Luca Signorelli – Middle Period

WE have now arrived at the paintings belonging to the year 1491, part of which Signorelli spent in Volterra, three works still remaining in that city to testify to the visit—” The Annunciation,” of the Cathedral ; the “Madonna and Saints,” now in the Gallery, both dated ; and a much-injured fresco in grisaille, representing S. Jerome, on the walls of the same building—the Palazzo Communale.

The ” Madonna enthroned with Saints ” was painted for the altar of Maffei Chapel in San Francesco, and was unfortunately removed not many years ago to the Gallery of the Palazzo Communale, suffering the greatest damage in the transit. Two large cracks run through the figures of the Child and the seated Father; large pieces of the paint have dropped away, and in the repainting the Child has lost all characteristics of Signorelli’s work. In the less ruined parts, however, enough remains to testify to the original excellence of the painting, which is finely composed, and broadly and vigorously treated, especially in the draperies.

The Virgin sits enthroned between four saints, with a very Peruginesque angel on either side, and seated below, at the foot of her throne, are two Fathers of the Church, in one of whom we have repeated the burly bishop with wide-spread knees and fine sweeping drapery of the Loreto cupola, and which occurs later in the Florence Academy altar-piece. The influence of Pollaiuolo can be observed in the sculptures on the gradino of the throne, little nude figures in violent action.

In better preservation is the “Annunciation,” in the Cathedral, signed, and with the same date as the foregoing. The architecture, with its excellent perspective, again reminds us that Signorelli was the pupil of Pier dei Franceschi, the painter of the wonderful loggia in the ” Annunciation,” of Perugia. The Virgin is painted with great feeling, and in the solemn beauty of the Archangel we get the first of those splendid creatures whose sublimity Signorelli felt in the same spirit as Dante, who bent his knees and folded his hands at the sight of the ” Uccel divino,” ” trattando l’aere con l’eterne penne.”

The resemblance is so great between this painting and the ” Annunciation,” of the Uffizi predella (No. 1298) that we are justified in placing the latter some-where about the same date. As is so often the case in predella pictures, especially with Signorelli’s, the spontaneity and freedom of execution, and even of conception, is much greater here than in the more carefully thought-out and finished works. Small as this panel is, the rush of the great Archangel, the solemn beauty of the landscape, and the splendid attitudes of the young courtiers in the last division, make it one of the master’s most important and characteristic paintings. The colour in the first panel of the ” Annunciation” is especially beautiful, and there is a noble simplicity in the composition, as well as a breadth and certainty of touch that give the picture great grandeur. The predella is divided by painted pilasters into three parts. In the first the Archangel hastens through a rocky pass to announce the message, to which the Virgin bows with awed acceptance of its solemn meaning. In the second, the shepherds kneel to offer homage to the new-born Child, who lies at the Virgin’s feet, while the third represents the visit of the Magi.

The same freedom of brushwork characterises another ” Annunciation,” of probably the same time, and treated in much the same manner, although less stately than that of the Uffizi. This is one part of a predella formerly belonging to the Mancini Collection of Cittâ di Castello.’ The Archangel, with great wings half folded, and blown drapery, is just alighting at the feet of the Virgin, who has dropped her book, and drawn back with startled gesture at the impetuous rush of the messenger.

Connected with these by the same qualities of breadth of treatment, and almost modern impressionism in the conception of the scene, are two compartments of a predella, belonging to Mr Benson in London, representing ” The Dispute by the Way,” and “The Supper at Emmaus.” In the former especially, the dramatic realism with which the Apostles are depicted, as they argue with animated gestures, is extraordinarily vivid.

Yet another predella picture—” The Feast in the House of Simon,” now in the Dublin Gallery—belongs approximately to this period. It is a most beautiful representation of the scene, and is treated somewhat in the gay manner of Bonifazio or Paolo Veronese. At a long table, crowded with guests, Christ sits, with His Mother on His right hand, the master of the feast being conspicuous in the middle. Over Christ’s head, the Magdalen, a charming and graceful figure, pours the ointment, and on the left of the table Judas, with expressive gesture, calls attention to the waste. Notwithstanding the small size of the panel, and the number of the figures, the effect is exceedingly spacious and free. It is a well-composed scene, full of animation, and broad in treatment, and is fortunately in a good state of preservation. The altar-pieces to which all this series of predelle belong are unknown.

