Pintoricchio – The Borgia Apartments—Castel Sant Angelo

AS he passed through the doorway which leads into the Hall of the Arts and Sciences, Pintoricchio found above his head a narrow space to decorate, and his thoughts must have flown back to the over-door of the old Council chamber in Perugia and the fresco which years before he had watched his whilom master, Fiorenzo, place there, and perhaps had helped him to execute. Some sketch of that group must have been beside him, for we have it reproduced in this ” Madonna and Child.” The dress and attitude of the Mother are almost identical, though the original is refined upon, and in technique and beauty of expression this is one of the most satisfactory of all his works. The Mother, holding an open book, in which the Child reads, is reminiscent of that earlier painting sent to Xativà, but Mary, gazing out of the picture with wide eyes full of light, and delicate, half-satirical mouth, has the individuality of a portrait. The Child is a very real little boy ; He stands on a cushion, dressed in a little tunic, poring with pretty baby wisdom over His task, so natural and so busy, He adds one more to a long list of triumphs in a branch of art in which up to this time Pintoricchio had few rivals. This picture started Vasari on a fable that it was a portrait of Giulia Farnese and her child, with the Pope kneeling as donor, but there is no trace of a third person. He may have confused it with the Xativà panel.

In this room Pintoricchio bestows great attention upon the children, in the painting of which some of his greatest successes were scored. Earlier masters had neglected this feature of art very few up to this time had given us any real idea of childish beauty. We have, to be sure, the sweet little creations of Fra Angelico, and some beautiful children of Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio, but the art of using lovely putti with a half-decorative effect in painting belonged chiefly to North Italy, and was perfected by Carpaccio, Alvise Vivarini, and Giovanni Bellini. Indeed, when we look at some of the examples in these rooms of children supporting armorial bearings and drawing back heavy curtains, we are reminded of the very same motif in a group painted by Mantegna, thirty years earlier in the Chapel at Padua, where children stand on each side of a shield, and we recollect that that master was shortly before this in Rome. Whether Pintoricchio was indebted to Mantegna for a design or not, in himself he was a true child-lover, far superior in this respect to Perugino, whose fat, smug infants are sometimes quite repellent. He painted no inspired, supernatural beings, but round, healthy babies, full of roguish charm.

The whole ceiling in this room is soft and restful in character, the pattern is mechanical, but the form and spacing of the great octagon and the ingenuity of the divisions of the architraves complete a thoroughly harmonious effect. The Borgia crest reappears with inevitable monotony. The coat-of-arms shines from the centre of radiating sun rays, and upon a dark blue ground. At either end of the vault great white bulls approach an altar, where they are received by charming putt with trumpet blasts of triumph. The whole is so blended and subdued that though each detail is full of the beauty of nature, it is yet perfect, looked at as mere decoration.

In the Spanish Chapel in Florence (which Pintoricchio had never, as far as we know, seen), in the Castles of Urbino and Bracciano, among other places, from Giotto down to the followers of Raphael, the arts and sciences had been a favourite theme treated by his forerunners. Here they have some slight resemblance to the series painted under the superintendence of Melozzo for the Duke of Montefeltro, two of which are now in the National Gallery. They are like enough to make us think that Pintoricchio had seen them or had their description, and in accepting and enlarging on the suggestion, he has in this room achieved a remarkable series.

In the preceding chambers his task has been one of comparatively little difficulty. The well known sacred histories asked no great flight of fancy, originality was unnecessary and they were naturally rich in incident and detail. The scenes from the lives of the saints lend themselves easily to dramatic effect and allow of every sort of accessory. But in this room, which Steinmann suggests was Pope Alexander’s study, each of the seven spaces has for its prevailing object of interest the single figure of a woman, and relief from monotony depends upon the appropriate figures grouped around. Each of the emblematical forms sits upon a throne, with a stiff, architectural back, from several of which winged putti are drawing back heavy curtains, and about the steps are gathered philosophers and disciples of the art or science. Beyond, a softly-tinted landscape is detached against a blue and gold embossed firmament. Over the whole broods an idyllic peace. Calm, serene beings are absorbed in culture and the pursuit of knowledge, contemplative and thoughtful, almost as far removed as the saints from the worldly plotting and fierce intrigues which are carried on under their unimpassioned eyes. Unfortunately this beautiful hall has suffered more than any other, and several of the frescoes are almost destroyed by damp and restoration.

