Portrait of Signorelli
There is an extraordinary difference between the painting of Perugino and that of Luca Signorelli, although they were born in neighbouring villages, grew up in the same schools and flourished at the same time. In the most felicitous periods of art, it may be noticed that artists, besides increasing in number and in power, appear with a more distinct personality, and in this way, each painter presents an essentially individual character. But when art is at a low ebb, it is monotonous and uninteresting. Forms may change their formula; colours their order, but yet everything is in the same style. The art of the day might be base, yet diversified; it is instead base and uniform.
Thus it was in the most turbulent centuries of the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, painting underwent a transformation, thanks especially to Giotto, Cavallini and the Sienese School. The forms became more beautiful, the compositions more dramatic, the colouring more cheerful, but there was little variety either between the schools or between the painters themselves. Only with the Renaissance did this become remarkable.
Taking Florence alone, let us think of the spiritual and technical difference between Andrea del Castagno and Fra Angelico, between Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi, between Ghirlandaio and Botticelli! Or in Venice, consider how different are the two Bellini from Cima, from Carpaccio! Between Perugino and Signorelli we find p140everything different, design, colour, composition, feeling! The first is simple and direct, the second is wild and powerful. And yet both descended the hill in view of Trasimene, both wended their way to Arezzo, and were together in the school of the great Pier della Francesca, both went to Florence and together they frequented the art studios and contemplated the works of the great masters, from Andrea del Castagno and Angelico to those of Verrocchio and the Pollaiuoli; possibly they may have worked at the same picture, but whilst Perugino seemed to tune his soul to the sweet voice of Angelico, Luca di Cortona listened to the call of the masters more given to reality and movement, the greatest of whom, Donatello, left a superb legacy to his disciples and followers.
The formation of the style and feeling of Signorelli developed rapidly; he had no period of uncertainty and indecision. In his earliest works he is recognizable for his figures, characteristics and colour; from the beginning he appeared prophetically anxious to discipline his talents with the life, force and ardour necessary to lead him to the victory of Orvieto.
Sometimes we can trace a slight influence from other masters in his work, such as the glittering gold and ornate stuffs which bring to mind the Umbrian painters; in the panel painted for the Sernini of Cortona he shows his knowledge of the enlightened activity of Lorenzo Lotto; he reveals his sympathy for Leonardo in the Apostles of Loreto; in the Crucifixion of Morra he repeats the idea of p141Pier della Francesca in the great forest of lances; but all these were fleeting recollections, hardly to be counted in the vast sea of his labour.
Signorelli was very soon aware that it was in direct study from life that he would find power to triumph over the problems before him, much more than in learning from the words of masters and copying what others had done. It would have been an evil day if he had contented himself with the knowledge of the nude up till then known to Art, or if he had not mastered the various movements of the body and if he had not intuitively perceived what was impossible to portray from the life owing to the fleeting expression.
Few of his drawings remain, yet he must have made thousands before he could reach the precision and assurance with which he delineated the human figure in his paintings with a terse and concise touch; and before he attained the accomplished anatomical knowledge which he reveals both in energetic action, in all foreshortening, and in repose and motion.
Such was his passion for the nude, that prior to working at Orvieto he not only made use of it in suitable pictures but also introduced it behind the portrait of a man, and in another case in a painting of the Virgin and Child, thus inspiring Michael Angelo for the circular picturea of Angelo Doni.
Signorelli studied much beside the form; he really examined his characters, making the expression agree with p142the subject, and with the age or quality of the figures represented; he was always careful to give ampleness of line, which might sometimes be rough and brutal but was more to his taste than the danger of becoming weak and languid. For this reason he did not only paint a strong figure as a type, or to exhibit muscle and gesture, but when he draped one, it was with flowing garments in large and solemn folds.
To some his colour has seemed crude and heavy, his flesh of a reddish hue, modelled on half tints of green toning into deep yellow is somewhat unpleasing, and his shade is often hard. But if this reproach be just for some easel-pictures, it is not so for his great frescoes. How would it be possible to relate the fearful tragedy of the end of the world with the smooth and clear palate of Pier della Francesca or the green-blue of Perugino? Luca, however, dramatized the actual colouring with deep insight; he rendered it capable of blazing ominously on the terrified faces of the doomed, and of shedding a livid light on the mire from which emerged the risen, or of expressing the woeful gloom of the earth.