We will now consider the fine Standard, painted in 1494 for the church of Santo Spirito in Urbino.’ On one side was represented the ” Crucifixion,” and on the other ” The Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost,” but the canvases have now been divided. In the former, at the foot of the Cross is grouped the first of those characteristic scenes of the fainting Virgin which was, probably from its dramatic element, so favourite a subject with Signorelli. Sincerely and naturally felt, it in no way trenches on the melodramatic, as one or two of the later groups tend to do, and the solitary figure of Christ, raised high above the sorrowing women, is for once, among his Crucifixions, of dignity and real pathos. The solemnity of the mood given, is enhanced by the fine idea of the soldier on the left, who, impressively standing out against the sky, shades his eyes, with bewildered gesture, as though blinded by a sudden comprehension of the sacrifice. The grief of the women who tend the unconscious Virgin, is sympathetically realised, and without exaggeration of outward sorrow. The composition is specially beautiful, the sides are well-balanced, while the two mounted soldiers on either side (notwithstanding their characteristically badly-drawn horses) give the scene a ceremonious stateliness, which is very impressive.

In the “Pentecost” we have another most masterly bit of perspective and fine spacious effect. At the end of a long room, between two rows of the Apostles, is seated the Virgin. Above is God the Father, attended by two angels, and below, the tongues of flame, the gift of the hovering Dove, have alighted on the heads of all the company. Apart from the sense of space and the well-composed grouping, the technical execution does not appear so satisfactory as in the ” Crucifixion,” but this may be accounted for by the fact that the painting has suffered more from restoration.

Very closely allied to this Standard in composition is the fine ” S. Sebastian ” of Cittâ di Castello, painted in 1496 for the church of S. Domenico, now in the Gallery, which, in spite of its bad condition is a picture of great importance and beauty. The least satisfactory part is the Saint himself, who stands bound high up upon the tree, his sentimental face with upturned eyes and open mouth recalling the S. John of several of the Crucifixions. Above him leans God the Father, and below five soldiers string their bows or shoot, with superb gestures. Three of them are in the tight-fitting clothes in which Signorelli loved to display the fine proportions and splendidly-developed muscles of his figures, and the other two are draped only with the Pollaiuolesque striped loin-cloth. In the middle distance, burgesses and sad-faced women look on at the martyrdom, and in the background a distant street, filled with soldiers, leads steeply up to a ruined classic building, not unlike the Colosseum. The great damage which the picture has suffered makes it difficult on a superficial view to give it the place it really deserves among the master’s works. The colouring is somewhat crude, especially the flesh-tints, which are red and heavy, but it must nevertheless be ranked high on account of the composition, and the fine drawing and modelling of the foreground figures.

To the following year, 1487, belong the series of eight frescoes painted by Signorelli in the cloister of the Benedictine Monastery of Monte Oliveto. Vasari writes : ” At Chiusuri, near Siena, the principal habitation of the monks of Monte Oliveto, he painted on one side of the cloister eleven scenes of the life and work of S. Benedict.”‘ Vasari has mistaken the number of the paintings, for there were never more than nine, even supposing the last, of which only a slight fragment remains, to have been by him. To me it seems doubtful, but the fragments are in so ruined a state, the fresco having been almost entirely cut away in the enlarging of the doorway, that certainty one way or the other is hardly possible. The remaining eight are for the most part in a deplorable condition, both from the damage of time and neglect, and also from repainting, the lower part of the foreground in all of them being completely lost, and smeared over with a surface of thick green. The paintings are very unequal, some being comparatively poor, while the two last are exceedingly fine. The story begins in the middle of the Saint’s life. The first scene shows ” How God punished Fiorenzo,” a wicked rival abbot, who had tried to poison S. Benedict, and to lead his monks astray. In the back-ground four grotesque devils are tearing down the walls of his convent, with extraordinary energy of action, and three others bear away the soul of the monk, whose body may be seen crushed beneath the ruins. In the fore-ground the Saint listens to the tale, told by a kneeling brother.

The scene is conceived in a spirit somewhat trivial for Signorelli, and has but little of his usual stately strength. The composition is too much crowded on one side, and, as far as can be judged from the state of the fresco, the draperies of the monks are mechanically treated. The parts most worthy of praise seem to be the vivacity of the devils, and the effect of spacious distance, but it is in so damaged a condition that it would be unfair to be over-critical.

The next is in an even worse condition. It illustrates ” How S. Benedict converted the inhabitants of Monte Cassino,” to whom, supported by two monks, he preaches in the foreground. In the middle distance others pull down from its pillar the statue of Apollo, worshipped by these people. This is a very much finer painting. The composition is again overcrowded on one side, but there is much noble dignity in the figures of the three monks, and the beautiful architecture and perspective of the Temple, are admirable. The foreground has been entirely destroyed, the draperies are nearly effaced, and a little town in the background is so smeared over with green paint, that the effects of distance are lost.

