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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Umbria Santa

Corrado Ricci

Faber & Gwyer
London, n. d. (1926 or 1927)

The text is in the public domain, except for my notes.
Black-and‑white photographs are in the public domain;
color photographs are © William P. Thayer.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7

 p119  Chapter VI

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Portrait of Pintoricchio
by himself:
from the fresco at Santa Maria Maggiore di Spello

(Photo. Alinari)

Francesco Matarazzo, the old chronicler, after having indulged in hearty praise of Perugino, adds that 'at the same time there was living in Perugia another master called by many the Pintoricchio, who was the second in the art of Painting as Master Pietro was the first; and as second master, he had no equal in the world; thus in our city were born men, great and dignified in this art, as also in other faculties and crafts'. Giorgio Vasari, on the contrary, considers Pintoricchio much 'aided by fortune but not endowed with power', and wrote but a brief account of his life, thus inducing the historians of art to neglect him for a long period.

Accurate criticism has righted this judgment. It is not true that Pintoricchio is, after Perugino, the second painter 'without equal in the world', but he is, after Perugino, the second Umbrian painter. It is not true that he is endowed with little power, but it is however certain that he had not much idealism of form, nor profundity of feeling. He was above all, a decorative painter, fine in execution, rich (but not always harmonious) in colouring; a 'princely' painter, but without the spirit of psychological analysis, and thus he has not launched into the field of art any one figure that is still celebrated for its wonder of aspect and of life. For the magnificence of his ornamentation, of landscape, of architecture, of multitudes, he embraces the richest qualities developed in Umbrian painting during the century, combining and bringing them to a height really worthy of a  p120 great Court. But precisely for this reason, his 'courtly' art, as we may term it, conceals little heart under the wealth of the brilliant raiment!

At the time of his birth (probably 1454) there were several notable painters in Perugia, the oldest being Benedetto Bonfigli and Bartolomeo di Segnolo (del Caporale). There were also Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, Pietro di Galeotto, and Perugino, who surpassed them all. In Foligno the heart of Umbria, Mesastris, the humble and pleasing imitator of l' Alunno, was working, and in Gubbio we find various followers of the old master Nelli, amongst them Jacopo Bedi and di Nanni. These painters were not all of equal value, nor indeed of the same type, although working close to one another and in the same pleasant land. Bonfigli was an eclectic of little sensibility, gathering the elements of his art from various Tuscan and Umbrian sources. He limited his personal initiative to certain tricks of gaudy elegance, accurate however in a special way, in realistic reproduction of buildings, as one may see in the frescoes of the Palace in Perugia and in the Banner of San Bernardino. Bartolomeo del Caporale, whose name appears in the register of painters until 1442, shows himself influenced by Benozzo Gozzoli and the Sienese, but he afterwards becomes strictly Umbrian preparing for the later art of Pintoricchio. Another painter appears for a moment in the history of art, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, and if we believe that the delightful little stories of the life of San Bernardino in the Perugia Gallery are his, we must consider him a great master; but  p121 the consensus of opinion now is that they must be attributed to Perugino in his early days, aided by his pupils, chief of whom is Pintoricchio. In this case the value of Fiorenzo's painting must be judged only by the works we know to be authentic, and therefore he passes to a lower class by reason of his crude colouring, uncertain drawing and rugged forms. Pietro di Galeotto was a painter evidently held in high esteem by his contemporaries, because to him, among other important works, was entrusted the Altar Front (Pala) for the Chapel of the Priors, now in the Vatican Gallery. At his death it was still incomplete, and was finished by Perugino in 1483. At the same time l' Alunno was imitating the works of Benozzo, so much admired in Montefalco, and to a less degree, those of Crivelli, who was painting in theº Piceno. But Galeotto, in his provincial simplicity, possessed a talent denied to Bonfigli, that is to say sentiment, sometimes even reaching caricature! In him too the rural sketch is enlarged, and is studded with figures in anecdotal groups; the decoration is enriched with delicate details in the frame and predella and in architectural backgrounds, showing a love of ornament such as was also occasionally reached by Mesastris, both these painters being prior to Crivelli, Nelli and Gentile da Fabriano. But, as we have already seen, Perugino emerges superior to all these artists, for his depth of expression, beauty of form and colour, and above all, for the perfect harmony of his art with the character of Umbria.