“Rhetoric” holds a sword to show the power with which she is able to pierce hearts, and a globe, perhaps to suggest the far-reaching extent of that power. These emblems are repeated in the hands of the putti on either side of the steps. On the right of the throne a priest, perhaps a portrait, though not a highly individual one, holds a purse ; an old philosopher reading on the left may be meant for Cicero, who would not be left out of such a composition, while grey-bearded teachers argue with richly – dressed young disciples. On the steps is the name “PENTORICCHIO, but except the principal figure, the work was probably divided among scholars. In Rhetoric herself, and in the old man on the left, in the folds of the mantles, and in the attendant putti there is some likeness to Perugino, but this master was fully employed at the end of 1492 by Giuliano della Rovere, and would have been most unlikely to take service with Giuliano’s hated rival, even if he would have consented to work in a subordinate character. Pintoricchio’s sketch-books must have been full of studies from him, and in beginning a new essay he would probably have had recourse to these, trusting more as he went on to his own initiative.

“Geometry ” holds her square and compasses, and the inventor, the bald-headed Euclid, sits at her feet, en-gaged in drawing a diagram. On the left, in the corner, is a youth who has evidently painted his own portrait in a looking-glass. The cloak of ” Geometry ” and the red dress of Euclid show the hand of a pupil of Fiorenzo, but none of the attendant figures nor the landscape have much trace of Pintoricchio’s own work, though Schmarsow allots to him besides the figure of ” Geometry,” the turbaned man on her right, the youth standing by him, and the one at the edge of the group. None of the seven sisters is so beautiful as “Arithmetic.” Here Pintoricchio trusts in his own inspiration, and we have a finely-drawn head with all his freshness of pose and expression. This dreamy face, with its transparent veil half covering the flowing hair, the gold embossed robe, over – sleeves, mantle hanging in very softly accentuated folds, and the beautifully proportioned figures standing by, have a larger share than almost any other of the lunettes of the master’s hand, and here, more than in any, we have the many coloured garments, rich pinks, harmonious greens, that Pintoricchio loved. The light and shade in this and the preceding group is massed with an eye to effect which is quite absent from the rest.

” Music ” is in some respects the most beautiful group of all, though the principal figure can hardly compare with that of “Arithmetic.” This again is strongly reminiscent of Perugino. With drooped eyelids the symbolic sister daintily plays a violin ; of four beautiful putti, two hold back the splendid dark green curtain, and two play the flute at ” Music’s ” feet Two old men are grouped together with Tubal Cain, who, as in the Spanish Chapel, forges musical instruments and keeps time with his swinging hammer. On the left is a charming group of boys one playing the harp, another singing, a third, in rich dark robe and a student’s cap upon his square out-flowing locks, touches a lute. In the spontaneity and unity that runs through all these figures, the suggestion of music and the sense of pleasure in it is rendered as in few other paintings of the Renaissance. We almost hear the strain, soft, fresh, heart-stirring, given without exaggeration or self-consciousness, to which the little putti above seem to lean and listen, and we feel little doubt that this, the most lovingly painted, the most homogeneous of all the scenes, was painted entirely, or almost entirely, by Pintoricchio himself.

“Astrology” is the most damaged of any. The principal figure, which has been badly restored, must at any time have been entirely unworthy of the Umbrian master. The four putti, holding wands tipped with heavenly bodies, are much heavier and less dainty than his children. The groups at the sides, in one of which is a figure intended for Ptolemy, have no connection with the presiding patroness. That on the left, which is far the best, has, however, some admirable figures, Umbrian in character, and due to a pupil of Pintoricchio, who was thoroughly imbued with his master’s spirit, and probably working straight from his sketches indeed, a careful comparison of the hair and drapery of the youth who stands foremost, with extended arm, and holds an astral globe in the other hand, and the kneeling saint in the ” Assumption, of the Hall of Mysteries, may persuade us that Pintoricchio is himself responsible for this delightful figure.

The figures of ” Grammar ” and ” Dialectics ” in the following scenes are so much retouched that we can hardly tell what they were like originally, but we may feel almost certain that no part of them is by Pintoricchio. The architecture of the thrones differs too. We surmise that this room, the last of the series actually occupied by the Pope, was finished hurriedly, and that this accounts for the very marked falling off in the quality of the work of the last three scenes. The arch and the five octagons here are entirely repainted ; they refer to the virtue of ” Justice,” who holds the sword and balance. The others are sacred or legendary scenes. The period of their wholesale restoration can be judged by a dragon at the side of the central octagon, which we take to be the crest of Buoncompagni, and therefore of the time of Gregory XIII.

The most beautiful decorative figures in the entire range of rooms are the three full-length angels who support the Borgia scutcheon surmounted by the keys and tiara, set in a stucco frame between ” Rhetoric ” and ” Geometry.” In freedom of gesture, grace of flying drapery, and excellence of drawing, they must be ascribed to Pintoricchio himself, and may be compared with those he has executed in the Buffalini Chapel.

