Pietro Perugino was born Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci, sometime between 1446-1452, near Perugia in the Umbrian area of Italy. He came to be known as Il Perugino, the man from Perugia.
He is thought to have begun studying art with painters from Umbria, Bartolomeo Caporali and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. The historian Giorgio Vasari noted that sculptor, painter and goldsmith, Andrea del Verrocchio, took on Pietro as an apprentice. Other pupils of the master included Leonardo da Vinci, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi and Filippino Lippi. The latter had been an apprentice to Sandro Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio had Michelangelo as a pupil. Di Credi had some influence on da Vinci, before being influenced by the maestro himself. Scholars have noticed that di Credi’s painting of Caterina Sforza (a noblewoman who was imprisoned by Cesare Borgia), bears a similarity to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
There is evidence that Piero della Francesca, a painter and mathematician who specialised in geometry, trained Piero in perspective. He was enrolled in the Confraternity of St. Luke in 1472, a European painting guild named for St. Luke, the patron saint of artists. He was one of the first Italian artists to make use of oils, used in frescoes he created for the convent of the Ingessati, but which were destroyed during the Siege of Florence (October 1529 – August 1530).
Art historian Vittoria Garibaldi dated the commission of Pietro’s Adoration of the Magi to 1472 after he returned to Perugia from Florence. Other sources date it later, to about 1476. The influential Bagloini family, both lords and condottiere (mercenary leaders) of the Perugian region, were linked to the local church of Santa Maria dei Servi, for which the painting was commissioned. It was relocated to the church of Santa Maria Nuova in 1543. It is currently housed in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria of Perugia.
Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Perugino to paint frescoes in the Sistine Chapel around 1480. Here, he painted four frescoes with the help of his contemporaries and assistants, including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea d’Assisi, Rocco Zoppo (whose actual name was Giovan Maria di Bartolomeo Bacci di Belforte), and possibly Lo Spagna (“The Spaniard”) and Bartolomeo Della Gatta, who later became a monk. Art historian Vasari recorded that Pinturicchio was employed by Perugino, and worked as a partner on the Sistine Chapel project. He was apparently paid one-third of the profits and is thought to have worked on Zipporah.
The works comprised Moses Leaving to Egypt and the Circumcision of Elezier, Zipporah, the Baptism of Christ and Delivery of the Keys, also known as Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter.
The works are designed in sets of two, with the Baptism of Christ on the left opposing the Circumcision of Elezier on the right. Elizier was Moses’ second son who was circumcised by his mother Zipporah, Moses’ wife.
The frescoes are massive; Moses leaving to Egypt measures 3.50m x 5.72m (11.48ft x 18.76ft) and Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter (1481-1482) measures 3.3m x 4.5m (10.10ft x 18ft).
At the time, the painters completed three other works; the Assumption, the Nativity and Moses in the Bulrushes. However, these were later destroyed in favour of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.
Circa 1490-1494 Pietro painted The Virgin Appearing to St. Bernard as an altarpiece for the Florentine church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. King Ludwig I of Bavaria obtained the work in 1829-1830 where it was housed in the Alta Pinakothek art museum in Munich.
Between 1494-1495, he painted one of his most acclaimed works, a Pietà (defined as the Virgin Mary holding the body of, and mourning Jesus’ death.), was originally commissioned for the Abbey of San Giusto in Florence. It was probably founded in the 12th century and has twice fallen into ruin (by 1582 and in the 1800s) but was most recently restored after World War II.
The Pietà was one of a three-part work, the other components comprising Agony in the Garden and Crucifixion. The works were moved to the church of San Giovanni Battista alla Calza in Florence after the Siege of Florence saw the original site destroyed. All three are now housed in the Uffizi Gallery, having been moved there in 1919.
Between 1486-1499, Perugino travelled to Rome at last once, but commuted between his studios in Florence and Perugia, receiving regular commissions. Amongst various other frescoes, including Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1495), commissioned by the Poor Clares of Santa Chiara Convent in Florence. The painting was moved to Paris in 1799 following the Napoleonic wars. It was housed in the Gallerie dell’Accademia until 1814, before being moved once again in 1834 to the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti, Florence, where it remains.
From 1496-1500, Perugino and his assistants worked on the frescoes commissioned by the Arte del Cambio (the money-changers’ guild), one of the most influential guilds of the time. The work was for their Sala delle Udienze del Collegio del Cambio, or audience hall. Two lunettes on the left wall between them depict the four cardinal virtues; Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude, seated on thrones. Two other lunettes depict the Transfiguration of Christ and the Nativity. Additional figures include God the Father, six prophets and six sibyls (oracles), the seven gods of the planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, was Perugino’s most famous pupil and probably worked with him on this project.
In 1500, Perugino was known as ‘the best master in Italy’. It was then that he painted The Resurrection, one of five pieces making up a predella, possibly of the altarpiece of the Crucifixion.
Between 1500-1504, he painted The Marriage of the Virgin, now held in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen, in France.
Perugino was also noteworthy for his portraits. In 1494, he painted Francesco delle Opere, his best-known portrait. It is made in tempera on wood, 52cm x 44cm (20in x 17in) and housed in the Uffizi Gallery. It was at one time believed to be a self-portrait, but in 1881 it was identified as Perugino’s friend, who was a gem carver.
