by Roderick Conway Morris

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Perugino, the divine painter

By Roderick Conway Morris
PERUGIA, Italy 15 May 2004
Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, Perugia
Madonna della Consolazione (detail) by Perugino, 1496-98



When accused of self-plagiarism, Raymond Chandler rejoined that, seeing as a tribe of other writers were shamelessly plagiarizing him, he could see no reason why he should not on occasion be entitled to do likewise.

Self-plagiarism was one of the accusations leveled against Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino after the principal city of his native Umbria, and this and other allegations, often unsupported by any convincing evidence, have stuck down the centuries. The primary culprit in this campaign of posthumous denigration was the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari.

Perugino's most famous pupils were Raphael and Pinturicchio, both of whom were deeply imbued with their master's vision and techniques, neither of whom, however, has been accused of plagiarizing their mentor. And these two were merely the best known of many artists who drew directly and indirectly on Perugino's works.

But the tendency to look at Perugino's own work through the sometimes distorting glass of his subsequent influence has been a major factor in obscuring the essential Perugino and his originality when he first came upon the scene.

A wide-ranging exhibition of work from Italy and abroad, the first of its kind centered on the artist, 'Perugino: The Divine Painter,' at the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, with parallel shows around the region, goes a long way to correcting the balance. This multifaceted event, masterminded with dedication and imagination by Vittoria Garibaldi and Francesco Federico Mancini, continues until July 18.

Perugino was born in 1450, or so, at Castel (now Città) della Pieve, high above the Chiana Valley on the borders of Umbria and Tuscany. He trained initially in Perugia, then with the two 'quattrocento' masters, Piero della Francesca in Arezzo and Verrocchio in Florence. In the latter's studio a fellow pupil was Leonardo da Vinci, and it was Raphael's artist father, Giovanni Santi, who hailed in verse these two rising young stars as 'divine painters.'

In 1479, Perugino was summoned to the Vatican to do the frescoes for the Chapel of the Conception of St. Joseph (now lost), and then the Sistine Chapel, where he was the leading artist in a group that included Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Cosimo Rosselli. Perugino's groundbreaking 'Christ Consigning the Keys to St. Peter' survives, but his other major frescoes in the chapel were later painted over by Michelangelo (after whom, ironically, Perugino had named one of his sons).

In the wake of his dazzling success in Rome, Perugino became the most sought-after painter in Italy, and the most expensive. Nonetheless, Perugino never abandoned his home turf, and was to spend much of the rest of his career in Umbria.

By the time Vasari published his 'Lives of the Artists' in 1550 and 1568, memories of Perugino's triumphs were still fresh enough to make absurd a full frontal assault on his position in the pantheon of Italian painters. Vasari therefore resorted to concocting a cocktail of praise and blame, laced with a sufficient quantity of unpleasant ingredients ultimately to invite a negative conclusion. Indeed, the accusations that proved most harmful to Perugino's name, that he was avaricious and irreligious, were personal rather than artistic.

Why Vasari felt it necessary to attack Perugino is addressed by Antonio Paolucci in his trenchant essay in the show's catalogue. Perugino's key role in the development of Italian, and notably Tuscan, painting was inescapable, but the man was, heaven forbid, neither a Florentine nor even a Tuscan. This was an affront to the whole scheme of the 'Lives,' which aimed to establish for all time the primacy of Florence's contribution to what came to be called the Renaissance. The fact that Perugino came not from far away, but from Umbria next door, seems to have added insult to injury.

So how Umbrian was the artist? According to Vasari, Perugino's achievements were entirely the result of his encounter with Florence. But surveying Perugino's works on his native soil, and going out in search of the wonderful frescoes still in situ in small local churches and oratories outside Perugia - those in Panicale overlooking Lake Trasimeno and his birthplace, Città della Pieve - only confirm the profoundly Umbrian nature of his work.

The artist's ethereal renderings of the Umbrian landscape, his ability to relate figures to this landscape and blend the two into a spiritual whole are the most immediate manifestations of the sense of place that pervades Perugino's painting. Fascinating, too, is how he internalized this landscape to the extent that it came to be stripped down to an almost mirage-like suggestiveness, achieved with a minimal range of colors and a few brush strokes of amazing economy. The land of St. Francis, the 'Galilee of Italy' as it came to be called in the 19th century, where the holy man had passed most of his days and where he now lay at rest at Assisi, was already hallowed ground, but it was Perugino who first conveyed the Umbrian countryside in resplendent visual form.

His skill in depicting the human body and flesh tones was no less accomplished (and understated) than his ability to handle landscape (and the subtle overlap of the palette he uses for both helps to explain the feeling of seamlessness between man, the natural world and the divine that he conveys in his finest works).

But so closely is the artist associated with religious painting that it is easy to forget what a consummate painter of secular portraits he also was. His mastery in this field is confirmed by a section in the Galleria Nazionale exhibition given over to this aspect of his oeuvre. These pictures bear witness to his ability to absorb and apply the latest techniques of contemporary Netherlandish art - and he was, indeed, one of the pioneers in the use of oil paints in Italy. The attribution of some of these works has over the centuries been divided between Perugino and Raphael, and two of the most striking and penetrating pieces here are now very credibly ascribed to the master rather than the pupil.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024