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Pietro Perugino
(1448 -1523)
Saint Sebastian,
Oil on wood.
Louvre, Paris, France
Photo Credit: Erich Lessing /
Art Resource, NY

Pietro Perugino
Uffizi, Florence,
Photo Credit: Alinari /
Art Resource, NY

Pietro Perugino
Sant’Agostino Polyptych:
the Eternal in Glory.

Galleria Nazionale
dell’Umbria, Perugia,
Photo Credit: Scala / Art
Resource, NY

Pietro Perugino
Adoration of the Magi,
Santa Maria dei Bianchi,
Città della Pieve
Photo Credit: Scala / Art
Resource, NY

Pietro Perugino
Collegio del Cambio,
Palazzo dei Priori
(Comunale), Perugia,
Photo Credit: Scala / Art
Resource, NY



Ron Padgett

Perugion’s Feather


Recently I went to Italy with the idea of writing about the relation between the Umbrian countryside and the landscapes in Perugino’s paintings. I had seen his work in various museums, and ten years ago I had spent three weeks in his native Umbria, but I did not know if there actually were an interesting connection between his painted landscapes and the Umbrian landscape he lived in or the one we see today.
          Soon I learned that my question had already been answered by numerous art historians: Perugino’s handling of landscape was influenced by Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, and fifteenth-century Flemish artists, as well as by a certain craggy terrain in the upper Tiber Valley, by Lake Trasimeno (not far from Perugia, where he lived most of his life), and by the expansive views around Perugia itself. But my landscape idea turned out to be a catalyst: it made me want to see a lot of Perugino’s work in the short time I would be in Italy.
          The geographical index in Vittoria Garibaldi’s Perugino: Catalogo completo directed me to the largest collection of his work, forty-one pieces in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. As I walked through the air-conditioned rooms of that museum, I felt a growing excitement, for although I paused in front of a gorgeous Madonna and Child by Duccio, impressive altarpieces by Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, and a handsome wooden bust of the Madonna and Child by Agostino di Duccio, in the back of my mind was one goal: the Perugino room that serves as the culmination of the collection. As I walked toward it, I kept noticing that the museum bore little resemblance to the one I had visited a decade ago, when it was undergoing renovation. Back then I had seen Peruginos leaned casually against walls and stacked on edge on dollies—a rare and refreshing way to look at great art.
          And suddenly there they were, eleven large Peruginos in one room, suspended in mid-air. But as I went from picture to picture my heart sank further and further. I found fault everywhere. This one was too faint, that one too perfunctory. I didn’t like the face of Saint Sebastian in this one. The hip-shot poses got on my nerves. (Too “poncey” for me?) And so on, until I came to the last one, a frescoed Nativity, partly decomposed: how beautiful were its powdery light greens that seemed to be slowly vanishing into the past.
          Late that night, as I leafed through Garibaldi’s catalog, I grumbled that some of the color reproductions improve the originals by lending them a misleading warmth and richness. But then I saw a beautiful one I remembered from the National Gallery in Washington, and another from the Louvre, each of them warm and rich in the original. I fell in love with Mary Magdalene, I was hypnotized by the angels suspended in space like musical notes, the music flowing in and around the dispassionate and even uninterested gaze of the Madonna—she looks endlessly deep or empty— and, unable to keep my eyes open any longer, I switched off the light with the conviction that no, this is an artist with something special. Today had been my fault. My expectations had been too high.
          But what about the landscapes in the backgrounds? In their details they seemed to offer nothing special, certainly nothing thrilling. By contrast, those in the small pictures of Pietro Lorenzetti, Giovanni di Paolo, or Sassetta are far more interesting. They look like the work of artists whose desire was not to depict real hills and trees but rather to indicate hills and trees—real or unreal, we know (and care) not which. Their crags, sprigs and birds jump out with a quirkiness that looks fresh and wild to the modern eye. For viewers such as myself, whose devotion to these works is in no way due to religion, these charming landscapes have a fairyland attractiveness, as if the human figures in them, heavy with the weight of their narrative duty, were at best of minor importance, at worst an irksome distraction, like High Renaissance depictions of the infant Jesus as inflated, grotesque and narcissistic. In Perugino’s versions of the Madonna and Child, the infant Jesus looks more appealing than that, but after I admire his mother for a while, I find my eyes drifting off into the background landscape. Spacious, pleasant and calm, it offers the viewer a way to slide quietly away. The landscapes in Perugino provide not historical or geographical accuracy or the dreamlike joys of the landscapes in early Sienese painting. They provide balance and serenity.
