Luca Signorelli – Development And Characteristics Of His Genius

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 tempera-ment, 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. 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, Rumohr, and, above all, Vischer, 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 them-selves 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,’ 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 1 ; 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. No-where do we see nobler beauty than in his angels and archangels. In these “divine birds “2 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 in-attention, 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,’ 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’ 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. Niccolô, 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 liredella 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 some-thing 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 æsthetic 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.” 1 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.