Luca Signorelli
by Maud Cruttwell
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Transcriber's note:

Letters enclosed in a square bracket with tilde denote that there is an overscore or tilde above the letter; for example N is denoted by Ñ. [C] denotes a reversed C.

The Great Masters in Painting and Sculpture Edited by G. C. Williamson


* * * * *


The following Volumes have been issued






In preparation.

CARLO CRIVELLI. By G. M'NEIL RUSHFORTH, M.A., Lecturer in Classics, Oriel College, Oxford.

CORREGGIO. By SELWYN BRINTON, M.A., Author of "The Renaissance in Italian Art."


THE BROTHERS BELLINI. By S. ARTHUR STRONG, M.A., Librarian to the House of Lords.

MICHAEL ANGELO. By CHARLES HOLROYD, Keeper of the National Gallery of British Art.

TURNER. By CHARLES FRANCIS BELL, M.A., Deputy Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum.

PERUGINO. By G. C. WILLIAMSON, Litt.D., Editor of the Series.

MEMLINC. By W. H. JAMES WEALE, late Keeper of the National Art Library.

MURILLO. By MANUEL B. COSSIO, Litt.D., Ph. D., Director of the Musee Pedagogique, Madrid.


Others to follow.


* * * * *




London George Bell & Sons 1899

"Pianga Cortona omai, vestasi oscura, Che estinti son del Signorello i lumi; Et, tu, Pittura, fa de gli occhi fuimi, Che resti senza lui debile e scura."

Epitaph composed at the time of his death

"Il Cortonese Luca d'ingegno E spirito pellegrino."



The references to Vasari, and Crowe and Cavalcaselle, are invariably to the latest editions, both in Italian: "Opere di Giorgio Vasari" (Firenze, G. C. Sansoni, 1879); "Cavalcaselle e Crowe" (Le Monnier, 1898).

The author desires to express her gratitude to Mr Bernhard Berensen, author of "Lorenzo Lotto," etc., for much help in her work.

FLORENCE, October 1899.






Chapter I. HIS LIFE 1














Portrait of a Man Gallery, Berlin Frontispiece

Portrait of Signorelli Museo del Duomo, Orvieto 8

The Deposition Cathedral, Cortona 10

The Flagellation Brera Gallery, Milan 32

Apostles Santa Casa, Loreto 34

The Incredulity of S. Thomas Santa Casa, Loreto 36

The Conversion of Saul Santa Casa, Loreto 36

Madonna and Saints Cathedral, Perugia 38

The Circumcision National Gallery, London 40

Pan Gallery, Berlin 42

Madonna Uffizi, Florence 44

Madonna and Saints Pitti, Florence 46

Holy Family Rospigliosi Gallery, Rome 46

Holy Family Uffizi, Florence 48

The Annunciation Cathedral, Volterra 50

The Annunciation Uffizi, Florence 52

The Crucifixion Santo Spirito, Urbino 54

Miracle of S. Benedict Monte Oliveto 56

Miracle of S. Benedict Monte Oliveto 58

Saints Gallery, Berlin 60

Holy Family Gallery, Berlin 60

The Crucifixion Municipio, Borgo San Sepolero 62

Portraits of Signorelli and Fra Angelico Cathedral, Orvieto 64

Patriarchs Cathedral, Orvieto 68

The Preaching and Fall of Antichrist Cathedral, Orvieto 70

The Crowning of the Elect Cathedral, Orvieto 72

Subjects from Dante Cathedral, Orvieto 74

Heaven Cathedral, Orvieto 76

Hell Cathedral, Orvieto 76

The Damnation Cathedral, Orvieto 78

The Resurrection Cathedral, Orvieto 80

Signs of Destruction Cathedral, Orvieto 82

Madonna and Saints Brera, Milan 90

Dead Christ upheld by Angels S. Niccolo, Cortona 92

The Adoration of the Magi Jarvis Collection, New Haven, U.S.A. 94

Madonna and Saints Mancini Collection, Citta di Castello 98

The Deposition Santa Croce, Umbertide 100

Madonna, Saints, and Prophets Gallery, Arezzo 102

Study of Nude Figure Louvre, Paris 108

Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross Academy, Florence 111

Tiberius Gracchus Gallery, Buda-Pesth 116


Page 6 line 1, for "Pius II." read "Sixtus IV."

The Frontispiece and the illustrations facing pp. 40, 42, and 60 (2) are from photographs by Hanfstaengl (Munich), those facing pp. 46 (No. 2) and 68 by Anderson (Rome), that facing page 108 by A. Braun & Co. (Dornach and Paris), those facing pp. 94 and 116 from private photographs, and the remainder by Alinari (Florence).


LUCA SIGNORELLI. Vasari, con annotazione di Gaetano Milanesi. (Firenze, G. C. Sansoni, 1879.) Vol. iii.


LUCA SIGNORELLI. Cavalcaselle e Crowe. (Le Monnier, 1898.) Vol. viii.


LUCA SIGNORELLI. Manni. (Racolta Milanese di vari opuscoli, 1756.) Vol. i.

STORIA DEL DUOMO DI ORVIETO. Padre della Valle, 1791.

IL DUOMO DI ORVIETO. Ludovico Luzi, 1866.


ISTRUZIONE STORICO. Giacomo Mancini, 1832.

NOTIZIE ... SOPRA LUCA SIGNORELLI. Girolamo Mancini, 1867.







(BORN 1441: DIED 1523)

It is a curious fact that, considering the number of documents which exist relating to Signorelli, and the paintings time has spared, so little should be known beyond the merest outline of his life. The very dates of his birth and death are indirectly acquired; the documents leave his youth and early manhood an absolute blank, and there are only two of his numerous works which can with certainty be placed before his thirty-third year.[1] We are, therefore, forced to fall back upon traditionary record, and by the aid of his biographer Vasari, and the evidence of youthful studies which his paintings contain, to patch together a probable account of his life, up to the time when the documents begin. On Vasari, in this case, we can depend with a certain amount of confidence, since Signorelli was his kinsman, and they had been in such personal communication as was possible between an old man and a child.

From Vasari, then, we learn that Luca was born in Cortona, of Egidio Signorelli, and a sister of Lazzaro de Taldi.[2] This Lazzaro, great grandfather of the biographer, deserves special mention, since it was through his means, and under his guardianship, that Luca was placed as a child to study painting with Pier dei Franceschi, at Arezzo.[3] Vasari tells us that Lazzaro was "a famous painter of his time, not only in his own country, but throughout Tuscany, with a style of painting hardly to be distinguished from that of his great friend, Pietro della Francesca."[4] This, however, is an assertion that has never been supported, and was probably based on the author's pride in his own family, for in the Cortona tax-receipts for the year 1427, he is described merely as a harness-maker (Sellajo di Cavalli.)[5] There is, besides, no record of him among the painters of Arezzo, and no fragment remains of the many works enumerated by his great-grandson. But it is of little consequence whether he was a painter of pictures or a decorator of saddles; what is to our purpose is the fact, that by his means Luca was placed under the tutelage of the painter most capable of developing the noblest qualities of his genius.

Luca was born about 1441, as we gather from Vasari, and if 1452 is the correct date of his uncle Lazzaro's death, his apprenticeship to Pier dei Franceschi must have begun before his eleventh year. It is probable that, with his fellow-pupil Melozzo da Forli, his senior by three years, Signorelli assisted the master with the frescoes in S. Francesco, although there is no trace of any work that might be from his hand. Vasari tells us that as a youth he laboured "to imitate the style of his master," with such success, that (as he remarked of Lazzaro) "their work was hardly to be distinguished apart."[6] The nearest approach to the style of Piero that remains to us is "The Flagellation," of the Brera, Milan, which, however, already shows signs of a more deeply impressed technical influence, but it was probably under Piero's training that Signorelli developed his broad methods of work, and the grand manner which makes his painting so impressive. The later influence visible in the above-mentioned "Flagellation," as throughout all his work, is that of Antonio Pollaiuolo. To him and to Donatello are due the most important features in his artistic development, and in technique he follows much more readily than the Umbrian, the Florentine methods, with which his painting has nearly everything in common. Of the influence of Donatello it may justly be said that every painter and sculptor of the fifteenth century submitted to it, but few were so completely touched by his spirit as Signorelli. Not only, as we shall see later, did he transfer attitudes and features from Donatello's statues into his earlier paintings, but he caught, and even exaggerated, the confident and somewhat arrogant spirit of his work, and exploited it with the same uncompromising realism.

The influence of Antonio Pollaiuolo was still more important, and is so evident in the whole mass of his painting, that with no other warrant we may feel certain that he spent a considerable time either as pupil or assistant to the Florentine master. The passion of Pollaiuolo was to discover the science of movement in the human frame. "He understood the nude in a more modern way than the masters before him," says Vasari, "and he removed the skin from many corpses to see the anatomy beneath."[7] He was, in fact, the great anatomical student among the Quattrocento artists; and, having the same tastes, it was natural that to his workshop Signorelli should turn, in order to satisfy his own craving for knowledge of the structure of bones and muscles. The internal evidence of his paintings warrants this supposition, but there is no record of any residence in Florence, beyond the announcement of Vasari, that he went there after his visit to Siena, not at all as a student, but as a fully-fledged painter, making gifts of his pictures to his friend and patron, Lorenzo dei Medici. His work, however, proves so incontestably the training of Pollaiuolo, and shows so close an acquaintance with Florentine works of art, that we may safely presume the greater part of his youth, after leaving the studio of Pier dei Franceschi, to have been passed in Florence as pupil or assistant of Antonio.