          Much the same may be said of the characters in his paintings: they are rarely smiling or frowning, though some express a quiet adoration or religious serenity. Art historians have pointed out that this latter mood is one that the artist excelled in, which is particularly interesting when placed against Vasari’s claim that Perugino was “of very little religion…who could never be brought to believe in the immortality of the soul.” Apparently Perugino even refused extreme unction because he wanted to see what happens to the soul that goes into death without that benefit. Such an attitude suggests an equanimity of spirit that may have found its expression in the faces of his figures, an equanimity that would have been thrown off-kilter by happiness or sadness.
          Of course many other Italian painters before, during, and after Perugino’s lifetime made their figures look neither happy nor sad, and yet these faces are less well known for their expressions of the inner calm that is so prevalent in his work. In his repertory of subjects Perugino included the Crucifixion, the Deposition from the Cross, and the Pietà—three moments potentially saturated with agony and grief—but he played down their emotional drama. For example, in the Pietà (1485 -1490) now in the Uffizi, we have to move up close to make out the translucent tears on the cheeks of John the Evangelist. Perugino preferred calmer scenes—the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Assumption, which he depicted with a balance of design, lightness of touch, and harmony of color that are tacitly reinforced by an absence of painterly bravura, fuss and exaggeration. The viewer’s eye moves smoothly over and among the figures, then glides into the distant landscape whose center funnels us softly off into the misty distance. These pictures do not suggest that we feel happy because we are viewing a comic world or sad because we are viewing a tragic one; rather, they suggest that the way to react is with the very calmness that emanates from these scenes. I should add, however, that I am among those people who, when looking at a particularly beautiful picture, find tears of happiness welling in their eyes. Despite my admiration for Perugino’s work, I rarely go that far in front of it, though one small picture (San Placido) in the Vatican Pinocateca did elicit from me a long smile and a powerful surge of gratitude.
          The moment I saw it, San Placido locked me into its beauty. It is a perfect little picture. Against a dark background, Saint Placid (or Placidus) has rolled his eyes upward and slightly to our left toward Heaven, his rosy cheeks glowing, fingers interlaced as if in prayer. Springing from them is a long, slender green arc that curves up and to the right—perhaps a feather. We do not know what it is because we do not know the story of Saint Placid. So for us the story is the feather, its simple act of curving, and curving much further than we might have thought, for surely no writing plume need be that long. Perhaps it is suggesting that it is more than a plume, perhaps that it came from something other than a bird. The first thing we think of is an angel, but surely no angel would lose a feather or even have one of such green. Or would it?
          For a moment it’s as if we are the curving of a feather, just what we’ve always wanted to be! Then the picture becomes a picture again and we are standing in the museum. If we don’t allow ourselves to grab the picture and dash out the door, we do long for the permanent imprint of the picture into our hearts, and if nothing so mystical can transpire, then into our memories, where we could see it again whenever we want. But we know that the visual image will fade—already we cannot quite recall the fingers—so we tell ourselves that even if it dissipates we will have had it once. With this consolation and with an intense, final look into the picture, we turn toward the doorway to the next room, happy to have discovered a picture today that fills us with what we sometimes feel when we look at art: inexplicable joy or sadness in our humanity.

RON PADGETT’s recent books include How to Be Perfect (poems, Coffee House Press), If I Were You (collaborative poems, Proper Tales Press) and Prose Poems by Pierre Reverdy (translation, Black Square/Brooklyn Rail). He is the translator of Apollinaire’s The Poet Assassinated and a number of Apollinaire’s poems. For more information go to

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