Pietro Vannucci (about 1450 – 1523), known as Perugino, was one of the most successful and influential artists of the Italian Renaissance.
Born in Città della Pieve in Umbria, Italy, Perugino worked in Florence and in the Umbrian city of Perugia, from which he gained his enduring nickname. In his youth, Perugino was considered the equal of Leonardo da Vinci, and at the height of his career in 1502 was called "the best painter in Italy". Alongside Sandro Botticelli and others, he was commissioned to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace in Rome, a generation before Michelangelo would paint the ceiling and Raphael designed tapestries to hang below the wall paintings. These two younger artists would negatively affect Perugino's reputation, Michelangelo by calling the artist "clumsy" and Raphael, a pupil of Perugino, by eclipsing his teacher with his own talent. However, Perugino was to find fame again in the 19th century, among both artists and museums.
Perugino was a prolific artist. Over his lengthy career he produced hundreds of altarpieces and frescoes for Christian buildings in central Italy. A team of assistants aided him, and he oversaw two workshops of artists who would assimilate his style. Drawing played an important role in artistic training, and Perugino's pupils and assistants would copy the master's preparatory drawings and completed works. Using large drawings called 'cartoons', Perugino's workshop could repeat figures and even whole compositions designed by the master.
The Nativity is a prime example of the artist's style, his serenely posed figures and ability to create the illusion of space within a picture, but also his tendency to repeat compositions. In this scene, he shows the newborn baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph surrounded by praying shepherds, and with a donkey and ox under a wooden structure. Painted in 1522 – 23, Perugino had used a version of this composition for nativity scenes since the 1490s, including a celebrated fresco in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, as seen in the print The Adoration of the Shepherds by Francesco Cecchini.
The Nativity was painted for a small church in Fontignano, just outside Perugia. It was left unfinished in 1523 because Perugino died from the plague. The Nativity's provincial location meant that it received relatively little attention from art historians in the following centuries. For a period at the start of the 19th century, Perugino's Nativity was whitewashed over. In 1843, following restoration, it was removed from the wall. Today, the surface of the painting shows signs both of its unfinished status, and damage suffered in the 19th century.
In 1862, the V&A, then only ten years old, purchased the fresco for its collection and brought it to London, where it made an immediate impact. The writer and art critic John Ruskin recorded in a letter, "Go to Kensington, and walk in at the door – and past umbrellas – …as far as ever you can down the steps and to the end of the all new show-rooms — and you'll come to a blank room on the left, and on the wall of it, high up, a fresco of Perugino's just got – the finest thing of his I've ever seen out of Italy…".
Perugino's 19th century Renaissance
The V&A's purchase of the Nativity was part of a wider revival of interest in Perugino in mid to late 19th century Britain. The National Gallery bought paintings by him, the British Museum acquired drawings, and his works were also included in exhibitions, such as the 1857 exhibition of Art Treasures held in Manchester.
The popularity of Perugino's works is also evident in reproductions, not only as prints, but also early photographs, including those by the British photographer Francis Frith and the Italian firm Fratelli Alinari. These black and white images made the artist's elegant compositions accessible to a wider audience, but they could not convey his subtle colour palette.
The demand for colour reproductions of Perugino was addressed by the Arundel Society, a London-based scholarly association which counted Prince Albert and Ruskin amongst their members. The Arundel commissioned artists to make watercolour copies of important works in Italy which could not travel to Britain. From the 1850s to the 1870s the Italian artist Eliseo Fattorini produced reduced scale versions of Perugino's works, including his frescos for the walls of the Sistine Chapel and altarpieces in churches in and around Perugia.
The Pre-Raphaelites and Julia Margaret Cameron
The presence of Perugino’s works in Britain, and the popularity of these copies, allowed a new generation of British artists to discover him. Inspired by Perugino and other painters preceding Raphael, this group called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Writers, including Ruskin, were quick to draw parallels between the early Renaissance artists newly displayed in Britain's museums and exhibitions, and this group of young painters. Perugino's name appears in exhibition reviews of work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. The influence of painters like Perugino are found in elements such as linear arrangements of figures, architectural backgrounds and swirling drapery. These are all apparent in Burne-Jones' The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River, painted in 1870.
Of all the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones was most appreciative of Italian art and its influence is increasingly apparent in paintings throughout his career. An avid collector of photographs of artworks, he amassed albums of images which he used for inspiration. He also repeatedly travelled to Italy where he visited original artworks by artists of the late 15th and early 16th centuries and copied figures in his sketchbook. When staying in Perugia in October 1871, he wrote in his sketchbook "The Peruginos her[e] are the best – chiefly the picture of the philosophers – the one of Solomon & the sybils – excepting the Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, these are the most perfect heads (?) are much nobler than in other pictures".
Julia Margaret Cameron, a pioneering photographer, also found inspiration in Perugino. Her compositions often evoke the religious, historical or mythological subjects of works by Italian Renaissance artists gaining popularity in 19th century Britain. In Cameron's 1865 photograph After Perugino / The Annunciation, Mary Ryan poses with the same downward gaze and delicately crossed arms as Joseph in Perugino's Nativity. The same year this photograph was taken, Cameron had her first museum exhibition at the V&A, in the same building where Ruskin admired Perugino's fresco.
It is a fitting legacy for Perugino, an artist who during his lifetime encouraged his pupils and followers to make copies of his work, to have continued to inspire artists centuries later.