It is a wide leap from these days of study to the beginning of his citizen's life in Cortona, when, a man of thirty-eight, he first settled down as a burgher discharging important duties there, but it would be idle to attempt to fill the gap, and only one document exists to help in any way to bridge it over. This is a commission from the Commune of Citta di Castello, dated 1474,[8] requiring Signorelli to paint, over some older frescoes in their Tower, a large "Madonna and Saints," but, unfortunately the work itself no longer exists, for what time and neglect had spared, the earthquake of 1789 completely destroyed. We may presume that before 1479 he painted the important frescoes for the Church of the Holy House at Loreto, since in that year he was first appointed to the municipal offices in Cortona, which necessitated an almost constant residence there for the next three years, as the documents of election show.[9] These numerous papers (for the most part discovered through the efforts of Signor Girolamo Mancini, and published in his "Notizie"), are preserved in the archives of Cortona, and form the chief evidence of the painter's whereabouts up to the end of his long life. They record, first, his appointment in the autumn of 1479 to the Council of XVIII., and to the Conservatori degli Ordinamente,[10] in the following spring to the Priori, and in the summer to the General Council, and they continue with few interruptions up to the very day of his death. They decide for us the social status he enjoyed, for both Priori and Councillors were chosen from the richest and most influential families, although not necessarily noble.[11] His official life began in a time of tumult and bloodshed. It was the year after the failure of the Pazzi Conspiracy, and all around Cortona were pitched the camps of the rival troops of Sixtus IV. and the excommunicated Florentines. Cortona itself, as a frontier town of the Medici, was in the very centre of the fray; and besides these more important quarrels, there were the incessant internal bickerings between the nobles and the populace, which at that time divided every Italian city against itself. Altogether, the position of Magistrate in such a town, at such a time, could have been no sinecure, and it is difficult to understand how the hard-working painter could have found time or inclination to accept the citizen's duties, which were so weighty an occupation in themselves.

Much time has been spent in the vain search for documents relating to Signorelli's supposed visit, in 1484, to Rome, where, it is said, he was summoned to paint, with Perugino, Pintorricchio, Botticelli, and Cosimo Rosselli, the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Later criticism has perhaps accounted for the absence of such a record. Of the two frescoes there, formerly attributed to him, it is now no longer doubted that one—"The Journey of Moses and Zipporah"—is by Pintorricchio, and the opinion is gradually gaining ground that the other—"The Death of Moses"—although much nearer to Signorelli's style, is not sufficiently so as to permit us to accept it as his work.[12]

The notices of the next few years contain little of interest beyond the facts, that in 1484 Signorelli painted the altar-piece in the Perugia Cathedral, the first dated picture remaining, and that in 1488 he received the much-coveted honour of citizenship from Citta di Castello, for the "great ability" with which he painted a standard for the brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin,[13] a work which no longer exists. Soon after follows a document dated 1491, which bears witness that Luca had been invited by the authorities of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence to assist in judging the models and designs for the projected facade of that church.[14] This is important as a proof of the high esteem in which he was held in Florence, implying also that he must have understood something of architecture. He declined the invitation, perhaps for the same reason for which he had excused himself the month before from serving as Priore in his native town, "being absent at a distance of over forty miles,"[15] probably at Volterra. He painted there in this year three pictures, all of which are still in the city; the "Annunciation" and the "Madonna and Saints," dated 1491, and the fresco of "S. Jerome" on the walls of the Municipio.

The next notice of importance is of the year 1497, when he received the commission from the monks of S. Benedict to fresco the walls of their cloister at Monte Oliveto.[16] Here he painted eight episodes from the life of the patron saint, leaving the rest of the work to be completed by Sodoma. Notwithstanding this task he found time, for four months of this very year, to serve among the Priori in Cortona, and accepted, besides, a fresh appointment as one of the Revisori degli Argenti.

In the following year he was in Siena, where he painted the altar-piece for the Bicchi family, the wings of which are now in Berlin.

We have now reached the most important time in Signorelli's life, the year in which he received the commission for the decoration of the Cappella Nuova in the Cathedral of Orvieto. Fifty years before, the roof had been begun by Fra Angelico, and ever since he went away, leaving it unfinished, the authorities had been undecided to whom to give the important work. Benozzo Gozzoli had begged for it; Perugino, it is said, had refused it; and now, in 1499, perhaps influenced to the choice by the success of the Monte Oliveto frescoes, they entrusted the work to Signorelli. Wishing first, however, to test his powers, they limited the commission to the completion of the vaulting, and it was not till the following year that they handed over to him the rest of the chapel, to be painted with the story of the Last Judgment. With this dramatic subject, and in these great spaces of the walls he had for the first time a free field for the wide sweep of his brush, and the force of his vivid imagination. The conceptions of Dante inspired, but did not trammel him, and he had sufficient strength to make the great drama his own, and to compel it to serve his ends in the display of the human frame in its most vigorous aspects. The portrait he has painted of himself in the first of the frescoes, as well as that in the Opera del Duomo, show us a man in the very prime of life, full of energy and determination.

Four years at least, Signorelli laboured at these frescoes, although not consecutively, as we shall presently see. He had with him as assistant his son Polidoro,[17] and perhaps Girolamo Genga, and other pupils. He was apparently on friendly terms with the authorities, of one of whom, the treasurer Niccolo Francesco, he painted a portrait, side by side with his own above mentioned. It is on a brick or tile, on the back of which is a flattering inscription, evidently composed by Niccolo himself, in which he speaks of Signorelli as "worthy of comparison with Apelles."[18]

Yet, notwithstanding this friendship with the treasurer, he could not get the money due to him, and it required the intervention of no less a person than Guidobaldo of Urbino, in 1506, to obtain it for him. A letter from the Prince is preserved in the Orvieto archives,[19] in which he writes: "Loving Maestro Luca di Cortona as I do, in no common measure, for his ability and rare talents, I can refuse him no possible favour in all that he may require of me," and goes on to beg the authorities for their love to him, to pay their debt to the painter, "which assuredly will be to me the greatest favour."

Even in fulfilling so arduous an undertaking as these great frescoes Luca did not abandon his magistrate's work in his own city, and during the time, was serving both on the General Council and as one of the Priori. In 1502, moreover, he found time to paint for his Cathedral at Cortona the beautiful "Deposition," in which is a repetition of the Pieta of the Capella Nuova. The realism and pathos of this dead Christ are so convincing as to have given rise to the legend that it was painted from the body of his son, who died, or was killed, in this year. Vasari thus relates the incident: Luca had a son, "beautiful in face and person, whom he loved most dearly," killed in Cortona, whereupon, "overwhelmed with grief as he was, he had the body stripped, and with the greatest fortitude of soul, without tears or lamentation, he made a drawing of it, in order to have always before his eyes ... what Nature had given him, and cruel Fate had snatched away."[20] This son, Antonio, probably a painter also, must have been a man of mature years at the time of his death, for he was already married to a second wife. The story has taken hold of the fancy of Signorelli's biographers, in the dearth of personal matter, and is the best known incident in his life, but it is more than probable that Antonio was carried off by the plague which, following close on the heels of the war of 1502, attacked Cortona, in which case it becomes a mere legend. We learn from a document, dated June 23rd, that the painter's house was not spared, for he excused himself from serving as Priore in that month, because the peste bubbonica had broken out in his family.

Four years later, Polidoro, his eldest son, and his assistant at Orvieto, died also. This happened while Signorelli was on a visit to Siena, for it was there he bought the mourning cloth. The object of this visit was to design one of the subjects for the famous pavement of the Cathedral, but whether he ever did it we do not know; certainly it was never executed in marble.

In the next year we have the usual records of official appointments, and as a proof of his artistic activity, the two pictures still remaining in the little town of Arcevia, dated 1507 and 1508, one of them, the splendid Ancona, being among his finest works.

Now a man of nearly seventy, Signorelli's energies seemed to grow greater with increasing age, for in 1508 we find him, besides being elected to his usual offices, deputed as ambassador to Florence, to demand there permission to reform the offices and ordinances of Cortona, and in the same year he was at Rome, together with Perugino, Pintorricchio, and Sodoma, working at the decoration of the Vatican Chambers, already begun by Pier dei Franceschi. Giambattista Caporali gives a glimpse into their social life in Rome, telling of a supper given in their honour by Bramante[21]—Bramante, to whose introduction to the Pope of the young Raffaelle it is due that none of their work, with the exception of Perugino's ceiling, remains to us. How much Signorelli painted we do not know. Vasari says, "He had successfully completed one wall,"[22] but so enchanted was Julius II. with the facile and modern style of Raffaelle, that after he had finished the "Stanza della Segnatura," he forced him to destroy the paintings of the older masters and delivered the entire work to him and his assistants: a caprice which points a very significant turn in the history of painting—the triumph of the late Renaissance over the giants of the past.

