PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). PAINTERS OUTSIDE TUSCANY. Perugino
Finally, it is necessary to mention two artists that worked during the transitional period between the Early and the High Renaissance (this last between 1495 to 1527): Perugino and Pinturicchio. Pietro Vannucci, later called Pietro Perugino or simply “Perugino” (ca. 1446/1452 – 1523), was a contemporary of Botticelli; he was born in Città della Piave, (now Province of Perugia, in Umbria), in 1446 or 1452, to a humble family. His name “Perugino” alludes to his origins in Perugia, the lead city of Umbria. Art scholars still continue to dispute the socioeconomic status of his family: certain academics maintain that Perugino worked his way out of poverty thanks to his artistry, while others argue that his family was among the wealthiest in his home town.
These alleged humble origins are cited as Perugino’s main forces in his later desire for profit and the love for hard work. Perugino managed to become famous for his style and special finesse in painting, although somewhat affected. His father put him under the apprenticeship of a painter from a local workshop in Perugia, although he soon moved to Florence in order to perfect his painting. For this reason Perugino is considered as one of the last masters of the Florentine school. Once in Florence, he entered the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi and Filippino Lippi. Perugino also studied Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci chapel, by then considered a kind of “art academy” for young aspiring painters of the Florentine Quattrocento. Piero della Francesca is thought to have taught him perspective. By 1472, Perugino probably completed his apprenticeship since he was recorded as a master in the Confraternity of St. Luke. Perugino was between the first artists in Italy who used oil painting. Some of his early works were extensive frescoes executed for the convent of the Ingessati fathers, and that were destroyed during the Siege of Florence (1529-1530).
Perugino returned from Florence to Perugia, where he painted the Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1476) for the church of Santa Maria dei Servi of Perugia. As well as other artists of his time, Perugino also made his corresponding trip to Rome, and together with Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, at around 1480 was called by Pope Sixtus IV to decorate with frescoes the side walls of the Sistine Chapel, as well as the altar wall, which were later replaced with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. From Perugino’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, we have the scene with Christ handing the keys to Saint Peter, a grandiose composition that is considered as one of his best works. In this fresco, the background includes an octagonal pavilion and two triumphal arches modeled after the Arch of Constantine. Through that distant and open background, countless small figures run and skillfully increase the impression of depth and distance. In the foreground, almost all placed in the same plane, are the companions of Christ and Saint Peter, among whom Perugino included some portraits.
Soon after, Perugino, by then endowed with a special grace for color, began to paint devotional images, sweet Madonnas gently bowing their heads, surrounded by angels and saints, all showing the same kind of graceful melancholy. His works, which were extremely sought after by the religious communities, were bought by merchants who made a lucrative trade with them, even while Perugino was still alive, a situation which naturally forced him to repeat himself. “Pietro had worked so hard – says his biographer – and so many commissions he always had, that he often painted the same work.” That is to say, Perugino had become mannered to such an extent that at the end all his figures had the same appearance and shared many similarities. Perugino then admirably painted his figures of languid and somewhat affected saints; their clothes are of very soft colors, and in the background the sweet Umbrian landscapes begin to appear with their tall poplars, the creeks that meander through the green plains and the Apennines closing the horizon.
Within this context, between 1486 and 1499, Perugino worked mostly in Florence, traveling once to Rome and several other times to Perugia. His studio in Florence received a great number of commissions. From this period is his notable Pietà (1483–1495) and a Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1495) for the Florentine convent of Santa Chiara. Though residing in Florence, Perugino used the natural charms of his native country to achieve his greatest triumphs as a painter, such as his fresco of the Crucifixion (1494-1496), in the church of the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, in Florence. Between 1496 and 1498 he worked on the polyptych of the Ascension of Christ for the church of St. Pietro of Perugia.
In 1499 the guild of the cambio (money-changers or bankers) of Perugia commissioned him with the decoration of their audience-hall, the Sala delle Udienze del Collegio del Cambio. In this extensive and remarkable fresco cycle; Perugino took the opportunity to portray various heroes of antiquity according to his personal style: Socrates, Fabius Maximus, Trajan, dressed in the contemporary fashions of the time, in front of saints and prophets. In this same group of frescoes Perugino left us a curious self-portrait. These frescoes include the painting of the vault, showing the seven planets and the signs of the zodiac, and on the walls the representation of two sacred subjects: the Nativity and Transfiguration; plus additional figures like the Eternal Father, the cardinal virtues of Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude, Cato as the emblem of wisdom, and numerous other life-sized figures of classical tradition, prophets and sibyls. It is probable that Raphael (by then his pupil) assisted in the work of the vaulting as this was mostly painted by assistants though entirely designed by Perugino.
One anecdote involving Perugino and Michelangelo had the latter accusing the former as a bungler in art. As a consequence, Perugino then accused Michelangelo of defamation of character, which was unsuccessful. Showing his moral fiber after this incident, Perugino painted his altarpiece for the Certosa di Pavia, a work that is now disassembled and scattered among museums: the only portion still in the Certosa is Padre eterno benedicente. The Annunciation has disappeared; three other panels, the Virgin adoring the infant Christ, St. Michael and St. Raphael with Tobias are in the National Gallery in London. Between 1507 y 1515, he produced one of his best paintings, the Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Francis. In 1504–1507 he painted the Annunziata Altarpiece for the high altar of the Basilica dell’Annunziata in Florence. At the time this work was considered a failure in the basis of its lack of innovation. Perugino lost his students and ca. 1506 he abandoned Florence, going to Perugia, and after one or two years he went to Rome after being called by Pope Julius II to paint the Stanza of the Incendio del Borgo in the Vatican. Julius II soon preferred to give the commission to a younger competitor, his once pupil Raphael. By that time Perugino had painted the ceiling of the Stanza with figures of God the Father and of Jesus in different glories, and after the decision of Julius II he decided to retire to Perugia in 1512.
Perugino’s latest works were characterized by repetitious themes executed in his studio, though he managed to produce the extensive altarpiece (painted between 1512 and 1517) of the church of San Agostino in Perugia, also now dispersed among several collections. In 1521 he painted his last frescoes for the church of the Madonna delle Lacrime in Trevi, and in 1522 for the church of Castello di Fontignano. While still at Fontignano he died of the plague in 1523. Like other victims of the plague at the time, he was hastily buried in an unconsecrated field and the precise place of his burial is unknown.
Perugino had a strong influence on famous painters such as Fra Bartolomeo della Porta and Mariotto Albertinelli, but above all, he influenced his direct disciples, the most famous of them all, Raphael and Bernardino di Betto, called Pinturicchio (1454-1513).