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Madonna by Bonfigli:
from the painting
in the Picture Gallery
at Perugia

from a painting
by Bartolomeo Caporali,
in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence

(Photo. Alinari)

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Madonna and Saints: from a painting by Fiorenzo di Lorenzo
(Photo. Anderson)

. . . . . . . . . .

 p122  It is probable that Pintoricchio first studied in the school of Bartolomeo del Caporale, official painter to the rich and powerful abbey of San Pietro. He was esteemed by his fellow-citizens, and amongst other important works he executed the panel-picture (now lost) for the Cappella del Verde in the cathedral. Certainly there is a distinct likeness between the known works of Bartolomeo and the early ones of Pintoricchio, and we are told that the latter was in correspondence with Gian Battista del Caporale for some years.

As soon as Pintoricchio perceived the proof of Perugino's painting reinvigorated by Florentine contact, he did not hesitate to work as his apprentice, first helping him in the panels of St. Bernardino and then in the Sistine frescoes. And thus there was truth in Vasari's words that 'Pintoricchio in his first youth worked many things with his master Pietro of Perugia'. The temperaments of the two artists were, however, essentially different. The one simple and serene, the other dignified and decorative; for this reason Perugino in his collaboration with the younger man, recognizes that this very difference makes the evolution of the work richer and more worthy. And what was actually their procedure? The tendency of Perugino was always to mitigate the pomp of the older Umbrian painters, that of Pintoricchio was to augment it; therefore if one sought for humility and feeling, the other looked for more sparkling and superficial elements. Behold him therefore in the chapel of the Trinci observing the gilded vaulting of  p123 Ottaviano Nelli, and the rich tunic with which the Eugubian painter dressed the Infant Jesus; and the sumptuousness of the golden stuffs of Gentile da Fabriano. Pintoricchio notices at once the accuracy of Bonfigli's buildings and his manner of adorning raiment with golden spangles; again the cherubs upholding a coat-of‑arms beloved by l' Alunno. In fact, it is not the internal feeling which interests him, but the effect of external pageantry. And as years advance this ostentation attracts him more, perhaps because it better pleases his patrons, and therefore he sacrifices ideality of form, if not the mystic sweetness which comes to him from the Schools, becoming poorer in spirit as he paints richer raiment.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a detail of a fresco by Perugino and Pintoricchio in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.]

The Giving of the Keys:
from the fresco by Perugino, in the Sistine Chapel, Rome

(Photo. Alinari)

In the unhappiness of his domestic life and the moral pusillanimity with which he tolerates the actions of a perverse and corrupt wife, we may find a reason for his desiring to produce such magnificence of festal aspect, and a secret and unconscious need to express himself in joyous and sumptuous design.

An old chronicler describes him as of 'mean appearance', whence his nickname 'Pintoricchio' and says he was also called 'Sordicchio' because he was deaf; and a Tuscan writer reveals the liaison of his wife Grania with a soldier of the Sienese Guard, to whom later she actually marries her own daughter. On the other hand, we see Pintoricchio timid and patient at his work, even when brought in contact with the most dissolute and cruel men of his age, from Alexander VI to Julius II, from Cesare Borgia to  p124 Pandolfo Petrucci. Imperious and strong as they may be, Pintoricchio is still 'a little mind in a little body', never permitting himself any opinion on the crimes that his employers might meditate and commit, whilst he was engaged in shedding gaiety with gold and vivid colours.

Cardinals, princes and popes merely considered Pintoricchio an artificer prompt in rendering their dwellings magnificent. They did not molest him if he turned to their adversaries, nor particularly honour him for his services to themselves. Even the terrible Cesare Borgia writing of him to Alfani in October 1500, says 'whom we have always loved for his virtues, and we have again engaged him in our service'.

