Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci was born around 1450 in the walled town of Città Della Pieve, not far from Lake Trasimeno. Very little is known about his early life, but as a young boy, he must have had a precocious talent because it seems he was sent to Pietro Della Francesca’s school in Arezzo, where he studied painting.
By 1472 he is reportedly in Florence working in the school of Andrea del Verrocchio. It’s very likely that while learning the craft of preparing and mixing materials in the studio, he would have been very familiar with a fellow student, known to be studying in the same school, one Leonardo Da Vinci.
His reputation as a painter grew quickly, and by 1480 he had been summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to paint fresco panels for the Sistine Chapel. He spent the next decade working in Florence before settling in Perugia, the town that gave him the name by which we know him today, Perugino.
The ten years between 1490 and 1500 marked the summit of Perugino’s career. Many of his most celebrated works were rendered in tempura, a mix of egg and pigment that is quick drying and permanent, but he also experimented with new dyes and was one of the first to use oils. He was an innovator, not only in his early adoption of oils but also in his use of cartoons, cut-outs that allowed his workshops to use figures from previous paintings in new work and his use of perspective.
He was at this time perhaps the most celebrated painter in all of Italy. His workshops were busy with numerous commissions, and he became a wealthy man. A student at one of his schools was the young Raphael and the early influence of Perugino is evident in many of Raphael’s first paintings. Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi termed Perugino the “Divine Painter” in his Rhymed Chronicle. In 1501 he was made a prior of Perugia in acknowledgement of his status as the pre-eminent painter of the day.
Perugino can be forgiven for assuming that he was made for life. He busied himself with reproducing work that followed the template which had brought him so much success. However, a mighty wave of new art was now flooding Florence, the epicentre of artistic endeavour at the time. Foremost among the practitioners of this new technique was Michelangelo.
Perugino was curious to see for himself what this new wave had to offer and although never openly dismissive, nevertheless gave all outward impression that he was jealous of the younger man’s achievements.
By 1504, Perugino’s world was in sharp decline as a result of the sudden and dramatic surge in popularity of work by artists like Michelangelo. It’s easy to imagine how Perugino must have felt when later that year he was deputed with some of his contemporaries to decide where to place Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence.
Michelangelo later confronted Perugino at a gathering who with all the brash confidence of the man in fashion, told Perugino to his face that he was a ‘“bungler in art” (goffo nell’ arte).
Perugino’s response to this criticism ended in failure and further humiliation. His Assumption, in the Cappella del Rabatta, in the church of the Servi in Florence, was widely derided and before long Perugino lost his students and was forced to retreat to Perugia.
A final sad coda came in 1508 when Michelangelo began work on the Sistine Chapel. Virtually all of Perugino’s previous work was ruthlessly destroyed by Michelangelo as he worked on the Chapel’s ceiling.
Perugino slowly faded from sight, although he continued painting. He was in Fontignano in 1524 when he died of the plague. His body was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave.
The story of Perugino’s rise and fall is chronicled in only a few sources. It is hard to discern a lot about Perugino’s character from such fragments. Nonetheless, it’s easy to empathise with him and his apparent bewilderment at the turn of events which suddenly overturned all his assumptions.
Perugino The Man
I sense something stubborn about Perugino. His self-portrait is interesting. He’s got a plump face, with small dark eyes. His massive head rests on a thick neck, and his hair is loose and uncared for. There is something uncompromising about the way he holds himself. He’s slightly frowning, but there’s an air of resolve mingled with scepticism captured in his arched eyebrow.
His failure to adjust to the new wave may have had less to do with whether he was personally convinced that the stylistic advances had merit. I think it had more to do with his stubbornness. His great success was based on work of a particular style. He just believed that what had brought him success in the past, should continue to do so into the future.
While his art may have stagnated – a result of his unwillingness to adapt – there’s no doubting his native talent or the influence he had on other painters, most notably Raphael.
Keats suggests “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” so I can’t help sympathising with a man who stayed true to his artistic sensibility, even at the expense of his success.
Intriguingly, one source suggests that at his death Perugino refused extreme unction – he wanted to know what awaited the soul of an unbeliever. Is that an example of the courage Perugino’s conviction– or was it mere stubbornness?
Perugino was fortunate to have enjoyed great success. His position in later 15th and early 16th Century Italy was preeminent. History, however, has not been kind to him. His decline tends to overwhelm his earlier successes.
His error was mostly a failure of judgment, influenced by a huge dose of confirmation bias. What brought him success, would continue to bring him success. Or so he thought.
For Perugino, the moment of his most celebrated success was simultaneously the moment of greatest peril. By failing to assess the changing artistic climate and adapt to it, he chose to dig in, convinced that his formula would keep on winning.
So perhaps, when you feel like you’re winning, you should remember to keep your eyes and ears open. As any fund manager will tell you past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.
When it comes to success it seems, it might be just the same.