Bernardino di Betto (Perugia, 1454 – Siena, December 11, 1513), acquired the nickname Pinturicchio (meaning “little painter”) because of his small stature. According to Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), Pinturicchio had the misfortune of being unattractive and having various physical limitations, including deafness, which is why for a long time he was called “il Sordicchio“. During his apprenticeship years he was a paid assistant in Perugino’s workshop. In his early works, Pinturicchio strongly imitated the style of his master Perugino; although he soon went on to create new and extremely elegant works. Many times he chose secular, pagan and social issues as motifs for his paintings. That strange sense of melancholy that made Perugino’s work monotonous disappeared in the work of Pinturicchio, and from his master he only kept the freshness of the color, the light, and the delicacy of the drawing. Pinturicchio’s teachers were most probably Umbrian painters such as Fiorenzo di Lorenzo and Bartolomeo Caporali, although he was also influenced by painters active in Umbria such as Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Fra Filippo Lippi. The influence of the work of Piero della Francesca in the work of Pinturicchio is also evident, particularly in the treatment of monumental spatiality, dominated by perspective and by a solemn compositional structure. Through the study of his works, we will see that the high esteem that accompanied Pinturicchio throughout his life was dictated not only by his talent, but mostly by his exceptional ability to interpret the demands of his high-profile clients.
The first works of Pinturicchio must be found in the Oratory of San Bernardino, in Perugia, where there was a chapel decorated with eight panels representing the Histories of San Bernardino (ca. 1473), painted by a group of young artists, between them Pinturicchio. The figures of three episodes (panels) are generally attributed to him: Healing of the Blind, Saint Bernardino resurrects a man found dead under a tree, and The Liberation of the Prisoner.
Pinturicchio was among the artists who decorated the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, as he went as an assistant of Perugino and had the opportunity to get in contact with, as well as learn from, prominent artists of the time such as Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Vanucci and Luca Signorelli. Art scholars acknowledge Pinturicchio’s hand in the scenes of Moses’ Journey in Egypt and The Baptism of Christ, while more recent critics have drastically reduced his involvement in the Sistine frescoes.
Throughout the years, Pinturicchio grew into an elegant painter, even superior to Perugino. His main works are the series of frescoes in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican, and especially those that decorate the Piccolomini library in the Cathedral of Siena.
After assisting Perugino with some frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, for the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, Pinturicchio executed some frescoes in the Bufalini Chapel, probably around 1484-1486. In this chapel, the fresco cycle develops along three walls and the ceiling and is dedicated to the life and miracles of Saint Bernardino of Siena, a saint who at that time was the subject of extensive promotional work carried out by the Franciscan order. On the altar wall is a grand painting of St. Bernardino of Siena between two other saints, crowned by angels; in the upper part is a figure of Christ in a mandorla, surrounded by angel musicians. On the left wall is a large fresco of the miracles performed by the corpse of St. Bernardino, which includes portraits of members of the patrons: the Bufalini family. In this work are clear the multiple influences on Pinturicchio’s painting: the treatment of perspective typical of the Perugian school, the variety of people populating the spaces inspired by the works of the Florentines Benozzo Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio, and the characterization of poor pilgrims and beggars, derived from the Flemish painting.
Pinturicchio entered the service of the newly elected pope Innocent VIII (1484) who commissioned him to paint a series of views of Italian cities for a loggia located in the Apostolic Palace, where the Pope would stay in his frequent convalescence. This area was later incorporated by Bramante, during the papacy of Julius II, into the Belvedere complex. This fresco cycle by Pinturicchio was rediscovered only until the 1930s, though the paintings were in poor condition. The decorative design for these frescoes was arranged in lunettes between pillars decorated with grisaille and putti. The frescoes depicted a kind of illusionistic opening painted on the closed side of the loggia and represented “bird’s eye” views of Italian cities according to the Flemish tradition of aerial perspective: the cities of Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Venice and Naples were represented, each in its own environment. This cycle is particularly important, as it represents the first example of the genre of landscape painting after Classical antiquity, particularly in the use of the second Pompeian style. Pinturicchio was probably one of the first to personally visit the “caves” with the rediscoveries of the Domus Aurea of Nero’s palace and its decorative frescoes.
Pinturicchio was employed by various members of the Della Rovere family to decorate the Semi-Gods Ceiling (1490) of the Palazzo dei Penitenzieri. In this work, Pinturicchio composed for the coffered ceiling, a grid of octagons in gilded wood with 63 segments painted with mythological and allegorical themes. The wealth of iconographic ideas, research on the art of antiquity, and attention to detail, are here fused with the skills typical of an illuminator, as he used images from medieval tradition.
