Bernardino di Betto, known also as Pintoricchio, was born between 1456 and 1460 in Perugia to a modest family of artisans. The early life of the painter seems to have been very unhappy and was further complicated in 1475 when his father, a simple cloth tanner, died of the plague.
Some years before, however, Giapeco Caporali, the extraordinary miniaturist, opened a bottega on the same street as the young Bernardino’s family home and it is assumed that the young boy had his first experiences with brushes and colours in the Caporali bottega. These were years of a great artistic fervour in Perugia; the city was becoming an eminent centre for artistic activities in central Italy. In the early years, Pintoricchio participated in this artistic revival, sometimes as a spectator, other times as a protagonist; he is recognised to have worked on the majestic tables that recount the stories of San Bernardino in 1473, while also working alongside Perugino on the scaffolding of the Sistina.
It was not, however, until 1481 that his first authored works are documented, following his enrolment in the guild of Artists and Painters in Porta Sant’Angelo, Perugia. Working in Rome allowed him to meet new and influential figures: between 1482 and 1485 he painted the cappella Bufalini all’Aracoeli, he intermittently returned to his home town to complete some of his works and to carry out small commissions, some of which were obtained thanks to his nephew, Girolamo di Simone – the extremely young Canon of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo of Perugia. This fact may also explain the excellent relationship that Pintoricchio had with Innocenzo VIII, for whom, between 1487 and 1488, he worked on the site of his apartments in the Vatican: unfortunately only part of these are still in existence as the rest was destroyed in order to make space for the Pio Clementino Museum.
In 1490 Bernardino was at work in the Sala dei Mesi in the Palace of Cardinal Domenico Delle Rovere and in the Chapel Santa Maria del Popolo.
Two years later he came to Orvieto for a commission in the Duomo that was completed only in 1496. In the meantime Alessandro VI Borgia had become Pope and commissioned the Umbrian artist to decorate his apartments in the Vatican, a grandiose project that kept Pintoricchio busy in Rome until 1495.
By the 2nd January of the same year, the altarpiece of Santa Maria dei Fossi, perhaps one of his most significant works, was still awaiting completion. The works in Spoleto, Perugia and Orvieto brought money and in 1501 also recognition from the political powers that appointed him to hold the position of prior of the Arts in Perugia.
The events in the life of Pintoricchio are closely linked to the political landscape of Perugia, he was a familiar and loyal servant to Cesare Borgia and he was also connected to the Baglioni family, from whom he received the commission to decorate the walls of the Capella Bella in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Spello, where – between the autumn of 1500 and the spring of 1501 – he created paintings of such magnificent beauty and skill that his fame and eminence in artistic circles in Umbria was ensured for many years to come.
Many consider his crowning achievement to be the stunning cycle of frescoes that illustrated the life of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Pope Pio II, located in the Piccolomini library in Siena. Ambroggio Barocci designed the grandiose architectural structure and the draughts for the illustrated scenes were prepared by a young Raffaello; these details only serve to underline the greatness achieved by the Perugian painter.
In 1506 the frescoes were completed and Pintoricchio received the commission to paint the pala di Sant’Andrea in Spello, which he eventually left to Eusebio da San Giorgio to complete.
Between 1509 and 1510 he painted his last Roman work, the vaulted ceilings on the Capella Delle Rovere in Santa Maria del Popolo.
In 1513 he retired, due to ill health, to the Sienan countryside, where he died on the 11th December. He was rich but alone, following abandonment by his wife. It was a sad and lonely end for an artist that was initially considered, “deaf, small and unprepossessing,” yet nonetheless, had managed to attain greatness.
Bernardino di Betto (Benedetto), Italian painter called II Pinturicchio, was, like Perugino, a native of the district around Perugia.
He was thought by his contemporaries to have been a pupil of Perugino and to have had a share in Perugino’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the early 1480s. According to Vasari, Pinturrichio was a paid assistant of Perugino.
The works of the Perugian Renaissance school are very similar; and paintings by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Lo Spagna and Raphael may often be mistaken one for the other. In the execution of large frescoes, pupils and assistants had a large share in the work, either in enlarging the master’s sketch to the full-sized cartoon, in transferring the cartoon to the wall, or in painting backgrounds or accessories.
In Siena – where he finally settled, married, had children, and died – he had important commissions for the Cathedral, for the Church of San Francesco, and for Pandolfo Petrucci, the chief citizen of the city.
Frescoes in the Piccolomini Library of the Duomo in Siena}
About halfway down the nave on the left is the entrance to the Piccolomini library, famed for its precious illuminated choir books and beautifully preserved Renaissance frescoes painted by Pinturicchio, probably based on designs by Raphael.