Signorelli seemed destined to find nothing but disappointment in Rome. Five years later, an old man of seventy-two, he again went there, this time on the accession of Giovanni dei Medici, in 1513, to the Papal chair. Knowing the luxurious nature of the new Pope, and remembering the intense passion of his father Lorenzo for art and letters, to Rome flocked poets and painters, sculptors and architects, from every part of Italy, in the hope of work or of reward, and among them came Signorelli, with reasonable expectation of employment, and notice from the son of his old patron and friend.[23] Like his predecessor, however, Leo X. preferred the more modern school of Raffaelle and his pupils, and Luca had to return disappointed to Cortona. In connection with the visit exists a curious document, which has smirched too long the honour of the painter. It is the famous letter of Michelangelo, preserved among the Buonarotti archives, in which he makes a complaint to the Capitano of Cortona, that Signorelli, sick with the ingratitude of the Medici "for the love of whom he would have had his head cut off," had borrowed of him eighty juli with which to return to Cortona; that on application for the money, Luca declared it to have been already repaid, so that now he—Michelangelo—sees no other way of obtaining his own but by application to the Capitano for justice.[24] This is the gist of the letter; we have to use our own knowledge of the character of the two men to decipher the mystery, since no other document confirms or denies the accusation. The reasonable explanation seems to be that some delay, probably on the road, in the transmission of the money, irritated the notoriously impatient temper of Michelangelo. Signorelli's character, from all we know of it, seems to have been most upright and generous. "Such was the goodness of his nature, that he never lent himself to things that were not just and righteous," says Vasari,[25] and that he should have been guilty of so petty a crime towards a friend, is not for a moment to be believed. Moreover, his will, re-made in the following year, proves him to have been in prosperous circumstances, while the fact that he continued to hold his appointments, and to receive fresh and even more honourable ones, testifies to the respect in which he was held by his fellow-citizens. In pleasant contrast with Michelangelo's accusation are the glimpses we have of his stately old age, through Vasari. "And at last," he writes, "having completed works for nearly all the princes of Italy, and being now old, he returned to Cortona, where, in his last years, he worked more for pleasure than any other reason, as one who, accustomed to labour, knew not how to be idle."[26] Of these later paintings the "Deposition" of Umbertide proves that the old man of seventy-five had lost little of his power. It is one of his most beautiful and tender renderings of a scene he has so often painted. The "Madonna," now in the Arezzo Gallery, painted three years later (1519), shows, perhaps, a slight falling off in technical power, while retaining to the full his characteristic grandeur of conception. It was this picture which, Vasari tells us, was borne on the shoulders of the brothers, for whose order it was painted, from Cortona to Arezzo, and Luca, old as he was, insisted on accompanying them, partly to place it in position, as was customary, and partly to revisit his friends and relations. The biographer gives a characteristic incident in connection with this visit, told so charmingly, that I can do no better than transcribe it:—

"And he, being lodged in the house of the Vasari, where I was a little child of eight years, I remember how that good old man, who was always gracious and courteous, having learnt from the master who first taught me my letters, that I cared for nothing else at school but drawing pictures; I remember, I say, he turned to Antonio, my father, and said to him: 'Antonio, since Giorgio takes after his family, let him by all means be taught how to draw, because, even if he cares for literature, to know how to draw cannot but be a source of honour and enjoyment, if not of utility, to him, as to every honourable man.' Then he turned to me, who stood up straight before him, and said, 'Learn, little kinsman.'" And Vasari adds, how, hearing that he suffered much from bleeding at the nose, which sometimes left him half dead, Signorelli hung a jasper charm about his neck, "with infinite tenderness. Which memory of Luca," he concludes, "will remain eternally fixed in my soul."[27]—One of those delightful human touches of which the writings of Vasari are so full.

This visit to Arezzo took place only four years before his death. He must have died in 1523, at the age of eighty-two, but there is no special record of the event, the date being gathered only from a document, which tells of the election on the 8th of December of another Inspector of Santa Margherita, to fill the place of the dead painter.[28] On the 13th of October of the same year, he had made his last will, leaving, with many minor bequests, the bulk of his property to his son, Pier Tommaso, and his grandson, Giulio, and expressing his desire to be buried in the tomb of his family in the Church of S. Francesco.[29] In his first edition, Vasari tells us that, after his death, his memory was honoured by many epitaphs, among which he quotes the following:—

"Pianga Cortona omai, vestasi oscura, Che estinti son' del Signorello i lumi; Et tu, Pittura, fa de gli occhi fiumi, Che resti senza lui debili e scura."[30]

Apparently Signorelli retained his health and energy up to the end of his long life, for only the year before his death he had accepted fresh appointments in Cortona, and, in addition to his old offices, was filling those of Priore of the Fraternity of S. Mark, Sindaco del Capitans, and several others, religious and secular. He was, moreover, still actively painting, and in the very year of his death he completed the altar-piece for the Church at Foiano, a work as noble and majestic in conception as it is vigorous in execution, besides accepting a commission from the Priori to paint them an altar-piece for the chapel of their palace.

I can do no better than conclude this scanty history with the character of the man, as it is told us by Vasari: "Luca was a person of excellent habits, sincere and affectionate with his friends, sweet and agreeable in his converse with everyone, specially courteous to those who had need of his help, and kindly in his instructions to his pupils. He lived most splendidly, and delighted in dressing well. For the which good qualities he was always, in his own country and elsewhere, held in the highest veneration."[31]


[1] The "Madonna" (No. 281), and "The Flagellation" (No. 262), Brera, Milan.

[2] It was the fame of Lazzaro's son Giorgio as an imitator of antique vases that won for the family the name Vasari.

[3] Vasari, ii. 553.

[4] Vasari, ii. 554.

[5] Vasari, ii. 553. Editor's Notes.

[6] Vasari, iii. 683 and 684.

[7] Vasari, iii. 295.

[8] Muzi, "Memorie," p. 48; and Giacomo Mancini, "Istruzioni," ii. 66 and 67.

[9] For the dates of these various appointments, see the Chronological Table, p. 121.

[10] I have thought it best only to translate those titles which have a corresponding meaning in our own country.

[11] Vischer, p. 7.

[12] It is with the utmost diffidence I venture to hold a different opinion from a critic of such weight as Morelli (see "Italian Painters," i. 92), but a careful comparison has forced me to subscribe to the later judgments. Crowe & Cavalcaselle (see Cavalcaselle e Crowe, viii. 453) and Vischer (Signorelli, p. 311) have both maintained that a great part of the execution reveals the hand of Bartolommeo della Gatta. One of the latest critics, Mr B. Berensen, presumes that the whole fresco is by him. I know too little of this painter's style to be able to form an opinion, feeling certain only that it is not by Signorelli.

[13] See Chronological Table, p. 122.

[14] Arch. dell opera del Duomo di Firenze. Deliberazioni dall'anno 1486 all'anno 1491. A Carte 77. The document merely mentions his name among those who were unable to attend.

[15] See Chronological Table, p. 122.

[16] See "Guida all'arcicenobio di Monte Oliveto" (Siena, 1844), p. 20.

[17] Proved by a document in the Orvieto Archives, containing a list of materials handed over by the Treasurer of the Works to Polidoro. See Vischer, p. 102.

[18] Now in the Opera del Duomo, Orvieto. The portrait of Signorelli in the frontispiece is the half of this painting.

[19] The letter is transcribed in Vischer, p. 356.

[20] Vasari, iii. 691.

[21] In the reprint of Cesariano's "Comments on Vitruvius," by G. B. Caporali. (Perugia, 1536). The passage is quoted in Vermiglioli's "Memorie di Pintorricchio" (1837), pp. 5 and 6.

[22] Vasari, iv. 329.

[23] The biographers of Signorelli, following the lead of Vasari, have dwelt much on his friendship with contemporary princes—the Baglioni, Vitelli, etc.; till we have grown to think of him rather as a silk-clad courtier than a hard-working burgher and painter. It may well be that, like Leonardo, he combined work with luxury, but the evidence is of too slight a nature to allow us to consider that side of his life, if it really existed. Of his friendship with Lorenzo dei Medici, however, there is more proof, since he painted for him, and was evidently influenced by his classic tastes, as several of his pictures show.

[24] The letter is transcribed in Vischer, p. 359.

[25] Vasari, iii. 683.

[26] Vasari, iii. 692.

[27] Vasari, iii. 693.

[28] Mancini, "Notizie," 94.

[29] Arch. Gen. di Contratti di Firenze. Rogiti di Ser Baldelli. Filza dal 1507 al 1524.


"Let Cortona weep henceforth, and clothe herself in black, For the light of Signorello is extinguished; And thou, Painting, make rivers of thine eyes For without him thou remainest weak and obscure."

[31] Vasari, iii. 695.



The foregoing chapter contains only a bare record of certain facts in the life of Luca Signorelli. Fortunately time has spared many of his paintings, and in the study of these we get a fuller insight into his nature and his aims. A man's work is, after all, the most satisfactory and reliable document for those who take the pains to decipher it—the autobiography which every man of genius bequeaths to posterity.

We have seen how by good fortune he was placed as a child to study painting under Pier dei Franceschi, who was of all men most able to bring out in his pupils the finer instincts and nobler qualities of their genius. By his guidance and example, no doubt, Signorelli cultivated his natural breadth of conception and of treatment, which give grandeur and impressive solemnity to all his works, besides acquiring the technical excellences of good drawing, solid modelling, and the broad massing of the shadows, which are so characteristic of Piero's own painting. The spirit of master and pupil was fundamentally alike, the chief points of dissimilarity in their work arising from minor divergences of temperament. Both were men of robust mind, with a message of resolute purpose to deliver. Both chose to express themselves through the medium of the human form in its most vigorous aspects, and were, therefore, pre-occupied with mastering its structure. But while Piero, with a serene nature, chose to represent unemotional figures like the sculptures of the ancient Egyptians, the restless and impetuous spirit of Signorelli preferred scenes of violent action, and energetic movement.

