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Renaissance artists in the area: The ‘wild-herb taste’ of Central Italian painting

Italian Renaissance art has historically been discussed as a series of regional ‘schools’ of artists, usually centred on one of the great cities of Italy (such as Florence or Venice). But the story was always more complicated. Central Italy – that is to say, Umbria, Southern Tuscany and the Marche – was rarely as marginal as these histories have suggested. Much of this area fell within the Papal States, and Central Italian artists were consistently more successful in Renaissance Rome than their (more famous) Florentine or Venetian counterparts.

The art historian Bernard Berenson would often compare food and art. He  described Umbrian painting as having a “wild-herb taste”.  This evocative phrase acknowledges the charm of Umbrian painting while implying a contrast with the sophistication of the Florentine painters of the time.

In his Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (first published in 1897)  Berenson asked:
“The consistent pursuit of the Florentine painters was form and movement; of the Venetians, splendour and harmony of colour: what did the Central Italians contribute to the magic of Renaissance art?”

His answer was that the Central Italians were the supreme decorative Illustrators of Italian art, and he demonstrated his thesis by flitting from Duccio and the Lorenzetti in Siena, via Piero della Francesca, Perugino and Signorelli, to Raphael. These canonical examples suggest the range of art to be found in Central Italy and help to define Berenson’s ideas of Decoration and Illustration. It is now usual to group these artists more narrowly, but their common approach to depicting landscape, light and life still give a unity to the notion of Central Italian painting during the Renaissance.

Five artists are particularly well-studied from Casa Nova: Piero, Signorelli, Perugino, Pintoricchio and Raphael all of whom worked extensively in the surrounding area.  The relevant archives and galleries are all within easy reach, as are the key monuments of Assisi, Perugia, the towns of the Tiber Valley, the Valdichiana, Southern Umbria, the Marche, and Siena.

 

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