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Pinturicchio was born in Perugia, the son of Benedetto or Betto di Blagio. He may have trained under lesser known Perugian painters such as Bonfigli and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. According to Vasari, Pinturrichio was a paid assistant of Perugino.
The works of the Perugian Renaissance school are very similar; and paintings by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Lo Spagna and a young Raphael may often be mistaken one for the other. In the execution of large frescoes, pupils and assistants had a large share in the work, either in enlarging the master's sketch to the full-sized cartoon, in transferring the cartoon to the wall, or in painting backgrounds or accessories.
After assisting Perugino in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Pinturicchio was employed by various members of the Della Rovere family and others to decorate a series of chapels in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, where he appears to have worked from 1484, or earlier, to 1492. The earliest of these is an altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds, in the first chapel (from the west) on the south, built by Cardinal Domenico della Rovere; a portrait of the cardinal is introduced as the foremost of the kneeling shepherds. In the lunettes under the vault Pintoricchio painted small scenes from the life of St Jerome.
The frescoes which he painted in the next chapel, built by Cardinal Innocenzo Cybo, were destroyed in 1700, when the chapel was rebuilt by Cardinal Alderano Cybo. The third chapel on the south is that of Giovanni della Rovere, duke of Sora, nephew of Sixtus IV, and brother of Giuliano, who was afterwards Pope Julius II. This contains a fine altarpiece of the Madonna enthroned between Four Saints, and on the east side a very nobly composed fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin. The vault and its lunettes are richly decorated with small pictures of the Life of the Virgin, surrounded by graceful arabesques; and the dado is covered with monochrome paintings of scenes from the lives of saints, medallions with prophets, and very graceful and powerfully drawn female figures in full length in which the influence of Signorelli may be traced.
In the fourth chapel, Pinturicchio painted the Four Latin Doctors in the lunettes of the vault. Most of these frescoes are considerably injured by moisture and have suffered little from restoration. The last paintings completed by Pinturicchio in this church are found on the vault behind the choir, where he painted decorative frescoes, with main lines arranged to suit their surroundings in a skilful way. In the centre is an octagonal panel of the Coronation of the Virgin, and surrounding it, are medallions of the Four Evangelists. The spaces between them being filled up by reclining figures of the Four Sibyls. On each pendentive is a figure of one of the Four Doctors enthroned under a niched canopy. The bands which separate these pictures have elaborate arabesques on a gold ground, and the whole is painted with broad and effective touches, very telling when seen (as is necessarily the case) from a considerable distance below. No finer specimen of the decoration of a simple quadripartite vault can anywhere be seen. In Rome, he also frescoed the St. Bernardine Chapel of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
In 1492 Pinturicchio was summoned to Orvieto, where he painted two Prophets and two of the Doctors in the Cathedral. He then returned to Rome, and was employed by Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) to decorate a recently completed suite of six rooms, the Appartamenti Borgia in the Vatican. These rooms now form part of the Vatican library, and five still retain a series of Pinturicchio frescoes.
Pinturicchio worked in these rooms till 1498, assisted by his pupils, and not without interruption. His other chief frescoes in Rome, still existing in a very genuine state, are those in the Cappella Bufalini at the south-west of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, probably executed from 1497 to 1500. These are well-designed compositions. On the altar wall is a grand painting of St Bernardino of Siena between two other saints, crowned by angels; in the upper part is a figure of Christ in a mandorla, surrounded by angel musicians; on the left wall is a large fresco of the miracles performed by the corpse of St Bernardino, which includes portraits of members of the sponsoring Bufalini family.
One group of three females, the central figure with a child at her breast, recalls the grace of Raphael's second manner. The composition of the main group round the saint's corpse appears to have been suggested by Giotto's painting of St. Francis on his bier found in Santa Croce at Florence. On the vault are four noble figures of the Evangelists, usually attributed to Luca Signorelli, but morel likely, as with the rest of the frescoes in this chapel, by the hand of Pinturicchio. On the vault of the sacristy of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Pinturicchio painted the Almighty surrounded by the Evangelists. During a visit to Orvieto in 1496 Pinturicchio painted two more figures of the Latin Doctors in the choir of the duomo: now, like the rest of his work at Orvieto, almost destroyed. For these he received fifty gold ducats. In Umbria, his masterpiece is the Baglioni Chapel in the church of S. Maria Maggiore in Spello.
Among his panel pictures the following are the most important. An altarpiece for S. Maria de' Fossi at Perugia, painted in 1496-1498, now moved to the city's picture gallery, is a Madonna enthroned among Saints, very minutely painted; the wings of the retable have standing figures of St Augustine and St Jerome; and the preddla has paintings in miniature of the Annunciation and the Evangelists. Another fine altarpiece, similar in delicacy of detail, and probably painted about the same time, is that in the cathedral of San Severino — the Madonna enthroned looks down towards the kneeling donor. The angels at the sides in beauty of face and expression recall the manner of Lorenzo di Credi or Da Vinci.
The Vatican picture gallery has the largest of Pinturicchio's panels — the Coronation of the Virgin, with the apostles and other saints below. Several well-executed portraits occur among the kneeling saints. The Virgin, who kneels at Christ's feet to receive her crown, is a figure of great tenderness and beauty, and the lower group is composed with great skill and grace in arrangement.
In 1504 he designed a mosaic floor panel for the Cathedral of Siena: the Story of Fortuna, or the Hill of Virtue. This was executed by Paolo Mannucci in 1506. On top of the panel, Knowledge hands the palm of victory to Socrates.
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