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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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 6

 p101  Chapter V

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Portrait of Perugino
by himself,
in the Sala del Cambio
at Perugia

(Photo. Alinari)

A few years ago I was looking at the marvellous landscape to be seen from Monte Pulciano, when the thought flashed across my mind: What if the dream of the poets be true which tells us at the birth of a genius, a flame is lit, and if this be so, what a succession of wondrous fires must have appeared on this long chain of mountains to a watcher during the fifteenth century!

On the one side Siena, and on the other Perugia, would have appeared as two glowing lights, two proud sisters absorbed in an incomparable dream of beauty. Then along the valley of the Chiana, closed to the north by the mountains of Arezzo (where Pier della Francesca created a masterpiece of art and of thought), one would see the flame of Angelo Poliziano clear as ancient poetry; at Cortona, the flashing fire of Signorelli, and at Castel della Pieve​a the gentle and virginal one of Vannucci.

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

Citadel of Città della Pieve
(Photo. Alinari)

And it was in this same country that the vision and the artistic sentiment of Pietro Vannucci were formed: a triple vision of azure — that of mountains, of lakes, of sky; a threefold sentiment of holiness; that of Benedict, of Francis, of Clare.

. . . . . . . . . .

Who were the first masters of Perugino? Which was his first school? Which his first works? The answer is both easy and difficult.

Difficult if one wishes to know each place he frequented, each studio by which he profited, each picture he produced:  p102 easy if one seeks for his earliest efforts in those of his oldest works, which proclaim his first masters to have been Umbrian, and his earliest school perhaps in that Perugia, which he considered the home of his soul and his intellect, to such an extent as to call himself Perugino.

And in his preparation he showed himself patient, attentive, retiring; not so much in order to appear suddenly as a Master, as to render himself worthy of being admitted into the most celebrated schools. Thus dexterous in design, and in the use of colour, even he, like most painters of his day, makes a Pilgrimage for the sake of Art. Descending his hill, and passing by Lake Trasimene, he turns his steps to the Arno, and there, between Arezzo and Borgo San Sepolcro, he studies under Pier della Francesca, one of Italy's greatest masters, because great in all respects: in design, in colour, in composition, in perspective, in landscape, in depth of thought, in poetic sentiment; above all in simultaneous vibration of the eye, the brain and the heart.

Pier della Francesca is one of the notable plants of the sylvan scenes of Italy. His roots go deep down into the consciousness of our race, even to the mysterious strata of the Etruscan soul; through our art, his branches spread beyond our sight. Mingled with the tender olive of Perugia, the hardy maple of Cortona and the fresh myrtle of Forlì, they end by interlacing themselves with the power­ful oak of Michel Angelo and the glimmering laurel of Raffael.

 p103  Then the young Pietro Vannucci, having attained more pictorial power and the science of perspective, goes away in quest of more learning and now sensations. The bee seeking fresh flowers flies off to alight in the most beauti­ful and fruitful and flourishing of the gardens of Italy — Florence.

He enters into the School of Verrocchio, amongst a group of youths, prominent amongst them Leonardo da Vinci. Verrocchio, sculptor and painter, knows how to teach, but at the same time how to respect the varied inclinations of his pupils. He does not impose on them his own rough sense of realism; on the contrary, he studies to awake in them the latent virtues, even if sometimes they are in contradiction with his own taste. Nature is the basis of the common research, but to all it is permitted to contemplate her in a different and personal manner, and even to consult other masters: Benozzo, the Pollaiuoli, the Peselli and the works of the great dead: Giotto, Masaccio and Angelico.

Neither right side wanting points of contact: Leonardo and Perugino both wish to give atmosphere to the landscape and to adopt the same rules of perspective. But the spirit of Pietro remains Umbrian, as that of Leonard Florentine. Pietro returns to Perugia without having renounced the development of his own style even in that marvellous Florence which has filled his soul with the leaven of beauty. He goes back and has a studio in both cities, covering a hundred times, in both senses, the road  p104 that he had taken when he vested himself with the desire to learn, and lived in a happy dream of future glory.