With the reconstruction of the basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome commissioned by Sixtus IV, Pinturicchio was called upon to paint several chapels. It seems Pinturicchio worked between ca. 1484 to 1492 in these commissions. One of these chapels is the Chapel of the Presepio (manger) of Cardinal Domenico della Rovere, in which Pinturicchio worked between 1488 and 1490. It includes an altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds. In the lunettes of this chapel under the vault, Pinturicchio painted small scenes from the life of St Jerome. The wall decoration, with polychrome grotesque on yellow-gold background, was probably inspired by the paintings of the Domus Aurea, and represents one of the earliest and highest quality examples of this type of decoration in Rome.
Another one of these chapels is the third chapel on the south, the chapel of Girolamo Basso della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, in which Pinturicchio worked ca. 1484. This Basso Della Rovere Chapel has a false portico, a set with porphyry columns with gilded Corinthian capitals, resting on a base decorated with benches and illusionistic reliefs in grisaille. Two painted books, in perfect perspective, rest on one of the painted benches, fooling the viewer. It also contains a fine altarpiece of the Madonna enthroned between Four Saints, and on the east side a nicely composed fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin. The vault and its lunettes are richly decorated with small scenes of the Life of the Virgin, surrounded by graceful arabesques. In this work the use of various assistants is more evident. In this same period, also in Rome, Pinturicchio painted the transept of the Ponziani Chapel of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, with the Almighty surrounded by the Evangelists and black and white scrolls with stucco arms.
The frescoes of the Cybo Chapel (in the same church of Santa Maria del Popolo) were destroyed in 1682, when the chapel was rebuilt. Only the fresco of the Virgin and the Child was detached from the wall and sent to Massa in 1687 where the fragment was re-used as the altarpiece of the Ducal Chapel of the Cathedral of Massa. In the Costa Chapel, Pinturicchio or one of his assistants painted the Four Latin Doctors in the lunettes of the vault.
Around 1490 Pinturicchio painted in Rome the image of Our Lady of Peace for the Church of San Severino Marche. The composition is complex but serene, the figures in the foreground appear monumental, the faces reflect an ideal beauty, with a studied inclination of the heads and the portrayal of gestures. This painting was meticulously executed with delicate and rich decorations made with the tip of the brush, such as the child’s mantle that features perfectly reproduced embroidery on the chest and flare pearl reflections set on the sleeve. It is also dazzling the profusion of gold, often spread in spots across the painting, that create a highly suggestive sparkling dust. Following this prototype of Madonna, Pinturicchio produced others, such as the Virgin with the reading Child (North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh), and the Virgin with the writing Child (Philadelphia Museum of Art). In 1492 Pinturicchio dated, for the first time in a work that has come down to us, the Madonna del Latte today in Houston, a work of great refinement, almost of miniaturist quality.
The Valencian Rodrigo de Borja, who as Pope took the name of Alexander VI, wanted Pinturicchio to paint the rooms he destined for his apartments, rooms that still to this day bear the name of “Borgia Apartments” in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The rooms are now part of the Vatican library. Pinturicchio worked in these rooms between 1492 to 1494. The result was a treasure trove of precious and refined decorations, with an overload of grotesque in which the profuse reflections of gold constantly shine on the walls and ceilings, reflecting the union of the International Gothic heritage with a taste for the ornate Moorish traditions of the Hispanics linked to the Valencian origin of Pinturicchio’s patron. The iconographic program of this fresco cycle fused Christian doctrine with constant references to the archaeological taste then in vogue in Rome, and it was almost certainly dictated by the literati of the papal court. After Pope Alexander VI died, Pinturicchio left Rome for Umbria, and left much of the work in the Vatican to be completed by Michelangelo and Raphael. This series of rooms are, altogether, six rooms arranged in a row. There’s first a large anteroom, called the “papal room”, which contains little works by Pinturicchio; after this follow three rectangular rooms, all decorated by him, and lastly, a tower, built exclusively for Alexander VI, where his bedroom and private chapel were located. The three intermediate rooms are covered with a groin vault, enriched with polychrome relief stucco adorned with coat of arms, allegories and figures of prophets. The walls are all covered by beautiful frescoes; over a door there is one in which the risen Christ appears as he comes out of the tomb, while Pope Alexander worships him on his knees. The plump, sensual and mischievous figure of this pontiff is a marvelous portrait, but even more admirable are the soldiers who sleep as graceful halberdiers in artistic posture. On the opposite wall, over another door, there is a Madonna and Child, which, according to Vasari, was the portrait of Julia Farnese, the last lover of the old Valencian Pope.
In the next room, Pinturicchio painted several scenes representing the lives of saints, between these is famous the depiction of the judgment of Saint Catherine, in which, in the figures of the emperor and his courtiers, Pinturicchio probably represented Cesare Borgia, one of the Pope’s sons, with his friends and people close to the Borgias, and among them Bayezid’s brother, Djem, wearing his turban, who was in Rome as a guarantee of the friendship and good intentions between the Pope and the Turkish conqueror.
