We could certainly count ourselves lucky. We happened to visit the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia on the first Sunday of the month, and it turned out that the museum could be visited for free on that day. Since 1878, the Galleria Nazionale is housed in the Palazzo dei Priori, a beautiful medieval palace that was built in the Gothic style between 1293 and 1443. To the façade of the palazzo, on the side facing the Piazza IV Novembre, a griffin and lion have been affixed, the symbols of the city. The two animals are actually copies; the originals, made in 1274, can be found inside the museum. Visitors enter the Galleria through the Portale delle Arti or Portale Maggiore. This gate dates from 1346 and is embellished with, among other things, two griffins, two lions and three statues of saints (replicas; once again the originals are in the museum). The saints are presumably Lawrence and the bishops Herculanus and Constantius. More about them below. What is remarkable about the Portale delle Arti, is that it is Romanesque in style rather than Gothic.
If there is one thing that visitors should know about the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, then it must be that the museum is immense. It has no fewer than 40 rooms distributed across two floors. This makes it impossible to discuss the entire collection. I will therefore focus on ten highlights from the collection of paintings, my ten personal favourites. The paintings discussed below date from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, and most of them previously hung or stood in churches and convents in and around Perugia.
1. Triptych of Perugia (Trittico di Perugia)
This triptych from ca. 1270-1275 is still clearly painted in the Byzantine style, with a use of colour that immediately catches the eye. Unfortunately we do not know the name of the painter. In the centre we see the Madonna with the Christ child on her lap. The hatches of the triptych have sixteen scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, topped by a two-part Annunciation. If the hatches are closed, the portraits of Saints Franciscus and Clara of Assisi, painted on the reverse side, become visible. It is not entirely clear what church the triptych was painted for. The information panel in the museum mentions the church of San Bevignate, but with a question mark. San Bevignate was the church of the Templars in Perugia, and the red cross on the altar linen in the scene with the Presentation in the Temple is sometimes identified as the symbol of the Knights. However, given the presence of Franciscus and Clara of Assisi on the painting, the church and nunnery of Sant’Agnese are suggested ever more often. This was the headquarters of the Poor Clares in Perugia. Unfortunately the suggestion is not unproblematic: the aforementioned nunnery was not founded until 1296, which is at least twenty years after the triptych had been completed.
2. Crucifix of Perugia (Crocifisso di Perugia)
This large crucifix is so famous that it has its own pages on Wikipedia and the Web Gallery of Art. It is a work of the anonymous Master of Saint Francis (Maestro di San Francesco). He is mostly known for his frescoes in the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. At the foot of the cross we may read that the crucifix was painted in 1272, and that this was during the pontificate of Pope Gregorius X (1271-1276). Saint Franciscus of Assisi can be seen kneeling at the pierced feet of Christ. To the left and right of Christ the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist have been depicted, in their usual positions. Above the crucified Christ are the Virgin Mary (again) and two angels, and above these figures Christ (again) giving his blessing.
3. Pentecost – Taddeo di Bartolo
Taddeo di Bartolo (ca. 1362-1422) was a painter from Siena. His altarpiece featuring the Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit) dates from 1403 and comes from the church of Sant’Agostino in Perugia. The name of the painter and the date of completion are mentioned on the lower part of the panel. The full text here reads:
THADEUS BARTHOLI DE SENIS PINXIT HOC OPUS FECIT FIERI ANGELELLA PETRI PRO A(N)I(M)A IOHANIS FILII SUI ANNI DOMINI MCCCCIII
Or: “Taddeo di Bartolo from Siena painted this work, Angelella Petri commissioned it for the soul of her son John”. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish who Angelella Petri was.
4. Pala di Sant’Agnese – Bicci di Lorenzo
Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452) was a painter from Florence. His father and son were painters too. Unsurprisingly, the Pala di Sant’Agnese is from the aforementioned church of Sant’Agnese and was painted between ca. 1430 and 1440. It is a rather complex work, with the Madonna and Child on a cloud of blue and red angels in the centre. The Madonna and Child are flanked by Saint Agnes with a lamb in her arms and Saint Catherine of Alexandria with a breaking wheel. The fingers of the Christ child and those of Saint Catherine are touching, so the theme of the altarpiece is the Mystical Marriage of the two. The kneeling female saint is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a member of the Third Order of Saint Franciscus, who was canonised in 1235. This event, by the way, took place in Perugia and the canonisation was performed by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241), who as cardinal-protector Ugolino di Conti had had a special bond with the Franciscans.