The fate of the Borgias approaching, Pintoricchio goes to work for their two most bitter enemies — Lorenzo il Magnifico and Julius II. Amongst artists he must have been one of the most timid, and during his last stay in Rome, he must have felt himself crushed by the knowledge that the fresh talents of Raffael and Michael Angelo, of Peruzzi and Bramante, were already at work.

. . . . . . . . . .

Strangely enough, some have thought that the rich and pompous art of Pintoricchio in his early period, proves that he had been in Rome at the Papal Court before he went there with Perugino.

We have seen how pictorial pomp is instilled into the temperament of the master; we have seen how he drew from the old local artists as much as would satisfy his  p125 mind. But was not Perugia herself able to nourish him? Was she not the conspicuous city amongst the many beautiful ones of Italy, partly because of her natural surroundings, overlooking the valley of the Tiber, and with five or six chains of mountains fading away into the horizon even to Monte Amiata? Was she not then renowned both for her artistic and civic festivities?

There was no lack of learned men ready and willing to lay their humanistic culture at the feet of art, and there were numerous occasions when they could admire a brilliant show of costume in gorgeous celebrations.

The early years of Pintoricchio were happy ones for his country. A year or so before he left it in 1479, he might have felt some fear when the Florentines made a nocturnal assault on Porta Sant' Angelo, but it was easily repulsed. The great troubles, when the Oddi and the Baglioni made the streets run with blood, took place later when he was already in Rome. On the contrary, we read that 'The Ten, having neither war without, nor discord within, attended to the good government of their citizens, keeping the people in plenty and enlarging the town both with public and with private buildings'. And if we consider the times, we must be struck by the care for the improvement of the city and the custody of its most ancient parts. In 1475 Biordo degli Oddi gave orders 'that no one who had a house near the walls of the city, should touch or move one stone from these walls, because verily, for the greatness and magnificence of the city and for the quality of the walls  p126 themselves they are very remarkable and worthy of being preserved for ever; and as there are many who have houses above the walls and adjacent to them, if any one should have taken stones for their own use, they should be obliged within six months to restore the wall to its former state with the same stones, at their own expense'. Hardly a year later, he enjoined 'that certain stretches of wall, which in the higher vaulting of the houses project with no little deformity and impediment to the air of the streets, should be pulled down, especially those which are round about the piazza'. In 1479 the Signoria expected 'to put in order nearly all the public and important ways of the city, in those places where there was most need: and they made many new cisterns, wells and public fountains, with many other things suitable to the ornament and greatness of their city'.

And thus in Perugia the worship of the beautiful increased, and for this reason many eminent persons visited the town, who by reason of their processions and all the feasting with which they were honoured, gave much artistic pleasure to the populace. Pintoricchio, revelling in such pomp, was able to be present at these periodical ceremonies of the Installation of the Magistrates, and many other pageants of the time, and he always used his opportunities to introduce into his brilliant frescoes portraits of the great men he had seen.

When Pintoricchio was fifteen, the Emperor Frederick arrived at Perugia with seven hundred horses, and with a  p127 great number of ambassadors, both from princes and republics; he remained two days, and was presented with two horses, covered with gold brocade. Two years afterwards, another important procession took place, when Borso d' Este passed through the city with five hundred horses, one hundred and thirty mules (many of them caparisoned with purple velvet and gold brocade), and with gilt and silver arms in the charge of twelve pages. After these followed doctors and gentlemen splendidly attired, and servants holding on leash one hundred and fifty dogs, and fifty falcons; everything in fact making such a spectacle of magnificence, that even before the frescoes of Pintoricchio, we see traces of the courtly show in the panel-pictures describing the legend of San Bernardino. And Pintoricchio also took part in the celebrations in honour of the 'Saints of the Gates and Regions' in 1471; then the streets were decorated and sumptuous suppers and dances took place; the following year Oddo Baglioni at his own cost, entertained Rengardo of Comerino, and again later, Madonna Costora, daughter of Braccio Fortebraccio.

