Pinturicchio and the Borgia
Christopher Evan Longhurst*
An artist's pre-eminence and a Pope's predilection
Nestling in the Vatican's old Apostolic Palace is the Borgia Apartment, a suite of rooms named after Pope Alexander vi (1492-1503), the enigmatic Rodrigo Borgia whose cultural policies, diplomatic relations and private affairs had one of the greatest impacts ever on Church history. Upon taking up residence at the Vatican the Borgia Pope ordered the Papal Apartment to be redecorated by Bernardino di Betto (Pinturicchio) 1454-1513, a master from Perugia whose pictorial style captures an inherently religious quality unrivalled by those of Italy's other High and Post Renaissance masters.
While Raphael (1483-1520) shines as the purest of High Renaissance painters — the unsurpassed master of idealized beauty, and Caravaggio (1571-1610) is famed for his extraordinary realism and masterful use of natural beauty, Pinturicchio, has captured a religious quality that ultimately surpasses Caravaggio's realism and Raphael's idealism. At least the Borgia Pope would have thought so, for Pinturicchio was Alexander VI's choice of artists summoned to redecorate a suite of
rooms that would become one of the most sublime spaces that art history or the papacy ever saw — the Borgia Apartment.
Pinturicchio's masterworks at the Vatican, executed between 1492 and 1494, appear to have captured the modern world's interest. Possessed of a quality more lofty than idealized beauty or
striking realism, these paintings display a complex iconographic program that draws from prophetic themes and eschatological imagery, unveiling biblical scenes and the mysteries of faith with an extremity of concreteness and piety that enables the observer to reach the heart of the mystery in a manner that requires little, if any, prior learning. At the same time they reveal a suggestiveness that raises their significance to an otherworldliness, for Pinturicchio's works arc embellished with esoteric supernatural symbolism.
By his command of subject matter, use of mysticism and ability to portray an intimate relationship between spiritual and material realities Pinturicchio brings the observer and the divine into contact. The Umbrian master's paintings are gently stylized with a mysterious spiritual connotation. The movements of his figures are less fluid than those typical of Italian Renaissance masters. They are more restricted and the faces are somewhat motionless. His illustrative power to elicit interior devotion lies in crossing the boundaries between the canons of High Renaissance imagery and
Byzantine iconography. Wittingly or not Pinturicchio has amalgamated Western and Eastern pictorial typologies through a fusion of corporeal realism and spiritual mysticism. The operative forces permeating his works interrelate both Western and Eastern figurative elements through a systemization of visual theology and biblical narrative with local Umbrian landscapes and contemporary Renaissance customs. They not only illuminate these narratives, they reveal the theology behind them through spiritual qualities not based on any learned awareness, but rather on the power of direct visual perception, intense colour, and a striking juxtaposition between corporeal weight and spiritual essences. All this takes place in picturesque, albeit supernatural settings.
Pinturicchio's ability to project an inner spirituality into spatial sequences without losing the effectiveness of either is astonishing. By blending emotion, light and colour with the metaphysical properties of clarity, due proportion and integrity — the quintessence of divine beauty, Pinturicchio's frescos in the Borgia Apartment assume a highly theological significance. Gracefulness, symbolism and backgrounds glittering with angelic essences enhance an allegorical and impressionistic scenography. Full body figures in ephemeral landscapes afford a spiritual atmosphere in which biblical stories or religious truths unfold. The backgrounds are alive with skilful measure of movement and playfulness. The use of architectural props and landscape sceneries afford a harmonious balance between the natural and the artificial.
Pinturicchio's style also portrays aesthetic properties surpassing the Platonic idealism and naturalism of the external sensible world by an otherworldliness imbued with a mystical beauty. He was one of the first painters of his time to incorporate the grotesque of classical antiquity into the spiritual substratum of his works. His compositions are strikingly balanced with an intense luminosity, remarkably vibrant colour schemata and highly decorative effects generally free of excessive drama. He achieves an entirely satisfying ensemble based on a visual and intellectual interface. All preconceived notions or learned perceptions of theological subjects give way to an uncomplicated representation with sincerest meaning and curious naturalism. The clarity of composition, surging balance, harmony of space and tenderness of figure assemble in a symphony of grace, light, colour, and emotion. Pinturicchio's works set before the observer a self-conscious awareness of the, spiritual that defines the intersections of both human and divine powers in art.
The Borgia Apartment series articulate these qualities superlatively in the Annunciation painted in a lunette with the scene set centrally in a deeply receding arcade. Here Pinturicchio represents the Virgin and Archangel Gabriel as three-dimensional forms with unusual weight and volume. What is most striking is the artist's capacity to harmonize the contours of a linear composition with the mass of tone and volume, fusing shapes and edges into each other with an ease that escapes notice. The Ascension, with its balance, extensive spatial depth and frontal imagery mixes two and three dimensions to create a planar illusion. This imagery is typical of Pinturicchio's refined, pietistic style. Gentle, prayerful figures of somewhat taut posture, tip-tilted heads, and mildly expressive countenances, exemplify the stylized though sensitive pictorial typology that he repeated throughout his life.
It may seem strange to think that such a powerful ruler as Rodrigo Borgia, a potentate whose reign stimulated the greatest controversies which intrigued the Romans more than that of any other pope, saw in Pinturicchio the keenest sensitivities for spiritual beauty. It was no accident that this particular artist took up the foremost position of service to the papal court upon Rodrigo's ascension to the papal throne, for he has achieved the most amalgamatingbalances between the sacred and the secular. On account of this synthesis Pinturicchio's paintings may be the most human of all pictorial art-works, for they maintain a critical dialogue between the spiritual and corporeal exigencies of human reality. Perhaps this is why the Borgia Pope preferred this artist, for Rodrigo was by no means unacquainted with beauty in the world. Upon standing in front of Pinturicchio's works at the Borgia Apartments it is worth recalling that a temporal ruler knew the power of the spiritual in the face of the worldly, a trait that tells much about the capacity of art to teach and inspire the simplest and the greatest minds of all times.
Ultimately Pinturicchio's works assume the shared characteristics of a style blending Western and Eastern ideals, an historical, mystical and religious iconography that competes for a response in the intimacy of spiritual union. Perhaps the most enchanting of all idealist painters and the least provocative of realism's visual encroachments, the delight Pinturicchio achieves for the eye and the intellect, elicited by an imaginary atmosphere, affords the soul an inescapable spiritual affectiv-
ity. Physical shapes in otherworldly contexts take the observer beyond the exterior senses. Together with profound perspectival space and rich symbolic undertones his works present a religious ideal and pictorial theology amidst biblical and church history.
Since the Borgia Pope's successor moved out of this apartment in 1503, and after a superb albeit protracted restoration project beginning in 1973, few people have ever seen Pinturicchio's Borgia series masterpieces. Today, however, these rooms have reopened been to the public and this inauguration offers the occasion to celebrate the Umbrian master's masterworks and discover the unique mysticism of his scenes.
*Doctor of Sacred Theology
Weekly Edition in English
8 February 2012, page 12
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