The best master in Italy, Perugino in his time

National Gallery of Umbria
“The best maestro in Italy.
Perugino in his time”

4 MARCH – 11 JUNE 2023

2023 will be remembered as the year of Perugino.

From 4 March to 11 June 2023, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of his death, the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia celebrates with a major exhibition, curated by Marco Pierini and Veruska Picchiarelli, Pietro Vannucci (ca. 1450-1523), the most important painter active in the last two decades of the fifteenth century.

Wanting to do it by his own hand, he is the best master in Italy. With these words, in a letter sent from Rome to Siena on 7 November 1500, the banker Agostino Chigi introduces Pietro Perugino to his father Mariano, capturing with surprising ability of synthesis two fundamental aspects of his production: the extraordinary quality and the presence, which would become pre-eminent, of the intervention of collaborators.

That Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci from Castel della Pieve was considered the greatest painter active in the last two decades of the fifteenth century is proven by many other sources of the time: however, this primacy gradually begins to dissolve. If we believe Vasari, the turning point is marked by the presentation to the Florentine public, in 1507, of the altarpiece intended for the main altar of the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata. A resounding failure, in the face of which a perplexed Perugino, almost sixty years old, defends himself by declaring his impotence in the face of changes in taste now beyond his reach: I have implemented the figures previously praised by you and which you I liked them infinitely. If you dislike them now and don’t praise them, what can I do?, he would have commented.

Most likely the numerous works produced in this extreme offshoot of his activity, also thanks to the help of a very industrious workshop, had a considerable impact on the evaluation of Vannucci’s stature, not only by his contemporaries, but also and above all by posterity.

The main purpose of this exhibition is to recover the right perspective, to restore to Perugino the role that his audience and his era had assigned to him.

Hence, the choice to identify for the exhibition project only paintings by Vannucci prior to 1505, the year in which three commissions were already completed which mark the peak of his career: the Crucifixion in the Chigi Chapel in Sant’Agostino in Siena, the aforementioned Struggle between Love and Chastity already in Mantua and above all the Marriage of the Virgin for the chapel of the Holy Ring of the Cathedral of Perugia, today in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Caen.

A further reflection sparked by the image of the artist that the critics have given us underlies the second reading register of the exhibition. The tendency, that is, to often speak of the painter in combination with other great masters of his time: Verrocchio’s pupil, Raphael’s master, Leonardo’s fellow student. This starting point provided the opportunity to reflect more fully on the role that Pietro actually played in the contemporary artistic panorama.

In investigating both lines of research, the need to proceed on the basis of a geography, which follows the movements of the painter or his works across Italy from stage to stage, immediately emerged as a necessity. It is surprising, in fact, how Perugino left profound traces of his teaching in all the places on the peninsula touched by his activity, from north to south, starting obviously from Umbria and Tuscany, theaters par excellence of his work, as well as headquarters of his workshops in Perugia and Florence.

The final objective is to regain the gaze of contemporaries, and to return to seeing Pietro Perugino as an absolute protagonist of the Renaissance, as he was for at least two decades.

The exhibition, entitled “The best maestro in Italy. Perugino in his time, will restore to the artist the role that the public and his era had assigned to him, presenting his major masterpieces, all prior to 1504, at the moment in which he was at the peak of his extraordinary career.

The exhibition will give an account, in the most complete way possible, of the fundamental steps of his career: from the first collaborations in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio to the capital Florentine companies that made his fortune (such as the three panels already in San Giusto alle Mura, today in the Uffizi Galleries, or the San Domenico Altarpiece in Fiesole); from extraordinary portraits to monumental altarpieces, such as the Galitzin Triptych, now in the National Gallery in Washington, and the Polyptych of the Certosa di Pavia, mostly in the National Gallery in London and exceptionally recomposed for the occasion.

The catalog will contain contributions from the painter’s major specialists and will retrace the stages of Pietro’s career, from his training to his return to Umbria at the beginning of the sixteenth century, with introductory texts aimed at better describing the “time” of the master, delving into his history, his thought and spaces. A large margin will be reserved for the directors and curators of the collections to which the works on loan belong, to accentuate the choral character of an enterprise that arises first of all from an effective collaboration between institutions, including the Uffizi Galleries, the National Gallery in Washington, the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.