And thus the city abandons herself on every hand to the felicity of a spacious and elegant life, accepting with alacrity all the beauty that the Renaissance showers upon her. However, even there, sumptuary laws seem necessary and in the same year 1472, Ruggiero dei Ranieri, head of the Magistrates, issues these laws, recognizing (partly from the threatening counsels of Fra Gian Battista) 'How much harm in the city of Perugia is done by the sumptuous  p128 dressing of the women, and the excessive dowries that by this reason they use for costumes'.

Again a few years later we find Bernardino da Feltre preaching with fervour and fame equal to that of Savonarola, and obliging the women to moderate and doff their ornaments: then having constructed a wooden castle, he made them fill it with 'objects of vanity' and set fire to it.

But the conflagration of all these objects of 'vice and of levity' did not prevent the Baglioni indulging, shortly afterwards, in a marriage ceremony of fabulous luxury; nor did the severe sermon reach its scope of distracting art from reproducing it. Painter and citizen alike vied with each other untiredly in the desire to furnish each in his turn the elements of beauty and of pleasure.

. . . . . . . . . .

The passion of Pintoricchio for richness and splendour naturally increased with his years, and it was probably intensified by the wish of those who desired his work. In the Sistine frescoes which he painted in collaboration with Perugino, the vast and vigorous landscapes reveal themselves as assuredly his. In fact, whilst criticism varies in attributing one or other figure to Pintoricchio, there is no hesitation in assigning to him the important varied backgrounds in the 'Journey of Moses and Zipporah' and of 'The Baptism of Christ'.

He does not paint the sweet 'pure' country of Perugino, of simple lines, and mountains descending into lakes and valleys, of which we have often spoken, nor the mournful  p129 solitude of Trasimene. His views are those of immense gardens and parks, rich with every sort of plant and every kind of rock, pierced through by galleries and surmounted by graceful castles or little churches. These are regions of delight, where everything (mountain, house, foliage) is sprinkled with gold, where the trees are not stalwart oaks, or dark ilex, but waving palms and fir-trees clipped to a cone; or else they may be flexuous cypresses and superb 'trees of Paradise'.

Pintoricchio does not depict huts and ruins, but cities outlined by rich towers and grand buildings, such as the Colosseum, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the Arch of Constantine, the Pantheon. The sky of Pintoricchio is flecked with clouds and rainbows and furrowed by large birds like falcons chasing wild duck. In fact it is a prospect of decorative effect, almost, if one may use the term, a 'courtly' landscape, and what confers elegance, at the same time removing confusion, is the delicate fourteenth-century grace of the forms.

The architecture of Pintoricchio is more rich than beautiful — compare, for instance, his temple in the Fresco of the 'Funeral of San Bernardino' in the Aracoeli, with that of the 'Giving of the Keys' by Perugino, or with 'The Marriage of the Virgin' by Raffael: it is easy to see the inferiority in taste and design! Consider the heaviness and awkwardness of St. Barbara's tower in a lunette of the Appartamenti Borgia! We must acknowledge that Pintoricchio is a feeble painter of perspective: he only knew its  p130 elementary rules, and even those he applied with indecision. It was in vain, as far as he was concerned, that Pier della Francesca, Mantegna, Melozzo da Forlì had attempted and often resolved the problems of perspective, figurative as well as architectural. In the Library of Siena Cathedral he is incapable of reconciling the perspective of the allotment of pillars and arches with that of the stories painted on them, so much so that the antagonism produces a sense of intuitive displeasure. In the vaulting of Sta. Maria del Popolo in Rome, Pintoricchio follows the example of the Giottesque painters in stretching out on a flat surface the niches with the figures of the four Doctors of the Church.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to recognize the justice of Vasari's observations when he says that 'Bernardino was much in the habit of decorating his pictures with ornaments in relief covered with gold, for the satisfaction of persons who understood but little of such matters, to the end that they might have a more showy appearance, a thing which is most unsuitable to painting. Having depicted a story from the life of St. Catherine in the above named apartments, he executed the triumphal arches of Rome therefore in relief, and painted the figures in such a manner that the objects which should diminish are brought more prominently forward than those which should be larger to the eye, a grievous heresy in our art.'