The two following halls, which were those by which persons who had had audience of the Pope withdrew, are alike in architecture, and quite different from the rest. Large, and much more simply decorated, with high raised window seats ; the first has a ceiling painted with patterns and grotesques (which here become much more decided in style), and has a frieze of twelve half-length figures of apostles and prophets arranged in pairs, the apostles holding scrolls bearing a sentence of the Creed, the prophets’ scrolls inscribed with prophetic sayings. According to a mediaeval legend, each apostle, before proceeding to evangelise the world, composed a sentence of the Creed, and to each here is assigned his traditionary verse.

The painter has used a late book of the sibyls, those interesting, legendary figures to whose traditionary sayings so much importance was attached by the early Church, and who were revived in the art of the Renaissance, with other classic myths. Twelve are given, and all the prophecies, composed by the early Church, refer to the birth of the Redeemer. The ribbon upon which the oracle is inscribed was traditionary with the painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and Pintoricchio, like most of the Umbrian painters, was particularly attached to this decorative accessory. He uses it freely in the Belvedere, in Santa Maria del Popolo, and at Spello.

The figures in these two rooms are much restored, and the whole style is inferior and has an antiquated and archaic effect, which has been commented upon by every writer from the time of Taja., At the same time, there are certain of the sibyls, that of Delphi, and she of Europa, where we recognise Pintoricchio’s special supervision in the head-dresses, the gestures, and the peculiar tricks of drapery.

Crowe and Cavalcaselle have attributed some of this work to Peruzzi, who, however, was only a boy of thirteen at this time, but Vasari speaks of “a Volterrean named Pietro d’ Andrea, who spent most of his time in Rome, where he was working at some things in the palace of Alexander Borgia.” Messer Pietro d’ Andrea of Volterra was the master of Peruzzi, and there is sufficient likeness to Peruzzi’s style to give strong assurance that we have here the hand of his teacher. Schmarsow sees in part the hand of a Sienese, but whoever may have been concerned in the execution, the whole must have been sketched out by Pintoricchio, and is in harmony with the rest of the suite. In the window recesses of the “Hall of the Creed,” the decorations show no falling off in originality. Dolphins, masks, satyrs, flying loves, candelabra, and garlands are used with astonishing resource and variety. On the ceiling of the ” Hall of Sibyls” are emblematical groups of the planets, with gods and goddesses driving triumphal cars, which remind us of Perugino’s rendering some years later on the ceiling of the Cambio.

Nowhere can Pintoricchio’s special merits and failings be better studied than in this long and brilliant range of rooms. In detail it is easy to discern the many shortcomings. He has little feeling for line ; he has never made a study of planes and masses ; his personages stand about at haphazard, and often fail to belong to each other or to the events going on near them. There. is hardly a subservient figure in any one of the scenes which would be missed if it were blotted out, or which is essential to the balance of line or colour. The distant objects are often as full in tone as the foreground ; nowhere does the spirit of the composition rise into the sublime. On the other hand, the painter never forgets the purpose that has brought him here. With a self-restraint and a feeling for effect which are unerring, he hits upon the exact size, and keeps his compositions strictly within the picture and at the right distance from the eye. Raphael’s splendid creations in the stanze suffer because of their vastness of conception and execution compared to the narrow and inadequate space from which we view them. We go back from them as far as we are able, feeling as if their position must be but a temporary one. We long to see them in a freer air. Their space seems to annihilate us, their thought is overwhelming and insistent.

Pintoricchio’s frescoes are a rich yet unobtrusive setting, they do not compel your attention, but only give the impression of a refined splendour of surrounding and a marvellous insight into beautiful harmony of colour. The effect of the light has been so nicely calculated that even when freshly executed, the walls would not have been over-brilliant for the brilliant scenes to which they formed a background. On the charm of single groups and figures I have already enlarged, but one other feature strikes us forcibly—i.e. the power possessed by the master to employ so many assistant hands of varying schools and to so parcel out the work, keep the individuality of each so subservient and so impress his own style and purpose, that from end to end, although we can distinguish the various hands at work, it is only faintly and doubtfully, never so as to jar upon our sense of unity. We receive no shock as we pass from room to room, the direction of one mind runs through the whole, everywhere we are aware of the vigilant and sensitive grasp of the master’s hand upon his tools, and allowing for all the shortcomings of detail, we cannot but feel that we have here an enviable monument for a painter to leave behind him.