His success in Florence is great. Soon he finds himself constrained to refuse orders, so many and so important are those that come to him. Let others enumerate and index the dates of his journeys and register his many works, both existing and lost. We need only say that amongst those who seek him are Sixtus IV, Ludovic the Dark, Isabella d'Este, the Signoria of Florence and Venice; and also Bologna, Pavia, Cremona, Siena and Rome. And everywhere Perugino leaves a happy reminder of artistic feeling; a delicate perfume on his way as of a nosegay of flowers.

Loved, admired, flattered, he does not waste an hour of his working life — a life gentle, laborious, respect­ful and respected. Florence chooses him with other great artists and judges for the arduous problems which rise in connection with her Cathedral, for the paintings of Santa Trinità, for the placing of the 'David' of Michael Angelo. The story of his long life has but one dramatic episode. In 1486 we find him disguising himself, together with Aulista d'Angelo also from Perugia, for the purpose of punishing a man who had offended him. The ferocious Aulista wishes to kill the culprit, Perugino only to beat him! Taken by surprise, the former is condemned to perpetual exile, the latter is simply fined, nor does he appear to have suffered in esteem, for Florence as ever, nay, more than ever, showers work upon him!

 p105  The feeling and purity of his figures have touched the Florentine spirit, which is used to a great art, rich in infinite variety, but far from devout. At times audacious, at times full of levity; realistic always but radiant with beauty; often erudite, but suffused with poetry, it is very rarely religious. After the death of Fra Angelico, it seems to have ceased from prayer.

The same art of Angelico passing to Benozzo does not take root in his heart, is but a prayer of the lips; with Fra Lippo Lippi, it changes into adulation of amorous humanity. Fra Girolamo Savonarola, with all his fervour and vehement oratory, recalls the paganized artists to the Faith, but it is a threat which summons them from mythological and profane subjects, and which gives severity to their painting, but not the absorbed mildness, not the pious expansion which in these days the flower of Umbrian soil anyone, whose fruit matures actually with Perugino, he fixing for ever the characteristics of Umbrian art.

He has been reproached for the want of monumental sense in his composition, and for his lack of imagination, and this reproach, under a certain aspect, is just. Unlike Leonardo, he cannot by means of movement and mien express a combined whole: he does not compose his figures like Ghirlandaio, nor disperse and concentrate his masses like Signorelli. He, fourteenth century in spirit, is all symmetry, all meditation, and if the breath of the fifteenth century reaches him, it is but to give spaciousness to his single figures and life to his composition. And we know  p106 that he himself realized this lack because of his reluctance to paint in Orvieto the tumult of the 'Last Judgment' and the 'Preaching of the Antichrist', and in Venice, 'The Battle of Legnano'.

But we may ask ourselves if such simplicity of composition does not rather increase the religious expression; if the isolation of the figures does not rather give a sense of devout contemplation; if the symmetry does not on the whole give an atmosphere of placid spiritual peace? How often some technical fault, instead of disturbing, assists the feeling of the work! The much-admired simplicity of the twelfth-century writers, is it not sometimes poverty of language and timidity of style? Is not perhaps the mystic sentiment of the figure of the thirteenth century partly derived from the fact that under the folds of the garments there is no body, in the eyes there is no light, in the flesh there is no blood, in the members there is no movement? Do not the figures seem more spirit than flesh, more subdued, more absorbed, more immaterial, more steeped in the mystery of the faith? And we may see that this is the effect of technique, by the fact that the faces of Herod and his soldiers who massacre the Innocents, and also those of the executioners of the martyrs, are equally mild and pallid!

Thus the extreme simplicity of the Peruginesque composition through wonder­fully measured and harmonious, is lost in effeminate sentiment.

. . . . . . . . . .

On the other hand, may not the isolated figures in the  p107 beauty or character of their form and faces, of their attributes and their clothing, give credit to the fantasy, to the special imagination of the artist? And the care taken in perfecting them, does it not make one believe in the high aesthetic sense of the master? To put it briefly, should we not remember that the greatness of antique sculpture consisted above all in creating a single type and bringing it to perfection? The Virgin, the St. Sebastian, the St. John Evangelist, are not these, in Perugino, types that he has always known how to render more beauti­ful, subtle, restrained, and transmit them thus to his disciples, as the Greek Masters transmitted their aesthetic canons to generations of scholars?​b What superb figures in gesture and proportion are those holy hermits or cavaliers in the 'Assumption' called of Vallombrosa! What perfect harmony between form and sentiment in those of the 'Pala' (Altar Front) of Bologna! Well may one exclaim with T. Tasso:

Or quai pensier, quai petti

son chiusi a te, sant' Aura e divo Ardore?