No. III. is in better condition, though very much injured in the foreground. It shows ” How S. Benedict exorcised the Devil upon the stone,” who guarded the place where the statue of Apollo was buried, which brought a curse on the convent. In the background is seen the disinterment of the statue, and to the right, the vengeance of the Devil, who sets fire to their building. Flames burst through the windows, and the monks hasten with excited gestures to quench them. These remind one in their naiveté of Carpaccio’s scurrying friars, in S. Giorgio degli Schiavone, Venice. There are some very fine bits in this fresco; the attitude of the monk to the left who is heaving up the stone is exceedingly good and true to nature, and the landscape is spacious and distant.

No. IV. shows ” How S. Benedict resuscitated the monk upon whom the wall fell,” the scene of the death taking place in the background, the Devil having precipitated him from the scaffolding on which he was at work. In the middle distance three brothers bear the dead body, and in the foreground the Saint stands and raises him again to life. This fresco is very fine both in general composition and detail. The little scene of the death is full of action and animation, the group of monks who bear the corpse is dignified, and very noble is the kneeling figure of the resuscitated friar.

The paintings get gradually better, as though Signorelli had warmed to his task. The next is very charming and one of the most successful in composition. It illustrates ” How S. Benedict reveals to two monks where and when they had eaten out of the Convent.” The two disobedient brothers sit in the foreground of a long room (of most excellent perspective), and are served with meats and drinks. At the end of the room, at the open doorway stands the graceful figure of a youth. The section of the wall is given, showing in the distance the penitent brothers on their knees before the Saint, who has reproved their disobedience. There is something almost German in the domestic simplicity with which Signorelli has conceived the scene. The woman who waits on the right is Peruginesque in type and attitude, although with the robust physique that belongs to Signorelli. The fresco is much repainted especially in the roof.

The next shows ” How S. Benedict reproves the brother of the monk Valerian for his violated fast,” and reveals to him that it was the Devil who had tempted him in the disguise of a traveller, the different scenes, as usual, going on in the background. In front the youth kneels before the monks, and to the right the Devil, his horns showing through his cap, tempts him. In the distance they can be seen feasting under a rock. The fresco is much injured and repainted, but the figure of the Devil with the bundle over his shoulder is very fine and well drawn.

The two last of the series are the best. Signorelli has in them given the rein to his love of martial scenes, and painted them with great animation and verve. In No. VII. we have the scene ” How S. Benedict discovers the deceit of Totila,” and unmasks the shield-bearer, who, disguised as the King of the Goths, comes to prove the knowledge of the saint. In the background, a plain covered with camps and soldiers, Totila sends forth his servant, and in the foreground the Saint, surrounded by four monks, proclaims to him his identity. States-men, arrogant pages, and warriors, stand behind the exposed shield-bearer. It is interesting to observe how Signorelli’s attention has wandered from the empty faces and mechanically executed draperies of the monks, and concentrated itself on this group. The figures, in their tight clothes, are superbly posed and modelled, especially the three who stand next to the shield-bearer.

The last of the frescoes is almost as fine a study of magnificent attitude. It shows ” How S. Benedict recognises and welcomes Totila,” the real King of the Goths, who kneels before him, surrounded by his army on horse and foot. In the background, troops are marching with great animation (one of those fine effects of combined movement so characteristic of the master). Some of the foreground figures are again splendidly drawn and modelled, and the mounted soldiers sit their horses exceedingly well.

In these two last paintings we get a hint of the great work that was to come three years later—at Orvieto. Signorelli has put forth all his strength in these groups of swaggering youths in every posture of conscious power and pride, and never perhaps been more successful in individual figures. Some of the faces in the last fresco appear to be portraits, and if it be true, as Vasari says, that he painted the Vitelli and Baglioni, it is here probably that we should find them rather than among the audience of Antichrist.

In running the eye down the whole series of frescoes, the scheme of colour, as far as can be judged in their present condition, does not strike one as pleasant. Crude blues, emerald greens, brownish purples, heavy earthen browns—these are the pre-dominating tints. The flesh tones are uniformly red and heavy. Neither is the decorative effect of the compositions specially good, as at Loreto, and more particularly at Orvieto. Perhaps even, on a superficial view, the space-filling by Sodoma is happier, and has a more imposing effect. It is chiefly in detail that the great qualities of Signorelli show themselves.

