SIGNORELLI, LUCA ( 1445/50-1523). This pupil of Piero della Francesca strove in frescoes and altar-pieces to achieve monumental treatment of the human body. He is mainly known for his frescoes of the 'End of the World' in Orvieto Cathedral.
Luca d'Egidio di maestro Ventura de' Signorelli was born in Cortona, probably about 1441, since Vasari mentions his age as eightytwo when he died, even though he gives the date of his death falsely as 1521 when the actual date is registered as October 16, 1523. The beginnings of his style are not to be found in Cortona, since most of the local work was executed by foreign masters ( Lorenzetti, Sassetta, Fra Angelico), but are probably in Arezzo under the influence of Piero della Francesca. Both the style of his early work and his praise by Luca Pacioli in the Summa Arithmetica as degno discipulo of Piero indicate that he was probably an active pupil of the Borgo master while the latter was at work on the San Francesco series. Vasari mentions a number of early works in churches of Arezzo (e.g., Sant' Agostino and San Lorenzo, 1472, and a chapel in San Francesco), which are lost. A badly damaged fresco in Città di Castello was painted in 1474. By 1475 Signorelli was in Florence for a period of years and came under the influence of the VerrocchioPollaiuoli group there. Beginning in 1479, he appears to have been quite active in the public affairs of his home town, Cortona, where he was elected to various political offices and even treated with Francesco di Giorgio in Gubbio ( 1484) in the attempt to hire him for the building of the Chiesa del Calcinaio near Cortona. A considerable number of important outside projects took him away from Cortona, such as the frescos in the Sagrestia della Cura in Loreto (ca. 1480), the fresco panels in the Sistine Chapel ( 1482-83) ; in 1491 he was in Florence in the capacity of counsel for the cathedral façade and executed several panels for Lorenzo Magnifico the following year. He was in Orvieto at various times ( 1499-1506) working on the decoration of the Cappella Brizio, which Fra Angelico began. In 1506 he went to Siena, where he made cartoons for a floor mosaic in the cathedral (not executed) and took part in the fresco decoration of the Pandolfo Petrucci palace (executed largely by Girolamo Genga). He was called to serve Julius II, together with Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Sodoma in Rome in 1508/9 and went there again in 1513, contacted Michelangelo, but failed to receive a commission from the Pope. In 1512 he was sent to Florence as ambassador of Cortona in honor of the return of the Medici, and after the trip to Rome remained most of the time in Cortona until his death in 1523.
An example of Signorelli's early work is the Flagellation panel in the Brera Museum, Milan, which gives the basic elements of his style. It shows the luminosity of color, the use of light as a means of clarifying forms in the space (cf. the shadows cast from the legs), and the monumental composition of figures as used by Piero in the Urbino Flagellation. The exaggerated movement of the nude scourging figures reflects the influence of the Pollaiuoli brothers (cf. the engraving of Fighting Nudes, ca. 1470), and such a grandiose pose and gesture as that of the warrior at the right suggests a new figure consciousness that is developed both by Signorelli and other masters in later work of the century.
The frescos on the walls and cupola of the Sagrestia della Cura in Loreto were painted about 1480 and represent eight seated Evangelists and Church Fathers with swaying angels playing musical instruments (in the cupola) and pairs of apostles, Christ and the Doubting omas, and the Conversion of Saul on the walls. Compared with Signorelli's altar pictures the works are inferior in quality, which may be due to participation of assistants (e.g., Bartolommeo della Gatta). When compared with the parallel cupola decoration by Melozzo da Forli, however, the design shows a different principle whereby the figures are subordinated to the architectural framework, composed smaller, and made to recede into the darker space behind the triangular frames, as opposed to Melozzo's more forceful and freely composed figures separated from the decorative background.
