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Luca Signorelli (c.1445-1523), Umbrian painter, is noted for his ability as a draughtsman and his use of foreshortening. His work shows his interest in anatomy. His masterpiece is considered to be his fresco of the Last Judgment (1499) in Orvieto Cathedral.
He was born in Cortona — his full name being Luca d'Egidio di Ventura; he has also been called Luta da Cortona. The precise date of his birth is uncertain; but, as he is said to have died at the age of eighty-two, and as he was certainly alive during some part of 1524, the birth-date of 1442 must be nearly correct. He belongs to the Tuscan school, associated with that of Umbria.
His first impressions of art seem to be due to Perugia — the style of Bonfigli, Fiorenzo and Pinturicchio. Lazzaro Vasari, the great-grandfather of Giorgio Vasari, the historian of art, was brother to Lucas mother; he got Luca apprenticed to Piero de Franceschi. In 1472 the young man was painting at Arezzo, and in 1474 at Cittą di Castello. He presented to Lorenzo de Medici a picture which is probably the one named the School of Pan, discovered some years ago in Florence, and now belonging to the Berlin gallery; it is almost the same subject which he painted also on the wall of the Petrucci palace in Siena — the principal figures being Pan himself, Olympus, Echo, a man reclining on the ground and two listening shepherds.
He executed, moreover, various sacred pictures, showing a study of Botticelli and Lippo Lippi. Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Signorelli to paint some frescoes, now mostly very dim, in the shrine of Loreto — Angels, Doctors of the Church, Evangelists, Apostles, the Incredulity of Thomas and the Conversion of St Paul. He also executed a single fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Acts of Moses; another, Moses and Zipporah, which has been usually ascribed to Signorelli, is now recognized as the work of Perugino.
Luca may have stayed in Rome from 1478 to 1484. In the latter year he returned to his native Cortona, which remained from this time his ordinary home. From 1497 he began some professional excursions. In Siena, in the convent of Chiusuri, he painted eight frescoes, forming part of a vast series of the life of St Benedict; they are at present much injured. In the palace of Pandolfo Petrucci he worked upon various classic or mythological subjects, including the School of Pan already mentioned.
From Siena he went to Orvieto, and here he produced the works which, beyond all others, stamp his greatness in art. These are the frescoes in the chapel of S. Brizio, in the cathedral, which already contained some pictures on the vaulting by Fra Angelico. The works of Signorelli represent the Last Days of the Mundane Dispensation, with the Pomp and the Fall of Antichrist, and the Eternal Destiny of Man, and occupy three vast lunettes, each of them a single picture. In one of them, Antichrist, after his portents and impious glories, falls headlong from the sky, crashing down into an innumerable crowd of men and women. Paradise, the Elect and the Condemned, Hell, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Destruction of the Reprobate follow in other compartments. To Angelico's ceiling Signorelli added a section showing figures blowing trumpets, etc.; and in another ceiling he depicted the Madonna, Doctors of the Church, Patriarchs and Martyrs. There is also a great deal of subsidiary work connected with Dante, and with the poets and legends of antiquity.
The daring and terrible invention of the great compositions, with their powerful treatment of the nude and of the most arduous foreshortenings, and the general mastery over complex grouping and distribution, marked a development of art which had never previously been attained. It has been said that Michelangelo felt so strongly the might of Signorelli's delineations that he borrowed, in his own Last Judgment, some of the figures or combinations which he found at Orvieto; this statement, however, has not been verified by precise instances. The contract for his work is still on record.
He undertook on April 5, 1499 to complete the ceiling for 200 ducats, and to paint the walls fot 600, along with lodging, and in every month two measures of wine and two quarters of corn. Signorelli's first stay in Orvieto lasted not more than two years. In 1502 he returned to Cortona, and painted a dead Christ, with the Marys and other figures. Two years later he was once more back in Orvieto, and completed the whole of his work in or about that time, i.e., some two years before 1506, a date famous in the history of the advance of art, when Michelangelo displayed his cartoon of Pisa.
After finishing off at Orvieto, Signorelli was much in Siena. In 1507 he executed a great altarpiece for S. Medardo at Arcevia in the Marche, the Madonna and Child, with the Massacre of the Innocents and other episodes.
In 1508 Pope Julius II determined to readorn the camere of the Vatican, and he summoned to Rome Signorelli, in company with Perugino, Pinturicchio and Bazzi (Sodoma). They began operations, but were shortly all superseded to make way for Raphael, and their work was taken down. Luca now returned to Siena, living afterwards for the most part in Cortona. He continued constantly at work, but the performances of his closing years were not of special mark.
In 1520 he went with one of his pictures to Arezzo. Here he saw Giorgio Vasari, aged eight, and encouraged his father to second the boy's bent for art. Vasari tells a pretty story how the wellnigh octogenarian master said to him "Impara, parentino" ("You must study, my little kinsman"), and clasped a jasper round his neck as a preservative against nose-bleeding, to which the child was subject. He was partially paralysed when he began a fresco of the Baptism of Christ in the chapel of Cardinal Passerini's palace near Cortona, which (or else a "Coronation of the Virgin" at Foiano) is the last picture of his specified. Signorelli stood in great repute not only as a painter but also as a citizen. He entered the magistracy of Cortona as early as 1488, and in 1524 held a leading position among the magistrates of his native place. In or about the year 1524 he died there.
Signorelli from an early age paid great attention to anatomy, carrying on his studies in burial grounds. He surpassed all his contemporaries in showing-the structure and mechanism of the nude in immediate action; and he even went beyond nature in experiments of this kind, trying hypothetical attitudes and combinations. His drawings in the Louvre demonstrate this and bear a close analogy to the method of Michelangelo. He aimed at powerful truth rather than nobility of form; colour was comparatively neglected, and his chiaroscuro exhibits sharp oppositions of lights and shadows. He had a vast influence over the painters of his own and of succeeding times, but had no pupils or assistants of high mark; one of them was a nephew named Francesco.
He was a married man with a family; one of his sons died, seemingly through some sudden casualty, and Luca depicted the corpse with sorrowful but steady self-possession. He is described as full of kindliness and amiability, sincere, courteous, easy with his art assistants, of fine manners, living and dressing well; indeed, according to Vasari, he always lived more like a nobleman than a painter. The Torrigiani Gallery in Florence contains a grand life-sized portrait by Signorelli of a man in a red cap and vest; this is said to be the likeness of the painter himself, and corresponds with Vasari's observation. In the National Gallery, London, are the "Circumcision of Jesus" and three other works.
See F Vischer, Signorelli und die italienische Renaissance (1879); Burlington Fine Arts Club, Exhibition of Work of Signorelli, etc. (1893); M Crutwell, Luca Signorelli (1899).
Online pictures of his work are:
- The Circumcision (c.1490-91)
- The Adoration of the Shepherds (1496) painted for the church of San Francesco in Cittą di Castello
- Calvary (1505)
- The Coronation of the Virgin (1508) painted for the Filippini Chapel in the church of San Francesco, Arcevia
- An altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (1515) painted for a chapel in the church of San Francesco, Montone
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