Perugino was the founder of Early Classicism and a forerunner of the High Renaissance


Il Perugino
The Man Who Painted Umbria

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Umbria's most renowned artist had a long, prolific and mercurial career. Born in Città della Pieve in 1445, he was baptized Piero di Cristoforo Vannucci, but history knows him as "Il Perugino," the man from Perugia. For a brief moment, he was the most successful painter in Italy. To our eyes, his compositions may seem less dramatic than Michelangelo's or less powerful than Signorelli's, but as the founder of a phase called Early Classicism, Perugino actually set the stage for the glorious artists of the High Renaissance.

In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV summoned Perugino to Rome to participate in the most important commission of the late 1400s, the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel walls. All the great artists of the day contributed; Perugino's Charge to Peter, which stands out from the others in the extreme clarity of its composition, was, in many ways, the epitome of his style. It clearly demonstrates how he was the first painter to use decoration as an adjunct rather than a principal factor. His simple, bulky silhouettes, which may look clumsy or inept to the modern eye, established an atmosphere of calm, of peace, of spiritual surrender akin to that felt in the sparse interior of a romanesque church. Before him, no one had successfully used architecture as an ideal and rational setting to enhance the proportions and balance of human figures. Like Umbria, Perugino's colors are harmonious, his forms are gentle, his figures possess an air of utter serenity, simplicity and selflessness. When good, his paintings communicate with the essence of the viewer's soul.

Raphael studied under Perugino, and to his influence we probably owe the magnificent Vatican Stanze. But by the turn of the century, other artists had vastly eclipsed the man from Perugia, whose work had become hopelessly old-fashioned. He left the spotlight of Rome and returned to Umbria, where he had a flourishing school whose pupils turned out copious numbers of Peruginesque compositions.

Although he had fallen from grace, Perugino never stopped painting. His last work, a Madonna with Child, was completed just before he died at the venerable age of 77, long after he could have retired and lived off the handsome revenues of his school. But Perugino had a restless soul. As he lay dying, the man who had dedicated his entire life to painting the serene forms and muted colors of Christian devotion refused to be given extreme unction. He wanted to see what would happen to the soul of a non-believer.

Perugino's works are all over central Italy. Click on the pictures to see them enlarged.

Many, many more of the artist's works are on display in Germany, France, Austria, Spain, Brazil, Great Britain and the United States.

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