In the fourth room there are allegories of the liberal arts, and in the tower, where the Pope’s bedroom was, Pinturicchio included several mythological and astronomical figures. The most remarkable aspect about this decoration is the profusion of color, gold, navy blue and bright reds, which contrast admirably, as in the old classical mural decorations. Without being the same as the color range employed by the ancients, which we call now Pompeian style, the color tones employed by Pinturicchio are vivid. Pinturicchio has followed in these rooms the same system of antiquity of dividing the walls into very small spaces, so that, by contrast, the colors don’t clash excessively. The use of gold softens and harmonizes the whole compositions; even in scenes with figures, the vivid colors of clothing, armor, and even of the landscape are softened by dots and lines of gold.
Immediately after the completion of this work, or even earlier, Pinturicchio returned to Umbria to await further commissions. In 1495, the pope again called Pinturicchio to Rome for new decorative undertakings: the decoration of the spaces of the tower in front of Castel Sant’Angelo, which involved some other rooms that Alexander VI ordered to be built in the old fortress. These frescoes were completed in 1497. In these rooms in Castel Sant’Angelo, Pinturicchio represented several important events of Alexander VI’s pontificate, but of such paintings today we only have brief descriptions from documents of the time, due to the destruction of the building and consequent loss of these frescoes. The intimacy of Pinturicchio with the Borgia family was also perpetuated in the Madonna of the Museum of Valencia.
Around 1494, when the works on the Borgia Apartments were finished or almost finished, Pinturicchio returned to Perugia. There, on 1496, he signed a contract to paint within two years a monumental multi-compartment altarpiece for the main altar of the church of Santa Maria dei Fossi. This work was dismembered during the Napoleonic wars and was rebuilt only until 1863, with the separation of the platform and without its pillars.
During a visit to Orvieto in 1496, Pinturicchio painted two figures of the Latin Doctors in the choir of the Duomo, but, like the rest of his work at Orvieto, these figures are almost destroyed. In Umbria, he painted his masterpiece of the Baglioni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello, completed in 1501. It included Stories of Mary and the infancy of Jesus. From these frescoes we can highlight the Annunciation, taken illusionistically, which also includes the painter’s self-portrait, and the Dispute with the doctors, where Pinturicchio reused the theme of urban space dominated by a majestic building with a central plan, as he had done in the Bufalini chapel, and that was in turn inspired by Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys in the Sistine Chapel. The Pinacoteca Vaticana (the Vatican picture gallery) has the largest panel painting by Pinturicchio, the Coronation of the Virgin, with the apostles and other saints below. In this painting, the artist included several portraits of contemporary figures among the kneeling saints.
In 1502, the Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini (later Pope Pius III), bishop of Siena, entrusted Pinturicchio to decorate a space in the Cathedral of Siena, called the Piccolomini Library, destined to receive the library of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pius II) and perpetuate the memory of his life. The frescoes were painted between 1503 and 1507. Among the many assistants employed by Pinturicchio to execute this work, there was the young Raphael, who participated in the design phase of the frescoes. For this fresco cycle, the walls were divided into ten arches with a common frame of painted architecture, and within them scenes from the life of Pius II were portrayed based on the biography of Giovanni Antonio Campano and the comments written by Enea Silvio himself. In this set of narrative paintings in which the life of the young humanist Enea Silvio Piccolomini was explained, Pinturicchio portrayed the whole atmosphere of the Renaissance, with a visual splendor and a luxury of details never achieved again in his work. Additionally, in 1504 Pinturicchio designed one of the mosaic floor panels for the Cathedral of Siena: the Story of Fortuna, or the Hill of Virtue. This was executed by Paolo Mannucci in 1506.
During his stay in Siena, Pinturicchio was hired by the royal lord of the city, Pandolfo Petrucci, who wanted to undertake an extraordinary decorative enterprise in his palace in Via de Pellegrini. It was the decoration of the main room, for which he recruited the best artists in the city, and that was completed in 1509. This large room was decorated with eight scenes on the walls and a ceiling with compartments, where mythological themes were inspired by the Golden Vault of the ruins of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Today the ceiling was reconstructed in the Metropolitan Museum of Siena and the frescoes, also painted by Luca Signorelli and Girolamo Genga, are scattered in several museums. The Return of Odysseus, by Pinturicchio, is part of this series and is now kept in the National Gallery of London. This painting includes mythological scenes interpreted reflecting the political events of the time and the personal history of the sponsors that symbolize the dangerous times Siena endured at the hands of Cesare Borgia, about to conquer it, while Odysseus (Pandolfo Petrucci), returned from exile, anticipated by his son Borghese (Telemachus) to save the day. The perspective is well proportioned, with the foreshortened frame and the large figures that denote the monumentality reached by Pinturicchio in his last artistic stage. Despite the damage to the painted surface, many details are extremely accurate, such as the bow and quiver of Odysseus hanging from the frame of the loom, the jewels and precious clothes, or the living naturalism, such as the maiden and the cat playing with the ball in the foreground.