On the left hatch Saints Antonius of Padova and Louis of Toulouse have been depicted, with Saint John the Evangelist behind them. On the right hatch we see two bishops, Herculanus and Constantius, with behind them Saint Lawrence and his familiar gridiron. Constantius of Perugia, who is said to have been martyred around the year 170, is considered the first bishop of the city. Herculanus was also a bishop of Perugia. In 549 he was martyred when the Ostrogoths under Totila captured the city. Above the saints on the left Saint Franciscus is visible, receiving the stigmata. On the right side three saints have been painted in the desert: Jerome, Onuphrius and Paul of Thebes. The predella at the bottom consists of four scenes, two about the life of Christ (at the edges), one about the martyrdom of Saint Agnes and another about the kind deeds of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.
5. Pala della Sapienza Nuova – Benozzo Gozzoli
This altarpiece by the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421-1497) was not painted for a church. It was intended for the College of Saint Jerome, also known as the Collegio della Sapienza Nuova, which explains the name of the work. The Collegio was associated with the university of Perugia. Gozzoli painted the altarpiece in 1456, when he was in his mid-thirties. In a sense it is still a classical piece, with a slightly archaic golden background. Just a few years later the painter would prove that he could also paint realistic backgrounds with his frescoes in the Cappella dei Magi in Florence. Admittedly he had previously already proven that in Montefalco.
The central figures on the altarpiece in Perugia are the Madonna and Child, flanked by Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Jerome and Paul (with a conspicuous red beard). The smaller saints are Dominicus, Franciscus and Peter Martyr (left), Catherine of Alexandria, Elizabeth of Hungary and Lucia (right), and Christ with Thomas of Aquino, Lawrence, the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Sebastian and Bernardinus of Siena (below). The coats of arms with the lions refer to the Guidalotti family. Benedetto Guidalotti, who was bishop of Recanati in the Marche, founded the Collegio della Sapienza Nuova in 1427. It should be noted that he was long dead when Benozzo Gozzoli painted the altarpiece. It is possible that the painting was commissioned by Elisabetta Guidalotti, the bishop’s sister, which would explain the presence of her namesake Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.
6. Polittico di Sant’Antonio – Piero della Francesca
This genuine masterpiece by Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492) dates from ca. 1467-1469. It was made for the church of Sant’Antonio da Padova, to which a convent of female Franciscan tertiaries was attached. What is special about the polyptych, it that it has two predellas. The upper part, basically the ‘crown’ of the work, is quite unusual too. Piero della Francesca probably painted this part after the rest of the work had already been completed for a while.
The way the painter from Sansepolcro painted the Annunciation is ample proof that he was a true master of perspective. The sixteenth-century painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was highly enthusiastic about this specific part of the work. Vasari saw “an Angel that seems truly to have come out of Heaven; and, what is more, a row of columns diminishing in perspective, which is indeed beautiful”. The Annunciation moreover has a realistic background, whereas the central part of the altarpiece still has an old-fashioned golden background. This part features the Madonna and Child, sitting on a throne in some kind of niche. On the left Saints Antonius of Padova and John the Baptist have been depicted, on the right Saints Franciscus of Assisi and Elizabeth of Hungary. Of the first predella unfortunately the central tondo has been damaged beyond repair. However, on the left and right Saints Clara of Assisi and Agatha are still visible. The lower predella has three scenes. On the left Antonius of Padova resurrects a dead child, in the centre Franciscus receives the stigmata and on the right Elizabeth saves a child from a well.
7. Polittico Guidalotti – Fra Angelico
This must be one of the most popular works in the Galleria Nazionale. Initially we could not even admire it, as a group with a teacher giving a lecture of about half an hour was blocking the view. As a consequence, I took the pictures of the polyptych that I included in this post when we were already heading for the exit. Fra Angelo (ca. 1395-1455) was born Guido di Pietro. Upon joining the Dominicans he took the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. Fra Angelico – ‘the angelic brother’ – managed to be both a monk and a prolific painter at the same time. In 1455 he died in Rome, where one can still see his tombstone in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. His Polittico Guidalotti dates from 1447-1448. The polyptych was named after the aforementioned Elisabetta Guidalotti, who commissioned it for a chapel in the church of San Domenico in Perugia. In the centre we see the Madonna and Child, with Saints Dominicus and Nicholas on the left and Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria on the right. Above the saints a two-part Annunciation is visible.
