Gateway to the Classics: Knights of Art by Amy Steedman
Knights of Art by  Amy Steedman

Pietro Perugino

I T was early morning, and the rays of the rising sun had scarcely yet caught the roofs of the city of Perugia, when along the winding road which led across the plain a man and a boy walked with steady, purposelike steps towards the town which crowned the hill in front.

The man was poorly dressed in the common rough clothes of an Umbrian peasant. Hard work and poverty had bent his shoulders and drawn stern lines upon his face, but there was a dignity about him which marked him as something above the common working man.

The little boy who trotted barefoot along by the side of his father had a sweet, serious little face, but he looked tired and hungry, and scarcely fit for such a long rough walk. They had started from their home at Castello delle Pieve very early that morning, and the piece of black bread which had served them for breakfast had been but small. Away in front stretched that long, white, never-ending road; and the little dusty feet that pattered so bravely along had to take hurried runs now and again to keep up with the long strides of the man, while the wistful eyes, which were fixed on that distant town, seemed to wonder if they would really ever reach their journey's end.

"Art tired already, Pietro?" asked the father at length, hearing a panting little sigh at his side. "Why, we are not yet half-way there! Thou must step bravely out and be a man, for to-day thou shalt begin to work for thy living, and no longer live the life of an idle child."

The boy squared his shoulders, and his eyes shone.

"It is not I who am tired, my father," he said. "It is only that my legs cannot take such good long steps as thine; and walk as we will the road ever seems to unwind itself further and further in front, like the magic white thread which has no end."

The father laughed, and patted the child's head kindly.

"The end will come ere long," he said. "See where the mist lies at the foot of the hill; there we will begin to climb among the olive-trees and leave the dusty road. I know a quicker way by which we may reach the city. We will climb over the great stones that mark the track of the stream, and before the sun grows too hot we will have reached the city gates."

It was a great relief to the little hot, tired feet to feel the cool grass beneath them, and to leave the dusty road. The boy almost forgot his tiredness as he scrambled from stone to stone, and filled his hands with the violets which grew thickly on the banks, scenting the morning air with their sweetness. And when at last they came out once more upon the great white road before the city gates, there was so much to gaze upon and wonder at, that there was no room for thoughts of weariness or hunger.

There stood the herds of great white oxen, patiently waiting to pass in. Pietro wondered if their huge wide horns would not reach from side to side of the narrow street within the gates. There the shepherd-boys played sweet airs upon their pipes as they walked before their flocks, and led the silly frightened sheep out of the way of passing carts. Women with bright-coloured handkerchiefs tied over their heads crowded round, carrying baskets of fruit and vegetables from the country round. Carts full of scarlet and yellow pumpkins were driven noisily along. Whips cracked, people shouted and talked as much with their hands as with their lips, and all were eager to pass through the great Etruscan gateway, which stood grim and tall against the blue of the summer sky. Much good service had that gateway seen, and it was as strong as when it had been first built hundreds of years before, and was still able to shut out an army of enemies, if Perugia had need to defend herself.

Pietro and his father quickly threaded their way through the crowd, and passed through the gateway into the steep narrow street beyond. It was cool and quiet here. The sun was shut out by the tall houses, and the shadows lay so deep that one might have thought it was the hour of twilight, but for the peep of bright blue sky which showed between the overhanging eaves above. Presently they reached the great square market-place, where all again was sunshine and bustle, with people shouting and selling their wares, which they spread out on the ground up to the very steps of the cathedral and all along in front of the Palazzo Publico. Here the man stopped, and asked one of the passers-by if he could direct him to the shop of Niccolo the painter.

"Yonder he dwells," answered the citizen, and pointed to a humble shop at the corner of the market-place. "Hast thou brought the child to be a model?"

Pietro held his head up proudly, and answered quickly for himself.

"I am no longer a child," he said; "and I have come to work and not to sit idle."

The man laughed and went his way, while father and son hurried on towards the little shop and entered the door.

The old painter was busy, and they had to wait a while until he could leave his work and come to see what they might want.

"This is the boy of whom I spoke," said the father as he pushed Pietro forward by his shoulder. "He is not well grown, but he is strong, and has learnt to endure hardness. I promise thee that he will serve thee well if thou wilt take him as thy servant."

The painter smiled down at the little eager face which was waiting so anxiously for his answer.

"What canst thou do?" he asked the boy.

"Everything," answered Pietro promptly. "I can sweep out thy shop and cook thy dinner. I will learn to grind thy colours and wash thy brushes, and do a man's work."

"In faith," laughed the painter, "if thou canst do everything, being yet so young, thou wilt soon be the greatest man in Perugia, and bring great fame to this fair city. Then will we call thee no longer Pietro Vanucci, but thou shalt take the city's name, and we will call thee Perugino."

