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Perino del Vaga in New York Collections

Curator Andrea Bayer discusses the brilliant career of Perino del Vaga in the heady artistic decade of 1520s Rome, and the painting and drawing by him that entered the Met's collection nearly five centuries later.

Andrea Bayer: Hello, I'm Andrea Bayer, curator in the Metropolitan Museum's Department of European Paintings and one of the curators of the current exhibition Perino del Vaga in New York Collections.

Think about Rome in the 1520s. The great artistic workshop is that of Raphael. Raphael sets up a workshop in which he gathers several absolutely brilliant young artists to come and work on his major projects in the Vatican and all over the city. One of these artists was Perino del Vaga. Perino was born in Florence and trained in Florence, but came as a very young man to Rome, where he was enormously excited by the commissions that he encountered working with Raphael. And he was in Raphael's workshop for at least two years.

When Raphael died in 1520, Perino went on to be probably the leading artist who took over the commissions in the heady decade of artistic triumph that was Rome in the 1520s, up to the sack of Rome in 1527, when most people found that they were forced to flee. And Perino, in fact, did flee, as well. So we have this gifted, young, inventive artist who is working in Rome, later in Genoa, and comes back to Rome, and who most people think was the dominant force in Roman art from about 1520 until his death in 1547.

Remarkably, in 2010, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had the opportunity to buy two very important works of art by Perino del Vaga. Now, when I say that he's a rare artist, I can tell you that there is only one other painting by him in a U.S. collection, and that is an altarpiece in Washington. So it was truly a rare, rare occasion to see some important work by him come onto the market. The painting was The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, and we believe that it was painted in the early 1520s—so right at this moment, when Perino and his companions have emerged from Raphael's workshop and are thinking of how they can take Raphael's tremendous artistic style even further and in a new direction that marked it as theirs.

The second work of art that we were able to acquire was a drawing that was done, oh, maybe about ten years later. And that was done during the Genoese period, when Perino had fled the sack, and was working for the great naval commander and statesman Andrea Doria in his palace in Genoa. There he did a whole series of frescoes and was involved in other commissions of beautiful decorative works of art, including two great sets of tapestries. They must have been absolutely magnificent, but they've not come down to us. What has come down to us is a preparatory drawing for one of the tapestries. The subject is the god Jupiter and his wife Juno, and it was one of a series devoted to the loves of Jupiter, because you probably know that Jupiter—although he was married to Juno—was very, very naughty and constantly escaping from her and seducing all kinds of other goddesses, naiads, and so on. This one, however, shows Jupiter and Juno on their nuptial bed, looking quite harmonious, and in an absolutely fantastic architectural setting, which must have looked brilliant—if you can imagine it—in a tapestry woven in many colors with gold thread and so on.

So both of these works entered the collection in 2010 and we have put together around them a collection of drawings that demonstrate Perino's entire career, starting in about 1520 and moving through to his death in 1547, so each of the major points of his career are followed in drawings that come from New York collections, from The Morgan Library, from the Metropolitan Museum, and from private collections. Although the paintings are extremely rare, the drawings are better known, better known in the United States, but this is the best opportunity to experience them and to be introduced to all of the elements of his style and all of the kinds of commissions that he was involved in.

One of the most exciting things for us was that this painting of the Holy Family is really a new discovery. It was not known at all before 2009, when it appeared at a small auction in Italy, where the experts studied it and they were unable to come to a conclusion about who the artist was. Because of this, it was able to leave Italy as an anonymous work of art. When it arrived in New York, we went down to see it in the auction house. And luckily, we were with a great expert on Perino del Vaga's work, Linda Wolk-Simon, who was a curator at the Metropolitan for many years and is now at The Morgan Library. And when we examined it with her, we knew immediately that it was an early work by Perino del Vaga.