He was also a great master in distributing masses of light and shade, creating the strong contrasts necessary for one who made his canvas so full of figures. With his chiaroscuro he carried light where the danger of confusion was threatened, using it with a frankness and daring only equalled by that of his draughtsmanship and of his lively fancy. For this reason he often disdained traditional p143iconography, not only as regards individual figures, but also in his manner of rendering the scene.
Signorelli's imagination manifested itself in the composition of many pictures and his scorn of repetition (a thing which never troubled Perugino!); he is seen free and strong in the frescoes of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, in those stories of St. Benedict, where the groups of white-robed monks are distributed with variety and rare equilibrium in contrast to the stronger colouring of the rest of the picture; when the attitude of the figures responds admirably to their feeling and the scene in which they participate. Notice, indeed, the flattering waiting-maids in the dark kitchen, who serve the monks intent on eating greedily against the order of their founder; notice the benign Saint who evangelizes the people of Cassino, or see him severely unmask to the surprise of the soldiers, the warrior who presents himself dressed as Totila! His figure perspective corresponds with that of his architecture in that he gradually decreases figures towards the background. This is not done with the suddenness of Perugino, who makes his distant figures too small; this effect he commonly produces in his painting of the mountains, with the illusion that his first plane is succeeded by a background in which all distances are merged in one, so that the figures there distributed diminish by the doubly resultant perspective of distance and of depth.
One must not, however, imagine that Signorelli loved landscape as Perugino had done; he greatly preferred architecture p144to scenery, and gave so little space to the latter, that at times he did not allow it to appear at all!
For him, as for the greatest artists of all time, the human figure had absolute preëminence; for him landscape was merely an accessory or a description, whilst the human figure was drama, was tragedy. In this way also, he was the precursor of Michael Angelo.
In the Fine Arts, as in Poetry, landscape is necessary to define the surroundings, but it should be kept within reasonable limits, as in the ancient tragedies, as in the Divine Comedy, in Orlando Furioso, in Shakespeare's Plays; as in the Roofb of the Sistine Chapel.
The power and fantasy of genius are revealed in the expression of beauty and of human passions, far more than in a descriptive background.
Thus, as the powerful genius of Luca Signorelli advances, he turns more and more to the compositions where the semblance of man and of his fateful companion occupy all his thought and his space. And his character becomes more vehement and impassioned, and the feelings that he expresses more powerful and dramatic, as his compositions become more tumultuous.
Now all is ready for his masterpiece — imagination, power of design and of brush — all is to be put forth for a work of which till then no one had dreamed. In the picture at Loreto of the Conversion of St. Paul, Signorelli had given some foretaste of what he would paint in the Last Judgment at Orvieto; in the studies of the nude he p145had trained his eye and his hand to the great problems of anatomy and of movement; we see some trace of the demons leaping out from the Etruscan walls of his native Cortona in the vaulting at Monte Oliveto, and in the dome at Loreto we catch a glimpse of what his angels might be later on in the cathedral at Orvieto.
At this point in his career good fortune befalls him. At the beginning of the fifteenth century a large chapel dedicated to San Brizio was built, adjacent to the superb cathedral of Orvieto. Forty years later the idea arose that it would be well to decorate this chapel with frescoes by Fra Angelico. He did indeed begin the work, painting two divisions of the roof, but owing to the lack of funds, he went away, never to return. Two years later, Benozzo Gozzoli appeared, offering to complete the work begun by his master. He was allowed to paint a specimen, but it was judged unworthy. Another forty years passed before the Orvietani endeavoured once more to find an artist for the important work. Finally, in 1489, they invited Perugino to come to their city and make a contract. Ten years passed and he still had not appeared, notwithstanding many entreaties. He continued to procrastinate, and at last went to Perugia to paint the Sala del Cambio.
Fresco by Perugino, in the Sala del Cambio, Perugia
Once more the citizens of Orvieto are perturbed and are actually gathered together to discuss the tardy refusal of Perugino, when it is rumoured that Luca Signorelli, the painter from Cortona, is passing through their city; he is p146already famous for his frescoes at Monte Oliveto and for many pictures.
I think of Luca Signorelli absorbed in the contemplation of the glorious cathedral of Orvieto. The 'Corporal', stained in Bolsena by the Divine Blood, is within, as jealously guarded as the heart in the body; but the vigorous pulse of faith gives life to all the members of the sacred edifice, 'like impulse kindled into outward flame'. Luca beholds the work of Lorenzo Maitani glowing in the sunshine, with cuspatedc portals, and the rose-window of snow-white tracery. The marbles are precious as ivory, the bronzes green as glowing emeralds, the mosaics sparkling as it were a flaming fire, and the wonderful vibrations produced by the whole touch and awaken the most varied sensations of our heart and of our deepest thought; and this because the marvellous architecture is light and music, history and prayer, is matter and is spirit.
