Exhibition 13.10.2011 – 15.01.2012, Alte Pinakothek, Munich Originally published as a guest post on 3 Pipe Problem 04 Dec 2011
The moment I heard about this exhibition, the first outside Italy to focus on Pietro Perugino exclusively, I booked my flight. Three years ago I visited Munich's Alte Pinakothek’s permanent collection, and came away with Perugino’s The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard burned onto my memory. So on a frosty Friday morning in Munich, I arrived at the exhibition full of anticipation.
For Raphael lovers, the insight into Perugino’s influence is derived from an assumption that he became Perugino’s apprentice, possibly at 11 years old as Vasari wrote. The exhibition didn’t question this assumption, although it acknowledged the lack of evidence beyond Vasari.
The major insight for me, which was driven home throughout the exhibition - and was very fulfilling to appreciate with the paintings in situ - was the Flemish influence on Perugino’s style and on his innovation. An alternative billing may have been Perugino: Inspired by Memling.
The exhibition opened with a 1568 second edition of Vasari’s Lives, highlighting the source of Pietro Perugino’s tattered reputation. Contemporary artists held Perugino in the highest esteem and he was known in his lifetime as il divin pittore (the divine painter), a phrase coined by Raphael’s father. Vasari, however, chose to position himself with the painters he considered the innovators – Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael – and unleashed vitriolic criticism on Perugino’s ‘lack of originality’. He further lamented Perugino’s lack of real talent, which explained his hard working nature, and the fact that he was only motivated by money.
Perugino did experience some criticism late in his career, of his habit of repeating popular compositions. He was impervious to this criticism, belonging to a generation of painters who valued craft over originality. When, in 1512, Perugino was commissioned to paint an altarpiece ‘in the style of Raphael’ he was apparently unfazed, recognising Raphael’s talent, and perhaps taking some pride in his accomplishments.
This is an excellent opening to the exhibition which unveils Perugino as an artist deeply influenced by the trends of the North as well as by his master Andrea del Verrocchio, who had a reputation for innovations in oil painting.
The first room includes the small painting, John the Baptist by Hans Memling, which would have been in Italy concurrent with Perugino. It was the left wing of a diptych and I’ve brought together the two wings for illustrative purposes, although the right wing, now in Washington, was not featured in the exhibition. There were 11 paintings by Memling in Italy at this time, more than by any other Netherlandish artist, and motifs from this diptych were often imitated by artists including Raphael.
Memling’s influence, when viewing these paintings in person, is clear - especially in his attention to fine detail. Apollo and Daphnis is a remarkable example of the Flemish influence, where the miniaturist detail including the gold highlighting on the leaves and lyre is wonderfully exact and delicate, and quite lost in reproduction. This painting may have been commissioned by Lorenzo di Medici, who suffered from unrequited love.
The Flemish influence can also be perceived in his background landscapes, which contribute so much to the vast open serenity of his devotional works. His sparse trees, rocky outcroppings and distant towns are very reminiscent of Memling’s. The castle in Apollo and Daphnis is recognised by the curators to be Northern in style if you look closely.
The portraits, including the sacred, further adopt Northern innovations. On loan from the State Hermitage Museum is a half length portrait of Saint Sebastian, venerated as protector from the plague. He is featured on a dark background, which at the time was not typical in Italian painting, except in Venice where Messina and Bellini were inspired by Netherlandish artists.
This dates from the time Perugino visited Venice in 1495 and made a series of images on dark backgrounds. I think also of Leonardo’s portraits, beginning with The Musician in 1486. The London 2011 Leonardo exhibition catalogue also refers to the influence of Antonello da Messina on Leonardo’s approach to portraiture (ref 1). As Perugino and Leonardo were both known to work in the studio of Verrocchio around the same time, there is a good possibility Leonardo contributed to Perugino’s 'Northern' influences.
Perugino confidently signed his name in gold Latin on the arrow. The upwardly rapturous expression of St Sebastian was a recurring motif in Perugino’s art, which Jacob Burckhardt dubbed ‘The heavenward gaze’.
