Perugia’s Medieval Guildhalls: Where Power Merits Splendor
The most powerful guilds in Perugia were those of the “Mercanzia” and the “Cambio” (Merchants and Money-Changers), due to the importance that guild members were able to acquire in the civic life and government of the city.
In 1377, the register of the Collegio del Cambio (Money-Changers Guild) states explicitly that their Ars Cambi is the highest and most important in the people’s republic: “Ars Cambi quae est pars magna totius Reipublicae Civitatis.”
This guild’s principal tasks were the overseeing of legitimate monetary exchange and of civil cases linked to their specific dominion. The guild – or collegio – thus assumed the duties of a tribunal with the guild senior members known as “Uditori” (literally, “listeners”) who reviewed cases in the Sala dell’Udienza ( “the hall of the listeners,” i.e., “Audience Hall”).
In 1452, structural work was begun with completion in 1457. In 1490, Domenico Tasso from Florence created the inlaid wooden panels and carved the imposing desk and the benches.
Work began on the ceiling with the depiction of the allegorical figures of the planets: the Moon; Mercury; Mars; Saturn; Jupiter; Venus and Apollo, all surrounded by a rich grottesche decoration.
Originating in the ancient world, this grottesche – “like a grotto” – decoration was first noted by Renaissance painters in Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden Palace) – unearthed in the 15th-c – and so considered a painted”grotto” by the painters working in Rome then, such as Pinturicchio. Pinturicchio also incorporated grottesche motifs into his Spello masterpieces – and his work in Perugia as well.
Raphael, too, soon incorporated “grotto-like” decoration into his paintings – as did Signorelli in Orvieto: all artists working late 15th- and early 16th c.
And Perugino will include grottesche in his Collegio del Cambio frescoes.
Incidentally, grottesche lives on also in the Umbrian maiolica tradition, particularly in the raffaellesco (“like Raphael”) motif:
When the ceiling had been completed by followers of the master, using his designs, work began on the walls. Probably the theme of the frescoes was proposed by the great humanist, Francesco Maturanzio, a professor in northern Italy who had just returned home to his native Perugia.
The frescoes illustrate the Renaissance concept of human perfection: the assimilation of the virtues attributed to the ancient world with those of Christian revelation. For Renaissance man, the aspiration of every individual should be the fusion of intelligence with fervent religious sentiment.
This assimilation is the theme of the wall just opposite the statue of Justice where in two frescoes, Perugino depicts the four cardinal virtues seat on clouds above above leaders, orators, philosophers and warriors from ancient Rome and Greece.
In one fresco Perugino depicts two of the cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, – seated above the personages of the classical world:
Both scenes are set by Perugino in his own beloved Umbria, highlighted by the softly-rounded hills and the diffused light, so characteristic of the Umbria school of painting.
Behind the kneeling shepherds in the Natività, the water of Lake Trasimeno (just northeast of Perugia) reflects the late afternoon light and a village is visible on the opposite shore of the lake. The stall is certainly not a crumbling stall but an elegant Renaissance building, the grottesche motif in relief on the columns of the vaulted structure stretching out over the singing angels.
To the right of the two frescoes with spiritual themes, a fresco will depict that unity between the spiritual world and the classical world – the Renaissance aspiration. Perugino has frescoed Old Testament figures next to the sibyls – prophetesses of the classical world.
Do note: many an art historian suspects that the prophet Daniel (the third figure from the left) might be a portrait of the young Raphael (who was 17 years old when working with Perugino in Perugia).
Here is a close-up of the prophet Daniel image (and do note the elegance of the headpieces):
The inscription under the portrait was probably dictated by Maturanzio, brilliant humanist who had set out the pictorial theme of all the Collegio del Cambio frescoes.
It reads: “Pietro Perugino, pittore insigne. Se era smarrita l’arte della pittura, egli la ritrovò. Se non era stata ancora inventata, egli la portò fino a questo punto” – that is, “Pietro Perugino, esteemed painter. If the art of painting had disappeared, he found it. If it had not yet been invented, he brought it to this point.”
No, Perugino certainly did not “invent” painting but how he elevated it towards glory!