Façade of Orvieto Cathedral
Signorelli, while admiring the magnificent building as it is, has his mind saturate with the new and strange power that he feels himself able to wield in depicting the Last Judgment, in contradistinction to the ancient reliefs of the façade which show ingenuous indecision of form, mingled with exquisite beauty.
And now the hour has come! He accepts the work offered to him, the contract is made, and he begins to express his idea of the terrible theme which he had had in his mind, knowing that all the powers of his spirit and his studies have been converging to this great design.
p147 It really seems that Fate had intervened towards the success of this masterpiece! Had Fra Angelico treated this great subject, it would have been with the same seraphic gentleness which we see in his 'Last Judgment' in San Marco in Florence, where he is paradisiacal with the blessed, and mildly indulgent to the rejected. Benozzo Gozzoli would have painted it in a similar way, but without the lofty purity of his master's feeling; Perugino would have filled the walls with detached figures full of suavity; in other words he would have played the flute where reality required the blare of the trumpet. And we, admiring his wisdom, firmly believe that he would not undertake the work, realizing that he was incapable of the arduous task.
And thus we see Destiny bringing to Orvieto the one man in the world capable of creating a true masterpiece which is indeed one of the glories of Italian art. Had Destiny not intervened, Luca Signorelli might never have had occasion to show forth his genius, and the walls of the chapel might have remained whitewashed, or have been decorated . . . by the brothers Zuccari!d
In the vaulting, Signorelli restrains himself in painting Apostles, Martyrs, Doctors, Virgins, partly it may be, on account of the limited space, partly to avoid discord with the earlier work done by Angelico. But on reaching the walls, he gives free play to his genius. Behold! before the destruction of this earth, Antichrist appears, and with the aid of the demon whispering in his ear, he preaches a false faith to the multitude, awaking in his hearers every ferocious p148instinct and base desire. His face, for greater deception, resembles that of Jesus Christ, but there is something sinister in his looks. Deceitful rather than pious is the inclination of the head, hearkening to the suggestions of the demon.
In the listening crowd there is a tumult of gesture and of feelings. There are those who believe in the false prophet, those who distrust him, some who would contest his assurances, others who would refute him with the sacred writings; some who uphold him; others are throwing gold at the foot of the pedestal on which he stands, amongst the pile of broken church ornaments. We see men of the people, their shirts torn off by the rough crowd, young nobles richly arrayed, aged crones and young mothers with their babes; bold cavaliers and terrified nuns; women with violent gestures; and friars, their faces full of dismay, and amongst them, the man who knows the realms 'Beyond the Tomb', who understands diabolic depravity: Dante. But the Antichrist expects to convince the people with miracles and to alarm them with torments. At the foot of the Temple on the one side he raises to life a dead man lying on a bier; on the other he has a youth beheaded who had dared to oppose him. Lower down amongst a heap of slain, an executioner pulls the halter round the neck of a poor wretch, who, yelling, tries to avoid strangulation, a group which has no equal in art for its terror. But for the Antichrist himself the hour of punishment is approaching. Raised in the air, he encounters the angel of his doom who hurls him to the ground amid the confusion of his followers, p149who in their turn are assailed by flames: a tumult of men overturned, wounded, slain, of shrieking women, of rearing horses. Marvellous as is the grouping of the crowd in flight, it is surpassed by the challenge of the angel's figure descending from heaven upon the false prophet, sword in hand.
In the spacious arch is depicted the End of the World: the solemn Prophet, the severe Sibyl are figures of a grandeur equal to Michael Angelo, whom they anticipate; there are temples shaken by an earthquake, the sun and moon obscured, the people fleeing in disorder during a rain of fire with every possible gesture of hideous terror and desperation. But the world once shaken from its axis, and humanity destroyed, we now reach the hour of the Resurrection. Amongst myriads of little angels, appear two of Herculean form, who lower the long clanging tubes with the oriflamme inflated by the wind like standards in a battle. The risen issue, not from tombs and tumuli and chasms, but from compact companies, unchanged by earth. The skeletons already freed give signs of rising; those half-imprisoned press the ground with their elbow to free themselves; in another part some emerge with their leering skulls. Others are erect, already half-clothed with their muscles; and others show 'the ancient majesty of flesh and bone'. Nearly all are gazing at the golden glory of the sky, astounded at the clangour of the divine trumpets.
