Pietro Perugino
Biography of Renaissance Painter from Perugia.

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Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter
(1481-82) Sistine Chapel, Rome.

Pietro Perugino (1450-1523)


Early Life and Training
Sistine Chapel Fresco: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter
Mature Paintings (1483-1500)

Note: For a guide to 15th century Italian painting, see: Renaissance Art.

For details of the pigments
used by Pietro Perugino
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

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The most famous of all Old Masters from Perugia, the prolific and hardworking Renaissance painter Perugino was important enough to be commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to paint frescos in the Sistine Chapel, in Rome. Perugino is best known as a teacher of Raphael, whose early works show his influence. Thus, he contributed both to Early Renaissance painting (1400-90) and also, through Raphael, to High Renaissance painting (1490-1530). He is noted primarily for his religious art which typically featured graceful, sentimentalized figures, set against landscape backgrounds. These works include both panel paintings in tempera or oils, mostly in the form of altarpiece art, and fresco paintings. In addition, he produced a quantity of strong and direct portrait art. Among his most important works are: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1481-2, Vatican, Sistine Chapel), the tondo of the Virgin with Saints and Angels, Apollo and Marsyas, and St Sebastian (all in the Louvre); The Crucifixion (1493-6, Chapter House of Santa Maria Maddalena del Pazzi, Florence); Pieta (1494-95, Uffizi); Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1495, Pitti Palace, Florence); the Resurrection (Vatican); the Marriage of the Virgin (Caen Museum); the frescoes in the Audience Chamber in the Sala del Cambio, Perugia (1500); and several outstanding portraits - notably those of Francesco delle Opere (1494), Don Biagio Milanesi and Don Baldassare di Antonio di Angelo (all in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence).



Early Life and Training

Pietro Vannucci Perugino was born in Umbria in central Italy. He was known as "ll Perugino" or "the Perugian" in his lifetime, although he was not from the City of Perugia, but the nearby Citta della Pieva. His early works in the 1460s suggest that he was influenced by Piero della Francesca (1420-92) - the Umbrian master who was a pioneer of linear perspective and geometric orderliness in his compositions - and it is believed that he may even have been Piero's pupil.

In 1472, according to the biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Perugino moved to Florence, then a magnet for ambitious artists, where he absorbed the new technique of oil painting, probably from the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), who ran a workshop training goldsmiths, sculptors and painters, one of whom was a young Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Certainly, Verrocchio's influence is plain in his early work, with its concise and uncluttered drawing and its use of chiaroscuro - as in the paintings of the Virgin in the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris, Berlin-Dahlem, and the National Gallery, London. The young Perugino collaborated in the Crucifixion of SS. Maria e Angiolo at Argiano, while studying under Verrocchio, and also contributed the predella, The Birth of St John the Baptist (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), as well as elements of Verrocchio's altarpiece The Madonna di Piazza for Pistoia Cathedral. He also enrolled in the painters' Guild of St Luke in Florence.

His connections with Verrocchio and his Florentine followers gave Perugino a lively interest in the use of space and the effect of light, an interest also derived from the works of Piero della Francesca (his possible teacher) and Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461), both of whom worked at Perugia, as illustrated by The Life of St Bernardino (1473, Galleria Nazionale, Perugia). Dating from 1473, the scenes were probably executed from Perugino's preliminary sketches, but only the Miracle of the Healing of the Youth of L'Aquila and The Healing of a Young Girl appear to have been actually painted by him.



Sistine Chapel Fresco: Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter

In 1478, not long after getting married, Perugino left Florence and moved to Rome. By 1481 he was suficiently well known to receive a prestigious commission from the papal court in the Vatican to decorate the newly built Sistine Chapel with a series of fresco mural paintings. Several other eminent artists worked on the Sistine frescoes, including Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94) and the Medici artist Botticelli (1445-1510). Perugino painted scenes from the life of Moses and from the life of Christ. His main aim was to achieve harmony and balance - a quality already apparent in his fresco of St Sebastian between Two Saints (1478, Church of S. Maria, Cerqueto) - but an even better example of this is his Sistine Chapel picture - Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1481-2) - in which Perugino broke away from the doctrines of Piero della Francesca (Perugino's friezes of figures placed on various levels against an architectonic perspective are very different from Piero's geometrical characters surrounded by vast spaces). It was this picture, which was also greatly admired for the clarity, control and organization of its composition, that established Perugino's reputation.

Mature Paintings (1483-1500)

Perugino went on to receive many other important commissions in Rome, Florence, Perugia and elsewhere, and between 1490 and 1505 he was generally considered to be the finest painter in Italy.

