Pietro Perugino Altarpiece of St Augustine Adoration of the Shepherds
Pietro Vannucci: The Adoration of the Shepherds

The city has many cultural and artistic events aimed at pleasing a variety of tastes from the most refined to the coarsest. In Milan, especially after the Expo, there has been a greater flow of foreign visitors. Numerous exhibitions have been organized at various levels of quality, with many responding to a market economy. The criticism of some art historians is that exhibitions are no longer handled by museums, but promoted by agencies. Tomaso Montanari and Vincenzo Trione in their recent book ”Contro le Mostre” (Against Exhibitions) published by Einaudi Editore 2017, criticize exhibition methodology and the commercial purposes with which most exhibitions are often set up. However, the offer is high because the demand is considerable. What attracts visitors in Italy? It depends; for some artists the name is enough (for example, the Caravaggio exhibition is sold out), or a well-orchestrated advertisement; other exhibitions are more niche–like, as in the one of the Adoration of the Shepherds at the Diocesan Museum (from October 2017 to January 2018).
The Diocesan Museum, which has a magnificent collection of medieval gold leaf panel paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries, can also be visited during this exhibition. Every year, around the Christmas festivities, the Museum offers the opportunity to see a religious artwork from public or private collections. These yearly exhibitions are entitled “A Masterpiece for Milan”; the last two exhibits were a panel of Albrecht Dürer’s, “Adoration of the Magi”, followed by an installation of Adrian Paci’s “The Guardians”, which proposed a dialogue between contemporary art and the great artistic tradition of the Museum.
In “The Adoration of the Shepherds” the attention of the viewer is focused on a single painting on display, which concerns the theme of the nativity. Pietro Vannucci is the artist, also called Il Perugino (ca. 1450 – 1523). The Adoration was part of the grandiose altarpiece of Sant’Agostino, commissioned to Vannucci by the Augustinian friars in the early 1500s. It constituted the part addressed to the clergy, while the faithful could admire the Baptism of Christ in the recto. His work is an oil on a panel that was part of a much larger polyptych (436cm by 618cm), then dismembered in the mid-1600s and displayed in various parts of the church to make way for a new altar. Towards the end of the 1700s, during the suppression of monasteries and religious foundations by Napoleon, almost all the panels were taken to Toulouse, Lyon and Paris, though the Adoration is part of the National Gallery collection in Perugia.
The theme of The Adoration of the Shepherds is affirmed around 1300; before the nativity was depicted in a much more simplified and symbolic way. In the Renaissance the narrative prevails: an angel announces the coming of Jesus to the shepherds, who go to worship him. Perugino has painted several versions of the same theme, frequently using paperboard, so the figures in the various works often have the same postures. His masterpiece is the Adoration of the Polittico of St. Augustine. In the foreground of the Adoration, the chubby child in a mischievous pose, lying on a soft pillow, is adored by Mary and Joseph, while the pastors in the middle ground reproduce the same poses of the Angels above them. In the background there are flocks of sheep and a donkey. The atmosphere of peace and concentration accords with the pale hues of the sky and the green landscape that gradually fades into infinity.
Perugino is recognized as one of the greatest Italian artists of his time, before the emergence of Michelangelo and Leonardo, which will change the course of art once again. In this oil painting we can admire his characteristic elements: rhythm, symmetry, an exceptional technical skill in drawing, combined with a search for balance between figures, architecture and landscape, all enhanced by a refinement of colors. What attracts is the message of peace and serenity that the painting manages to transmit, through the classically harmonious art of the Renaissance. The panels should not be dispersed but united as they originally were; history and art should not be cancelled because it is politically incorrect, otherwise we assist the destruction also of our past.
Note: The book, “Contro le Mostre” can be found at: http://www.einaudi.it/

Liviana Martin

Liviana Martin is our Milan Reviewer

Volume 32 no 3 Jan/Feb 2018 pp 28-29

30 thoughts on “An Altar from Vannucci

  1. A long time ago I saw this painting in Umbria. The article was well worth the read.

  2. Hi,
    I was wondering if you possibly knew where I could find the Adoration of the Shepherds on display, as I will be travelling around Italy in the spring.
    Thank you,

  3. Very interesting, I could imagine it even though I didn’t see the exhibition. As you said, sometimes the name is enough to attract visitors, but in the case of Caravaggio in Milan I think it was very well thought and organized. In this case the name represented just one side of the success of the exhibition, the rest was done by the extraordinary curatorial work and by word of mouth.

  4. Why do the Italians keep such a famous artwork in Italy? It should circulate……

        1. In Italy they have a unique governmental agency called the Belle Arti, where all artwork and antiques being exported must be registered before leaving the country. It was designed to protect the vast Italian art patrimony that goes back centuries and centuries; however, it unfortunately impedes and discourages artists and galleries from bringing art abroad as all artwork must be checked for fear that it is part of their heritage.

      1. The restrictions on exporting art from Italy have been somewhat eased on artwork done in the last seventy years, though not entirely and not at the level of the rest of the EU, which has the monetary threshold of 150,000 euros for exportation. There still is a threshold of 13,500 euros on artwork to be declared when exporting it on the basis of a self-declaration. However, there is opposition to this as the Italia Nostra heritage group fears that it will only benefit the art dealers. Does this make any sense? Without Italian art dealers and galleries promoting artists abroad, there is no foreign art market for them and of course no visibility for their artists abroad.

        See the link below for a more complete explanation of the situation.