It was, perhaps, the entire affinity of their temperament, as well as his passion for anatomical study, which led him to choose his second master in a man whose taste for realism, and interest in the action of muscle and movement of limb was as keen as his own. On Antonio Pollaiuolo, even more than on Pier dei Franceschi, had fallen the mantle of Paolo Uccello's investigating spirit. As the latter gave all his attention to applying the laws of perspective to landscape and figures, so the efforts of Pollaiuolo were concentrated on giving freedom to the limbs. Great anatomist though he was, Piero was not so ardent a lover of the Nude for its own sake as the Florentine, and the problems of movement have little interest for him, whereas in the most characteristic work of Pollaiuolo it is evident that the scenes are chosen to display the muscles in tense prominence, and the limbs in violent action or unusual posture.[32] With precisely the same interests in the human structure and its movements, it is no wonder that Signorelli caught so much of his style and mannerisms. The influence of Antonio Pollaiuolo was stronger than any other in the development of his actual work, and is visible in all his paintings up to the last in greater or less degree, but only less important is that of Donatello, to whom Antonio himself owed so much. Forty years before the birth of Signorelli, Donatello had been able to carve the human form with absolute perfection of anatomy, and not only that, but to endow it with freedom of limb and overflowing life. It is easy to suppose the impression his statues must have made on the youth, whose spirit was so much akin to his own in exuberant energy, and who had the same uncompromising love of realism. The two artists had much in common in their confident self-reliance, and almost arrogant buoyancy of nature, which was the true Renaissance expression, and the outward sign of its immense strength. Signorelli caught and revived the very essence of Donatello's spirit—the love of bodily life in its most hopeful and vigorous manifestations. It is significant that the swaggering posture which became such a special feature of his painting, should have originated with Donatello. Donatello was, before all things, a realist, and it was probably the habitual attitude of the cavalry soldier of the day, accustomed to straddle over the broad back of his war-horse, but there is little doubt that it was adopted by Signorelli from the "S. George" of Or San Michele, and perhaps half-unconsciously signified to him—what that statue so well embodies—the confident spirit of youth and strength. In his portrait of Pippo Spana, now in S. Apollonia, Florence, Andrea di Castagno also imitated and emphasised it, as also did Botticelli in his carved background of the "Calumny," and Perugino in many of his paintings. But Botticelli's painted statue and Perugino's "S. Michael" and "Warriors" of the Cambio seem to spread their legs because they are too puny to bear the weight of the body in any other manner, while with Signorelli, the attitude became the keynote of his resolute indomitable nature, and so much a part of his work, that one is apt to forget it did not originate with him.

Although the character and aims of the two men are so entirely different, yet to Perugino, Signorelli owed much in his methods of producing the feeling of free space, and the life and movement of the atmosphere. Perugino's greatest gift to Art was this power of rendering the magic of the sun-warmed air and the sense of illimitable distance. He gave to his landscapes space and depth, the gentle stir of wind, and the golden shimmer of sunshine. Signorelli also learnt this power of presenting the life of hill and tree and sky, and some of his effects of distance have the space and grandeur almost of Nature herself. He also, like Perugino, could detach his figures from the background, and send the line of hills receding back to the horizon. Signorelli owes to him, besides, certain superficial characteristics, such as the fluttering scarfs and ribbon-like draperies, and the upturned face with ecstatic eyes which belongs to the Umbrian painter as much as the drooping head belongs to Botticelli.

From these four great artists Signorelli learnt what each had best to give, and assimilated and made it his own, with unerring instinct for its virtue in aiding his own specific qualities. Not that he was in any sense an eclectic, but he had the unconscious tendency of the healthy soul to seize upon the food that best ministers to its nourishment. Thus the fine genius and inspiration of Pier dei Franceschi and the grace of Perugino saved him from becoming too rigorously realistic under the influence of the scientific Florentines, Donatello and Pollaiuolo, working upon his own uncompromising nature.

The most important writers on Signorelli—Crowe and Cavalcaselle,[33] Rumohr,[34] and, above all, Vischer,[35] mention several other masters, who, they claim, exercised an influence upon his work, and it is obvious that to the Sienese school generally he was indebted for many decorative methods, particularly in the use of gold and gilded gesso. There are also in some of his paintings reminiscences of Verrocchio and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo; but an impression of sufficient depth to be considered, must touch the spirit, and here there appears to me to be little besides superficial resemblances. It must be remembered, moreover, in the case of Verrocchio, how much he himself owed to Donatello, while with respect to the asserted influence of Pintorricchio, it is more probable that what likeness there is in their style should testify to the impression of the stronger upon the weaker nature. With Andrea di Castagno his work, both in outward form and in spirit, has something in common; and no doubt Signorelli was impressed by paintings which themselves show so much the influence of Donatello.

As we have seen, Luca's chief interest, like that of Pollaiuolo, lay in the effort to render movement of limb with facility, and therefore his attention was concentrated on the muscles and their action. We do not know how long he studied anatomy from the dead and living model in the Florentine workshop, nor have we any example of his gradual development, for when he first appears before us in his earliest remaining work, "The Flagellation," of the Brera, he is already the master who has conquered all the difficulties of muscular movement, and surpassed even Antonio Pollaiuolo in freedom of gesture and correct anatomy.

It is not till later, however, that the most important advance he made on previous painting first begins to show itself—the power, namely, of rendering combined action, of working the limbs of a crowd into a single movement. This is Signorelli's special achievement, on the merits of which he takes rank with the most important masters of the Quattrocento as a pioneer and teacher. Great as was Pollaiuolo's command over gesture and action, it was limited to the combination of two figures only,[36] while with Signorelli the action of the single figure is held subordinate to that of the multitude. He gives the stately march of an army, as in the Umbertide predella and the Monte Oliveto fresco; the writhings of innumerable figures, like heaps of coiled serpents, as in the "Damnation" of Orvieto; the rush of a violent mob stirred by a common impulse, as in the Florence and Cortona "Betrayals." This command over united movement was new in painting, though, like all other difficulties, it had been already mastered by Donatello, as we see in his romping children of the Prato pulpit, and the Florence Cantoria, to name only two examples. Botticelli, who, with so different a nature, had yet, in common with the robust Signorelli, this passion for swift movement, achieved later, it is true, almost as great triumphs[37]; but to Luca belongs the merit of having endowed painting with the same freedom of combined movement which Donatello had given to sculpture.

Unlike Botticelli, he is consistently a lover of energy all through his life, and as the source of energy, of strength, and vigorous health. His grand conception of the body is one of the chief characteristics of his work. Strong and stately, it is a fit receptacle for the spirit of resolution and self-confidence with which he animates it. His Virgins are like goddesses, and seem to typify for him the strength of womanhood. Nowhere do we see nobler beauty than in his angels and archangels. In these "divine birds"[38] he seems to have recognised the ideal of all he strove for, and their wings are symbols to him of swift movement and superhuman strength. It was always strength that attracted him, and strength conscious of its own force, finding its expression in exuberant animation. Thus he loves to paint the swaggering soldiers, whose attitudes express their audacious self-reliance. He gives the luxuriant life of Nature as no one else gave it, and his trees and plants are as robust and unyielding as his firmly-planted figures. His angels' wings are not merely decorative, but have real power of muscle under the plumes to lift the body and bear it aloft without fatigue.

He was a lover of beauty, but it was not for beauty he strove, or we should not so often find bits of realistic ugliness to risk the harmony of his noblest paintings. Grace and charm seemed to come to him unsought, as natural adjuncts of a vigorous and healthy nature; but his deliberate choice of types of face and form, were those which, by their strength, promised satisfaction to his love of energetic action. From the first this tendency is noticeable, for example, in the above-mentioned "Flagellation," and the Loreto "Conversion of Saul," and goes on increasing until it reaches a climax in the frescoes of Orvieto.

Once one has grasped the main motive of Signorelli's work, his preoccupation with movement, and consequently with the muscles, his frequent defects and inequalities in other respects become, as faults of inattention, less incomprehensible. For example, his values of distance are often faulty, and give the unpleasant sensation that one figure is standing on the top of another,[39] a defect of carelessness, for no one is a better master of aerial perspective when he chooses. Again, his hands and feet are often incorrectly drawn and badly modelled, but it is only when they are not essential to the action; for although the drawing of hands and feet is always perhaps his weakest point, yet even in his early painting of the "Flagellation" he has already mastered some of their greatest difficulties of foreshortening. The recognition of the intention in a man's work enables one to dispense with much adverse criticism in detail. It would be wearisome to reiterate the faults of drawing in each picture when we come to deal with them separately, and it is better to recognise in the outset that, in pursuit of a certain definite end, Signorelli is careless of what seems to him unessential at the moment.

Thus in dealing with him as a colourist[40] we have to bear in mind that it was by line and modelling chiefly that his effects of movement were obtained. To be over-critical of the shortcomings of his colour, therefore, would be as foolish as to miss the charm of Bonifazio's splendid harmonies in abuse of some defect of drawing. Sometimes, in fact, Signorelli gains his end by the very crudeness and heaviness for which he is generally condemned, the sharp contrasts giving a rugged strength to his painting, and the copper colour of the flesh adding robustness to the figures.

