by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pintoricchio: The 'Third Man' of Umbrian Painting

By Roderick Conway Morris
PERUGIA, Italy 29 February 2008
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
Pintoricchio's 'Virgin with child reading a book,'
dates from the 1490s.



If we were to believe the 16th-century Florentine art historian Giorgio Vasari, Pintoricchio was simply lucky to have enjoyed the success he did - an unlikely scenario, given the intensity of the artistic competition in Italy in the late 15th and early 16th century.

Vasari, of course, tended to denigrate anything that did not emanate from Florence. But in the case of the Perugian-born Pintoricchio, he was especially negative, and omitted, for example, any mention of the artist's impressive frescoes at Spello, a hilltop town near Perugia.

Pintoricchio was the 'third man' of the trio of major artists that emerged from this region during this period - the others being Perugino and Raphael - but has long been the least appreciated.

Now some 550 years after his birth (he was born in the second half of the 1450s), he is the subject of the first solo retrospective ever devoted to him, in his birthplace and other local venues (which continue until June 29). 'Pintoricchio,' at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia, expertly curated by Vittoria Garibaldi and Francesco Federico Mancini, contains most of the artist's moveable works from collections around the world. A second, also very revealing exhibition, 'Pintoricchio and the Minor Arts,' curated by Mirko Santanicchia, is being staged simultaneously at the Civic Art Gallery at Spello, next door to the Santa Maria Maggiore church, in which the Cappella Baglioni (or Capella Bella as it is familiarly known) frescoes, overlooked by Vasari, are located.

The Spello show opens with a section on the 1907 'Antique Umbrian Arts' exhibition at Perugia, an important event in reviving awareness of the region's considerable contribution to both the fine and decorative arts of the Renaissance that attracted 30,000 visitors. Pintoricchio's painting, in contrast to that of Perugino and Raphael, is marked by an extraordinary close attention to detail - from fabrics and costume accessories to everyday domestic objects and landscape - rendered with consummate skill. And the rest of the Spello exhibition goes on artfully to illustrate how lovingly Pintoricchio depicted the contemporary material world and how craftsmen in turn drew on his paintings for decorative ideas in fields as diverse as ceramics, woodcarving, metalwork and textiles.

The decade before the 1907 show was notable for a sudden flurry of interest in Pintoricchio. This was substantially stimulated by Pope Leo XIII's decision in 1897 to reopen and restore the Borgia Apartments at the Vatican. These rooms had been frescoed by Pintoricchio after Rodrigo Borgia's election as Alexander VI in 1492. In 1503, his successor, Julius II, had them closed off and took up residence on the floor above. The former living quarters of Alexander, the most notorious of all the Renaissance popes, remained sealed off for nearly 400 years.

Rome was the making of Bernardino di Betto, nicknamed Pintoricchio (variously spelled Pinturicchio and Penturicchio), 'the little painter,' a reference possibly to his small stature or precocity as an artistic prodigy. His initial apprenticeship was almost certainly as a miniaturist in the studio of Bartolomeo Caporali, on the same street as the house of his father, a poor wool worker. Two of Pintoricchio's exquisite panels of the Virgin and Child here (one from Philadelphia and another from Valencia) show Mary holding open a book, while the Christ child, brush in hand, illuminates the text. Indeed, books figure regularly in his œuvre, a reference perhaps to his early training and to his pride in acquiring an education despite the disadvantages of his humble birth. The artist's self-portrait in the Spello frescoes includes not only an emblematic arrangement of paintbrushes but a trompe l'oeil shelf with four books and half-burnt down candle indicating nocturnal study.

While still in his early 20s, Pintoricchio was a member of the team led by Perugino (who was around 10 years older) that frescoed the Sistine Chapel between 1481-83. Perugino might not have been appointed artist in chief of the project had the arrival of three prominent Florentine members of the group - Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli - not been delayed by hostilities between the pope and Florence. (As Umbrians, Perugino and Pintoricchio were citizens of the Papal States.)

In 1483, Pintoricchio began his first independent commission for a fresco cycle - the Bufalini Chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill. The subject was the life and works of his namesake San Bernardino.

The artist executed elaborate architectural settings, decorating the trompe l'oeil pillars with intricate 'grotesque' designs inspired by the décor of Nero's Golden House, which had only recently come to light. This was the first time an artist used 'grotesques' in the adornment of a chapel, and other painters followed his example, making 'grotesques' a de rigueur element in architectural murals.

When Pintoricchio was commissioned nine years later to paint the vast frescoes for the Piccolomini Library in the Duomo of Siena, narrating the life of Pius II, the inclusion of 'grotesques' was specifically written into the contract. (This last undertaking took him almost 10 years until his death in 1513.)

Pintoricchio worked for no fewer than five popes, who would have been surprised by Vasari's later complaint that the artist introduced tasteless decorative elements into his works calculated to appeal to people who knew little about art. The wonderfully observed still-life elements are now one of the most attractive aspects of his painting.

Completely passed over by Vasari were Pintoricchio's talents as a portraitist, evident both in his frescoes and panels of the Virgin and saints, which often include images of their commissioners, of which there are a number of examples here. There is also a rare independent portrait of a young man from the Brooklyn Museum, probably an early piece, but already indicative of his flair for the genre.

The dominance of Perugino (who was to outlive him by a decade) and of the older man's studio in his home town made it difficult for Pintoricchio to return there. But in 1495 he won a commission for a large altarpiece for the Augustinian church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, also known as 'dei Fossi' (of the moats). Still in its original frame, this lofty masterpiece is now one of the treasures of the National Gallery of Umbria's permanent collection.

Finding his progress blocked at home, Pintoricchio accepted the commission for the Piccolomini Library in Siena, moving with his family to that city. His contract stipulated that he should not undertake any other work until the fresco cycle was completed.

But in 1506 he was back in Spello to execute a sizable altarpiece for the Sant'Andrea church, close by his earlier frescoes. He guaranteed that he personally would do key parts, leaving detailed drawings of the rest for his assistant to finish. In 1508 he came again to Spello. But summoned back to Siena once more, he wittily excused himself by leaving behind at the foot of the Virgin and Child a trompe l'oeil stool with a letter propped on it, the clearly legible text urging him to return to Siena immediately to fulfill his obligations there.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023