The rest of the walls of the large cloister are painted with twenty-seven subjects by Sodoma, showing the youth and hermit – life of the saint, and continuing, after the series by Signorelli, with his miracles and his old age. Although the subjects chosen by Luca illustrate the later years, yet they were painted first, and it is probable that the place of each scene was arranged before any of the work was entered upon.

The year following the execution of these frescoes Signorelli was in Siena, painting the two wings for the altar-piece of the Bicchi family, formerly in the church of S. Agostino, now in the Berlin Gallery, No. 79. A MS. of the Abbate Galgano Bicchi, which gives the date, speaks of it as an Ancona, the centre of which was a statue of S. Christopher by Jacopo della Quercia, and with a predella, which the Abbate minutely describes. Nothing now remains of the altar-piece but these two beautiful wings, one of which contains figures of the Magdalen, Santa Chiara, and S. Jerome, the other, of S. Augustine, S. Antonio and S. Catherine of Siena. Vasari writes of it : “At Siena he painted in Sant’ Agostino, a picture for the chapel of S. Cristofano, in which are some Saints surrounding a S. Christopher in relief.”

Both panels are of very rich and harmonious colour, especially the one containing the noble figure of the Magdalen, in her green robe shot with gold and deep red mantle, and her ropes of honey-coloured hair.

Perhaps about the same date, perhaps somewhat earlier, we may place the fine Tondo (No. 79B) hanging in the same gallery, formerly in the Patrizi collection, Rome. I have not given it its usual name of a ” Visitation,” because that scene, conventionally treated, took place before the birth of the children who here play so important a part. Signorelli has, according to his habit, conceived the subject without any reference to traditional custom. I have already spoken of the ease with which he composes in the Tondo form, and this is perhaps the best example of his skill. The natural grouping of the figures, the sweeping curves of the draperies, which, especially that of S. Joseph accentuated with gold, carry out the lines of the circle, give a sense of rest and harmony to the eye. The scene is treated with a simplicity and noble dignity which deserve special praise. It is in some ways the most sympathetic of all his Holy Families, and he seems to have felt the charm of every-day simple life, and for once has given the Christ the life and beauty of childhood. The tender foreboding sadness in the face of the Virgin, the reverential sympathy of the aged Elizabeth, and the kindly care with which the powerful Zacharias holds the Child, are touches full of poetry.

Morelli places this Tondo as a late work, but the soft and harmonious colour, as well as the poetic feeling, seem to belong to this period, before the painting of the Orvieto frescoes, if not even earlier.

Lastly, in this group must be placed the Standard of Borgo San Sepolcro, painted for the Confraternity S. Antonio Abbate, now in the Municipio. It is interesting to note, as its position in the Gallery allows us to do, how completely Signorelli has now detached himself from the influence of his first master —outwardly at least. No greater contrast could well be, than the unrestful dramatic realism of the “Crucifixion ” on this Standard, and the inspired serenity of the “Resurrection” of Pier dei Franceschi close by ; than the coarsely – conceived figure of the crucified Christ, with its heavy features and uncouth limbs, and the spiritual beauty of the risen Saviour.

This “Crucifixion” is the least successful of all Signorelli’s renderings of this subject (with the exception, perhaps, of the Morra fresco), both from its technical defects of extreme hardness and heavy colour, as well as from the lack of any real feeling in the painter for his subject. The unfortunate introduction of the patron saint, posing as Joseph of Arimathœa, disturbs the harmony of the mood, while his exaggerated gesture contrasts disagreeably with the apathetic coldness of the other figures, over-dramatic as their action is. The Christ is treated deliberately as a study of muscle, and is among the most ignominious of his types, and the fantastic landscape, with its shadowy rocks and solid clouds, is badly composed and without existence. Although there is no trace of the influence of Piero remaining, yet there is much of Antonio Pollaiuolo, especially in the muscular figure and bent legs of the Christ.

The two large Saints on the reverse of the Standard are, on the – other hand, imposing and noble figures, splendidly painted in Signorelli’s grandest and most sweeping manner. S. Antonio, in the black habit of the order for which the banner was executed, stands reading in a book, and by his side is S. Eligio, the smith-saint, in red mantle and dark-green robe, holding in one hand the farrier’s tool, and in the other the cut-off horse’s hoof of the legend. Below kneel small figures of four brothers of the Confraternity.

We have now come to the end of the series of works, executed, as nearly as can be judged, between 1490 and 1499, and with the latter date have arrived at the time of the painting of the Orvieto frescoes, which were to be the crowning point in the life’s work of the master.