Pinturicchio’s last major assignment was in Rome and again for Santa Maria del Popolo. In fact, he was called in to paint the fresco of the choir vault by Julius II himself. The work was completed in 1510. In the center is an octagonal panel of the Coronation of the Virgin, and surrounding it, are medallions of the Four Evangelists. The spaces between them are filled by reclining figures of the Four Sibyls. On each pendentive is a figure of one of the Four Doctors enthroned under a niched canopy. The bands which separate these paintings have elaborate arabesques on a gold background. This vault decoration in Santa Maria del Popolo by Pinturicchio is recognized as the finer example of decorative frescoes in a simple quadripartite vault.
The last documented monumental work by Pinturicchio is the Virgin in Glory with Saints Benedict and Gregory the Great, dating from 1510-1512, for the Olivetans of the church of Santa Maria di Barbiano in San Gimignano, currently in the local museum. The panel represents the Virgin enclosed in an almond composed of the heads of angels; in the foreground, kneeling and looking towards the Virgin, we see Saint Benedict and Saint Gregory. Among the last works executed by the painter is the panel of the Road to Calvary, dated 1513, today in the Borromeo collections in Isola Bella (Sicily). This work shows a miniaturistic style and features a parchment painted with the inscription “This is the work of Pinturicchio de Perugia M.CCCCC.XIII”.
Vasari, not very lenient in his biography of Pinturicchio, reports a last rumor about the greedy and strange character of the painter, according to which, when he stayed with the friars of San Francisco, in Siena, he insistently asked to transfer to his cell an old chest that broke while being transported and that revealed a treasure of 500 gold ducats, which therefore went to the brothers. This incident, according to Vasari, filled the painter with such acute repentance that it led to his death. The anecdote is not well founded, but it is a testimony to the bitterness of the last years of Pinturicchio’s life: rich, but alone, abandoned by his wife (who left him for other man), and forgotten by his five children. On May 7, 1513, weakened by illness, Pinturicchio issued his last will and spent his last days in the parish of Saints Vicente and Anastasio. He was buried in that church, without honors or commemorations; an inscription in his honor dates from 1830.
To finish this account of the painters of the early Renaissance we must say that some painters of the Quattrocento were also great miniaturists or book illuminators. Despite the advent of the printing press in 1436 by the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, the elite, great scholars and erudite men of the time preferred manuscripts enriched with images. Many 15th century bibliophiles were so fond of their illuminated books that claimed they didn’t want to “spoil” their collections by mixing printed books with their original manuscripts. Certain codices from the late 15th century were still produced in large dimensions, with parchment pages measuring more than half a square meter, and filled with figures, coats of arms and arabesques. They are beautiful works, the last productions of a form of art doomed to disappear, but illuminated manuscripts continued to be regarded as treasures until the end of the 15th century. Evidence of the high passion that bibliophile magnates felt for manuscripts is abundant. As examples: the Republic of Lucca tried to win the friendship of the Duke of Milan by sending him two books, and Cosimo de’Medici, in order to ingratiate himself with Alfonso the Magnanimous, gave him an illuminated manuscript of Livy. Upon receiving it, Alfonso leafed through it, not caring at all about the advice given to him by his courtiers, who believed that a poisonous perfume was exuding from it.
Dalmatic: A long, wide-sleeved tunic, which serves as a liturgical vestment in the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, United Methodist, and some other churches. When used, it is the proper vestment of a deacon at Mass, Holy Communion or other services held in the context of a Eucharistic service.
Quadrivium: In liberal arts education, the quadrivium consists of the four subjects or arts (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) taught after the trivium. The word is Latin, meaning ‘four ways’. Together, the trivium and the quadrivium comprised the seven liberal arts (based on thinking skills), as distinguished from the practical arts (such as medicine and architecture). The quadrivium was considered the foundation for the study of philosophy and theology.
Sage: In classical philosophy, a sage is someone who has attained wisdom. The term has also been used interchangeably with a ‘good person’ and a ‘virtuous person’.
Trivium: The trivium is the lower division of the seven liberal arts and comprises grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were essential to a classical education, as explained in Plato’s dialogues. The word is Latin, meaning “the place where three roads meet”; hence, the subjects of the trivium are the foundation for the quadrivium, the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts.