Earliest Works Of Luca Signorelli

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, how-ever—” 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 some-what, 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, 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 over-weighted, 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.” l 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,’ 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 back-ground, 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’ 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,’ and an angel, most beautiful, who tunes a lute.” 2 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, not-withstanding 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 ;’ 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.” This unfortunate re-painting, 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, other-wise 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.”‘ 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 notice-able, 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 under-gone. 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. 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.’ 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 re-semblance 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.