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by Paul Jeromack

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The Metropolitan Museum had a good week at the annual Old Master sales at Sotheby’s New York in January. At a time when budgets are tight and acquisition funds scarce, it’s unusual for any American museum to bid directly at auction and even more exceptional for it to win -- and rarer still when both lots in question are by the same artist.

The works are by the 16th-century Italian artist Pietro Buonaccorsi, known as Perino del Vaga (1501-1547). On Jan. 26, 2011, the Met purchased the elaborately finished tapestry design for The Marriage Bed of Jupiter and Juno for $782,500 (est. $600,000-$800,000), and the following day, a newly discovered panel painting of The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist was secured for $2,098,500 (est. $600,000-$800,000).

Perino is not exactly a household name, yet among scholars of Mannerist art, he is regarded as one of the most accomplished and multitalented practitioners, who devoted as much if not more time to the design of decorative arts as he did to painting.

By birth a Florentine, he learned the rudiments of painting in the conservative studio of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (son of the better known Domenico Ghirlandaio). Moving to Rome in ca. 1515-16, Perino entered the studio of Raphael, who used the teenager to assist with the painted and stucco decoration of the Vatican loggia, setting Perino on his course as a specialist in exuberant monumental decoration. Melding the grace and ordered design of Raphael to the muscular monumentality of Michelangelo, Perino’s own felicitous command of design made him highly sought by Roman and Florentine nobility.

Following the Sack of Rome in 1528, Perino spent considerable time in Genoa in the service of the great naval captain and prince Andrea Doria. In addition to decorating the façade and interiors of the Doria palace with frescoes and stucco work, the artist supplied designs for sculpture, the prows and banners of the Doria fleet and cartoons for two suites of tapestries depicting the Loves of Jupiter and Neptune. Despite their splendor, the tapestries were lost at the end of the 17th century and few of Perino’s many drawings can be associated with this prestigious commission.

Sotheby’s highly finished pen and wash of Bedchamber of of Jupiter and Juno was probably Perino’s presentation drawing submitted to Doria for his approval before the tapestry cartoon was made. The only complete study known for the series, it belonged to the celebrated British portrait painter and obsessive collector Sir Thomas Lawrence, who believed it to by Raphael’s pupil Giovanni Francesco Penni. It remained in England till its sale (as Penni) from the J. P. Heseltine collection at Sotheby’s in 1935.

Bedchamber’s whereabouts were unknown for the next 60 years and it was only re-discovered and correctly identified in the late 1990s when offered by New York and London dealer François Bourne at a record price of $2 million. It vanished yet again but reappeared this year at Sotheby’s with a much lower estimate of $600,000-$800,000. 

While Perino is uncommonly well-represented by 12 autograph (and four workshop) drawings in the Met’s collection (including an exuberant if less finished pen and wash study of Jupiter and Semele for the Doria tapestries), none approach the importance, majesty and degree of finish of the Jupiter and Juno.

Precious few Renaissance drawings of this scale and importance remain in private hands, but surprisingly few institutions or individuals seek them out. The once mighty Getty has practically ceased its drawings acquisitions, and of the trade, only London dealer Luca Baroni has any interest in them. Bidding via the phone, the Met faced little competition for the sheet, emerging victorious against another phone bidder for $782,500, less than half the price Bourne was asking for it a decade ago.

Perino died remarkably young at 47. According to Vasari, his death was hastened by his excessive consumption of food and drink and the oppressive strain of "having to draw day and night to meet the demands. . . . to make the designs of embroideries, of engravings for banner makers and of innumerable ornaments. . . . being always surrounded by sculptors, masters in stucco, wood carvers, seamsters, embroiderers, painters, gilders and other suchlike craftsmen he never had an hour of repose."

It does appear that Perino was so preoccupied that he produced very few easel paintings or altarpieces. No paintings by the artist are in the Louvre or National Gallery, London (the two greatest and most complete museum collections of Italian Renaissance paintings) and only one painting is in America -- the important Nativity altarpiece in the Kress Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The leading expert on the artist, Elena Parma Armani, accepts only five easel paintings -- all Madonnas -- as autograph, including the last one to appear on the market, a Holy Family, sold by Hazlitt in London to the Australian National Gallery in 1965.

So when a previously unknown easel painting of The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist attributed to Perino turned up at a Genoese auction last year, it was greeted by excitement mixed with trepidation. While the new picture was of exceptionally refined quality, and in astonishingly fine condition under a thick layer of amber varnish, it was very different from any other known Madonna by the artist.

Stylistically inconsistent, Perino emulates a different artist in each of them: the Holy Family in the Musée Condé, Chantilly, strongly recalls Parmigianino; the Madonna with the Standing Child in the Palazzo Montecitorio, Rome, is modeled on late Raphael; and the tondo in the Liechtenstein Collection, Vienna, seems a mix of Michelangelo and Domenico Beccafumi.

The newly discovered Holy Family is stylistically the least mannerist and most conservative of the group. Modestly dressed in a dark blue veil and mantle, the sweet-faced Madonna presents the seated, chubby infant Christ, who wears a faintly bored expression while he grasps a goldfinch. In the back, a bony-fingered St. Joseph peers out from behind the Virgin’s shoulder while the infant St. John dutifully adores his cousin from the foreground. In its sober composition and striking naturalism, this Madonna harkens back to the works of Perino’s teacher Ridolpho Ghirlandajo, as well as other pre-mannerist Florentines such as Fra Bartolomeo and Giuliano Bugiardini.

Most observers were flummoxed by the picture. While the figures had the Perino’s distinctive almond eyes and 1930s-style pencil-thin eyebrows, it seemed decidedly unPerinesque. . . but who else could have painted it? None of the minor artists in Perino’s shop or circle produced anything near its quality.

It sold speculatively for a few hundred thousand dollars and, because of its uncertain attribution, was granted an export license. Immediately shipped to Sotheby’s by the new (and anonymous) buyer (and given a new estimate of $600,000-$800,000), the picture was seen by more scholars, who tended to agree with the Perino attribution (though several dealers remained unconvinced, one thinking it was an "unusually good" Girolamo Genga).

No scholar was more enthusiastic than Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chief curator of European paintings, and the museum bought the picture via the phone (against another phone bidder) for a record $2,098,500.

"You know what’s going to happen once they clean it?" joked one dealer a few days later. "They’re going to discover it’s a Velásquez."

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.