Alexander Borgia had no time to enjoy his freshly completed apartments. Pintoricchio must have been lingering over the last touches when, in the autumn of 1494, rumours of trouble from foreign foes reached Rome.

In September 1494 Charles VIII. of France invaded Italy. The Colonna and the Savelli, whom he had taken into his pay, were threatening the Eternal City from Frascati. Their intention was to take it by assault, make the Pope a prisoner, and seize Djem, the Mahometan prince. The Pope was filled with terror as Ostia surrendered to the allies of France, and a portion of Charles’s fleet appeared at the mouth of the Tiber. Charles himself was advancing through Tuscany, accompanied by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, and a proposal was discussed to deprive the Pope, whose crimes had become notorious, of his power. Alexander began to make plans for the defence of the city. He assembled what troops he could muster, and garrisoned and provisioned the Castel Sant’ Angelo. On December 18th, all the furniture and valuables were packed, and as Charles continued to advance, meeting with more welcome than resistance, the treasures of the Vatican were sent to the old Roman fortress. The Pope presently made a treaty with Charles, allowing him a free passage to Naples with his army, and permitting his entry into Rome. Charles entered with a magnificent army, while the Pope with his small force sat trembling in the Vatican.

In January 1495, the Pope, terrified by the violence of the French troops, left his splendid painted suite in the Vatican and shut himself up in Sant’ Angelo, where he remained while the French army sacked the city. Finally, a treaty was concluded by which Alexander ceded many of his possessions, and surrendered Prince Djem, while the king promised to recognise him as Pope, and to defend his rights, thus delivering him from his most imminent danger. The meeting of the Pope and king was arranged to take place, as if by accident, in the garden of the fortress. Charles knelt, and Alexander embraced him. The Pope bestowed the Cardinal’s hat on Briçonnet, a favourite of the king. On January 19th a Consistory was held, at which the king kissed the hand and foot of the Vicar of Christ, and did that formal homage which he had hitherto refused to render. Alexander celebrated a solemn Mass of reconciliation in St. Peter’s, and the king acted as thurifer. On January 12th, the red hat was given to another noble of France, and on the 25th, the Pope, accompanied by Prince Djem, rode with the king in a public procession through Rome, upon which Charles departed, bent on the conquest of Naples. Having accomplished this, he was back in Rome in June, upon which Alexander fled to Orvieto and Perugia, probably taking Pintoricchio in his train. Charles’s policy having taken him to the north of Italy by the end of June, Alexander returned to Rome, where he now, hearing of the defeat of the French troops in Lombardy, found courage to denounce the king.

In 1497 the rooms of the upper storey of Sant’ Angelo, which Alexander at this time strongly fortified, were destroyed by an explosion of powder. They were rebuilt as quickly as possible, and the time of danger being over, Pintoricchio was again called for to immortalise the events of the last two years. There is no doubt (says Gregorovius) that Pintoricchio was in Rome at the time of Charles’s entry, and was an eye witness of that and other stirring scenes. Vasari says that Pintoricchio painted a number of rooms in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, with grotesques, but the little tower in the garden was adorned with the history of Pope Alexander, and there could be descried Isabella, the Catholic Queen, Niccolo Orsino, Count of Pitigliano, Gianiacomo Trivulzio, and many other relatives and friends of the Pope, and in particular, Cesar Borgia, with his brother and sister, and many celebrated persons of the time. The garden tower has been pulled down, and in the upper rooms only a fragment of decoration remains, a shield supported by children in Pintoricchio’s favourite manner. We are, however, indebted to Lorenzo Behaim, who for twenty-two years was the Pope’s major-domo, for a list of the subjects painted in the pleasure house.

The whole story of the French king’s entry into the capital was made to redound to the glory of the Pope. Charles was represented kneeling at his feet, taking the oath, serving at Mass. The Pope was shown in-vesting the French ecclesiastics with the Cardinal’s hat. In a procession to San Paolo, the king stood at the Pope’s bridle rein, and the final scene showed the departure for Naples, accompanied by the Sultan Djem.

In comparing these in our mind with the frescoes in the Library of Siena, painted a few years later, it is possible to imagine what Pintoricchio would have made of these very similar themes. Here, as there, there is an endowment of the red hat, a Consistory, an act of homage to the enthroned Pope, and a gay procession. In the Louvre is a drawing of Pintoricchio’s of three pages leaning on halberds, which may be part of the design for one of these frescoes. Djem he would have brought in again, as he depicted him in the Borgia Apartments. The number of con-temporary portraits would have made this second great piece of work executed for the Borgia Pope of surpassing interest to historians.

( Originally Published 1908 )

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