Hemmed in by Tuscany on the west, Latium on the south, and the Marches on the north and east, mountainous Umbria lifts up, here and there, the cities of Terni, Spoleto, Assisi, Foligno, Perugia, Gubbio. We preface them here with Fabriano—across the border in the Marches—because Gentile da Fabriano was a prelude to the Umbrian school.

Gentile is an obscure but dominating figure: painting medieval pictures in Gubbio and Perugia and the Marches, feeling vaguely the influence of the early Sienese painters, and slowly maturing to such prominence that Pandolfo Malatesta, says a quite incredible tradition, paid him 14,000 ducats to fresco the chapel of the Broletto in Brescia (c. 1410).8 Some ten years later the Venetian Senate commissioned him to paint a battle scene in the Hall of the Great Council; Gentile Bellini seems to have been among his pupils at that time. We find him next in Florence, painting for the church of Santa Trinità an Adoration of the Magi (1423) which even the proud Florentines acclaimed as a masterpiece. It is still preserved in the Uffizi: a bright and picturesque cavalcade of kings and retinues, stately horses, musing cattle, squatting monkeys, alert dogs, a lovely Mary, all compellingly focused upon a charming Infant who places an explorative hand upon the bald head of kneeling royalty; it is a picture admirable in gay color and flowing line, but almost primitively innocent of perspective and foreshortening. Pope Martin V called Gentile to Rome, where the artist deposited some frescoes in San Giovanni Laterano; they have disappeared, but we may surmise their quality from the enthusiasm of Rogier van der Weyden, who, on seeing them, pronounced Gentile the greatest painter in Italy.9 In the church of Santa Maria Nuova Gentile painted other lost frescoes, one of which led Michelangelo to say to Vasari, “he had a hand like his name.”10 Gentile died in Rome in 1427, at the height of his renown.

His career is evidence that Umbria, to which he culturally belonged, was generating its own geniuses and style in art. By and large, however, the Umbrian painters took their lead from Siena, and continued the religious mood without a break from Duccio to Perugino and the early Raphael. Assisi was the spiritual source of Umbrian art. The churches and legends of St. Francis disseminated through the neighboring provinces a devotion that dominated painting as well as architecture, and discountenanced the pagan or secular themes that were elsewhere invading Italian art. Portraits were seldom asked of Umbrian painters, but private individuals, sometimes using the savings of a lifetime, commissioned an artist, usually local, to paint a Madonna or a Holy Family for their favorite chapel; and there was hardly a church so poor but it could raise funds for such a symbol of hopeful piety and community pride. So Gubbio had her own painter, Ottaviano Nelli, and Foligno had Niccolò di Liberatore, and Perugia boasted Bonfigli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio.

Perugia was the oldest, largest, richest, and most violent of the Umbrian towns. Placed sixteen hundred feet high on an almost inaccessible summit, it commanded a spacious view of the surrounding country; the site was so favorable for defense that the Etruscans built—or inherited—a city there before the foundation of Rome. Long claimed by the popes as one of the Papal States, Perugia declared itself independent in 1375, and enjoyed over a century of passionate factionalism surpassed only by Siena. Two wealthy families fought for control of the city—its commerce, its government, its benefices, its 40,000 souls. The Oddi and the Baglioni murdered one another by stealth or openly in the streets; their conflicts fertilized with blood the plain that smiled beneath their towers. The Baglioni were noted for their handsome faces and physiques, their courage and their ferocity. In the heart of pious Umbria they scorned the Church, and gave themselves pagan names—Ercole, Troilo, Ascanio, Annibale, Atalanta, Penelope, Lavinia, Zenobia. In 1445 the Baglioni repelled an attempt of the Oddi to seize Perugia; thereafter they ruled the city as despots, though formally acknowledging it to be a papal fief. Let Perugia’s own historian, Francesco Matarazzo, describe the Baglioni government:

From the day the Oddi were expelled, our city went from bad to worse. All the young men followed the trade of arms. Their lives were disorderly, and every day divers excesses were divulged, and the city had lost all reason and justice. Every man administered right unto himself, by his own authority and with royal hand. The pope sent many legates, if so be the city could be brought to order. But all who came went back in dread of being hewn to pieces; for the Baglioni threatened to throw some from the windows of the palace, so that no cardinal or other legate durst approach Perugia unless he were their friend. And the city was brought to such misery that the most lawless men were most prized; and those who had slain two or three men walked as they pleased through the palace, and went with sword or poignard to speak to the podesta and other magistrates. Every man of worth was trodden down by bravos whom the nobles favored, nor could a citizen call his property his own. The nobles robbed first one and then another of goods and land. All offices were sold or else suppressed; and taxes and extortions were so grievous that everyone cried out.11

What can be done, a cardinal asked of Pope Alexander VI, with “these demons who have no fear of holy water”?12

Having disposed of the Oddi, the Baglioni divided into new factions, and fought one of the bloodiest feuds of the Renaissance. Atalanta Baglioni, being left a widow through the assassination of her husband, consoled herself with the beauty of her son Grifonetto, whom Matarazzo describes as another Ganymede. Her happiness seemed fully restored when he married Zenobia Sforza, whose beauty matched his own. But a minor branch of the Baglioni plotted to overthrow the ruling branch—Astorre, Guido, Simonetto, and Gianpaolo. Valuing Grifonetto’s bravery, the conspirators won him to their plan by deluding him into the belief that Gianpaolo had seduced his young wife. One night in the year 1500, when the dominant Baglioni families had left their castles and assembled in Perugia for the wedding of Astorre and Lavinia, the conspirators attacked them in their beds, and killed all but one of them. Gianpaolo escaped by clambering over roofs, hiding through the night with some frightened university students, disguising himself in a scholastic gown, and so passing out through the city gates at dawn. Atalanta, horrified to learn that her son had shared in these murders, drove him from her presence with curses. The assassins dispersed, leaving Grifonetto homeless and alone in the city. On the morrow Gianpaolo, with an armed escort, re-entered Perugia, and came upon Grifonetto in a public square. He wished to spare the youth, but the soldiers wounded Grifonetto mortally before Gianpaolo could restrain them. Atalanta and Zenobia came from their concealment to find son and husband dying in the street. Atalanta knelt by him, took back her curses, gave him her blessing, and asked him to forgive those who had slain him. Then, says Matarazzo, “the noble youth extended his right hand to his young mother, pressing her white hand, and forthwith he breathed his soul from his beautiful body.”13 Perugino and Raphael were painting in Perugia at this time.

Gianpaolo had a hundred men massacred, in the streets or in the cathedral, on suspicion of complicity in the plot; he had the Palazzo Comunale decorated with the heads of the slain, and with their portraits hung head downward; here was a substantial commission for Perugian art. Thereafter he ruled the city unchallenged until he yielded to Julius II (1506), and consented to govern as vicar of the popes. But he did not know how to govern except by assassination. In 1520 Leo X, tired of his crimes, lured him to Rome with a safe-conduct, and had him beheaded in the Castel Sant’ Angelo; this was one form of Renaissance diplomacy. Other Baglioni maintained themselves in power for a time; but after Malatesta Baglioni had murdered a papal legate Pope Paul III sent forces to take final possession of the city as an appanage of the Church (1534).

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