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At Brera Art Gallery Perugino and Raphael’s takes on “The Marriage of the Virgin” are for the first time side by side

by Lorenzo Zanini

Is it possible to get two works of art – by two heavyweights of Italian painting – to engage in a silent dialogue? It is. That’s exactly what’s happening at the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, where visitors can see, up to June 27, “The Marriage of the Virgin” by Raphael side by side with the version of this subject painted by Perugino, master of the artist from Urbino, on loan from Caen.

The initiative – organized by Brera director James Bradburne to highlight the gallery’s collections and to revitalize the museum’s relationship with the city – allows guests to do something that was previously only possible in the pages of an art book.

Setting two such top-level works side by side means enabling a comparative analysis of the two paintings: how and how much did the master, Perugino, influence his pupil, Raphael, and in what way has Raphael distanced himself from the master’s example? The two works of art engage in a dialogue.

“It’s a mythical juxtaposition,” says curator Emanuela Daffra. “Perugino belongs to the earlier era of rules; Raphael manages to characterize human individuality and its full scope.”

The painting by Pietro Vanucci, nicknamed “Perugino,” has come to Brera thanks to a loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen; in exchange, the Milanese art gallery has loaned out Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus for a year.

Perugino’s vast altarpiece has thus returned to Italy for the first time in over two hundred years, since Napoleon took it with him to France, destination: Louvre.

Perugino was commissioned the work by the Confraternity of Saint Joseph for the Chapel of the Holy Ring in the Saint Lawrence Cathedral of Perugia. The artist executed it between 1499 and 1504 and it was then placed next to the relic of the Virgin’s “holy ring.”

At the time Vanucci painted his version of The Wedding of the Virgin, he headed the most prestigious workshop in Italy. He was a prominent artist, his great fame also deriving from the key role he’d played in the execution of the series of frescos depicting the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ in the Sistine Chapel, some twenty years earlier.

The master’s renown attracted numerous artists to his workshop; one of them – as reported by art historian Giorgio Vasari – being young Raphael Sanzio, whose father was painter Giovanni Santi.

In 1504, the 21-year-old pupil modeled his splendid version for the Chapel of St. Joseph in St. Francis’ Church at Città di Castello – some forty miles from Perugia – on Perugino’s Wedding. The work also marked the end of his apprenticeship, after which Raphael moved to Florence.

(“Perugino and Raphael, the Marriage of the Virgin. A dialogue between master and pupil”, Brera Art Gallery, Milan, up to June 27)