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There is a lot of mystery shrouding the life of the artist responsible for this altarpiece. His nickname seems to indicate that he may have had Iberian roots. Di Petro is thought to have been active in the circle of Perugino and Pinturicchio, his training probably from the circles of Bartolomeo Caporali, Pier Mattero d’Amelia, or those of the great Roma studios who offered opportunities for work and apprenticeship. The style of works that can be attributed to the artist show that he was a follower of Perugino, and, after Raphael, di Petro was one of Perugino’s best students. Furthermore, the date of his birth is controversial -probably sometime after 1450 -and the ﬁrst accurate mention of his activities is not until 1504 when a “Spanish painter” in Perugia intervened in a dispute between the administration of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and the painter Fiorenzio di Lorenzo regarding the value of the latter’s work. Three years later it was documented that he was busy with the grandiose undertaking of “The Coronation of the Virgin”, an altarpiece for the convent of Monte Santo, which today resides in its painting gallery (1507-11).
It was probably during this time or immediately after that he also began executing our nativity painting, commissioned by the Order of Friars Minor (better known as the Franciscans) for the Convent of Saint Mary of the Assumption of Spineta in the Umbrian region of Fratta Todina, near Todi. The painting was destined for the main altar of the convent of the church. This commission marked the beginning of a rather stable relationship with the city at large, where the painter dedicated his artistic services to various works until 1516. During these years, the artist also traveled to Trevi (1512), Assisi (1516), and Spoleto, the latter granting him honorary citizenship (1516) and appointed him the Captain of Art of Painters and Goldsmiths (1517). This position was renewed until 1523. The artist’s fresco work led him to various cities as well, including Gavelli, Cisso, Scheggino, and back to Trevi, Todi, and lastly Spoleto -where he decorated the eponymous church during his last two years and died in October 1528.
In the foreground of the painting, the Christ child is laid on the ground on a cushion, worshipped by Mary, Joseph, and a pair of angels on bended knee behind the Holy Family. Behind the group on the left, a shepherd advances, accompanied by another giving homage, while the countryside opens up on the right, revealing an ox and an ass. Further back, the procession of the Magi is centered in the painting and to their left, an angel is seen announcing the birth to the shepherds. Among the clouds, angels sing praises to the Most High, reading music from a parchment.
The panel was renowned in the past, as it was attributed to the work of Perugino, Pinturicchio, and even Raphael. It was ﬁnally justly tied to “the Spaniard’s” efforts, revealing that the painter had elaborated upon the theme of the Nativity, unifying various elements from Perugino’s diverse compositions. It was a subject showcased in several versions by the artist, sometimes inverting the ﬁgurative structure, or introducing some interesting variant. The ﬁrst large panel that was the primary work in the series was originally destined for the Church of Saint Anthony in Perugia, but then moved to the Louvre in Paris. The second one has been in the Vatican Painting Gallery since 1828, and the third is in the Abbey of Saint Peter in Valle in Ferentillo, which was at the time the family chapel in the Bishop’s Palace in Spoleto before it was transported to Berlin in 1833. Of the three, the most successful and well preserved is certainly the painting of Spineta, which is, as Pietrangeli said, “rich in color and of the highest compositional level.” Indeed, the “Spaniard” includes subjects in his compositions that are reminiscent of the great Perugino. The scene is lively with the addition of angels, a vast landscape, shepherds and procession of the Magi.
Art historian Gualdi Sabatini says, “The group of kings is very rich and chromatically vibrant, accurately portrayed; the white horse ﬂanked by celestial blue, garments of another ﬁgure in bright cherry-red, while the horses are reddish, gray, and black…” Every part of the canvas was touched with the utmost attention -down to elaborate clothing and rich, iridescent drapery. Structurally (i.e. the way the ﬁgures are arranged in the scene), the foreground recalls most speciﬁcally a Nativity by Perugino made for Giulino Cardinal della Rovere (1491), while the cheering trio of angels stems directly from another altarpiece by Perugino in Pavia, now in the National Gallery in London (1499). The successful “formula” of the nativity which the Spaniard has uniquely taken up has been further taken on in successive works by Italian artists such as Girolamo di Giovanni and Antonio da Viterbo.