Now, why were the experts confused about it? One of the reasons was the condition of the painting when we saw it. It was enormously dirty, covered with the grime of centuries. And, in fact, it may have been in a private palazzo or large house in a small town for many centuries. We know that's where it came from, but it may indeed have been there for a very, very long time, with people standing next to it smoking their cigarettes. Because it was, in fact, covered with nicotine.

So there was dirt. There was also something that really did disfigure the surface of the painting, and that is that the Virgin's beautiful mantle, now a marvelous aquamarine color, had been entirely repainted in a dark blue that had gone flat—it had no modeling at all—added by a later artist. Why would they have done that? Well, it may be that this bright color that we see now didn't seem to them to be right, didn't seem to be the right color for the mantle of the Virgin. And they wanted something that looked more like other old pictures—dark blue.

We knew that if we went forward to buy this painting—it's not that we would be going out on a limb, because we were relatively sure that we would be able to clean the painting and that our knowledge that it was really by Perino del Vaga, this great follower of Raphael, that that would be substantiated. What we didn't know exactly was what we were going to find under that dark blue mantle. We knew that it had to have been a lighter color because we could see tiny little areas of that peeking through. But it wasn't until we X-rayed the painting—and you can see an image of the X-ray in the exhibition—then we saw that all of the modeling, the beautiful, volumetric modeling of the Virgin's sleeve was completely intact. And our paintings restorer, Michael Gallagher, set to work on getting the painting ready for installation.

This old overpaint was so difficult to remove, he could not use a solvent, because he was worried about affecting whatever original paint there was underneath. He actually had to go at it with a tiny little scalpel under a microscope and manually remove that entire overpainting. But what he revealed was this magnificent mantle.

Now the Virgin and the Child are shown with Saint Joseph in the background, and he's a very interesting character, if you look at him carefully. Because the space of the painting is somewhat ambiguous. There's a ledge behind the Virgin and the Child. And Joseph must be standing behind that ledge. But he's leaning way over it so that his gnarled hands around the base of his walking stick seem to be immediately behind the Virgin. And that is a very characteristic play in the Renaissance, that Saint Joseph—the husband of the Virgin—is shown as both part of the Holy Family and separate from it at the same time, not really connected with the Virgin and her Child.

Then, in the lower left corner, there is a wonderful figure of Saint John the Baptist as a youth. His face is in shadow, too, and this is very typical of Perino and the artists who are working in what I think of as the late Raphael mode. Things are not sunny and harmonious, they're dark and shadowed. And in this case, of course, it refers to the premonition of what will happen to both Saint John the Baptist and to Christ.

But look even more closely at the Saint John the Baptist. He's wearing a leopard-skin cloak and he has a wreath of grape leaves through his hair. In other words, he's Saint John the Baptist, but garbed as a bacchic figure, as Bacchus. And this, too, which strikes us as being a very odd combination of mythology and religion, is something that, in the Renaissance in Florence, seems to have been a common iconography. That there were things about the Bacchus figure—think of wine, to begin with—that reminded them very strongly of the Christian tradition. And they melded them together as part of the rediscovery of classical antiquity.

When this exhibition, which brings together all of the works by Perino del Vaga that are in New York collections, ends on February 5, 2012, the drawing will go back to the Drawings Department and the painting will make its way to our high Renaissance gallery upstairs. There it will have pride of place installed near our great altarpiece by Raphael, our Borgherini Holy Family by Andrea del Sarto, one of Andrea del Sarto's most serious and moving late works, and our beloved Portrait of a Man by Bronzino. In fact, interestingly, when you look around that gallery, in which there are many fine works of art, it's only this Perino del Vaga that can be mentioned in the same breath as those other three paintings.

The last one, the Bronzino, entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in 1929, in the Havemeyer bequest. We've not been able to add a work of this quality from the high Renaissance in Florence or Rome since that time. So this is a very major acquisition. We're very excited to see it re-installed amongst our own works of art in our permanent galleries, and I hope that you will enjoy seeing it there in its proper context with Raphael and the other artists of the high Renaissance.

Perino del Vaga in New York Collections is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through February 5, 2012.

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