The master spoke in jest, but as time went on and he watched the boy at work, he marvelled at the quickness with which the child learned to perform his new duties, and began to think the jest might one day turn to earnest.

From early morning until sundown Pietro was never idle, and when the rough work was done he would stand and watch the master as he painted, and listen breathless to the tales which Niccolo loved to tell.

"There is nothing so great in all the world as the art of painting," the master would say. "It is the ladder that leads up to heaven, the window which lets light into the soul. A painter need never be lonely or poor. He can create the faces he loves, while all the riches of light and colour and beauty are always his. If thou hast it in thee to be a painter, my little Perugino, I can wish thee no greater fortune."

Then when the day's work was done and the short spell of twilight drew near, the boy would leave the shop and run swiftly down the narrow street until he came to the grim old city gates. Once outside, under the wide blue sky in the free open air of the country, he drew a long, long breath of pleasure, and quickly found a hidden corner in the cleft of the hoary trunk of an olive-tree, where no passer-by could see him. There he sat, his chin resting on his hands, gazing and gazing out over the plain below, drinking in the beauty with his hungry eyes.

How he loved that great open space of sweet fresh air, in the calm pure light of the evening hour. That white light, which seemed to belong more to heaven than to earth, shone on everything around. Away in the distance the purple hills faded into the sunset sky. At his feet the plain stretched away, away until it met the mountains, here and there lifting itself in some little hill crowned by a lonely town whose roofs just caught the rays of the setting sun. The evening mist lay like a gossamer veil upon the low-lying lands, and between the little towns the long straight road could be seen, winding like a white ribbon through the grey and silver, and marked here and there by a dark cypress-tree or a tall poplar. And always there would be a glint of blue, where a stream or river caught the reflection of the sky and held it lovingly there, like a mirror among the rocks.

But Pietro did not have much time for idle dreaming. His was not an easy life, for Niccolo made but little money with his painting, and the boy had to do all the work of the house besides attending to the shop. But all the time he was sweeping and dusting he looked forward to the happy days to come when he might paint pictures and become a famous artist.

Whenever a visitor came to the shop, Pietro would listen eagerly to his talk and try to learn something of the great world of Art. Sometimes he would even venture to ask questions, if the stranger happened to be one who had travelled from afar.

"Where are the most beautiful pictures to be found?" he asked one day when a Florentine painter had come to the little shop and had been describing the glories he had seen in other cities. "And where is it that the greatest painters dwell?"

"That is an easy question to answer, my boy," said the painter. "All that is fairest is to be found in Florence, the most beautiful city in all the world, the City of Flowers. There one may find the best of everything, but above all, the most beautiful pictures and the greatest of painters. For no one there can bear to do only the second best, and a man must attain to the very highest before the Florentines will call him great. The walls of the churches and monasteries are covered with pictures of saints and angels, and their beauty no words can describe."

"I too will go to Florence," said Pietro to himself, and every day he longed more and more to see that wonderful city.

It was no use to wait until he should have saved enough money to take him there. He scarcely earned enough to live on from day to day. So at last, poor as he was, he started off early one morning and said good-bye to his old master and the hard work of the little shop in Perugia. On he went down the same long white road which had seemed so endless to him that day when, as a little child, he first came to Perugia. Even now, when he was a strong young man, the way seemed long and weary across that great plain, and he was often foot-sore and discouraged. Day after day he travelled on, past the great lake which lay like a sapphire in the bosom of the plain, past many towns and little villages, until at last he came in sight of the City of Flowers.

It was a wonderful moment to Perugino, and he held his breath as he looked. He had passed the brow of the hill, and stood beside a little stream bordered by a row of tall, straight poplars which showed silvery white against the blue sky. Beyond, nestling at the foot of the encircling hills, lay the city of his dreams. Towers and palaces, a crowding together of pale red sunbaked roofs, with the great dome of the cathedral in the midst, and the silver thread of the Arno winding its way between—all this he saw, but he saw more than this. For it seemed to him that the Spirit of Beauty hovered above the fair city, and he almost heard the rustle of her wings and caught a glimpse of her rainbow-tinted robe in the light of the evening sky.

Poor Pietro! Here was the world he longed to conquer, but he was only a poor country boy, and how was he to begin to climb that golden ladder of Art which led men to fame and glory?

Well, he could work, and that was always a beginning. The struggle was hard, and for many a month he often went hungry and had not even a bed to lie on at night, but curled himself up on a hard wooden chest. Then good fortune began to smile upon him.