Inspiri tu dell' eremita i detti,

E tu gl' imprimi ai cavalier nel core!

What thoughts, O sacred Fire

What soul is proof, blest Spirit, 'gainst thy arts?

Thou didst the hermit with these words inspire,

Thou didst impress them on the Warriors' hearts.

Tr. by Sir J. K. James.

In their sedateness they breathe calm; in their expression  p108 mildness; the calm and the mildness of those who have the certainty of being heard by God or by Mary, she being not in an attitude of resignation and tenderness like the saints, but with the dignity of a woman who can intercede for grace and plead for salvation. Ah! the divine Madonna of Vienna, pure and high as she appears when painted by Raffael for the Granduca! And the Virgin in Sant' Agostino of Cremona absorbed in gentle thoughts; again the one of the tender sighing lips of the Crucifixion in Sta. Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi in Florence! Gazing at this last, one does not remember that this mouth is a veil of colour, is a stroke of the brush: one feels that behind it is a heart full of anguish.

In fact, all the sentiment of Perugino's figures, from ecstasy to sorrow, from mute contemplation to heroic posture, develop in an atmosphere of tranquillity. His art is so imbued with it that he can only paint gentle figures. Even Publius Scipio, Cincinnatus, Horatius Cocliusº according to him have an expression of pious resignation! Lucius Sicinius is more like a tender maiden, even though armed, and placed in the forceful pose that Andrea del Castagno gives to Pippo Spano, and Donatello to St. George of Orsanmichele!

Such expression is so much his second nature, that it was to no avail that he steeped himself in the realism of Florence. This, however, gave him force to instil greater beauty into Umbrian Art; but it does not alter the feeling that conversely succeeds in permeating even the art of  p109 Lorenzo di Credi, of Fra Bartolomeo and of Andrea del Sarto.

It is evident that when the Makers of the Cathedral of Orvieto and the Venetian Signoria called for him (fortunately in vain) to paint figures howling in the depths of damnation and figures entangled in desperate battle, they did not comprehend his nature; and neither did Isabella d'Este when she desired from him that Combat of Love and Chastity, where the voluptuousness of the allegorical subject seems submerged in Holy Water!

. . . . . . . . . .

Perugino only draws and assimilates what will help him to create his ideal world, whether it be from Nature, the Schools or concrete examples.

In addition to the design, the simple composition, the grouping of figures, the expression of faces, three other elements are necessary to his world, Colouring, Architecture, Landscape.

The colouring of Perugino at his best period is something marvellous. Not even the admiring Florentine Masters equalled it. In some of his works he rivalled the Venetians, whom he had studied to good purpose. He had by nature a truly superior sense of chromatic harmony, that is to say of the value of tints and of the felicity of their contacts and contrasts. Few equalled him in reconciling the warm lights with the cold shadows, enlarging with such richness the tones of the flesh, in outlining and modelling with the brush. In this sense the portraits of Francesco  p110 delle Opere and of the Vallombrosian monks are marvellous! Are they not comparable for vigour with the portraits of Antonello of Messina?

He dares to oppose the opacity of tempera to the brilliancy of enamel, a strict unity in the laying on of colours to a slight imposition of half-tones; the quietness of a mild languor to ecstatic vibrations, ever adapting the colour in various ways to his conception of the subject painted, to the character of the figures and to their sentiment. And what was rare in those days, he paints the landscape in accordance. In Italian painting the sense of locality comes late. There are painters of that century who depict with loving accuracy behind their figures, a country-side rich in leaves, flowers, rocks, water, castles, ruins, under a luminous sky flecked with white clouds, and with every sort of bird: a landscape gracious and pleasing, but without that mysterious expression which makes it participate in the scene represented. It is the great glory of Perugino to have felt, as Giovanni Bellini and a few others have done, the psychological value of the landscape. But one must acknowledge that the Umbrian country alone could lead him to this discovery, and nothing more studies than the Trasimene Lake, from whence is born the Peruginesque landscape. How often must Pietro as a boy have climbed up the mountains to the north of Castel della Pieve to see this expanse of water — now azure, now tender green, now silver!

