Under this cloak-and-dagger government literature and art prospered surprisingly; the same passionate temperament that worshiped the Virgin, flouted cardinals, and murdered close kin could feel the fever of creative writing, or steel itself to the discipline of art. Matarazzo’s Cronaca della Città di Perugia, describing the zenith of the Baglioni, is one of the most vivid literary products of the Renaissance. Commerce, before the Baglioni came to power, had accumulated enough wealth to build the massive Gothic Palazzo Comunale (1280–1333), and to adorn it and the adjoining Collegio del Cambio (1452–6)—Chamber of Commerce—with some of the finest art in Italy. The Collegio had a judicial throne and a moneychangers’ bench so exquisitely carved that no one could reproach the businessmen of Perugia with lack of taste. The church of San Domenico had choir stalls (1476) almost as elegant, and a celebrated chapel of the Rosary designed by Agostino di Duccio. Agostino hesitated between sculpture and architecture; usually he combined them, as in the oratorio or prayer chapel of San Bernardino (1461), where he covered almost the entire façade with statues, reliefs, arabesques, and other ornament. An unadorned surface always aroused an Italian artist.
At least fifteen painters were busy meeting such challenges in Perugia. Their leader in Perugino’s youth was Benedetto Bonfigli. Apparently through association with Domenico Veneziano or Piero della Francesca, or through studying the frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli at Montefalco, Benedetto learned something of the new techniques that Masolino, Masaccio, Uccello, and others had developed in Florence. When he painted frescoes for the Palazzo Comunale he displayed a knowledge of perspective new among Umbrian artists, though his figures borrowed stereotyped faces and were shrouded in shapeless drapery. A younger rival, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, equaled Benedetto in dullness of color, surpassed him in delicacy of sentiment and occasional grace. Both Bonfigli and Fiorenzo, in Perugian tradition, taught the two masters who brought Umbrian painting to its culmination.
Bernardino Betti, called Pinturicchio, learned the arts of tempera and fresco from Fiorenzo, but never adopted the oil technique that came to Perugino from the Florentines. In 1481, aged twenty-seven, he accompanied Perugino to Rome, and covered a panel in the Sistine Chapel with a lifeless Baptism of Christ. But he improved; and when Innocent VIII bade him decorate a loggia of the Belvedere Palace he struck out on a new line by painting views of Genoa, Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples, and Rome. His drawing was imperfect, but there was a pleasant plein-air quality in his painting that attracted Alexander VI. That genial Borgia, wishing to adorn his own chambers in the Vatican, commissioned Pinturicchio and some aides to paint the walls and ceilings with frescoes of prophets, sibyls, musicians, scientists, saints, Madonnas, and perhaps a mistress. These again so pleased the Pope that when an apartment was designed for his use in the Castel Sant’ Angelo he engaged the artist to portray there some episodes in the Pope’s conflict with Charles VIII (1495). By this time Perugia had heard of Pinturicchio’s fame; it called him home; and the church of Santa Maria de’ Fossi asked him for an altarpiece. He responded with a Virgin, Child, and St. John that satisfied all but the professionals. In Siena, as we have seen, he made the Piccolomini Library radiant with a vivid portrayal of the life and legend of Pius II; and despite many technical faults, this pictorial narrative makes that room one of the most delightful remains of Renaissance art. After spending five years on this work Pinturicchio went to Rome, and shared in the humiliation of Raphael’s success. Thereafter he faded from the artistic scene, perhaps through illness, perhaps because Perugino and Raphael so obviously excelled him. A doubtful story reports that he died of hunger in Siena, aged fifty-nine (1513).14
Pietro Perugino received that surname because he made Perugia his home; Perugia itself always called him by his family name, Vannucci. Born in nearby Città della Pieve (1446), he was sent to Perugia at the age of nine and was there apprenticed to an artist of uncertain identity. According to Vasari his teacher ranked the painters of Florence as the best in Italy, and advised the youth to go and study there. Pietro went, carefully copied the frescoes of Masaccio, and enrolled as an apprentice or assistant to Verrocchio. Leonardo entered Verrocchio’s studio about 1468; very probably Perugino met him, and, though six years older, did not disdain to learn from him some qualities of finish and grace, and a better handling of perspective, coloring, and oils. These skills already appear in Perugino’s St. Sebastian (Louvre), together with a pretty architectural setting, and a landscape as placid as the face of the perforated saint. After leaving Verrocchio, Perugino returned to the Umbrian style of demure and tender Madonnas; and through him the harder and more realistic traditions of Florentine painting may have been softened into the warmer idealism of Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto.