The Florentine artists to whose studios he went began to notice the hardworking boy, and when they looked at his work, with all its faults and want of finish, they saw in it that divine something called genius which no one can mistake.

Then the doors of another world seemed to open to Pietro. All day long he could now work at his beloved painting and learn fresh wonders as he watched the great men use the brush and pencil. In the studio of the painter Verocchio he met the men of whose fame he had so often heard, and whose work he looked upon with awe and reverence.

There was the good-tempered monk of the Carmine, Fra Filippo Lippi, the young Botticelli, and a youth just his own age whom they called Leonardo da Vinci, of whom it was whispered already that he would some day be the greatest master of the age.

These were golden days for Perugino, as he was called, for the name of the city where he had come from was always now given to him. The pictures he had longed to paint grew beneath his hand, and upon his canvas began to dawn the solemn dignity and open-air spaciousness of those evening visions he had seen when he gazed across the Umbrian Plain. There was no noise of battle, no human passion in his pictures. His saints stood quiet and solemn, single figures with just a thread of interest binding them together, and always beyond was the great wide open world, with the white light shining in the sky, the blue thread of the river, and the single trees pointing upwards—dark, solemn cypress, or feathery larch or poplar.


Two Saints from the Fresco of the Crucifixion
by Perugino

There was much for the young painter still to learn, and perhaps he learned most from the silent teaching of that little dark chapel of the Carmine, where Masaccio taught more wonderful lessons by his frescoes than any living artist could teach.

Then came the crowning honour when Perugino received an invitation from the Pope to go to Rome and paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Henceforth it was a different kind of life for the young painter. No need to wonder where he would get his next meal, no hard rough wooden chest on which to rest his weary limbs when the day's work was done. Now he was royally entertained and softly lodged, and men counted it an honour to be in his company.

But though he loved Florence and was proud to do his painting in Rome, his heart ever drew him back to the city on the hill whose name he bore.

Again he travelled along the winding road, and his heart beat fast as he drew nearer and saw the familiar towers and roofs of Perugia. How well he remembered that long-ago day when the cool touch of the grass was so grateful to his little tired dusty feet! He stooped again to fill his hands with the sweet violets, and thought them sweeter than all the fame and fair show of the gay cities.

And as he passed through the ancient gateway and threaded his way up the narrow street towards the little shop, he seemed to see once more the kindly smile of his old master and to hear him say, "Thou wilt soon be the greatest man in Perugia, and we will call thee no longer Pietro Vanucci, but Perugino."

So it had come to pass. Here he was. No longer a little ragged, hungry boy, but a man whom all delighted to honour. Truly this was a world of changes!

A bigger studio was needed than the little old shop, for now he had more pictures to paint than he well knew how to finish. Then, too, he had many pupils, for all were eager to enter the studio of the great master. There it was that one morning a new pupil was brought to him, a boy of twelve, whose guardians begged that Perugino would teach and train him.

Perugino looked with interest at the child. Seldom had he seen such a beautiful oval face, framed by such soft brown curls—a face so pure and lovable that even at first sight it drew out love from the hearts of those who looked at him.

"His father was also a painter," said the guardian, "and Raphael, here, has caught the trick of using his pencil and brush, so we would have him learn of the greatest master in the land."

After some talk, the boy was left in the studio at Perugia, and day by day Perugino grew to love him more. It was not only that little Raphael was clever and skilful, though that alone often made the master marvel.

"He is my pupil now, but some day he will be my master, and I shall learn of him," Perugino would often say as he watched the boy at work. But more than all, the pure sweet nature and the polished gentleness of his manners charmed the heart of the master, and he loved to have the boy always near him, and to teach him was his greatest pleasure.

Those quiet days in the Perugia studio never lasted very long. From all quarters came calls to Perugino, and, much as he loved work, he could not finish all that was wanted.

It happened once when he was in Florence that a certain prior begged him to come and fresco the walls of his convent. This prior was very famous for making a most beautiful and expensive blue colour which he was anxious should be used in the painting of the convent walls. He was a mean, suspicious man, and would not trust Perugino with the precious blue colour, but always held it in his own hands and grudgingly doled it out in small quantities, torn between the desire to have the colour on his walls and his dislike to parting with anything so precious.

As Perugino noted this, he grew angry and determined to punish the prior's meanness. The next time therefore that there was a blue sky to be painted, he put at his side a large bowl of fresh water, and then called on the prior to put out a small quantity of the blue colour in a little vase. Each time he dipped his brush into the vase, Perugino washed it out with a swirl in the bowl at his side, so that most of the colour was left in the water, and very little was put on to the picture.

"I pray thee fill the vase again with blue," he said carelessly when the colour was all gone. The prior groaned aloud, and turned grudgingly to his little bag.