It would, however, be most unjust to speak as if his colour were always, or even usually, crude and harsh. On the contrary, in landscape it is invariably beautiful; and he uses certain golden and moss-greens in foliage and grass, and a limpid greenish-blue in water, which are most harmonious. Sometimes it is gorgeous, and in nearly all his early paintings there is a beauty of red and soft green, and a warmth of golden glow of great depth and tenderness. He had, perhaps, a tendency to the use of too heavy colour, especially in the flesh; and he himself seems aware of it, for, in middle life, for a brief time, he changed his tone to an almost silvery lightness, with very pale flesh-tints, as in the Uffizi "Holy Family," No. 1291, and again, after working at Orvieto, in the "Dead Christ supported by Angels," of S. Niccolo, Cortona, whose general colour is almost like honey; but he relapses always into his characteristic dark tones, especially in the works of his old age, which are for the most part heavy and rather harsh, with flesh-tints of the reddish-brown of terra-cotta.

It is, as I have said, by form rather than colour that Signorelli obtains his best effects. He is a superb linealist, as the often-quoted "Flagellation" shows, and one is inclined to wish he had oftener used outline, as here, in the manner of Pier dei Franceschi. His line is firm and clear, simple and structural, of unerring sweep and accuracy, as we see in his numerous predella paintings; but even more remarkable is the wonderful plastic quality of his modelling. By this he makes us realise better than any one before him the tenseness of sinew, the resistance of hard muscle, and the supple elasticity of flesh, giving a solidity and weight to his forms that make them impressive as grand sculptures.

As an illustrator Signorelli is most unequal; brilliant and dramatic when the subject appealed to his taste, as in the Orvieto frescoes, often weak, as in his treatment of sacred themes. He was essentially a religious painter, but in the widest meaning of the word, and he does not seem to have felt the dignity and significance of many of the scenes in the life of Christ. When he has to paint Him bound to the pillar or nailed to the Cross, submissive to scourging and insult, his interest seems to wander from what should be the central figure, and fixes itself on some two or three of the minor actors, to whom he gives the importance he should have concentrated on the Christ. The painter con amore of arrogant strength, he seems to have little in common with meekness and humility that bows the head to scourging and martyrdom. Thus in nearly all his "Crucifixions" the central figure is ignoble in type and expression, and in the "Flagellations" of the Brera and of Morra, is entirely without dignity, even ignominious. This is curious when we consider that even more than of arrogant strength Signorelli was the painter of stately and noble beauty.

Again it seems as if he cared only to represent figures of powerful maturity, for there is a complete lack of sympathy in his painting of children. With one or two exceptions, his child Christs are half-animal little beings, more like tiny satyrs than human children, although not without a certain pathos in their very ugliness. In a picture of as great beauty and tender feeling as the "Holy Family," of the Rospigliosi Collection, for example, the child is more animal than human. Unlike Donatello, who delights in childhood, and sees in it the bubbling source of future strength, Signorelli gives his babies the overweighted, unelastic sadness of old age. In composing his Holy Families, therefore, his attention is centred on the Virgin, the strong woman he loved to paint, but the child he seems to feel as an accessory to be executed because the Church has ordered it, and so he puts it in without thought of all it meant and typified.

But although he sometimes falls short as an interpreter of the Church's intention, the impressive grandeur of his work is in itself intensely religious, and he makes us feel most solemnly the dignity of Nature, and especially of the human form. Once he was stirred into something of the Pagan spirit, probably under the influence of the court of Lorenzo, and he touched the real note of Pantheism in the "Pan," of the Berlin Gallery, and the noble figures in the background of the Uffizi and Munich "Madonnas." In these the spiritual mood dominates and is sustained throughout, and there is no sign of the scientific absorption which sometimes in his treatment of the nude makes us too aware of the student and the realist. One is at times conscious that, painting straight from the life, Signorelli's interest lay chiefly in a faithful reproduction of the body before him. His dead Christs for example, were obviously copied exactly as the corpses lay or hung in his studio. The S. Onofrio of the Perugia altar-piece, stood just so, a half-starved street-beggar, with baggy skin over rheumatic joints. The angel in the same picture, chosen perhaps for its grace of face, must be reproduced exactly as the child sat, with weak legs and ungainly body. Each figure is a truthful study from life, and it was that which interested the painter, and not that he was representing saints and angels whose noble beauty was supposed to elevate the mind to a state of worship.

Yet with all his realistic treatment, he was intensely alive to the graces of decoration, both in general lines and in detail. In the frescoes of Loreto, and more particularly of Orvieto, the mere scheme of decoration is superb, and adds beauty and distinction to every subtle line of the architecture. He pays attention, also, to the minor details of decorative effect, and takes pains with the ornaments and embroideries; while his use of gold, and embossing with gesso, add much to the aesthetic charm of his work, and proves that he could, when necessary, subordinate his love of realism to his sense of beauty.

Before summing up the chief qualities of Signorelli's work, I must not omit one characteristic which points to the strength of his personality—the way he repeats his own types (and not types only, but precisely the same forms) time after time, and often after the lapse of many years. The child Christs he paints over and over again, the same figure, sometimes exactly in the same attitude, as in the "Madonnas," of the Florence Academy and of the Brera. The seated burly Bishop of the Loreto vaulting (one of his earliest works) occurs again in the Volterra "Madonna," and again (painted many years later) in the "Madonna," of the Florence Academy. Line for line he reproduces the figure of Echo, out of the early "Pan," into the fresco of "The Crowning of the Elect," at Orvieto. In one or two cases he boldly repeats the same figure in the same picture, feature for feature, as in the Virgin and S. John of the Rospigliosi "Holy Family," limb for limb as in the flying soldiers of the Loreto "Conversion of Saul."

He was also most faithful to his own type of limb or feature, especially those in which Morelli has taught us always to look for similarity. The fleshy ear, with its slightly pointed top, is nearly invariable, as also is the broad hand with its little outlined nails and thick wrists.

In glancing rapidly over the whole of Signorelli's work, consistency to an absorbing interest is the note struck again and again. He has set himself from the first a task—the mastery of the human structure and its movements; and with the resolution and perseverance of a strong nature, he never swerves from his purpose. This is the conscious aim and intention of the artist. What he was able to give to the world, of nobility and dignity—a wider and healthier conception of Nature and her power and beauty—was the Message of his Genius, of which he was himself unconscious, but which spoke all the more forcibly for the learning acquired by hard application and earnest effort. In a detailed study of his painting, it may be that the student of anatomy and the realist often assert themselves, but as grand figure after grand figure has passed before the mind, the general impression is solemn and ennobling. "To no other contemporary painter," says Morelli, "was it given to endow the human frame with the like degree of passion, vehemence and strength."[41] To this we may add that no other painter has ever conceived Humanity with the same stately grandeur and in the same broad spirit. The confident strength of youth, the stern austerity of middle life, the resolute solemnity of old age—these are his themes. Signorelli is, before all, the painter of the dignity of human life.


[32] It is sufficient to cite the double picture of "Hercules," of the Uffizi, the "S. Sebastian," of the National Gallery, and the engraving called "The Battle of the Nudes."

[33] Cavalcaselle e Crowe, viii. 424, etc.

[34] Ital. Forsch. ii. 333.

[35] Vischer, 77, etc. Vischer considers the likeness to Fiorenzo due to their mutual relation to Verrocchio.

[36] Even the splendid decorative engraving called "The Battle of the Nudes," is only a series of duels. A comparison of these figures with the two nude executioners in the Brera "Flagellation" will justify the assertion of Signorelli's superiority as a master of anatomy and movement.

[37] Specially in "The Death of Virginia," of the Morelli Collection, Bergamo, and the sketched figures in the repainted "Adoration of the Magi," lately exposed in the Uffizi.

[38] "Purgatorio," ii. 38.

[39] For example, in the "Madonna," of the Mancini Collection, and "The Crowning of the Elect," at Orvieto.

[40] Signorelli's pictures, when not frescoed, are invariably painted with oil.

[41] "Italian Painters," i. 92.



One of the most remarkable things in the history of Signorelli's work, considering what a number of his paintings remain, is that only two of them can be placed with any degree of certainty as having been executed before his fortieth year. These two are the "Madonna" (No. 281), and "The Flagellation" (No. 262), in the Brera Gallery, Milan. This last, however—"The Flagellation"—indicates in what manner much of his earlier time had been employed, for although betraying in parts a certain youthful immaturity, yet the skilful drawing and thorough comprehension of anatomy shown in the nudes, especially in the backs of the two executioners, reveals already the practised hand of a master of his craft.

The best studies of the nude remaining to us by earlier painters, are the figures in "The Death of Adam," by Pier dei Franceschi, in his frescoes at Arezzo, the "Hercules overcoming Antaeus," and "The Battle of the Nudes," by Antonio Pollaiuolo, in the Uffizi Gallery. It is sufficient to compare with these the freer rendering of gesture, and the greater accuracy of the anatomy in Signorelli's executioners, to see what an advance he had already made upon any previous painting. (I limit, of course, this assertion to painting only, for in sculpture Donatello had years before given free gesture and perfect anatomy to his statues.) It would be impossible to overrate the excellence and beauty of drawing in the splendid swing of the bodies, the flexibility of the limbs, the sinewy elasticity of the leg muscles, and above all, the subtle suggestion of muscular movement under the loose skin of the backs. There is here, even more than in his later painting, an appreciation of the relative values of the muscles, and a consequent breadth of modelling, which he lost somewhat, by over-accentuation, in his subsequent treatment of the nude. The inequalities of the picture betray wherein lay the painter's chief interest, for to this skilful mastery of the difficulties of anatomy are opposed the rather childish conception of the Pilate and the stiff action of all the clothed figures. His apprenticeship to Pier dei Franceschi is here sufficiently proved, not so much by any likeness of colour or of composition to "The Flagellations," of that master, in Urbino and Borgo San Sepolero, as in the firm, clear outlining of the nude figures, their solid modelling, and in the broad massing of the shadows.