      2. These restrictive rules also apply to bringing in artwork or antiques from abroad to Italy; they can become part of Italian patrimony if not registered properly with the Italian authorities. Let’s say someone moves from England to Italy with all their furniture, including their antique furniture. If they didn’t declare the pieces correctly through their moving company and the Italian Belle Arti, when returning to England or elsewhere, taking the furniture again out of the country, they risk having to leave the pieces because they are older than 70 years, and so belong to Italy.


  5. Reading this article has made me feel terribly ashamed. I lived in Umbria for over 5 years and never once saw any of Pietro Vannucci’s paintings, or if I did, they were all a natural part of the woodwork and went unnoticed by me. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate them and only looked at contemporary art. I now feel the loss of what I have missed, but am grateful to the author of this article for her illumination.

  6. We look back at artists like Perugino as important for his time, as of course he was, but when I read about the Neanderthal artists with their cave drawings, I’m led to reflect on the origin of an artist’s creativity and why some people become artists and others do not. Why did Perugino feel the urge to paint, and why did the Neanderthal artists feel the same thing, as artists still feel today? What is it that inspires creativity to be expressed through painting and not in other ways?

    I appreciate New Art Examiner’s articles that also include artists from the past, as it helps to make connections to where we have been and to understand the direction art is going today.


  7. We need more altars with artists who aspire to inspire church-goers like Perugino, though even the word “church-goers” has almost been banned from our vocabulary today. Museums have become the churches of once upon a time.
    Read what Jason Farago has to say on this.
    “The art museum has supplanted the church as the pinnacle of architectural ambition, but a more curious ecclesiastical shift may be taking place inside the museum’s walls. These days we frequently use religious language when talking about art. We make ‘pilgrimages’ to museums or to landmarks of public art in far-off locales. We experience ‘transcendence’ before major paintings or large-scale installations. Especially important works – Mona Lisa at the Louvre, most famously – are often displayed in their own niches rather than in historical presentations, all the better for genuflection. What is the busiest day of the week for most contemporary art museums? That would be Sunday: the day we used to reserve for another house of worship.”

    1. People need to have something to believe in, something to uplift them, but art as a religion?

  8. When visiting Milan last year I was lucky to discover the Diocesan Museum and see the Adoration of the Shepherds. I had to wait for groups of school children to finish their visit so that in the quiet of the space I could appreciate the real beauty of this work. It must have been magnificent as an altar piece.

  9. It was fascinating to see that both Pietro Perugino and Leonardo da Vinci did their training under the guidance of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence in the same period. Verrocchio must have been quite an inspiring teacher to produce two such great artists, though we know very little about him and his works.

  10. I would very much like to visit Pietro Vannucci’s tomb when I visit Italy this summer, but can’t seem to find where it is. Does anyone know?

    1. Liviana Martin
      The tomb is in the church of Annunziata, in the village of Fontignano ( Perugia), where ” the painter died.

      1. Thank you Liviana for this information. Do you know if I can visit his tomb in Fontignano? There doesn’t seem to be anything about this in English.

        1. I think that it’s possible for you to visit the church but I Don’t know the hours in which the church is open

  11. The Galleria Nazionale di Perugia just opened an exhibition with masterpieces from the Umbrian Renaissance, including works by Perugino, Duccio, Beato Angelico. Piero della Francesca, Pinturicchio, and Pietro da Cortona



  12. Reading more about Perugino, I discovered it took him over 20 years to paint and that there were more than 30 panels to this altarpiece; it must have been truly immense. I wonder where all the other panels are. Does anyone know?

    1. Liviana Martin
      The panels regarding ” Battesimo di Cristo ” :
      “Annunciata ” is in the museum of Strasburgo, “S. Martino” in the collections of Louvre, Paris, “S. Bartolomeo” ,in the Birmingham Museum, Alabama, ” S.Apollonia and S. Sebastiano” in the museum of fine arts , Grenoble,”S. Filippo and S. Agostino” in the agostinian museum in Tolosa, ” S. Ercolano and S. Giacomo ” in the museum of fine arts ,Lione.

      The panels regarding l”Adorazione dei pastori” are in the Galleria Nazionale umbra in Perugia.

      1. Liviana,
        Thank you so much for the detailed information for which I was able to find the panel of St. Bartholomew in Birmingham, Alabama (https://artsbma.org/collection/saint-bartholomew/) and wondered how it was able to leave Italy, considering the restrictions of the Belle Arti on the exportation of artistic patrimony from Italy. Where were they when this panel, and others left the country? Shouldn’t these works all be united back in Italy where they rightfully belong?
        The St Bartholomew panel was donated to the Birmingham Museum by the Kress Foundation in 1961. “Samuel H. Kress and the Kress Foundation created between 1929 and 1961 a series of unprecedented programs to share the artistic legacy of Europe with the American people.” http://www.kressfoundation.org/collection/history/
        As an Italian, what do you think of these masterpieces “living” abroad?

      2. Many masterpieces from Italy were looted during World War II and unfortunately ended up in museums abroad. There’s an ongoing international investigation about 8 paintings by Tintoretto, Tiziano, Carpaccio and Paolo Veneziano that Italy would like back. These paintings strangely ended up for almost 70 years in the National Museum in Belgrade. Who has the right now to these paintings? Why are they there? The same question I ask about Pietro Vannucci’s 30 panels that should be reunited in Umbria.


  13. If they only do one painting a year at the Diocesan Museum in Milan every year, I was wondering what was on for next year’s exhibition? It must be a massive decision from all levels, especially considering the importance that this decision has on the choice of one solo painting,

  14. I was surprised to see this review in the New Art Examiner, but found it very refreshing and perhaps more meaningful than some of the exhibitions reviewed here.

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