"Oh what a quantity of blue is swallowed up by this plaster!" he said, as he gazed at the white wall, which scarcely showed a trace of the precious colour.

"Yes," said Perugino cheerfully, "thou canst see thyself how it goes."

Then afterwards, when the prior had sadly gone off with his little empty bag, Perugino carefully poured the water from the bowl and gathered together the grains of colour which had sunk to the bottom.

"Here is something that belongs to thee," he said sternly to the astonished prior. "I would have thee learn to trust honest men and not treat them as thieves. For with all thy suspicious care, it was easy to rob thee if I had had a mind."

During all these years in which Perugino had worked so diligently, the art of painting had been growing rapidly. Many of the new artists shook off the old rules and ideas, and began to paint in quite a new way. There was one man especially, called Michelangelo, whose story you will hear later on, who arose like a giant, and with his new way and greater knowledge swept everything before him.

Perugino was jealous of all these new ideas, and clung more closely than ever to his old ideals, his quiet, dignified saints, and spacious landscapes. He talked openly of his dislike of the new style, and once he had a serious quarrel with the great Michelangelo.


Two Saints from the Fresco of the Crucifixion
by Perugino

There was a gathering of painters in Perugino's studio that day. Filippino Lippi, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Leonardo were there, and in the background the pupil Raphael was listening to the talk.

"What dost thou think of this new style of painting?" asked Botticelli. "To me it seems but strange and unpleasing. Music and motion are delightful, but this violent twisting of limbs to show the muscles offends my taste."

"Yet it is most marvellously skilful," said the young Leonardo thoughtfully.

"But totally unfit for the proper picturing of saints and the blessed Madonna," said Filippino, shaking his curly head.

"I never trouble myself about it," said Ghirlandaio. "Life is too short to attend to other men's work. It takes all my care and attention to look after mine own. But see, here comes the great Michelangelo himself to listen to our criticism."

The curious, rugged face of the great artist looked good-naturedly on the company, but his strong knotted hands waved aside their greetings.

"So you were busy as usual finding fault with my work," he said. "Come, friend Perugino, tell me what thou hast found to grumble at."

"I like not thy methods, and that I tell thee frankly," answered Perugino, an angry light shining in his eyes. "It is such work as thine that drags the art of painting down from the heights of heavenly things to the low taste of earth. It robs it of all dignity and restfulness, and destroys the precious traditions handed down to us since the days of Giotto."

The face of Michelangelo grew angry and scornful as he listened to this.

"Thou art but a dolt and a blockhead in Art," he said. "Thou wilt soon see that the day of thy saints and Madonnas is past, and wilt cease to paint them over and over again in the same manner, as a child doth his lesson in a copy book."

Then he turned and went out of the studio before any one had time to answer him.

Perugino was furiously angry and would not listen to reason, but must needs go before the great Council and demand that they should punish Michelangelo for his hard words. This of course the Council refused to do, and Perugino left Florence for Perugia, angry and sore at heart.

It seemed hard, after all his struggles and great successes, that as he grew old people should begin to tire of his work, which they had once thought so perfect.

But if the outside world was sometimes disappointing, he had always his home to turn to, and his beautiful wife Chiare. He had married her in his beloved Perugia, and she meant all the joy of life to him. He was so proud of her beauty that he would buy her the richest dresses and most costly jewels, and with his own hands would deck her with them. Her brown eyes were like the depths of some quiet pool, her fair face and the wonderful soul that shone there were to him the most perfect picture in the world.

"I will paint thee once, that the world may be the richer," said Perugino, "but only once, for thy beauty is too rare for common use. And I will paint thee not as an earthly beauty, but thou shalt be the angel in the story of Tobias which thou knowest."

So he painted her as he said. And in our own National Gallery we still have the picture, and we may see her there as the beautiful angel who leads the little boy Tobias by the hand.

Up to the very last years of his life, Perugino painted as diligently as he had ever done, but the peaceful days of Perugia had long since given place to war and tumult, both within and without the city. Then too a terrible plague swept over the countryside, and people died by thousands.

To the hospital of Fartignano, close to Perugia, they carried Perugino when the deadly plague seized him, and there he died. There was no time to think of grand funerals; the people were buried as quickly as possible, in whatever place lay closest at hand.

So it came to pass that Perugino was laid to rest in an open field under an oak-tree close by. Later on his sons wished to have him buried in holy ground, and some say that this was done, but nothing is known for certain. Perhaps if he could have chosen, he would have been glad to think that his body should rest under the shelter of the trees he loved to paint, in that waste openness of space which had always been his vision of beauty, since, as a little boy, he gazed across the Umbrian Plain, and the wonder of it sank into his soul.

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