The details of the painting are beautiful. Note for instance the faces on the hem of Saint Nicholas’ chasuble, or the letters in the book that Saint Dominicus is holding. It is claimed that the face of Saint Nicholas is based on that of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), who like Fra Angelico was a Dominican. Twelve more saints have been painted on the far left and right of the polyptych. On the predella we see stories from the life of Saint Nicholas. Unfortunately only the panel on the right is original. The other two panels are copies from the nineteenth century. In 1797 the polyptych was stolen by the French, who gave it back to Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) after the defeat of Napoleon. Pius decided to keep two predella pieces. These are currently in the Vatican Museums.
8. Pala di Santa Maria dei Servi – Perugino
Perugino (ca. 1450-1523) can be considered the most famous painter from Perugia. His statue can be found just a stone’s throw away from the museum, in the Giardini Carducci. The painter was born Pietro Vannucci in the town of Città della Pieve, about 35 kilometres southwest of Perugia. The Galleria Nazionale possesses several of his works. A good example of an early work is the altarpiece from the church of Santa Maria dei Servi. It represents the Adoration of the Magi and dates from ca. 1473-1475, when the painter was in his twenties. An interesting detail are the two figures staring at the viewer. The figure on the far left is Perugino himself. The other figure is the young man standing between the young and middle king. He may have been the one who commissioned the altarpiece. We do not know who hired Perugino, but the church of Santa Maria dei Servi was associated with the well-known Baglioni family.
9. Pala Tezi – Perugino
A much later work by Perugino (and his workshop) is the Pala Tezi from 1500, painted for the Tezi family for the church of Sant’Agostino. The panel features the Madonna and Child and four saints. These are Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and Bernardinus of Siena (above) and Saints Jerome (with his lion and red cardinal’s hat) and Sebastian (below). The predella of the work ended up in Berlin. An interesting detail of the work is the background with a city and many towers. It is probably a fantasy city, not Perugia. After all, the painted city seems to be situated in a valley, while Perugia was built on a hill. The door in the centre closes off a niche in which the Holy Sacrament was kept.
10. Deposition – Cavalier d’Arpino
Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) was a great art lover and a fanatical collector. Unfortunately both he and his uncle, Pope Paulus V, were also notorious art thieves. One of the works he had stolen was a Deposition from 1507, painted by Raphael (1483-1520), a pupil of the Perugino mentioned under 8. and 9. The Deposition hung in the Baglioni family chapel in the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia. In 1608 the cardinal sent a band of thugs to Perugia who brazenly confiscated the work. Obviously the population of Perugia was furious. Pope Paulus V then tried to calm things down by ordering his nephew to have a copy of the Deposition made. In the end Giuseppe Cesari (ca. 1568-1640) was commissioned, also known as the Cavalier d’Arpino. The copy must have been painted in record time, because it was sent to Perugia as early as August 1608. The original can be admired in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
It is up for debate whether the Cavalier d’Arpino was very happy about his commission. Previously, Pope Paulus had falsely charged him with either tax fraud or illegal possession of arms, and had him thrown into prison. Next he had confiscated the painter’s splendid collection of paintings, which he had given to his nephew the cardinal. The fact that the Cavalier d’Arpino had then been ordered to replicate another stolen painting must have added insult to injury. Unfortunately we do not know how the people of Perugia responded to the copy.
Like on the original, the central figures on the copy are the man and woman behind Christ’s legs. The man is Grifonetto Baglioni (1477-1500), the woman his wife Zenobia Sforza as Mary Magdalen. In 1500 Grifonetto murdered a large part of his family during the so-called ‘red wedding’ (nozze rosse). The next day he was murdered himself. To end the family feud his mother Atalanta Baglioni commissioned Raphael to paint the altarpiece with the Deposition. She is depicted in the painting too, in the guise of the Virgin Mary. Mary, after all, had also lost her son!