Other portraits included those of Don Biagio Milanesi, oil on wood, 26cm x 28cm (10.2in x 11in), painted in 1499 and another of Don Baldassare di Antonio di Angelo of the same year, oil on panel, 26cm x 27cm (10.2in x 10.6in). All are now to be found in the Uffizi Gallery.
In 1503, the Marchesa of Mantua, Isabella d’Este, of the Castello di San Giorgio commissioned Perugino to paint The Battle Between Love and Chastity. He created the work in tempera on canvas at the lady’s insistence, to match two earlier works by Andrea Mantegna (the Parnassus and the Triumph of the Virtues). However, the Marchesa was not satisfied with Perugino’s work, despite his following directives from her court poet Paride de Ceresara. Perugino was eventually paid 100 ducats for his trouble. Isabella was a leading patron of the arts as well as a political figure. She married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua in 1490, but when the bloodline died out, the painting was given to French statesman, nobleman and clergyman Cardinal Richelieu by Charles I, Count of Nevers (1414-1464). It is now kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Perugino was humiliated when Michelangelo accused him of being a “goffo nell’ arte” (a blockhead in art). Pietro attempted to bring an action against the master for defamation of character but was unsuccessful.
Galvanised into improving his standards, Perugino painted a polyptych for the Certosa di Pavia, today still one of the largest monasteries in Italy. Only one portion of the original Madonna and Saints remains at the site, that of God the Father with Cherubim. Three panels, the Virgin Adoring the Infant Christ, St. Michael and St. Raphael with Tobias survive and are held in the National Gallery in London. The final panel, Annunciation, has been lost.
Early in 1504, Perugino was commissioned by the ‘Sindaco della Compagnia dei Disciplanti’ (the Brotherhood of the Virgin’s Disciplined, so-called due to their white garments) to create a fresco of the Adoration of the Magi in the Oratoria di Santa Maria dei Bianchi in Città della Pieve, some 50km southwest of Perugia. [This should not be confused with his earlier work of the same title created some 30 years earlier].
The work was able to be accurately dated when two letters sealed in a tin tube were revealed when work to improve the wall’s drainage was undertaken in 1835. The work measures 6.5m x 6.5m (21.3ft x 21.3ft) and includes some thirty life-size figures. It is recorded that the work was completed between 1-25 March 1505, meaning a great deal of the work must have been completed by his pupils.
A letter that Perugino wrote to the brothers, dated 20 February 1504, requested payment of 200 ducats for his work, but would accept 100 ducats paid in installments; one quarter immediately and the balance to be paid over three years. A second letter from Perugino dated 1 March 1504 stated that he would agree to the price being reduced by a further 25 ducats if he could be provided with a mule; this would enable him to relocate to Castel della Pieve and begin work. When the work had been completed on 29 March 1507, Perugino accepted ownership of a house in exchange for the balance of 25 ducats. The dwelling had been gifted to the brotherhood by one Mariano Di Giovanni Cend, on condition that it be used “for ornament of the paintings created in the houses of the brotherhood”.
In 1504, Perugino was commissioned to complete the Annunziata Polyptych begun by Filippino Lippi. Lippi relinquished the commission to Leonardo da Vinci, who completed the preparatory drawing for St. Anne, the Virgin and the Child. Da Vinci left the project in 1502 when he was summonsed to use his military engineering skills to assist Cesare Borgia, who was threatening to invade Florence. Riding through the Apennine Mountains, the artist would later use the setting for the Mona Lisa. Lippi was once again put to work on the project, but he changed the theme substantially. He completed the central panel but died in 1504 before he was able to complete the work. Perugino did complete the piece in 1507 but was strongly criticised for its unoriginal concepts. After losing pupils and being regarded as a failure, he left Florence for the last time and returned to Perugia.
The central panel, Deposition from the Cross, is shared by the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Basilica dell’Annunziata, both in Florence. The remaining six panels are distributed around the world: in the Lindenau-Museum in Altenburg, Germany, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome, and lastly in a South African private collection.
Perugino’s star pupil was Raphael (Raffaello Santi) (1483-1520). His mother had died in 1491, when the boy was eight years old. His father may have apprenticed the child to Perugino even at his young age. His father had re-married when he, too, died in 1494, leaving him under the care of his uncle Bartolomeo, a priest. Historians agree however, that he worked for Perugino from around 1500. Perugino’s and Raphael’s work was very similar, but the student eventually outshone the master. Perugino taught Raphael until 1504.
Their relationship came full circle when Raphael began a fresco between 1505-1508, commissioned by Bishop Toilo Baglioni for the chapel at San Severo. He never completed the work; it was eventually undertaken by his erstwhile master Perugino in 1521, after the younger man’s death and long after the elder’s official retirement in 1506.
Perugino had been laughed out of Florence as his style had become stale and repetitive. He returned to Perugia, where he continued to work. He painted frescoes for the church of the Madonna delle Lacrime and the monastery of Sant’Agnese in Perugia in 1521. A year later he created a piece for the church of Castello di Fontignano, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. His last piece was a Madonna with Child, an oil on panel, which he completed shortly before his death.
He was living in a frazione (commune) in Fontignano near Lake Trasimeno in Perugia when he died of the plague in February or March 1523, aged approximately 77. He was buried in unconsecrated ground. Despite a lifetime of painting religious images, he was a non-believer. As he was dying, he refused extreme unction, curious to know what would happen to his soul.