'Grievous heresy!' are words really too harsh, but we must admit that the method is illogical and therefore ungrateful. One observes it less in the populous scene of  p131 St. Catherine because as the reliefs receive their light from the front, they do not throw shadows or projections on the figures which ought to be presented on the first plane; but this does offend the eye in the lunette of St. Barbara. The elevated door-post of the tower, for instance, throws its shadow on the shoulder and elbow of a soldier; it confuses the position relative to the perspective, making it recede even to the wall of the tower, instead of taking its natural place in front.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the zzz in Umbria (central Italy).]

St. Catherine
by Pintoricchio:
from the frescoes of the Appartamenti Borgia
in the Vatican

(Photo. Alinari)

. . . . . . . . . .

It is a singular fact that with the advance of age and practice, Pintoricchio does not refine his taste and improve his form; on the contrary as he proceeds gradually in his brilliant decoration, he seems to give less thought to the excellence of design and the fusion of the colouring.

We find indeed that his great frescoes in Siena and in Sta. Maria del Popolo in Rome, both completed be 1505 and 1509, are not equal to those painted twenty years previously in the Aracoeli.

In the latter church, he has not the mania for overburdening the compartments and the architecture with ornamentation and with gold; he does not strive after effect in the crowding of figures and in crudeness of colours, but he produces a pleasant harmony of composition, design and tints; a light, a simplicity, a widespread peace, almost as though the spirit of San Bernardino had directed the work, and with his modesty had curbed the art which in later days became intemperate.

 p132  But at that early epoch, Pintoricchio was nearer to the Peruginesque example, and perhaps also he felt himself touched by the humility of his patron saint. He may have been reading the story of San Bernardino's life, and have had a dim remembrance of hearing in his infancy, how his grandmother had heard the Saint preach from the outside pulpit of Perugia cathedral, and had seen him act as peacemaker in so many quarrels.

In the Aracoeli also Pintoricchio paints the candelabra in chiaroscuro on a deep red ground, thus adding to the chromatic moderation in the scheme of decoration; but later on, finding this too mean, he breaks faith with simple light and shade and abandons himself to the grotesque. This triumph of the grotesque arises from the fact that painters penetrating into the dark recesses of the Golden House of Nero, discover and copy the ancient Roman ornamentation. The excavation taking place early in the pontificate of Alexander VI, was in time for Pintoricchio to avail himself of the study of the old Roman art, and introduce some of its rich designs into his scheme of decoration for the Appartamenti Borgia which he was then preparing.

The enthusiasm awakened in the artists of those days for the grotesque was equal to that felt by students of neoclassicism for the treasures of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

One of Leonardo's pupils tells us that men were so eager to copy the reliefs and designs, that they went all on fours into the caves and excavations, although 'these were full  p133 of bats and toads'; they made sketches for applying the new art; came from far away and returned to their own country with this new decorative method, throwing on vault and ceiling branches, foliage, fruit. They painted figures of legendary monsters, garlands of leaves, symbols and signs of war and of labour, all varied and diversified, without either colour or design being the specific reason.

Luzo was known by the nickname of 'Morto da Feltre' because he remained underground all day, and only emerged in the evening, as from a sepulchre! The actual ornamentations received the name of grotesque, because they were discovered in 'grotte'. Benvenuto Cellini writes: 'In Italy we have various ways of painting foliage; the Lombards made beautiful leaves by drawing those of ivy and of bryony with beautiful turns and scrolls, which give much pleasure to the eye; the Tuscans and Romans for this kind are superior, because they use leaves of acanthus turning in divers manners; and in amongst the said leaves, there is room for some birds and various animals, all of which adds to the good taste. Wild flowers are also naturally employed, like those called snapdragon and thus also other flowers, accompanied with other beautiful fancies of these skilful artificers, which things are called, by those who know no better, "grotesques". These "grotesques" have acquired the name just lately, because they have been found in certain caverns of the earth in Rome, by the learned; which caves were formerly rooms, hot-houses, studios and such-like places. These learned men have  p134 found the paintings in subterranean caves, by reason of the earth around having been raised to a higher level; and because the Roman vocabulary calls these caves "grottoes" therefore has come the name "grotesque". But this is not the right name, because as the ancients delighted in composing displays introducing cows, horses, this medley gave rise to "mostri",1 thus the artificers made this sort of picture with their foliage, and "mostri" is their proper name and not grotesques.'