Even more apparent is the influence of Antonio Pollaiuolo, in the great realism with which the subject is treated, and in such superficial resemblances as the type of head of the executioner who binds the hands of Christ, and the characteristic striped loin-cloths.

The Christ is one of Signorelli's most ignoble presentations of the Saviour, and yet it seems as though he had tried to give graces which should harmonise with a certain conception of the character—the hair, for example, is the beautiful rippling hair of a woman, the bent head and downcast eyes represent the gentleness of resignation, and the attitude of the legs is intended to be graceful. But the effort to curb his own natural instinct for pride and strength makes him strike a false note, and his attempt to give the beauty of meekness has resulted only in producing a mask of hypocritical inertia.

The picture was painted for the Church of Santa Maria del Mercato in Fabriano, and this, as well as the fact of its being precisely the same size, and with the same curved top, seems to argue that it formed originally one picture with the Madonna, No. 281 of the same gallery, whose provenance is also from that church. Here the Virgin sits,[42] clad in a gold garment and blue green-lined mantle, with the Child on her knee, and floating round her dark-green cherubs' heads. She is the powerful type of woman, from which in his Virgins Signorelli never departed, but in this case with a rather cow-like expression, which gave place later to a tender or noble dignity. The face of the Child has lost its original character through repainting, but the cherubs' heads surrounding the throne, have the overweighted, half-animal expression of which I have already spoken as characteristic of his children.

Next in order, as far as can be judged by the internal evidence of the painting, come the frescoes in the sacristy of the church of the Santa Casa at Loreto. They were finished some time before 1484, and bear very marked traces of Florentine impressions. Of these Vasari writes: "In Santa Maria di Loreto, he painted in the sacristy in fresco, the four Evangelists, the four Doctors, and other Saints, which are very beautiful; and for this work he was liberally rewarded by Pope Sixtus."[43] This is a mistake, for the patron of the church was Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, and the presence of his coat-of-arms in the centre of the cupola is evidence that the work was executed at his expense.

In each of the eight compartments of this roof is painted a standing angel, playing or tuning musical instruments—most graceful and beautiful figures. Below are seated the four Evangelists and four Fathers of the Church, against a gold background, who seem, in their impressive grandeur to be prototypes of the prophets and sybils of Michelangelo's Sistine frescoes. I do not agree with Vischer in seeing the hand of Bartolommeo della Gatta in the angels. They show much of the influence of Pollaiuolo, and seem to me to be Signorelli's unassisted work. The face and gesture of one of them especially—the angel in the flowered robe playing a lute—is almost a duplicate of the child on the gradino of the throne in the Perugia altar-piece. The bishop in the compartment next this angel is repeated in the Volterra "Madonna and Saints," and in that of the Florence Academy.

In the divisions of the walls under the roof are painted the twelve Apostles, grand and stately figures, standing two in each compartment, divided by imitation pilasters, and forming a magnificent frieze round the walls. The draperies are exceedingly broadly painted and this breadth of treatment and the boldness of the design gives importance to the figures. There being seven compartments to be filled, in two of them Signorelli has introduced the figure of Christ, treated this time with dignity, perhaps because here He is represented as the Master, and not the "Man of Sorrows." In one He reproves S. Peter (?), who turns away with conscience-stricken humility very nobly rendered; in the other He shows the marks of the Passion to the incredulous Thomas. These two are perhaps the finest of the series, and are, besides, dramatic in gesture and expression. The composition of the last is, with evident intention, borrowed from Verrocchio's group on the walls of Or San Michele, Florence, but the likeness ends with the general lines of composition. Vischer makes a strong point of this, as a proof of Verrocchio's influence on Signorelli,[44] but to me it seems that feeling, types of face, and especially the broad and simple treatment of the draperies are entirely different.

The most important of these frescoes, however, as best illustrating Signorelli's own peculiar tendencies, is "The Conversion of Saul," in the compartment over the door. He has realised the scene with emotion, and rendered it with a most convincing dramatic power, giving the suddenness of the fall of the principal figure, and the excitement and panic-stricken terror of the soldiers, with wonderful truth and animation. It is interesting to note the almost exact repetition of the same figure in the two soldiers who hurry away to the left, but it is not at all mechanical, and in no way detracts from the excellence of the composition. Very Pollaiuolesque is the figure with raised shield in the foreground to the right, and one feels the influence of Perugino in the spacious empty distance of the background, from which the figures are so well detached.

As decoration these frescoes are exceedingly fine, the grand row of figures, besides the stately strength of each separate group, being most impressive in general effect. They have been much damaged. For many years used as a sacristy, the greasy smoke of the incense had so blackened the walls that the frescoes were nearly invisible. The skilful cleaning of Signor Guiseppe Missaghi, at the instigation of Signor Cavalcaselle, has restored to them much of their original beauty, although the colour still remains somewhat obscured.

On the roof of the nave, in the church itself, are painted a series of frescoes in grisaille, twenty-six Prophets and Fathers of the Church, somewhat over life size, seated one in each medallion. They are solemn and impressive figures like those in the sacristy, and painted on the same broad lines, and remind one strongly of the two medallions, also in grisaille, in the "Madonna," of the Uffizi Corridor. All of them have severely suffered from repainting.

"The Adoration of the Magi," formerly in the Campana Gallery, Rome, now No. 389 of the Louvre, seems to have been painted in 1482. Crowe and Cavalcaselle[45] rightly consider its execution to be the work of assistants, by reason of the rawness of colour and general coarseness of the painting; yet in composition, and in many of the figures, there is so much of the master's impressive dignity, that I feel compelled to regard the drawing, in parts at least, as his own. The stately Madonna, and the noble figure of the King on her right, whose draperies have the same sweeping breadth as those in the National Gallery, "Circumcision," as well as the solid, well-seated figures of the mounted attendants, seem to be Signorelli's own composing. The Child is also characteristic, and resembles that in the Tondo of the Pitti Gallery. The badly-drawn horses, again, seem his, for it will be noticed all through his work that he has never cared to thoroughly master their form, and paints them always with curious mannerisms of too closely-placed nostrils, and human eyebrows, which show how little attention he had given to their anatomy.

The first dated picture remaining is the altar-piece of the Perugia Cathedral, painted in 1484, of which Vasari writes: "Also in Perugia he painted many works; and among others in the Cathedral, for Messer Jacopo Vannucci of Cortona, Bishop of the city, a picture in which is Our Lady, Sant Onofrio, Sant Ercolano, S. John Baptist, S. Stephen,[46] and an angel, most beautiful, who tunes a lute."[47] The inscription with the date (given in the catalogue) are unfortunately hidden by the frame. This is one of Signorelli's finest altar-pieces, the colour being especially rich and harmonious, and it shows, even more than the Loreto frescoes, the strength of Florentine influences. For example, very close to Pollaiuolo is the figure of the angel tuning the lute, with its striped scarf, and so also is the powerful head of S. Ercolano. The S. Stephen is almost a reproduction of the bust of S. Lorenzo by Donatello in the sacristy of the church of that saint in Florence, the aged S. Onofrio again recalls his wooden statue of S. Jerome in Faenza, and finally the motive of the cut flowers in glasses is borrowed from the triptych of Hugo van der Goes in the Gallery of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence. The ornamental accessories are singularly fine and careful in finish, and it would seem as though Signorelli had been inspired in this, not only by the great tryptych, but also by the followers of the Paduan Squarcione. In the last chapter I have pointed out the extreme realism with which the figures are treated, but this does not spoil the impressive grandeur of the painting, gained by the broad style and the stately simplicity of the composition. The Virgin sits firmly, with the mantle resting in heavy folds across her knees; the S. Stephen is overflowing with the vigorous life of youth; the splendidly-draped bishop is a powerful and majestic figure; and there is real tenderness and grace in the face of the angel, notwithstanding the want of symmetry in the body and legs. The painting has suffered from restoration, but on the whole is fairly well preserved, and may be seen to advantage in the quiet of this well-lighted winter-chapel.

Crowe and Cavalcaselle place "The Circumcision," of the National Gallery, formerly in Volterra, as about the same date as the foregoing;[48] Vischer, presuming that it was painted at the same time with the dated pictures of 1491 still remaining in Volterra, groups it with them; but the similarity of colour and treatment lead me to accept the former theory. The distance from Cortona to Volterra is not very great, and the fact that he was painting there in 1491 does not preclude the possibility of his having painted there six or seven years before, even if it was executed on the spot, which was not by any means always the case. At all events the picture has much in common with the Perugia altar-piece, both in warmth of colour, simplicity of composition and splendid breadth of execution. The painting of this "Circumcision" is bold and resolute, the draperies sweep in broad folds round the figures. The attitude of the standing woman to the right is grand, and the earnest concentration of the faces on the ceremony, and the absence of any connecting link between them and us, give dramatic reality to the scene. Vasari writes of it: "At Volterra he painted in fresco"—(a mistake—it is his usual oil medium)—"in the church of S. Francesco, above the altar of the brotherhood, the Circumcision of our Lord, which is considered marvellously beautiful; although the Child, having suffered from the damp, was repainted by Sodoma much less beautiful than it was before."[49] This unfortunate repainting, which has also evidently included part of the Virgin's face, was more probably due to the monks' dislike of Signorelli's type of child than to any damage by weather, for it would be strange that a picture, otherwise so well preserved, should be injured by damp nowhere but in the part most protected by reason of its central position. To support this theory, under the painting by Sodoma may be clearly seen (in the painting—not in the photograph) the original legs of the Child of Signorelli, in a totally different position, showing that Sodoma had made no attempt to keep to the drawing. The monks, no doubt, preferred the more commonplace infant of Sodoma, but we, while acknowledging that the children of Signorelli are far from what they should be, may regret the loss, as did Vasari, who adds this comment: "It would be better to retain the work of excellent men, even though half spoiled, than to have it repainted by one who knows less."

