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(PIETRO VANNUCCI)

An Italian painter, founder of the Umbrian school, born at Città della Pieve in 1446; died at Fontignano near Perugia in February, 1524. He was called Perugino, although he often signed his name Petrus de Castro Plebis. He studied art at Perugia, where he found an earlier school, that of Nicolo Alunno and Boccati da Camerino, already remarkable for the pure expression of the sentiment and animation of the interior life. Perugino adopted this tradition, adding to it the decorative taste of his master, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, and influenced by the powerful style of Piero della Francesca. In 1472 he went to Florence, where he was the comrade of Leonardo in Verrocchio's studio, the most active centre and laboratory of the methods of the Renaissance. Here Perugino acquired knowledge whereby he expressed his ideas in an imperishable manner. He learned construction, became a master of perspective, and in style followed a fixed formula, which was much admired. Unfortunately his early works are lost. His frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Perugia (1475) and those in Cerqueto have been destroyed or ruined. His earliest extant picture is the "Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter" (1482), in the Sistine Chapel at Rome, where three other frescoes were later destroyed to make room for the "Last Judgment" of Michelangelo. Perugino then held a foremost place in the Italian school, and today his one remaining fresco shines as a masterpiece among the more brilliant inventions of the Florentine school. It engendered numerous works of art, and Raphael, Perugino's great pupil, was mindful of it in the "Sposalizio", the most exquisite work of his youth.

Within the next fifteen years (1484-99) Perugino attained his greatest success. His work was most in demand for religious pictures, and he went from city to city painting altar-pieces or ecclesiastical frescoes. In 1491-2, having gone to Rome to paint the decoration (no longer extant) of the palace of the Cardinal de' Medicis, he executed the delightful picture in the Villa Albani, the "Adoration of the Holy Child" (1491). Except for some journeys to Perugia, Venice, and Tano, Florence was his centre of operations for that period. To it belong the "Crucifixion" and the "Gethsemane" of the Florence Accademia; the famous "Pietà" of the same museum; the "Taking down from the Cross" of the Pitti (1495); the "Vision of St. Bernard" in the Museum of Munich ; but the most wonderful of these works is the great fresco of the "Crucifixion" in Sta Maddalena dé Pazzi (1496). The beauty of the faces, the stirring gravity of the scene, the finish of the colouring, and the perfection of the landscape rank this picture first among Perugino's works in Italy. The triptych of the "Nativity's (1500) at London is a miniature of this fresco almost equal to it in beauty. Perugino shows himself an incomparable landscape artist in the pictures of his best period; he was an eminent master of the painting of the atmosphere. He derives his expression from the rarest artistic qualities, from a finished composition, spacing of figures, use of oils, and deep, harmonious colouring, thereby achieving an effect of depth and fullness. In his masterpieces, though he transforms the reality to a great extent, he is nevertheless very true to nature. He copies the nude quite as accurately as the most able of the Florentines, as is seen in the wonderful "St. Sebastian" of the Louvre, and he is capable of the most exact and close veracity, for example, the two admirable heads of Carthusians at the Florence Accademia, which suffice to place him in the front rank of portrait painters. Perugino is one of the greatest and most popular artists of Italy and his work is distinctive for the creation of the "pious picture".

The decoration of the Cambio, or Bourse of Perugia (1499), marks the beginning of a period of decline. The effect of this hall decorated with frescoes on the four walls and with arabesques on the ceiling is very charming, but the conception is extremely arbitrary, and the composition worthless and insignificant. Ancient heroes, prophets, and sibyls all have the same disdainful expression; the whole is neutral, abstract, vague. The artist replaces all semblance of thought, conscience, and effort with an appearance of sentiment which is merely sentimentality. Thenceforth Perugino is a deplorable example of a great artist who destroys himself by subordination to mere handicraft. Unquestionably he had a sublime period in his life, when he first endowed incomparable plastic bodies with an unlooked-for expression of the infinite and the divine, but he soon abused this oft-repeated formula, the arrangement became purely schematic, the figures stereotyped, the colouring sharp and acidulous, and all emotion evaporated. The only part of his genius that persisted to the end was an eye enamoured of the skies and light. This decline was clearly evident in 1504, when Isabella d'Este ordered the artist to paint the "Combat of Love and Chastity ", now in the Louvre. At this time art was achieving its most glorious conquests, as testified by the two famous cartoons of Leonardo and Michelangelo (1506) at Florence. The works of his last twenty years, frescoes and altar-pieces, are scattered through Umbra, at Perugia, Spello, Siena etc. They add nothing to his glory. The ceiling which he painted for Julius II in 1508 in the Camera dell' Incendio at the Vatican has at least a high decorative value. In 1521 the old artist worked once more in collaboration with Raphael. The latter had left an unfinished fresco at S. Spirito at Perugia and after his death Perugino was commissioned to finish it. Nothing shows more clearly the moral difference between these two geniuses, the wonderful progress and self-development of Raphael, the immobility and intellectual apathy of his master. The latter died of the pest at the age of seventy-eight.


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