The frescos in the Sistine Chapel were executed shortly afterward (i.e., 1482/3) and begin with the completion of Perugino's Christ giving the Keys to St. Peter, namely the two apostles behind Christ and the portraits of Alphonse of Calabria, the architect Giovanni de' Dolci, and a third anonymous figure. Thereupon follow the Testament of Moses and the Battle of the Archangel Michael with Satan for the body of Moses (the latter fresco destroyed). The designs appear to have been made by Signorelli under considerable influence of the Florentines, while the execution, as in Loreto, was carried out with the collaboration of Bartolommeo della Gatta ( Don Piero Antonio Dei). The next major fresco project appears many years later, from about. 1497 until. 1501, when he decorates the cloister of Monte Oliveto Maggiore with eight rather weakly composed scenes, related somewhat to the Orvieto frescos, from the life of St. Benedict -- again with considerable collaboration of assistants.
Signorelli's most important work is undoubtedly the decoration of the Cappella Nuova (also called the Cappella Brizio) in the Cathedral of Orvieto. Two of the vaults, it will be remembered, were painted by Fra Angelico in 1447 with a Christ Enthroned surrounded by the Celestial Hosts of a Last Judgment. The first contract of April 5, 1499, called for the completion of the remaining unfinished vaults; the next year (April 23) a second contract was given for the further decoration, to be executed by his own hand, of the walls with scenes of the Last Judgment, the major part of which (from the recorded payments) was done by 1504, the final completion in 1506.
The continuation of Fra Angelico's and Gozzoli's frescos of the vaults by Signorelli included the choirs of Apostles and Angels with the symbols of Christ's Passion (the cartoons for which were probably left by Fra Angelico and used by Signorelli), Church Doctors, Martyrs, and Virgins. The chapel itself is of rectangular shape and is divided into two bays covered by Gothic cross vaults between the ribs of which (i.e., in the triangular spandrels) these groups of Christ as Judge and the Celestial Hosts are painted. On the two sides of the altar wall, which is divided by the large center window, are scenes of Heaven and Hell, with its Dantesque motifs of Charon's boat and the flaming city. On the side walls of the first bay from the altar are larger scenes with the Crowning of the Elect (left) and the Fall of the Damned (right). Facing the second bay are two more scenes of the same size, with the Preaching and Fall of the Antichrist (left) and the Resurrection (right). Around the arch and on either side of the doorway on the entrance wall are the Prophecies (by David and the Sibyls) and the Destruction of the World. A series of decorative fresco panels below these scenes contain framed portraits of famous men of antiquity (supposedly Homer, Empedocles, Lucian, Horace, Ovid, and Virgil) surrounded by medallions in grisaille with scenes freely chosen from Virgil Aeneid, Horace Odes, Ovid Metamorphoses, and Dante Purgatory. ? The end wall is damaged by a seventeenth-century altar; the niche cut into the lower section of the side wall contains a fragment of a PietA fresco, and figures probably of the Orvieto patron saints, Petrus Parens and Faustinus; on the arch are medallions depicting their martyrdoms. The arches about the three windows of the altar wall contain lute-playing angels, with male saints below them (probably Saints Brizio and Costanzo); the Archangels Raphael (with Tobias) and Gabriel; and the Archangel Michael with the scales.
In the analysis of the style it is significant to note first Signorelli's apparent originality in the interpretation of content, which is not based on the traditional orthodox representation of the Last Judgment (i.e. Giotto's) but seems to be developed out of a didactic, more popular religious background similar to the moralistic representations of the Trecento after the Great Plague (cf. the Triumph of Death in Pisa). The iconographical sources are to be found in Dante Divine Comedy as well as in the book of Revelations. Possible influences or parallels appear in the general moralistic tendencies of the time revealed in the popular sermons (Savonarola), the mystery plays, and the graphic arts (e.g., the Lombard woodcut series of the Antichrist of 1496). The penetrating, fanatical character of the content, the stage-like compositions of the scenes, and the strong, angular design of the figures might suggest a direct influence of these elements.