Luca Signorelli His Life

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. 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 dè Taldi. 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. 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.” 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.) 4 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.” 1 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 through-out 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.” He was, in fact, the great anatomical student among the Quattrocento artists ; and, having the same tastes, it was natural that to his work-shop 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 Cittâ di Castello, dated 1474, 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. 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, 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 .4 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 Pius II. 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.’

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.

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 Città di Castello, for the ” great ability” with which he painted a standard for the brotherhood of the Blessed Virgin,’ 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 façade of that church. 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,” 8 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. 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, and perhaps Girolamo Genga, and other pupils. He was apparently on friendly terms with the authorities, of one of whom, the treasurer Niccolô 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 Niccolô himself, in which he speaks of Signorelli as ” worthy of comparison with Apelles.”

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 i 5o6, to obtain it for him. A letter from the Prince is preserved in the Orvieto archives,3 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 Pietà 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, with-out 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.”‘ 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 15o8 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 i —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,” 2 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.’ 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.’ 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, 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.” 1 Of these later paintings the “Deposition” of Umber-tide 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.” —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. 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. 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 ornai, vestasi oscura, Che estinti son’ del Signorello i lumi ; Et tu, Pittura, fa de gli occhi fiumi, Chè resti senza lui debili e scura.”

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 else where, held in the highest veneration.”