Now, as far as it is possible to discover, Pintoricchio was the first artist in the Renaissance to make use of these 'grotesques', or 'mostri' as Cellini would have them called; and that was in his decoration of the Appartamenti Borgia, and it seems that the oldest document, in which the name 'grotesque' is used, is the order given to him in 1502 for the decoration of the Piccolomini Library.

Thus Pintoricchio gathered from the classical world what was most brilliant, most facile and most fantastic, but not the wonderful harmony of form and the noble moderation with which he tempered his decorative work.

. . . . . . . . . .

There is no doubt that the many orders for pictures and frescoes which Pintoricchio accepted, some of which had to be done in a brief space of time, made it necessary for him to employ assistants. For instance, there were no less than ten engaged in the Appartamenti Borgia. Undoubtedly Antonio del Massaro was one of these, and  p135 probably Eusebio di St.º Giorgio and Andrea di Aloigi were amongst the number. But if it is usually difficult to define the name and circumscribe the work of each collaborator, it is equally difficult to recognize the actual painting done by Pintoricchio himself. This, truly, even when not strictly beautiful, is always accurate and, one may also say, meticulous. However, the mania for immediate or external effect always distracts him from the spiritual investigation of those forms for which Perugino, in his early period, is so celebrated.

Even when painting portraits, and he has some fine ones, such as the 'Young Man' in the Dresden Gallery and that of Alexander VI in the Vatican, Pintoricchio feels himself more attracted by details of embellishment than the subject requires.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the zzz in Umbria (central Italy).]

Alexander VI
by Pintoricchio:
from the frescos of the Appartamenti Borgia
in the Vatican

(Photo. Alinari)

Such care does he devote to the landscape of the Dresden picture, as to make it more important than the figure, and such minuteness in the reproduction of every gem, every thread in the woven tissue of the Pope's mantle, that he can do no more for the head and the hands.

There are about forty pictures still existing by Pintoricchio, in which the decorative spirit is to be seen bounding exuberantly through the richness of the raiment, the importance of the background, and through the glory of gold resplendent on building and mountain. We must observe also that it is not only in paintings destined for his great patrons and for well-known cities that he uses such pageantry, but also for minor personages and for remote  p136 places, such as Sanseverino. For that cathedral he painted a most charming 'Madonna' in 1489; this panel-picture gathers together in itself the best of Pintoricchio from the fineness of technique in design and colour to his finest conception of the human figure and landscape; and all is synthesized in one magnificent whole, in a twilight which is ethereal, almost unearthly. Contemplating this work we are led to believe that had Pintoricchio painted more in this manner, he would have been one of our great painters for grace, delicacy and comeliness, even if not actually in the first rank. But it was but seldom that he could be in solitary communion with his actual work, and generally he was preoccupied by being obliged to satisfy courtly requirements. And these rare occasions were all anterior to the period that we may call 'Borgiano', the period when his faces showed a sweetness which gradually changed into coldness, when his colour was diaphanous and opaline, instead of crude and audacious as we see it in the Library at Siena.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is at S. Severino in the Marche (central Italy).]

La Madonna della Pace:
from a painting by Pintoricchio
at Sanseverino

(Photo. Alinari)

Thus, if the art of Perugino faded away in misery of form and colour, that of Pintoricchio died in the tumult of the one, and the harshness of the other. But for both, although from opposing causes, it was decadence.

The Author's Notes:

1 Arabesque is the nearest English equivalent.

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Page updated: 13 Jan 13