After the resurrection comes the Final Judgment. In front is the fantastic entanglement of the damned and the p150sharp fight with the devils, some of whom crash from the sky, thus overthrowing of any reprobates; one carrying on his back a handsome courtesan. The three Archangels covered with shining cuirasses, advance proud and fierce from above, on the right. Each sinner has his demon, green as a serpent: that demon perhaps who has been beside him all his life tempting him to evil, and who now strikes him, or lashes or bites or tries to strangle him;
Details of the damned:º
whereas in the grand scene of the elect, a superb cohort of angels descends towards the Blessed, to crown them with garlands, to strew flowers, to gladden them with music, all hands being raised in an attitude of prayer, with the spirit and the gaze turned toward God.
Details of the blessed
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Fresco, which is one of the most wonderful fields of activity in Italian art, makes an important stride with the Orvieto paintings.
Nations, other than Italy, have had great painters: Spain glories in Velasquez and Murillo: Belgium in Van Eyck and Rubens; Holland in Rembrandt and Franzº Hals. Not one amongst them, however, has understood this vast painting of wall spaces. With us it is indissolubly allied with our monuments; in the gay, sunny Roman houses, and in the dark catacombs; in the great churches thus filled with angels and saints, and in the palaces where it lends emphasis to the liberal spirit of the Communes; in the sepulchral chapels where we mourn the dead, and in the feudal castles where force and chivalry find cheerful voice. The history p151of the fresco is almost entirely that of our art. Giotto, 'mercè sua', expresses the sweet Franciscan legend in Florence and at Assisi, and in the Arena chapel at Padua he tells the story of the life of Christ; in Florence the birth of the Renaissance lays the foundation of new beauties in the Brancaccio chapel through Masolino and Masaccio; and the Blessed Angelico, chanting his sweet psalms, passes through the cells of San Marco. Again with fresco Filippo Lippi honours in Prato the martyrdoms of St. John and St. Stephen, and in Spoleto the Coronation of the Virgin. In six different cities of Italy, the industrious Benozzo Gozzoli recounts stories from the Bible, as well as the deeds of St. Francis and St. Augustine: whilst the legend of the Cross, linking the mystery of the first death to the redemptive tragedy of the death of Jesus, is shown forth with fresh profound insight by Pier della Francesca. Then follows the forceful Mantegna in whom the admiration of the antique is mingled with modern sensibility, and as also in Melozzo da Forlì, the knowledge of perspective corresponds with liberal geniality of form.
Whilst Pintoricchio, decorating with lofty stateliness the Vatican galleries, seems desirous of covering with wondrous foliation the moral abyss of the ferocious Borgias, Domenico Ghirlandaio celebrates the beauty and grace of Florentine life, only sad at not being able to fresco the entire circle of the city walls!
Raffael, Michael Angelo and Correggio then enter the arena of art. In the Sala della Segnatura Raffael succeeds p152in accomplishing the highest illustration of artistic, humanistic and religious sentiment, paraphrasing the conception of Pico della Mirandola 'Philosophy seeks Truth, Theology finds her, Religion owns her.' Michael Angelo, great above all others, narrates in the Sistine Chapel the mysteries of the Bible and the fearsome destinies reserved for mankind, with a truly Dantesque spirit. Correggio exalts the merry blitheness of the magic dance of his saints and angels, caring not that the Constable of Bourbon passes beneath the walls of Parma with the fury of the barbarians pressing onwards to sack of Rome.
And with these outstanding men appears an infinite host of others, from laborious Lombardy to austere Latium, from the manual artificers of Roman antiquity even to Tiepolo, inexhaustible creator of scenic splendour.
The glory of fresco-painting is denied by no one to Italy; not even by those who refuse to recognize the magnificence of Roman Art, and its derivative descent from the East, under pretext of a criticism which is, and ever has been, merely the jealousy of enemies against the greatness of Italy, past and present.
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The immense work of Signorelli aroused stupendous admiration. Begun in 1499, while Plague was ravaging the whole of Umbria, and terrifying phenomena of great storms and tempests and inundations were taking place, he completed it in 1501. Thus it literally closed the fifteenth century and opened the era of colossal genius. The p153soul of Michael Angelo was glowing with preparation for that Last Judgment, which compares with the fresco of Signorelli as Orlando Furioso with Orlando Innamorato. Even so Ariosto in his poem follows the subject that Bojardo has constructed with its plots, episodes and characters, direct outcome of the Arthurian and Carlovingianº epic cycle.
