Anne's Blog

Perugia’s Medieval Guildhalls: Where Power Merits Splendor

Date: January 18, 2021 - categories: - 1 Comment

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.

Also at the end of the 15th-century, the splendid gilded terracotta statue representing Giustizia (“Justice”)of the Florentine Benedetto di Maiano was ensconced in the niche above the desk, reigning over the Sala dell’Udienza like a serene but powerful queen.
Carved in walnut,  marching crowned griffins  – claws outstretched  – flank her on each side.  Part eagle (symbolizing wisdom), part lion (for courage) – king of the land and king of the sky – the griffin is one of the symbols of Perugia.  Here,  the crowned regal griffin strides over the money chest of Perugia, symbol of the guild of the Money-changers.
In 1496, the Guild decided to fresco the walls and shortly after, a contract was stipulated with the great painter from Citta’ della Pieve,  Pietro di Cristoforo di Vannucci, best known as Perugino. He was then an in-demand artist in Italy, with studios in both Florence and Perugia. His assistants on the project probably also included the young Raphael and work will be completed between 1498 and 1500.

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:

Next to it, Temperance and Fortitude are enthroned above classical figures, each of them outfitted in the elegant fashion of the Renaissance period.
Just to the right of the classical world figures, Perugino depicts two scenes of the spiritual world: the Transfiguration…
…and the Nativity:

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.

(Photo by
It seems to me that Solomon looks rather lasciviously at the sybil near him!

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):

Perugino probably painted his ruddy-cheeked self-portrait when all the Sala dell’Udienza was finished.  It hangs just below the two frescos of the figures of ancient Greece and Rome. To me, the portrait seems to be hanging from a chain or coral beads, for after all coral keeps away the malocchio – and thus Perugino has protected his work from the envy of a jealous competitor.

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!

Click here to read about – and see! –  Sala dei Notari splendor
Read about the festivities for San Costanzo, one of three patron saints of Perugia
Click here to read about a bellissimo Perugia guildhall.
Read about – and see!– treasures of the Biblioteca Augusta
Click here to read about – and see! – another Perugia splendor
Click here to read about – and see – the 16th-c Papal fortress, la Rocca Paolina

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