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Pedro Berruguete.

There is a paradox at the heart of the story of Pedro Berruguete, arguably the toast distinguished Spanish painter of the fifteenth century. His prolific output included large-scale altarpieces, portraits of at least two figures of international standing (Sixtus IV, the builder of the Sistine Chapel [no. 11], and--very probably--Federico da Montefeltro, the Lord of Urbino [no. 12]), and numerous religious subjects where the figures glow with colour, are vibrant with energy, and are sensitively portrayed. For about four years he lived and worked in Urbino, where he probably shared ducal accommodation with the Librarian, the gossipy Vespasiano da Bisticci, who was hongrily collecting material for his Lives of Illustrious Men. Nevertheless, Pedro Berruguete himself slips in and out of focus according to which theory of the extent of his oeuvre is currently fashionably. Nowadays, it is his son Alonso who tends to steal the limelight, although it was Pedro who fused Netherlandish, Italian, and Spanish influences into a distinctive, Castilian style. What appeals to be his Self-portrait (no. 43)--although this is disputed--shows a rather sullen looking middle-aged man: an intelligent craftsman rather that the courtier implied by the subtitle of the exhibition, 'El primer pintor renacentista de la Corona de Castilla'.

It is therefore greatly to the credit of Pilar Silva Maroto, head of the department of medieval Spanish and Netherlandish painting at the Prado, who organised the exhibition and wrote the biographical introduction together with most of the catalogue entries, to have brought this enigmatic figure to life. Despite the fact that this is a truly international exhibition, with loans from the us and Italy, its setting was hot one of the grand museums or galleries of Spain, but the little town--scarcely more than a village--of Parades de Nava in Castile, where the artist was bore around the year 1450. The choice of venue was in part dictated by the fact that some of Berreguete's works are in situ, either in the restored church of S Eulalia where the bulk of the exhibition was housed, or in the church of S Maria in the nearby village of Becerril de Campos, but it admirably reflected the strong Spanish sense of locality.

The most controversial period in Pedro's life is centred around the four years of his presumed sojourn in Urbino from 1475 to 1478. The only documentary evidence for this is a reference to a 'Pietro Spagnolo, pittore' working in the city in 1477--but even this has been queried on the grounds that Spagnolo could be the name of a local family. In any event, Federico da Montefeltro, the scholarly condottiere who ruled over one of the celbrated courts of the Italian renaissance, seems to have wanted an artist who could introduce the new Netherlandish technique of oil painting into Urbino and invited a certain Justus of Ghent. Did Berruguete go to Urbino to assist Justus, or did he just happen to collaborate on the great series of paintings of famous men which Federico bad commissioned once he got there? Either conjecture could be correct.

The shades of both artists may well experience indignation from time to time, since the work of each has no doubt periodically been attributed to the other. Outstanding is the superb double portrait of Federico and his little son Guidobaldo (Fig. 2), painted in about 1476. Here the Duke's profile is similar to the donor portrait of him in the painting of the Communion of the Apostles, which is undoubtedly by Justus, but it also resembles the profiles in Piero della Francesca's independent portrait of Federico and in the Brera Altarpiece, a work which appears to have been completed by Berruguete. Vespasiano refers to the double portrait, but--tantalisingly--fails to give a firm attribution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the catalogue of the exhibition, it is given to Berruguete. As with Piero's portrait, the pimples on Federico's left cheek are very evident, but there is also what looks like a great scar on his jawline, absent in Piero's likenesses, and possibly evidence of the military profession which provided Federico with the funds to endow his artists and scholars. It is a curious composition, with the two sitters cramped between the ducal chair and a reading stand. Somewhat incongruously, the duke is represented in full armour while perusing a book from his library, but the head is a true portrait of the duke with the great hooked nose and scarred cheek; above all, this is a record of a man totally at ease with himself who combined strength with tolerance, who would be surprised by nothing, expected nothing, and was well able to defend his own. Its inclusion was a notable coup, as the work had never previously left Italy.

The exhibition was in three major sections. Part I: early works before 1473; Part II: the Italian period; Part III (the largest section): works done between his return to Spain and his death. Inevitably, the Virgin frequently takes centre stage, in all no fewer than sixteen times: in addition to representations of her with the Christ Child, there are narratives of her Birth, her Presentation in the Temple (on one occasion to a High Priest wearing an anachronistic bishop's mitre), and two versions of a rare subject known in Spanish as Los Pretendientes de la Virgen (Fig. 1), which almost resembles the trials of Odysseus's Penelope at the hands of her unwanted suitors, and features a group of young--or youngish--men hopefully presenting themselves as prospective suitors for the hand of the future Mother of God.


The exhibition "Pedro Berruguete: El primer pintor renacentista de la Corona de Castilla' was at the Iglesia de S Eulalia, Paredes de Nava (Palencia), from 4 April-14 September 2003. The catalogue, in Spanish, by Pilar Silva Maroto, with contributions by Mauro Lucco, Joaquin Yarza Luaces, and others, is published by the Consejeria de Educacion y Cultura of the Junta de Castilla y Leon, 2003, ISBN 8 497 18160 2, $45

Russell Chamberlin has been awarded an honorary degree by the University of Surrey for his historical work. He has written more than thirty books on European history and culture, and the second (revised) edition of his book Loot: The Heritage of Plunder was published this month by Sutton Publishing. Its subjects include the Napoleonic and Hitlerite plundering of art treasures in Europe.
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Title Annotation:Exhibition Reviews
Author:Chamberlin, Russell
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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