Pietro PERUGINO | Nativity [Natività]

Umbria 1430 /1470 – Fontignano 1523


Nativity [Natività] c.1504
oil on wood panel
34.5 (h) x 45.1 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866


The Nativity scene set in open countryside with just a few dignified figures, and ennobled with a pure Renaissance building prominently placed, is one of the themes Pietro Perugino worked on in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. By then he was famous and much sought after. In what was apparently common practice in his workshop, the figures were developed in preparatory drawings and then transformed into the paintings—large wall decorations in particular—with minimal variations in their poses, the colours, architectural elements or background. Thus we know of at least three magnificent replicas of this model, all now in Umbria and almost identical, each of such a high standard that we can be sure the master was directly involved, possibly with the help of some assistants.[1] The panel purchased by Guglielmo Lochis is a very small version of the subject.

The most significant variation in these paintings is the central architectural element. In the first version, dating from 1498–1500, it is a majestic series of masonry arches, replaced in the two subsequent versions, c. 1501–1503, by a structure with a large roof supported on timber trusses—admittedly a more appropriate way to convey the idea of the stable where the event took place. Otherwise the arrangement of the figures, the poses and in general the landscape setting remain essentially the same. The depiction of Joseph in the Bergamo painting is slightly different in that his arms are no longer crossed on his chest, as in earlier versions, but held with hands raised and palms facing the Holy Child—previously the attitude of one of the shepherds. The timber posts supporting a system of trusses beneath the roof, partly seen in the Bergamo painting, appear again in a large format version of the theme painted in 1504,[2] where the structure in its entirety covers the central Nativity scene.

In the end, however, the Perugino Nativity closest to this one is the panel of similar size, now in the Chicago Art Institute, one of five scenes which may have constituted the predella of an altarpiece completed between 1502 and 1506.[3] The existence of successive variations is a factor to consider in establishing whether the Bergamo painting is by the master’s hand alone. Critical discussion tends to resolve the question by seeing it as a work by Perugino and his workshop, though recognising the high quality of the painting and sometimes suggesting that it may be entirely the master’s work.

Giovanni Valagussa

 [1] The earliest fresco where this scene appears is probably the one in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia, dating from 1498–1500. It seems to have been followed by the version now in the Galleria nazionale dell’Umbria—
a fresco detached from the San Francesco church in Monteripido, from c.1501–1502—and the one in the San Francesco museum in Montefalco, datable to 1503 or thereabouts. See Carlo and Ettore Camesasca, L’opera completa del Perugino, Milan: Rizzoli Editore, 1969, p. 120, no. 226; BrunoToscano, ‘Il Trasimeno scoperto dal Perugino’, in Bruno Toscano and Giuseppe Caritá, Trasimeno: Lago d’arte: Paesaggio dipinto, paesaggio reale, Turin: Edizioni Seat, 1994, p. 119; and Giovanni Valagussa, cat. 65, in Dóra Sallay, Vilmos Tátrai and Axel Vécsey (eds), Botticelli to Titian: Two centuries of Italian masterpieces, Budapest: Szépmüzészeti Múzeum, 2010, pp. 264–65.

[2] Adoration of the Magi, fresco in the Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi, Città della Pieve.

[3] Commissioned for the Chigi family chapel in the church of Sant’Agostino in Siena, as suggested in Fabio Marcelli, cat. I.48, in Vittoria Garibaldi and Francesco Federico Mancini, Perugino: Il divin pittore, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2004, p. 274.