By 1481 Perugino, now thirty-five, had won sufficient repute to be invited by Sixtus IV to Rome. In the Sistine Chapel he painted several frescoes, of which the finest survivor is Christ Giving the Keys to Peter. It is too formal and conventional in its symmetrical composition; but here, for the first time in painting, the air, with its subtle gradations of light, becomes a distinct and almost palpable element in the picture; the drapery, so stereotyped in Bonfigli, is here tucked and wrinkled into life; and a few of the faces are finished to striking individuality—Jesus, Peter, Signorelli, and, not least, the large, rotund, sensual, matter-of-fact countenance of Perugino himself, transformed for the occasion into a disciple of Christ.
In 1486 Perugino was again in Florence, for the archives of the city record his arrest for criminal assault. He and a friend disguised themselves, and, armed with clubs, waited in the dark of a December night to waylay some chosen enemy. They were detected before they could commit any injury. The friend was banished, Perugino was fined ten florins.15 After another interlude in Rome he set up a bottega in Florence (1492), hired assistants, and began to turn out pictures, not always carefully finished, for customers near and far. For the Gesuati brotherhood he made a Pietà whose melancholy Virgin and pensive Magdalen were to be repeated by him and his aides in a hundred variations for any prosperous institution or individual. A Madonna and Saints found its way to Vienna, another to Cremona, another to Fano, another—the Madonna in Glory—to Perugia, another to the Vatican; another is in the Uffizi. Rivals charged him with turning his studio into a factory; they thought it scandalous that he should grow so rich and fat. He smiled and raised his prices. When Venice invited him to paint two panels in the Ducal Palace, offering 400 ducats ($5000?), he demanded 800; and when these were not forthcoming he remained in Florence. He clung to cash, and let the credit go. He made no pretense of despising wealth; he was resolved not to starve when his brush began to tremble; he bought property in Florence and Perugia, and was bound to land on at least one foot after any overturn. His self-portrait in the Cambio at Perugia (1500) is a remarkably honest confession. A pudgy face, large nose, hair flowing carelessly from under a close red cap, eyes quiet but penetrating, lips slightly contemptuous, heavy neck and powerful frame: here was a man hard to deceive, ready for battle, sure of himself, and holding no high opinion of the human race. “He was not a religious man,” says Vasari, “and would never believe in the immortality of the soul.”16
His skepticism and commercialism did not prevent him from occasional generosity,17 or from producing some of the tenderest devotional pictures of the Renaissance. He painted a lovable Madonna for the Certosa di Pavia (now in London); and theMagdalenattributed to him in the Louvre is so fair a sinner that one would not need divine mercy to forgive her. For the nuns of Santa Clara at Florence he painted an Entombment in which the women had a rare beauty of features, and the faces of the old men summarized their lives, and the lines of composition met on the bloodless corpse of Christ, and a landscape of slender trees on rocky slopes, and distant town on a quiet bay, shed an atmosphere of calm over the scene of death and grief. The man could paint as well as sell.
