseph and Mary hurry forward, but she checks her husband’s impatience with her hand upon his girdle ; behind Mary are several women, in whose heads we recognise models used in the ” Burial of St. Bernardino,” strong profiles, of which he must have had the sketches by him.

In the ” Nativity,” which occupies the inner wall, and which is sadly ruined by the damp and decay, Pintoricchio shakes off his Roman manner, and returns to the purely Umbrian style and to the influence of Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. This must have been one of the most charming of all his frescoes. The distance stretches away, soft and harmonious, the towers and spires of the little town of Spello nestle into the blue hillside, a choir of angels which seems to have been transplanted from a panel of Fiorenzo’s stands upon the clouds above, and at the angels’ feet rise the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life, with their branches touching the sky. The stable is represented by a lofty, classic porch, on the roof of which sits a peacock, Juno’s bird, which Christian tradition had transferred to Mary, as the Queen of Heaven. Two beams have fallen in front of it, into the form of a cross. Midway advances the procession of the kings, winding down a mountain path, and grouped about its foot. All these serve as background to the sacred group with the shepherds, which is placed very low down, quite at the edge of the picture. Pintoricchio has shown a want of proportion between the different figures of his principal group, but otherwise they are excellent. The Virgin’s is one of his most lovely and delicate faces. Fortunately it is uninjured, and no print can give adequately its tender beauty, above the rose and blue and deep green of the gold embroidered draperies. Joseph stands behind, raising his hands in adoring wonder ; behind him, on the ground, lies such a pack-saddle as is still used in Italy. The shepherds — peasants from the Umbrian hills — kneel in deep devotion, one holds his humble offering of a basket of eggs. The Child and Mother and the general arrangement of the landscape recall the little altar-piece in Santa Maria del Popolo, but the whole effect is much more beautiful, since the painter has awakened to the realisation of far-reaching space.

The ” Annunciation ” has the same advantage over the otherwise not dissimilar one in the Borgia Hall of Mysteries. The angel is almost identical ; the Virgin, standing at her reading-desk and shrinking backwards, has all the naïve charm of the school of Fiorenzo. The great Renaissance hall stretches far behind, and beyond the perspective of stately columns we see a gay little view set in the arch-way : a scene at the city gates, wayfarers arriving at the inn outside the walls, a table with a white cloth spread, a dog jumping up, Pintoricchio’s favourite greyhound, horsemen riding on through the gateway, a well, and a woman coming to draw water. The grotesques upon the pilasters are carefully drawn, but roughly painted, and the shadows hatched in. It is in this fresco, under the little prie-dieu at the side, that Pintoricchio has drawn his own portrait, which almost startles us as we catch the life-like blink of its eyes, as it looks out from among the conventionalised saints. A coral rosary and the painter’s brushes are painted below, and the label, BERNARDINO PICTORICUS PERUSINUS. Perugino, a few miles off, was working at the Hall of Exchange, and one of the artists evidently took the idea from the other of painting the head in this way instead of introducing himself after the more usual fashion as a spectator.

A short distance from the town lies the little church of San Girolamo, where one is shown as Pintoricchio’s a ” Sposalizio” and a ” Nativity.” The first cannot be his. It is a very poor little fresco, without any indications even of his influence, and more probably by some obscure follower of Perugino or Lo Spagna. The arrangement of heads of the group of maidens standing behind Mary has either been taken from, or suggested by, that in Raphael’s ” Sposalizio. In the ” Presepio,” which is on the wall of the cloister chapel (which has since been used as an outhouse), ruined as it is, we are better able to trace the master’s hand. The Madonna’s head is adorned with a twisted veil, and a light scarf is drawn across the breast and arranged in the same way as in the fresco over the door of the Borgia room (No. III.). The heads are all drawn with delicacy and decision, and even now we can trace original, sharp, precise touches. The man behind with the lamb on his shoulders is in Pintoricchio’s simpler and earlier manner a good sketch straight from the model. The angels on the clouds kneel stiffly, and the whole gives the impression of a very early work, which has been copied in some details for the later ” Adoration of the Shepherds ” in the Baglioni Chapel. The landscape, though much destroyed, still retains his characteristics.

The frescoes at Spoleto have been covered up for some years, as the chapel of the Duomo in which they are is undergoing restoration. They are described as ruined representations of a ” Madonna and Saints,” “God the Father,” and a ” Dead Christ.” Vasari does not speak of any of the frescoes at Spello, nor are they noticed by Pascoli and his contemporaries, while Mariotti and Orsini, in the eighteenth century, say very little about them Vermiglioli and Adamo Rossi first give a full account of them.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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