With Signorelli as with Buonarroti we admire the daring, the sculptural power, the fire of composition, the passion for the form and predominance of the human figure.
In May, 1518, Michael Angelo wrote to the Captain of Cortona asking him to constrain Luca to repay eighty julios,1 lent to him five years previously on the two separate occasions, Signorelli declaring that he had already discharged the debt.
Luca was of an honest and true nature, generous and affectionate with his family and friends, he only cared for money in so far as it allowed him to live worthily, and to do good. His own town holding him in the highest esteem elected him nine times to be Prior, and an equal number did he serve on the General Council and on that of The Eighteen.
When quite a child Giorgio Vasari had the good fortune to see him, and thus described the event, after mentioning the 'Conception', painted by Luca for Arezzo; 'This work was carried from Cortona to Arezzo on the shoulders of men belonging to the Company of St. Jerome; and Luca, old as he was, wished to come and put up the picture, and p154also he desired to see his friends and relations. And because he lodged in the house of the Vasari where I lived, a little child of eight years old, I remember this good old man, who was always gracious and refined. . . . The picture placed in its right place, he returned to Cortona, accompanied a great part of the way by many citizens and friends and relations, as was his due, who lived always honoured more as a lord and a gentleman, than as a painter.'
Great therefore was the admiration for the man personally apart from his artistic talent, and he being so full of dignity, of bounty, of rectitude, we may certainly imagine that in the affair of the eighty julios Michael Angelo's loss occurred through dishonesty or carelessness of the messenger, rather than from any fault of Signorelli.
At the same time, it must be remembered that the artists of those days despaired of receiving their dues not only from their equals but also from officials, from Princes, from Governors, from Popes. Above all we should remember that Michael Angelo owed a debt far more important than the eighty julios to the old Painter of Cortona!
For even if more powerfully vast and complex is the Last Judgment of Michael Angelo, greater courage was required by the Painter of Cortona to detach himself from the composed correctness of the fifteenth century, and to attack those problems of art, some of which he himself resolved, and some he transmitted to the genius of Caprese.
For myself, I find it hard to say which of the two awe-p155inspiring works awakes in my soul the deeper admiration. We do not reach the earlier one from the superb colonnade of Bernini, passing the fluttering irisº of the fountains, and the Scala Regia; it is not in the midst of Rome populous and clamorous, but in an older building situated on a dark rock, steep and solitary, which seems to give birth to the puissant subject treated by Luca di Cortona. I know indeed that I feel more emotion when gazing on that of Orvieto, partly from the wondrous beauty of the place, and in some measure realizing what effect on the painter must have been the spirit from the Etruscan tombs of the ancient dead, a memory of that of Jehosaphat, and again from the vases on which their destiny is depicted.
Certain it is that the craftsmen of the Cathedral felt this mysterious craving and influence of those who have gone before, translating it into marble: equally certain it is that Luca Signorelli felt it expressing it in his vigorous frescoes.
The imagination of man is not sufficient for these profound ultramundane conceptions; we need the great sensations which the mystery of death bestows, the poetry of the past, the pain of the present; which hope and despair, dreams and reality, make manifest.
Thus the peripatetic voice of Daniel issues from the depths of the mountain of Orvieto, even before the summons from the storied walls of its temple: 'Many of them that sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.'
1 Julio, a Tuscan coin worth twelve cents.
a Not exactly a translation error, but even in English the usual term is the original Italian tondo. This is one of the passages that suggest that the translator of this book was himself not an authority on art, but a translator for hire. For why this matters, see my orientation page.
b Not the "roof" of the chapel is meant, but the ceiling, as even most of us laymen know. This bizarre mistake could not possibly have been made by a translator who was an art expert in his own right; this and a few similar mistakes elsewhere in the book (including others on this page: 1 • 2) make it certain that the work was rendered in English by a translator for hire. For why this matters, see my orientation page.
c Another translation problem, transparent to the Italian text: porta cuspidata — a door with a pointed gable, as is plainly seen in the book's own photograph of the façade of the cathedral here.
d The Zuccari brothers were second-tier fresco painters, of mostly decorative talent:
Spello, Palazzo Comunale:
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