A very important group of paintings apparently of about this date, bear the impress of the classic tastes of the Court of Lorenzo dei Medici, for whom they seem to have been painted. It comprises the great picture of "Pan," in the Berlin Gallery, the "Madonna," of the Uffizi Corridor, and the Munich Tondo. I have been tempted to give them a much earlier place, in the gap before the Perugia altar-piece, because they show so much of the idealism and idyllic spirit, which seem properly to belong to youth, but a careful comparison of them with that picture and the Loreto frescoes, reveals a greater maturity of technique which makes so early a placing not very probable. In all these three paintings there is an appreciation of beauty for its own sake, and a true touch of the Pantheistic spirit, combined with a melancholy grandeur, which is most impressive.

The finest of the three, the great canvas of "Pan," now in the Berlin Gallery, is the picture of which Vasari wrote: "He painted for Lorenzo dei Medici, on canvas, some nude gods, which were much praised ... and presented to the said Lorenzo."[50] Sometimes called the "School of Pan," it is more poetically described in the German catalogue "Pan, as God of Natural Life, and Master of Music, with his Attendants." It is full of poetry, and of idyllic charm with all its stately solemnity. The sad beauty of the god as he listens to the music of the pipes, the golden sunlight on the moss-green grass, the quiet peace of the scene, have an entrancing effect, and we are transported in spirit to the same "melodious plot of beechen green and shadows numberless" where Pan holds his court.

The bronze-coloured body of the god is magnificently modelled, with a solidity unequalled even in the Orvieto frescoes. The style of Pollaiuolo is noticeable, in the attitude of the youth lying at his feet, particularly in the treatment of the legs. The figure of Echo is repeated later in "The Crowning of the Elect," in Orvieto, though there it has lost much of the idyllic charm of this wood-nymph. The grouping of the figures is perhaps less happy than usual, but this time the bad values of distance are no doubt due to the rough treatment the painting has undergone. It has indeed had an eventful history. About thirty years ago it was found by the late Signor Tricca, a noted restorer of pictures, in the attics of the Palazzo Corsi, Florence. He hesitated at first to recognise it certainly as the work of Signorelli, for all the figures were covered from head to foot with draperies of obviously eighteenth-century painting. On trial, however, he found that these were easily removed, and as the nude figures were revealed, he at once identified it as the picture of the nude gods, mentioned by Vasari. It seems that it had passed into the possession of the Rinuccini family as part of the dowry of one of the Medici, and on the marriage of one of the ladies of the Rinuccini with a Marchese Corsi again formed part of the bride's portion. Soon after its discovery and restoration the Marchese Corsi died, and his brother Cardinal Corsi inherited the property. Objecting to the picture on account of the nude figures, he desired Signor Tricca to sell it, and it was then bought by Mr H. J. Ross, who offered it to the English National Gallery. On the refusal of the authorities to purchase it, it was acquired in 1873 by Dr Bode for the Berlin Gallery, of which it is one of the greatest treasures.[51] It has naturally suffered much from the process of cleaning away the later draperies, and much of the under-painting is exposed, but enough remains of its original beauty to rank it as the best of Signorelli's easel pictures.

Undoubtedly of the same date is the "Madonna," No. 74 of the Uffizi Gallery. This picture was, also, according to Vasari, painted as a present for Lorenzo dei Medici, and was for many years in the villa of Duke Cosimo at Castello. It has the same idyllic beauty in the background as the "Pan," and is painted in the same half-pagan spirit. The Virgin, it is true, sits awkwardly, and with a rather ungainly gesture of hands and arms, there are faults of drawing in the feet, and the Child is ugly and insignificant. But these are faults easy to overlook in considering the grandeur of the landscape, the beauty of the colour, and, above all, the magnificent modelling of the nude figures in the background. The Virgin gains in importance by the nobility of these athletes behind her, but it is clear that Signorelli's interest lay less in the melancholy Mother and Child, than in these superb Titans, in whom he seems to have personified the forces of Nature. How great was the influence of this picture upon Michelangelo we need only take a few steps into the Tribuna to see, in his Tondo of the Holy Family, No. 1139. The painting is set in a kind of frame in grisaille, surmounted by a head of S. John the Baptist, and two seated Prophets in medallions.

Somewhat inferior in execution, but painted in exactly the same spirit, is the "Madonna," of the Munich Gallery, formerly in the Palazzo Ginori, Florence.[52] Here, as in the last, the Virgin sits, filling the foreground space, a stately figure, with fingers pressed together, as if in prayer to the Child at her feet. The background is a classic landscape, through which runs a stream of the beautiful limpid green with which Signorelli always paints water, and by its side sits another of the noble nude figures, untying his sandal. It may be intended for S. John the Baptist, as the critics say, but I do not think that either here or in the Uffizi painting, Signorelli had any intention of adhering to traditional illustration. It seems rather as though the pictures were symbolic—expressive of some comparison in his mind between Christianity, as he perhaps conceived it for the moment, melancholy and dejected, and the Greek Pantheism, vigorous and strong, and radiant with the joy of life.

Another picture belonging to this beautiful group is the "Portrait of a Man," in the Berlin Gallery, formerly in the Torrigiani Collection, Florence. In the days before it was photographed it was considered to be a portrait of Signorelli himself, and, as it represents a man with grey hair, was naturally reckoned among his later works; but comparison with the two portraits at Orvieto show that there is no real resemblance of feature, while the technique and spirit of the painting claim a place for it among this early series.

Here again occur the classic figures, but this time with less of the idyllic feeling. On one side are hurrying Apollo and Daphne(?), on the other, one athlete has overthrown another, and stands menacingly over his prey, who tries with ineffectual gestures to beat him off—a very Pollaiuolesque scene of violence. The colouring, with its clear reds of the biretta and the robe, is very successful. With this powerful portrait closes this beautiful and interesting group of paintings, the provenance of all four of which, it will be observed, is from Florence.

The two Tondos, of the Pitti and Corsini Galleries, Florence, must have been painted at a date not far distant from those, for they have much in common in certain forms, and particularly in the rich and glowing scheme of colour.

The "Holy Family," of the Pitti Gallery, has been restored, and suffers much from thick varnish and repainting, but nothing has spoilt the harmony of the colours, nor the tender beauty of the Virgin, whose features and expression are a repetition of those of Echo in the "Pan." The Saint, who writes at the dictation of the Child, is painted with earnestness, and the whole scene is treated with the utmost religious feeling.

The "Madonna and Saints," of the Corsini Gallery, has the same warm glow of colour, and was probably painted about the same time. The Virgin sits with the Child on her left knee, clad in a red robe, round the neck of which little Loves are embroidered in gold. Over it she wears a dark-green mantle shot with gold—a form of decoration very usual with Signorelli, especially about this time. She has the beautiful, pale, honey-coloured hair which occurs so often in his works, almost the same colour which was characteristic of Palma's Venetian ladies later. To the left kneels S. Jerome, gazing up at her, and on the right is S. Bernard holding a pen and book. The painting is in a good state of preservation.

The rather insignificant type of head of S. Joseph occurs again in another "Holy Family," which belongs approximately to the same period,—that of the Rospigliosi Gallery in Rome. As far as beauty and tender grace go, this is the most successful of all his Madonnas. The daring repetition of the same features with darker colouring in the S. John behind her, I have already drawn attention to. The draperies are painted with great freedom, and a fine sweep of broad fold. They are shot, as in the Corsini Tondo, with gold in the high lights. Insignificant as is the Child in all these Holy Families, there is at the same time something pathetic and winning in the earnest, careworn little face.

Very different is the type Signorelli has adopted for the Christ in the Uffizi "Holy Family," No. 1291, which must be placed somewhere about this time, or a very little later. Here He is represented with a certain nobility of feature and gesture, although self-conscious and unchildlike. The Greek profile of the Virgin is almost identical with that of the above-mentioned Rospigliosi picture, while the powerful head of S. Joseph carries us back to the figures in the "Circumcision." The Virgin sits uneasily, ill-balanced, and with badly-modelled feet, but the beauty of the face makes amends for these defects. It is a picture full of noble qualities, both of feeling and technique, and it has besides a special importance by reason of the difference of colour, so much less heavy than usual. The flesh tints are very pale, and the shadows a silvery grey, and the whole tone is much lighter than in any of the preceding pictures. The composition is specially fine, the attention being concentrated without effort on the central figure of the Child, to which the other two serve as a kind of frame.

