1902 Encyclopedia > Luca Signorelli

Luca Signorelli
Italian painter
(c. 1442 - c. 1524)

LUCA SIGNORELLI (c. 1442-c. 1524), one of the great-est of the Italian painters who ushered in the full culmina-tion of the art under Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, was born in Cortona—his full name being Luca d'Egidio di Ventura; he has also been called Luca 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 Bonfigii, Fiorenzo, and Pinturicchio. Lazzaro Vasari, the great-grandfather of Giorgio Vasari, the historian of art, was brother to Luca's mother; he got Luca apprenticed to Piero della Francesca. In 1472 the young man was painting at Arezzo, and in 1474 at Citta 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 Marquis Corsi; 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 shep-herds (see SCHOOLS OF PAINTING, vol. xxi. p. 434, fig. 8). He executed, moreover, various sacred pictures, showing a study of Botticelli and Lippo Lippi. Pope Sixtus IV. commissioned Signorelli to paint some frescos, 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 Borne, 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 Borne 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 frescos, forming part of a vast series of the Life of St Benedict; they are at present much injured. In the palace of Pan-dolfo Petrucci he worked upon various classic or mytho-logical subjects, including the School of Pan already men-tioned. From Siena he went to Orvieto, and here he produced the works which, beyond all others, stamp his greatness in art. These are the frescos 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 Dis-pensation, 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 Besurrection 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, &c.; 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 tenrible 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 state-ment, however, has not been verified by precise instances. The contract for Luca's work is still on record. He undertook on 5th April 1499 to complete the ceiling for 200 ducats, and to paint the walls for 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 Umbria—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 Baphael, 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 kins-man"), and clasped a jasper round his neck as a preservative against nose-bleeding, to which the child was subject. He was partially paralytic when he began a fresco of the Baptism of Christ in the chapel of Cardinal Passerini's palace near Cortona, which is the last picture of his that we find 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 witli 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. The pictorial reputation of Signorelli has revived and ripened very much throughout Europe in recent years. The foregoing account of him is principally founded upon that given by Messrs Crowe and Cavalcaselle. In Great Britain there is no better specimen of his work than the Circumcision of Jesus, a panel lately in Hamilton Palace, near Glasgow. (W. M. R.)

The above article was written by: W. M. Rossetti, author of Lives of Famous Poets.

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