The library was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, Archbishop of Siena (later Pope Pius III), to honor the memory and book collection of his maternal uncle Enea (Aeneas) Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II.
Pinturicchio painted this cycle of frescoes around the library between 1502 and 1507, representing Rafael and himself in several of them. This masterpiece is full of striking detail and vivacious colours. Each scene is explained in Latin by the text below. They depict ten remarkable events from the secular and religious career of pope Pius II.
Each scene is labeled with a Latin inscription, taken from the pope’s biography by the humanist writer Giovanni Antonio Campano. The story begins at the end of the room next to the right-hand window, then proceeds clockwise around the room. The scenes depicted are as follows:
1. Departure for the Council of Basel on a white steed (1431)
2. Oration as envoy before King James I of Scotland
3. Crowned poet laureate by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1442)
4. Subjugation to Pope Eugenius IV (1445)
5. As Archbishop of Siena, presenting Eleanor of Portugal to Frederick III at the Comollia gate in Siena (1451)
6. Nomination as cardinal by Callisto III (1456)
7. Election as Pope Pius II (1458)
8. Presiding over the Congress of Mantua, at which he proclaims a crusade (1459)
9. Canonizing St. Catherine of Siena (1461)
10. Reaching Ancona, where he would wait in vain for the Venetian fleet before setting out on Crusade against the Turks (1464)
Pinturicchio’s fresco cycle is a rare example of a unified decoration of the early sixteenth century. Well-suited to Pinturicchio’s skills and to a somewhat provincial Siena, his lyric style fits comfortably into the medieval setting of the Cathedral.
The narratives are illustrated with descriptive clarity, the figures precisely drawn, the unatmospheric landscape bright and sharply defined.
In contrast to Perugino, the mature Pinturicchio seems to have gained artistic strength rather than losing it, and his frescoes in the grandiose Piccolomini Library in Siena are masterpieces in his personal style. The narratives deal with the life of the Piccolomini family’s first pope, Pius II. Here the future Pope, Aeneas Silvius, is shown as a young man setting out for Basle. The preparatory drawing is often regarded as by Raphael, indicating the possibility of a rather remarkable collaboration.
In the fresco the elegant manner of Pinturicchio’s style is especially discernible in the central figure, that of the youthful Aeneas Silvius, heroically set upon a white horse placed obliquely in space. The lad turns sharply to face the spectator. His refined features and modish garments and the delicate hound, highbred and quivering, reflect a set of choices that can be traced back to artists like Pisanello and Sassetta in the previous generation. Seen through a high arch with decorative devices carried down from the folly articulated ceiling which Pinturicchio must have worked on first, the landscape takes up more than half the available space.
A special bonus is included, a tour de force and one not provided in the drawing: a storm at sea and a rainbow in the sky. These daring naturalistic inclusions are examples of the originality that crops up in this cycle. Significant stylistic breaks with his earlier works, however, do not occur.
The impressive vault of the library, also painted by Pinturicchio (c.1502), is ornately decorated with grotesques, scenes from classical mythology, and a variety of putti, satyrs, nymphs and tritons. The three large squares in the center depict the Rape of Proserpine, the Piccolomini coat of arms, and Diana and Endymion.
The walls are lined with display cases carved by Antonio Barili in 1495-96 and filled with an important collection of 30 richly illustrated Renaissance choir books from 1465 to 1515. In the center of the room is an elegant sculptural group of the Three Graces, an ancient Roman copy of a Hellenistic design bought in Rome in 1502 by Cardinal Todeschini to decorate the library. Frequently copied in the Renaissance era, it was used as a model by Pinturicchio, Raphael and Canova. The marble base was sculpted by Giovanni di Stefano.
Saint Bartholomew, ca. 1497
The apostle Bartholomew appears only briefly in the Bible, but his cult became popular. He was said to have traveled through Armenia and India, spreading Christ’s word, and to have been flayed alive. In this painting by the Perugia native Pinturicchio (literally, “clumsy little painter”), Bartholomew holds the instrument of his martyrdom. Calm in the face of fate, he trains a reverent gaze on a Bible or prayer book. His demeanor is exemplary, reminding the viewer that concentration and forbearance are required of the faithful. Attention to the image is encouraged through texture (the gold and silver relief of the halo and knife) and color (the background cloth of honor, decorated with interlocking gold crosses and foliate designs against a green background, turned slightly to reveal its complementary red reverse). Bartholomew’s book is of rich materials, with slender braided tassels and a stamped gold pattern on its cover — details of particular significance for this patron saint of leather workers.
Original article: Art in Tuscany