I cannot leave this series of early works, which includes so many Tondos, without drawing attention to the excellence of Signorelli's composition in this difficult form. The figures fill the space naturally and without any artificial bending of the heads to fit the shape; there is a sense of space, and ease of grouping, and the large sweeping lines of the draperies follow most harmoniously the curves of the panel.

With the exception of the Perugia altar-piece, none of the above-mentioned paintings are dated. Inferentially we arrive at the time when the Loreto frescoes were completed, but there is little to help in grouping the rest beyond the internal evidence they afford. I have endeavoured to place them in the order they seem most naturally to take, with reference to colour, form, and the early influences to be observed in them, but the arrangement must necessarily be somewhat arbitrary.

Fortunately this difficulty grows less and less in dealing with the later works, and the most important of them are generally dated.


[42] I shall, as far as space permits, describe those pictures of which illustrations cannot be inserted. Where the illustration is given, it becomes unnecessary.

[43] Vasari, iii. 691.

[44] Vischer, p. 79.

[45] Cavalcaselle e Crowe, viii. 507. Note 1.

[46] I have thought it best only to translate those names that are familiar to us in English.

[47] Vasari, iii. 685.

[48] Cavalcaselle e Crowe, viii. 455.

[49] Vasari, iii. 685.

[50] Vasari, iii. 689.

[51] I am indebted for the above facts to Mr H. J. Ross of Poggio Gherardo, Florence, the original purchaser of the picture.

[52] The photograph gives so little idea of the beauty of the original that I have not reproduced it.



We have now arrived at the paintings belonging to the year 1491, part of which Signorelli spent in Volterra, three works still remaining in that city to testify to the visit—"The Annunciation," of the Cathedral; the "Madonna and Saints," now in the Gallery, both dated; and a much-injured fresco in grisaille, representing S. Jerome, on the walls of the same building—the Palazzo Communale.

The "Madonna enthroned with Saints" was painted for the altar of Maffei Chapel in San Francesco, and was unfortunately removed not many years ago to the Gallery of the Palazzo Communale, suffering the greatest damage in the transit. Two large cracks run through the figures of the Child and the seated Father; large pieces of the paint have dropped away, and in the repainting the Child has lost all characteristics of Signorelli's work. In the less ruined parts, however, enough remains to testify to the original excellence of the painting, which is finely composed, and broadly and vigorously treated, especially in the draperies.

The Virgin sits enthroned between four saints, with a very Peruginesque angel on either side, and seated below, at the foot of her throne, are two Fathers of the Church, in one of whom we have repeated the burly bishop with wide-spread knees and fine sweeping drapery of the Loreto cupola, and which occurs later in the Florence Academy altar-piece. The influence of Pollaiuolo can be observed in the sculptures on the gradino of the throne, little nude figures in violent action.

In better preservation is the "Annunciation," in the Cathedral, signed, and with the same date as the foregoing. The architecture, with its excellent perspective, again reminds us that Signorelli was the pupil of Pier dei Franceschi, the painter of the wonderful loggia in the "Annunciation," of Perugia. The Virgin is painted with great feeling, and in the solemn beauty of the Archangel we get the first of those splendid creatures whose sublimity Signorelli felt in the same spirit as Dante, who bent his knees and folded his hands at the sight of the "Uccel divino," "trattando l'aere con l'eterne penne."[53]

The resemblance is so great between this painting and the "Annunciation," of the Uffizi predella (No. 1298) that we are justified in placing the latter somewhere about the same date. As is so often the case in predella pictures, especially with Signorelli's, the spontaneity and freedom of execution, and even of conception, is much greater here than in the more carefully thought-out and finished works. Small as this panel is, the rush of the great Archangel, the solemn beauty of the landscape, and the splendid attitudes of the young courtiers in the last division, make it one of the master's most important and characteristic paintings. The colour in the first panel of the "Annunciation" is especially beautiful, and there is a noble simplicity in the composition, as well as a breadth and certainty of touch that give the picture great grandeur. The predella is divided by painted pilasters into three parts. In the first the Archangel hastens through a rocky pass to announce the message, to which the Virgin bows with awed acceptance of its solemn meaning. In the second, the shepherds kneel to offer homage to the new-born Child, who lies at the Virgin's feet, while the third represents the visit of the Magi.

The same freedom of brushwork characterises another "Annunciation," of probably the same time, and treated in much the same manner, although less stately than that of the Uffizi. This is one part of a predella formerly belonging to the Mancini Collection of Citta di Castello.[54] The Archangel, with great wings half folded, and blown drapery, is just alighting at the feet of the Virgin, who has dropped her book, and drawn back with startled gesture at the impetuous rush of the messenger.

Connected with these by the same qualities of breadth of treatment, and almost modern impressionism in the conception of the scene, are two compartments of a predella, belonging to Mr Benson in London, representing "The Dispute by the Way," and "The Supper at Emmaus." In the former especially, the dramatic realism with which the Apostles are depicted, as they argue with animated gestures, is extraordinarily vivid.

Yet another predella picture—"The Feast in the House of Simon," now in the Dublin Gallery—belongs approximately to this period. It is a most beautiful representation of the scene, and is treated somewhat in the gay manner of Bonifazio or Paolo Veronese. At a long table, crowded with guests, Christ sits, with His Mother on His right hand, the master of the feast being conspicuous in the middle. Over Christ's head, the Magdalen, a charming and graceful figure, pours the ointment, and on the left of the table Judas, with expressive gesture, calls attention to the waste. Notwithstanding the small size of the panel, and the number of the figures, the effect is exceedingly spacious and free. It is a well-composed scene, full of animation, and broad in treatment, and is fortunately in a good state of preservation. The altar-pieces to which all this series of predelle belong are unknown.

We will now consider the fine Standard, painted in 1494 for the church of Santo Spirito in Urbino.[55] On one side was represented the "Crucifixion," and on the other "The Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost," but the canvases have now been divided. In the former, at the foot of the Cross is grouped the first of those characteristic scenes of the fainting Virgin which was, probably from its dramatic element, so favourite a subject with Signorelli. Sincerely and naturally felt, it in no way trenches on the melodramatic, as one or two of the later groups tend to do, and the solitary figure of Christ, raised high above the sorrowing women, is for once, among his Crucifixions, of dignity and real pathos. The solemnity of the mood given, is enhanced by the fine idea of the soldier on the left, who, impressively standing out against the sky, shades his eyes, with bewildered gesture, as though blinded by a sudden comprehension of the sacrifice. The grief of the women who tend the unconscious Virgin, is sympathetically realised, and without exaggeration of outward sorrow. The composition is specially beautiful, the sides are well-balanced, while the two mounted soldiers on either side (notwithstanding their characteristically badly-drawn horses) give the scene a ceremonious stateliness, which is very impressive.

In the "Pentecost" we have another most masterly bit of perspective and fine spacious effect. At the end of a long room, between two rows of the Apostles, is seated the Virgin. Above is God the Father, attended by two angels, and below, the tongues of flame, the gift of the hovering Dove, have alighted on the heads of all the company. Apart from the sense of space and the well-composed grouping, the technical execution does not appear so satisfactory as in the "Crucifixion," but this may be accounted for by the fact that the painting has suffered more from restoration.

Very closely allied to this Standard in composition is the fine "S. Sebastian" of Citta di Castello, painted in 1496 for the church of S. Domenico, now in the Gallery, which, in spite of its bad condition is a picture of great importance and beauty. The least satisfactory part is the Saint himself, who stands bound high up upon the tree, his sentimental face with upturned eyes and open mouth recalling the S. John of several of the Crucifixions. Above him leans God the Father, and below five soldiers string their bows or shoot, with superb gestures. Three of them are in the tight-fitting clothes in which Signorelli loved to display the fine proportions and splendidly-developed muscles of his figures, and the other two are draped only with the Pollaiuolesque striped loin-cloth. In the middle distance, burgesses and sad-faced women look on at the martyrdom, and in the background a distant street, filled with soldiers, leads steeply up to a ruined classic building, not unlike the Colosseum. The great damage which the picture has suffered makes it difficult on a superficial view to give it the place it really deserves among the master's works. The colouring is somewhat crude, especially the flesh-tints, which are red and heavy, but it must nevertheless be ranked high on account of the composition, and the fine drawing and modelling of the foreground figures.

To the following year, 1487, belong the series of eight frescoes painted by Signorelli in the cloister of the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Oliveto. Vasari writes: "At Chiusuri, near Siena, the principal habitation of the monks of Monte Oliveto, he painted on one side of the cloister eleven scenes of the life and work of S. Benedict."[56] Vasari has mistaken the number of the paintings, for there were never more than nine, even supposing the last, of which only a slight fragment remains, to have been by him. To me it seems doubtful, but the fragments are in so ruined a state, the fresco having been almost entirely cut away in the enlarging of the doorway, that certainty one way or the other is hardly possible. The remaining eight are for the most part in a deplorable condition, both from the damage of time and neglect, and also from repainting, the lower part of the foreground in all of them being completely lost, and smeared over with a surface of thick green. The paintings are very unequal, some being comparatively poor, while the two last are exceedingly fine. The story begins in the middle of the Saint's life. The first scene shows "How God punished Florenzo," a wicked rival abbot, who had tried to poison S. Benedict, and to lead his monks astray. In the background four grotesque devils are tearing down the walls of his convent, with extraordinary energy of action, and three others bear away the soul of the monk, whose body may be seen crushed beneath the ruins. In the foreground the Saint listens to the tale, told by a kneeling brother.

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