The most powerful guilds in Perugia were those of the “Mercanzia” and the “Cambio” (Merchants and Money Changers). This was due to the importance that they were able to acquire in the civic life and government of the city.
In the register of the Cambio for 1377, it states explicitly that “Ars Cambi quae est pars magna totius Reipublicae Civitatis”. The principle functions of the Cambio were those of controlling the legitimate exchange of money and the pronouncing of sentence in civil cases within their specific field. The Collegio or guild thus took on the duties of a tribunal and the senior members, the Consuls, became known as “Uditori”; the place where they met to hear the cases brought before them the “Sala delle Udienze”. Structural work on their new centre within the “Palazzo Pubblico” began in 1452 and was finished by 1457. In 1490 the decoration was begun by the Florentine, Domenico del Tasso, who was responsible for the great carved wooden desk and the benches and wall panelling. In 1492 the gilded terracotta statue of Justice, attributed to Benedetto da Maiano, was brought from Florence. On January 26th 1496, the Consuls together with the Giurati (jurymen) decided that the ceiling and walls should be painted and a short while afterwards a contract with Pietro Perugino must have been stipulated – although any written records referring to the contract have been lost. Work began on the ceiling where allegorical figures of the planets were depicted: the Moon; Mercury; Mars; Saturn; Giove; Venus and Apollo, all surrounded by a rich grotesque decoration.
The origin of these grotesque forms were to be found in the ancient world, particularly in Nero’s Golden Palace and also still existing in the motifs of ceramic ware, in local heraldry and in ornaments of imitation mosaics similiar to those already used by Pinturicchio on ceilings in Rome.
When the ceiling had been completed by followers of the master, using his designs, work began on the walls. Here, the theme appears to have been dictated by the humanist, Francesco Maturanzio, a professor at Vicenza and Venice who, about 1498, returned to his native city and became secretary of the “Decemviri”.
The magniloquent Latin verses of the explanatory tablets, held up by putti, seen amongst the frescoes, are also attributed to Francesco Maturanzio. They express the decidedly Neoplatonic idea that human perfection can be achieved on this earth by practising the virtues attributed to the ancient world combined with those of Christian revelation.
On the wall, immediately to the right of the present-day entrance, there is the figure of Cato. On the long wall to the left of the entrance, within the two lunettes, there are the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence and Justice with, below them, personages of classical antiquity: Fabio Massimo; Socrates; Numa Pompilio; Furio Camillo; Pittaco and Trajan. Then comes Fortitude and Temperance with six more heroes: Lucio Sicinio; Leonida; Orazio Coclite; Publio Scipione; Peracles; Cincinnato. On the end wall, there is the Transfiguration and the Nativity Scene whilst on the long wall on the other side only the part which corresponds to the second section opposite is painted. Here there are six prophets and six Sibyls with God blessing them from above. Most of these frescoes were painted by Perugino himself. He had some collaborators (documents give the names of Giovanni, Francesco Ciambella, known as “il Fantasia” and Roberto da Montevarchi) but he was able to control them to the point that the entire complex can be considered one of the best examples of his mature art. In the past it was suggested that other painters had also been working here including Andrea of Assisi known as “l’Ingegno” and the young Raphael. However, today, following the recent careful restoration, this appears to be less likely. The frescoes were finished by 1500, as can be seen by the tablet on the false dividing pilaster on the right wall. In 1501 Antonio da Mercatello’s wooden doors were mounted which according to some people were designed by Perugino himself or at least were an interpretation of his ideas. When all the rest of the work had been completed, the artist painted his own self portrait in a false frame as though hanging on an equally false dividing pilaster on the left wall. Under this there is an inscription of extravagant praise, testimony to the enormous success of the undertaking and the great fame that Pietro had acquired – at that time considered by many people to be the most important painter in Italy.