In addition to producing his own works in the Sistine Chapel, Perugino collaborated with Pinturicchio (1454-1513) on the frescoes depicting Moses Journeying in Egypt and the Baptism of Christ. There is a hint of Pinturicchio's style in the busy pictorial landscape background of Perugino's St Jerome (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), but it was undoubtedly Flemish painting which inspired the closely observed misty countryside of the beautiful Galitzine Triptych - a Crucifixion flanked by St Jerome and St Mary Magdalene (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). It is worth remembering that the influential Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482), now in the Uffizi, probably reached Florence around 1483.

With the Albani Torlonia Polyptych (Nativity with Saints, 1491, Torlonia Collection, Rome) a new rhythmical relationship appears between the two separate parts of the composition - the figures and the architectural setting - placed symmetrically around a central motif. This arrangement, which achieved universal popularity during the next five years, at a time when Perugino was working mainly in Florence, can be seen in such works as The Virgin Enthroned between St John the Baptist and St Sebastian (1493, Uffizi), and The Virgin Appearing to St Bernard (Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

In 1494-95 he painted his Pieta (1494-95, Uffizi) for the church of San Guisto near Florence. (Note: A Pieta is a work in which Virgin Mary holds the body of her dead son, Jesus, while she mourns his death - the most famous one being the sculpture (c.1500) by Michelangelo.) Perugino's version is a superb example of his mature style. As with most of his paintings, the composition is balanced and symmetrical and all the figures are in the foreground. The space is severely defined by the architecture.

The tripartite fresco of the Crucifixion in the Church of S. Maria Maddelena dei Pazzi in Florence (finished around 1496) marks a further stage in Perugino's treatment of space; the appearance of a rhythmic, everyday landscape with broad, not altogether solid, fields, completely lacking in architectural perspective. The way in which the figures are arranged, often posed in untidy rows in the foreground of the picture, has been compared to the style of the Renaissance sculptor Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) in his ceramic altarpieces. Further examples of this technique are The Virgin with Saints (P.N. Bologna), the Ascension in the centre of the polyptych for the church of S. Pietro at Perugia (Lyons Museum; the predella is in Rouen Museum), the murals of the Collegio del Cambio, Perugia (completed in 1500), and the Assumption for the Abbey of Vallombrosa (1500, Academy of Art, Florence).


Towards the end of the 15th century the teenage Raphael (Raffaello Santi) (1483-1520) came to Perugino's studio, and worked with him on the predella of the Fano Altarpiece (Church of S. Maria Nuova, Fano). It was under Perugino's influence that Raphael painted The Spozalizio, The Marriage of the Virgin and The Coronation of the Virgin. But while Perugino's art had an important influence on the Urbino-born youngster, the latter also impressed his elder colleague. It was at Raphael's suggestion, for instance, that Perugino began to employ a more slender and more brilliant line than in previous years; see, for example, the two Prophets in the polyptych of S. Pietro (Nantes Museum), and the Pieta at the Clark Art Institute.

For the next 20 years Perugino's painting kept its languid and elegant harmony of line, but his style became increasingly anaemic and his inspiration dried up. The change is evident in such works as: The Adoration of the Magi (1504, Citta della Pieva, Oratory of S. Maria dei Bianchi); The Combat between Love and Chastity for the studiolo of Isabella d'Este (1505, Louvre); as well as Perugino's completion of the polyptych (1504-7) for the Church of the Annunsiata in Florence, begun by Fra Filippino Lippi, the vault of the Vatican chamber (1507) where Raphael and his students later painted the Fire in the Borgo, and the fresco paintings at the Church of S. Francesco in Montefalco and the Church of S. Maria delle Lacrime de Trevi (1521).


Perugino's significant work was accomplished by the end of the 15th century. In 1506, he retired to Perugia. Although seen as one of the great figures of the Italian Renaissance, by then his style was considered to be old-fashioned - at least by the people of Florence. Nonetheless, he was one of the most important figures of the late quattrocento due to his part in transmitting classicism throughout Umbria (through Raphael), Tuscany (through Fra Bartolommeo) and northern Italy (through Francia and Costa). To be specific, the harmony and spatial organization of his paintings, along with his idealized figures, had a strong formative influence on the young Raphael and thus helped to pave the way for the art of the High Renaissance. In addition to his religious art, he painted portraits and mythological subjects. Many of his pictures have an easily recognizable sentimental style similar to the one adopted by Raphael in his early works. However, while Perugino continued to repeat this style, Raphael developed it into something far more robust and exciting.

Paintings by Pietro Perugino can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe, including the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace in Florence, and various Vatican museums.

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