His success in Florence finally convinced the Perugians of his worth. When the merchants of the Cambio decided to adorn their Collegio they emptied their pockets with tardy largesse and offered the assignment to Pietro Vannucci. Following the mood of the age and the suggestions of a local scholar, they asked that their hall of audience should be decorated with a medley of Christian and pagan subjects: on the ceiling the seven planets and the signs of the zodiac; on one wall a Nativity and a Transfiguration; on another the Eternal Father, the prophets, and six pagan sibyls, prefiguring Michelangelo’s; and on another wall the four classical virtues, each illustrated by pagan heroes: Prudence by Numa, Socrates, and Fabius; Justice by Pittacus, Furius, and Trajan, Fortitude by Lucius, Leonidas, and Horatius Codes; Temperance by Pericles, Cincinnatus, and Scipio. All this, it seems, was accomplished by Perugino and his aides—including Raphael—in the one year 1500, the very year when the feuds of the Baglioni incarnadined the streets of Perugia. When the blood had been washed away the citizens could stream in to see the new beauty of the Cambio. Perhaps they found the pagan worthies a bit wooden, and wished that Perugino had shown them not posing but engaged in some action that would have given them life. But the David was majestic, the Erythrean Sibyl almost as gracious as a Raphael Madonna, and the Eternal Father a remarkably good conception for an atheist. On those walls, in his sixtieth year, Perugino reached the fullness of his powers. In 1501 the grateful city made him a municipal prior.
From that zenith he rapidly declined. In 1502 he painted a Marriage of the Virgin, which Raphael imitated two years later in the Sposalizio. About 1503 he returned to Florence. He was not pleased to find the city in much ado about Michelangelo’s David; he was among the artists summoned to consider where the figure should be placed, and his opinion was overruled by the sculptor himself. The two men, meeting shortly afterward, traded insults; Michelangelo, then a lad of twenty-nine, called Perugino a blockhead, and informed him that his art was “antiquated and absurd.”18 Perugino sued him for libel, and won nothing but ridicule. In 1505 he agreed to finish for the Annunziata a Deposition that the late Filippino Lippi had begun, and to add to it an Assumption of the Virgin.He completed Filippino’s work with skill and dispatch; but in the Assumption he repeated so many figures that he had used in previous pictures that the artists of Florence (still jealous of his quondam fees) condemned him for dishonesty and sloth. He left the city in anger, and took up his residence in Perugia.
The inevitable defeat of age by youth was repeated when he accepted an invitation from Julius II to decorate a room in the Vatican (1507). When he had made some progress his former pupil, Raphael, appeared, and swept everything before him. Perugino left Rome with heavy heart. Back in Perugia, he prospected for commissions, and kept on working to the end. He began (1514) and apparently finished (1520) a complex altarpiece for the church of Sant’ Agostino, recounting again the story of Christ. For the church of the Madonna delle Lagrime at Trevi he painted (1521) an Adoration Of the Magi which, despite some palsied drawing, is an astonishing product for a man of seventy-five. In 1523, while he was painting at neighboring Fontignano, he fell a victim to the plague, or perhaps died of old age and weariness. According to tradition he refused the last sacraments, saying that he preferred to see what would happen, in the other world, to an obstinately impenitent soul.19 He was buried in unhallowed ground.20
Everyone knows the defects of Perugino’s painting—the exaggerated sentiment, the dolorous and artificial piety, the stereotyped oval faces and ribboned hair, the heads regularly bent forward in modesty, even those of stern Cato and bold Leonidas. Europe and America can show a hundred Peruginos of this repetitious type; the master was more fertile than inventive. His pictures want action and vitality; they reflect the needs of Umbrian devotion rather than the realities and significance of life. And yet there is much in them that can please the soul mature enough to surmount its sophistication: the living quality of their light, the modest loveliness of their women, the bearded majesty of their old men, the soft and quiet colors, the gracious landscapes covering all tragedies with peace.
When Perugino returned to Perugia in 1499, after long stays in Florence, he brought into Umbrian painting the technical skill, without the critical faculty, of the Florentines. When he died he had faithfully passed down those skills to his associates and pupils—to Pinturicchio, Francesco Ubertino “II Bachiacca,” Giovanni di Pietro “Lo Spagna,” and Raphael. The master had served his purpose: he had enriched and transmitted his heritage, and had trained a pupil to surpass him. Raphael is Perugino faultless, perfected, and complete.