Lake Trasimene is suffused with religious mystery. It  p111 has not the gay splendour of the Lombard lakes, nor the agitated and severe grandeur of Garda. The hills round Trasimene seem to be kneeling in prayer, the islands might be altars, and thus felt St. Francis in his penitential retreat: the opposite towers of Castiglione and Passignano are his sentinels. Those shores have also heard the crash of the furious onslaught of Hannibal overtaking the fugitives of Caius Flaminius: — the waters must have received the blood of many Romans, but now once more they contemplate the sky in placid silence.

Thus in the backgrounds of Perugino, the greater part is given to the sky, now clear as the dawn, now of an almost nocturnal blue, now rosy as at vespers. And the vision of Trasimene is always in his mind and in his works; be it that he narrows it as a river in a valley, or enlarges it as a marine horizon, or adorns its castles and villages with cupolas and spires; be it that he gives the lightness of the acacia to the power­ful oaks. It is always Trasimene, now seen in full from an open bank, or between two slopes, or from behind the pillars of a Temple or the dark rafters of the Holy Manger; always Trasimene shining like a blade of steel, or dense with a mystic light; Trasimene which fades away and melts into the sky, giving a sense of the infinite which is true religion; it is Trasimene, an open space in the land of Umbria, where one may contemplate the sky, even when kneeling in prayer; it is Trasimene, the light and poetry of a land of saints, which, but for a mistaken moment, a fierce soldier thought to vanquish. Wherever  p112 he might be, Perugino never forgot this enchanting view, which he had known in his early years. Thus his landscape brings with it a note of sweet nostalgia — which in its turn is a sense of love and of devotion; there he put his saints on the banks and hills of his lake; there he made the angel of the Annunciation appear; there he raised the Manger; there he placed Jesus a Babe, baptized Him as a Man, crucified Him and depicted His descent from the Cross. There he put to sleep the apostles in the 'Transfiguration', and dazzled the eyes of the soldiers in the 'Resurrection', there portrayed the Apollo-like nakedness of St. Sebastian, and the parched and emaciated St. Jerome; there made the Virgin appear to St. Bernard in the quiet dawn; hallowing always with the splendour of his art those waters and those hills which St. Francis had sanctified with sorrow and with prayer.

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The Virgin appears to St. Bernard:
from a painting by Perugino,
in the Picture Gallery, Munich

(Photo. Alinari)

. . . . . . . . . .

Some may ask how it happens that such pure sentiment, such gentle expression, can agree with the warlike spirit which was present in Umbria, actually during the Renaissance rather than in the Middle Ages, and which reached manifestations of unheard-of cruelty; how could the plant of mysticism flourish from the soil that gave birth to such a number of 'captains of adventure'? Indeed was not Don John of Austria at Lepanto surprised to find a true legion of Eugubians? Many have asked how such deep religious feeling could issue from Perugino, who was a man without faith, who did not believe according to Vasari 'in the immortality  p113 of the soul, indeed with words becoming his perfidious brain, obstinately refused every good way'. It would be pleasing to descant on the contrast between the materialism of the man and the religious ardour of his work, because one perceives in nearly all the 'Lives' of Vasari that he shows the psychology of the artist with a touch of his own, often demonstrated to be false: a touch, so to speak 'of manner'. However, one finds a certain confirmation of his words in the fact that Perugino was buried in unconsecrated ground, without perhaps considering that he died in time of Plague, when burials were all made in great haste, without prayer, without tapers, after a death agony without help, or comfort or absolution. Neither does one consider that there are documents saying that Perugino had twenty years before, provided for his tomb in the church of the Annunziata in Florence, and that the Augustinians were prepared to receive and keep his body in their church of Perugia, when fresh wars and deadly contagions disposed of this pious thought. But if in Umbria flourished the prickly thistle of combat and the poisonous hemlock of treachery, may one not also say that the roses of St. Francis and the lilies of St. Clare flourished equally? Is not piety perhaps greater when and where sorrow is deeper, love larger where hatred is more fierce, prayer stronger when and where blasphemy is more power­ful?