Man of Sorrows, a depiction of the risen Christ standing in his sarcophagus is notable for its trompe d’oile effect of the hands appearing to penetrate the space in front of the false painted frame, a technique often found in the North.
The highlight of this series of dark background paintings is the Pietà with St. Nicodemus, also dated 1495. The perfectly balanced colours have the luminosity of stained glass, a truly Italian celebration of bellezza di colore (brilliant colour) emerging from an inky black darkness. The parapet bridges the painting and our space, the divine world and our world.
The centrepiece of the exhibition was The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard, one of Perugino’s most celebrated works, painted when he was forty. A humble landscape sketch assumed to be in preparation for the background hung adjacent to the painting. It is one of the first known Italian landscape sketches. Leonardo is described as the only other Italian artist known to create landscape sketches at this time.
In The Virgin appearing to St. Bernard we have the opportunity to contemplate not only the Flemish landscape influence combined with Italian colour, but also the architectural composition Perugino excelled in.
The exhibition didn’t emphasise the architectural aspect of his oeuvre, but it is something which George C. Williamson was very excited about in his Great Masters Series book on Perugino (first published in 1900, now online). He is convinced that Perugino at some point met and learned from Piero della Francesca, inspiring Perugino’s exact architectural structures and their adherence to strict perspective (ref 2). This work has much to suggest this could well be the case. The arching structure is so precisely and accurately rendered, contemporary viewers could easily believe it was computer generated.
Piero della Francesa’s geometric symbolism is present also in the way the structure pulls the viewer toward nature through the arches. St. Bernhard believed that meditating on nature was more beneficial than the study of theology. The gaze between Mary and St. Bernhard is linked by the invisible line parallel to the slanted lecturn. Even the slightly detached, otherworldly countenance of the figures is reminiscent of Piero della Francesca.
This painting exemplifies the quality Perugino was most sought after for – his ability to sink the beholder into contemplative states of mind. The vision of Mary is palpably real, suggesting that all seekers may discover a tangible Mary in their own meditative minds.
Finally, several portraits were presented in the final room, with a rewarding juxtaposition of the sensitively portrayed friend and ex-colleague Lorenzo di Credi and the fearsome Francesco delle Opere.
Paula Nuttall, in her book From Flanders to Florence, discusses the possibility that the Francesco delle Opere portrait may have been directly based on Memling’s Portrait of a Man holding a Coin of the Emperor Nero (not featured in the exhibition).
She speculates that if this is a portrait of Bernardo Bembo, a Venetian ambassador to the Burgundian court, it would explain both Leonardo’s and Perugino’s emulation of the background landscape in particular. Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1475, may have been commissioned by Bembo to immortalise his platonic lover. He was also speculated to be the owner of Memling’s John the Baptist and St Veronica diptych featured earlier, which had so influenced Italian artists. The Bembo portrait could therefore have been known not only to Perugino, but also to his Venetian client, Francesco delle Opere, a former resident of Florence. (ref 3)
Finally, we are presented with the fearsome portrait of Francesco delle Opere. He was a believer in Girolamo Savonarola’s terrifying sermons, indicated by the scroll he clutches.
The first two words of a Bible quote “Fear God, and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgement is at hand” are visible in Latin.
This would have been a familiar refrain to Florentine citizens of the time. Like many great paintings, the impact is greatly diminished in reproduction. In person, it embodies the severity and the fear of Savonarola’s world. I am glad to be in its presence, and glad to meet the painting rather than the man.
References 1. Syson, Luke, with Keith, Larry, Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery Company, London ( 2011), p. 95.
2. Williamson, George C., The Project Gutenberg EBook of Great Masters in Painting: Perugino, 2011, originally published 1900, p. 6.
3. Nuttall, Paula, From Flanders to Florence: The impact of Netherlandish painting, 1400-1500, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticutt (2004), pp. 221-224.
Perugino – Raphael’s Master concluded on 15 January 2012 at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.