The Perugino and the summer of 1503
by Renata Covi
Summer in Florence is hot, down below the Apennines and far from the sea. Even Perugia is far from the sea, but at least it is at the top of a hill and there is always a wind chill refreshing.
Surely in that hot July 1503 Pietro Vannucci was regretting his city. Work and family had brought him to Florence and he was forced to deal with the heat. There are times when the heat also takes away the power to think, not even knowing that the summer is bound to finish, can relieve the feeling of being inside an oven.
But he had to work despite the heat and, while he was working, he sucked his sugared almonds. His supplier was Di Giovanni who provided him, at a high price, with those little delights that cheer the long hours spent sitting in front of the canvases.
Di Giovanni was the apothecary of the Al Giglio pharmacy, and he was used to listen to the artists’ requests, and we’re not talking about painters or stonebreakers, but of the most famous Italian artists of the Renaissance.
The painter in black
In the highest spheres of Olympus there was Perugino, the painter with a round, plump face, high forehead, long hair, a cap and an elegant black velvet jacket. Perugino portrayed himself exactly like in the description above, in the Sala del Cambio in Perugia.
Pietro Vannucci from Città della Pieve, known as Perugino, was one of the most influential painters of his time, and like all the best ones, he worked in Rome for the Pope and for the most prestigious customers of that time. Perugino and his colleagues – the painters of the Renaissance – did not use much black because it was considered the color of mourning. They preferred the delicate colors.
Pietro Vannucci used the black color in the Lamentation of the Dead Christ and in Depositions because the pain inspired by the topics required it. On the other hand, in his portraits he always wears a black jacket, perhaps because it was fashionable among the artists. Even in the portrait done by his pupil, Raphael, he wears a very elegant black jacket and on his head he has a paired black cap.
Confetti with a heart
In July 1503 the artist sucked the sugared almonds with coriander seeds. The sugared almonds make the flavor last for a long time in the mouth. Perugino was a well-to-do gentleman who could afford confetti. Confetti had been known since Roman times because considered digestive, and Lorenzo de ‘Medici offered them at the end of his wedding dinner.
The apothecary Di Giovanni recorded that in July the painter’s employees, bought three ounces of sugared almonds, about two hundred pounds, so as other delicacies: pink and violet sugared candies, candy quinces and other specialities which were the medicinal preparations of the time.
If Mary Poppins sang: “just a little sugar and the pill goes down”, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the processed sugar was the pill. Sugar and quinces were the base to use with spices and sauces of plants, in order to obtain medicines in the shape of dates, hands, rods and also of clamps.
Perugino was like a rich oilman and he did not pay any attention to the expenses to satisfy his pleasure and care for his big family, because the products that he bought were, from the “Florentine Pharmaceutical Recipe book of 1498: only for the rich and powerful”.
The Vannucci’s family food
Unfortunately, not everything was so easy. In 1503 his fame as a Vannucci went through a crisis because new trends were advancing and more torment in painting and sculpture was requested. The serenity of Humanism was no longer in fashion and did not correspond to the harshness of the times. The fact of not being appreciated and even criticized, as had happened at the Gonzaga court, had left its mark, and he slept badly. Di Giovanni prepared him some pills which contained poppies to reconcile sleep, as it was believed.
The apothecary’s records are precious, because he noted all the purchases of his customers allowing us to know, over the years, the diseases that occurred in the Vannucci family. So we know that the stomach and intestines were his weak points and also the same for his wife. They often sent somebody to buy the powder of Cassia and Agaric which are laxative plants, so as the Trifera persica.
This remedies of ancient Persian origins, were a very complicated preparation and contained a wide variety of plants: prunes and agaric, but also red roses, oils of violets and dried violets.
It was thought that an ancient remedy was a guarantee of effectiveness. In fact, pieces of mummy were also used, because if the mummy after millennia was still existing, it meant that it was something certainly effective.
The”stomachic things”, were good remedies for treating the stomach of his wife. Chiara Fancelli, daughter of a famous Florentine architect, was the wife and mother of Perugino’s five sons.
He painted “Our Lady” dozens of times. To paint the Madonna he always used young and beautiful models and perhaps, the most beautiful, was Chiara Fancelli, who seems to have a fragile constitution. Perhaps because of the parties which debilitated the woman.
The products that came out of the ancient pharmacies were remedies with various indications, from the plague, to the headache, to the dog’s fleas.
At home Vannucci come two preparations that are almost panaceas, but that may have to do with childbirth. In fact, the Galen Infringing ointment was also considered an aid to labor pains, while the maidenhair water was considered useful after the birth. Will it be true? We’ll never know. But the aphotecary Di Giovanni has brought down Perugino from Olympus, close to us. Because he suffered from stomachiche and struggleed to sleep too and he loved sucking sugared and sweet things.
- A. Covi, New sources for the study of Italian Renaissance art., 1969.
- Covi, Tacuinum de ‘spezierie, Perugia, ali & no, 2017.
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