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'Birth of the Virgin', by Pietro Vannucci, called Perugino (c1450-1523)


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About the artwork

The 'Birth of a Virgin' was probably painted as a predella panel and placed below an altarpiece under the lower edge of the main image. It would have had at least two companion panels. One of these is thought to be a painting in the National Trust house at Polesden Lacey in Surrey depicting 'The Miraculous Foundation of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore'. The Surrey painting is almost exactly the same size (18.7 x 40cm compared to the Walker's 18.6 x 41cm) and has the same red and white feigned-marble oval framing painted around the central scene. Until their sale in London in 1804 both paintings also shared the same history.

Predella panels usually complement the subject matter of the main altarpiece. The Polesden Lacey predella depicts the legend of how in the 4th century AD a vision of the Virgin Mary led to the church of St Maria Maggiore being founded on a hill in Rome on the site of a miraculous snowfall (in the shape of a church) in August. This subject suggests that the rest of the altarpiece would also have been devoted to the life and imagery of the Virgin Mary.

It was possibly painted for a church or chapel dedicated to the Virgin. For this reason the Walker's painting, which had in the past been described as the (more commonly depicted) 'Birth of John the Baptist' is now considered to represent the 'Birth of the Virgin Mary'. Also, the important Liverpool collector, William Roscoe (born 250 years ago), who owned the Walker's painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century also called it the 'Nativity of the Virgin'. The sex of the small standing child has been artfully hidden by the carefully placed piece of cloth draped over the baby's abdomen as it is being towelled down after bathing.

The towelling down is just one element of this painting that makes it appear to modern eyes like a realistic view into the household of a 15th century woman. Just like any Italian merchant's wife of the time, St Anne (the Virgin's mother) lies in her bed, which is raised off the ground on a plinth that could double as seating and storage-chest, the curtain drawn back to receive her guests. The scene shown is not in fact that after the birth of her child - the mother looks dignified and composed if a little weary and weak - but the lying-in of the mother some days after, when by custom female friends and relatives would visit to admire the child and bring gifts and congratulations. The servants and midwives, meanwhile, busy themselves with washing and drying the baby. Certain other elements of the painting, such as the drapery folds and the trees with their impossibly spindly tree-trunks suggest that the panel was painted by a young artist called Perugino.

Pietro Vannucci, was called Perugino (the Perugian) after his earliest place of training, Perugia. He is now better known as the teacher of the famous Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520). But he made a significant contribution in his own right to the development of Italian painting, and especially religious art, between the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

His technique, style and compositional inventiveness particularly influenced the young Raphael in his early work. Perugino was trained and worked alongside Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) in the same workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (c.1435-1488). The Walker's panel shows several elements of Verrocchio's style which suggests that it was painted early in Perugino's career, perhaps in the early to mid 1470s.

By 1472 Perugino was a member of the Florentine artists' guild but continued to produce work for Perugia (in the Umbrian region to the south of Florence). By 1480 he had moved to Rome where he joined the team that painted the frescoes on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, overseeing much of its decoration.

His painting of the 'Assumption of the Virgin' on the end (altar) wall was later to be destroyed when Michelangelo (1475-1564) painted his 'Last Judgement' on the same wall. Perugino was at the height of his fame from the 1490s and into the 1500s. He was considered the best painter in Italy and sought after by many aristocratic patrons across Italy and abroad in France and Spain.

However, in the second half of the 1490s he shifted base back to Perugia when the fundamentalist monk Girolamo Savanorola's preaching against 'vanities' helped dry-up artistic commissions in Florence. At the beginning of the 16th century Perugino began running his studio on a commercial basis. He gained a reputation for producing altarpieces to a standard formulaic pattern and repeating his figure compositions in order to save time. Ultimately this led to his work being criticised for its lack of individuality and spiritual intensity. Michelangelo, frequently a severe critic of others, called him an 'artistic clodhopper'.

As is evident in the Walker's picture Perugino always preferred, even early in his career, to represent calm and muted emotions rather than drama and pathos. Following the traditional workshop system, during his period in Verrocchio's studio Perugino would probably have been assigned (along with other assistants) to produce smaller elements of larger altarpieces, such as the Walker's predella. The elegant poses and graceful gestures of the procession of women in the Walker's painting recall the figure style of Verrocchio, who had found fame as a sculptor much favoured by the Medici family, controllers of Florence during this period.

In 1786 the Walker's painting was bought from the chapel of the Casa Pucci in Florence by John Campbell, the Earl of Cawdor, whilst he was on a tour of Italy. The Pucci family was a close supporter of the Medici and major artistic patrons of Renaissance artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The predella first appeared in Liverpool in the collection of William Roscoe (1753-1831) who bought it (as a work by a different artist, Masaccio) for 9 guineas (£9.9 shillings) in 1804. Roscoe was a great admirer of the Medici family and its first English historian. He was probably attracted to the Perugino panel because of its connection to the Pucci family. Roscoe bought from the same sale several other paintings, including Simone Martini's 'Christ Discovered in the Temple' (for 5 guineas), which is also in the Walker's collection.