Does not the spirit of the Saint of Assisi develop when violence is more bitter? Is not one reason of his divine mission of humility and good to be found in the cruelty  p114 of others? And from the actual soul of the populace, frenzied and ravaged in the struggle for life between the many conflicts of their lords, we find the gentle hope, gradually becoming legend, that the love of a youth and a maiden of two opposing families should put an end to hatred and bloodshed. Juliet Capulet, Imelda Lambertazzi, Dianora dei Bardi, are not these sweet images inspired by art, the outcome of good as opposed to ferocity? And are not these saintly figures of Perugino animated by an Umbrian spirit against the inhuman fighting that devastated his country?

There were even found men daring enough to hang in the churches those flags which had waved at the head of the opposing factions howling bloodshed and death, and these standards were put side by side with the banners of the humble confraternities. One chronicler tells us 'there were so many that they touched each other, because when the body was buried the flags were unfurled above'. But the brave spirit of Fra Roberto rose and cried 'that it is not honourable nor good to keep flags in church, and he who puts them there commits mortal sin'. And they were removed, and only remain to this day the holy banners that Umbrian painting produced, to express and show forth the glory of God and of the Virgin.​c

. . . . . . . . . .

Few studios of great artists were so frequented by pupils and assistants as that of Perugino (I only remember those of Pintoricchio and Raffael); few artists equalled him in  p115 the inspiriting of men for the greater extension of Italy and marked a more visible advance. His works for Cremona and Pavia, for Bologna and Fano, for Florence and Rome, as soon as they appeared, awoke such admiration that the echo can still be traced in Lombardy, in Emilia, in Romagna, in the Marches, in Tuscany, and in Latium.

All is calm and sweetness and serenity in the life of Perugino, so is it in his art; one can foresee for him a peaceful old age, encircled by fame and respect, then Fate begins to change measure. In part the fault is his own. Being unable to make up his mind to refuse orders and fulfil them, he descends to a manual, hasty, industrial art, and also abandons to his pupils much of his work, — these pupils far inferior to his early ones, Raffael and Pintoricchio. And now he repeats and weakens the same figures, having recourse to old designs, turning back to his early cartoons, abandoning his own thought to inertia.

He distracts himself with public offices which take time and energy: his mind is exhausted, his eye weakened; his strong colouring degenerates into insipidity, the forms are less precise, the faces lose expression. His pupils desert him, unless like Raffael in the Vatican, they supplant him.

In the meantime arise on every side the greatest artists that mankind has known; artistic souls in travail thirsting to overcome the most arduous problems of art, and to create their world of beauty, splendour and thought: Leonardo, the sovereign genius who attempts everything and overcomes all with inspiration that is science, with a form that is  p116 poetry; Michael Angelo, who in the Sistine Chapel chants a poem of sorrow and of prophecy in power­ful imagery; Raffael who in the Stanze harmonizes the highest aspiration of philosophy and of faith; Titian who combines the brilliance of his Cadore with that of the glorious city of the sea; Correggio girding himself to launch into the Cupola of Parma the tumultuous joy of his angels.

'Poor Perugino, what becomes of thy art compared with that of these giants? The painter of Popes, of Princes, of the Signoria, already admired in Rome, in Florence, in Venice, thou must now take once more the road of thine own country and become a little provincial painter! Trasimene no longer glows before thy eyes but appears grey under a dismal sky!'

The spring of 1523 finds him humbly working in the silence of Fontignano, when he is overcome by Plague, and dies. The flame which was so brilliant on the hills, is extinguished. And a few months later, the light of Luca Signorelli fades away on the heights of Cortona, — he who had transmitted the best of his art to Michael Angelo, as Perugino had done to Raffael.

Thayer's Notes:

a The old name of the town now called Città della Pieve.

b A translation error here, which we will see once more. The Italian (I have not seen it) surely had scolari: not "scholar", but the pupil of an artist.

c Not quite true: in at least one Umbrian church, today at least, a battle flag — a banner captured at Lepanto is now in the cathedral of Amelia.

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