IT would not be possible, in the space at my disposal, to go with any thoroughness into the work of Signorelli’s imitators, even of those who fell directly under his influence. The painters who stand fore-most among them, Don Bartolommeo della Gatta and Girolamo Genga, are both too important to be dealt with in a short notice, while it would be a thankless as well as an arduous task, to try to distinguish the different painters of what is generically classed as school-work, being, as it nearly always is, without either individuality or merit. I shall do little more, therefore, than make a brief mention of the names and principal works of the known imitators, and try instead to indicate the influence of Signorelli’s style upon painting in general.
Morelli says much of his “uncompromising guidance,” and of the “degeneration” of those who fell under his “crushing influence.” l Something of the sort has been said of Michelangelo, and might be said of every strong man whose personality is powerful enough to stamp its mark on his contemporaries, but since no one who is content to be merely a copyist could produce valuable work, the world has probably lost little by the submission. It is, however, true that, as the powerful muscles of Michelangelo’s statues become meaningless lumps in the works of Bandinelli and Vasari, so the mannerisms of Signorelli, which were the outward sign of his strong and energetic tempera-ment, lost all significance, and were merely coarse exaggerations in the work of his imitators. The swaggering attitude, the freedom of gesture, and the dramatic expression, shorn of the strength and earnest emotion from which they sprang, became disagreeably incongruous in the pictures of the feeble painters who imitated them.
But one, at least, of Signorelli’s disciples was neither slavish nor feeble. Bartolommeo della Gatta, other-wise Piero di Antonio Dei, the most important of those who came under his influence, was a painter of great charm and ability. If it be true, as a recent criticism has pronounced, that the beautiful ” Madonna,” of the Christ Church collection, Oxford, there attributed to Pier dei Franceschi, is from his brush,’ we have to deal with a man who started work under the same ennobling influence as Signorelli himself Be that as it may, and as future research will decide, the fresco of ” The Death of Moses,” in the Sistine Chapel, which later study has presumed to be almost entirely his work, proves him to be a painter of great beauty and importance. Signor Gaetano Milanesi has thrown doubt upon his existence as a painter of anything except miniatures, but the happy discovery of a document, referring to his altar-piece of ” S. Francis receiving the stigmata,” in the Church of that Saint in Castiglione Fiorentino, has placed the fact beyond dispute.’ The student who desires to know more of this painter is referred to the last Italian edition of Cavalcaselle e Crowe, vol. viii., and to the ” Life ” by Vasari, whose reliability in this case the researches of the critics so well confirm. Born probably in 1408, he was already a man of mature age when Signorelli himself was a child, but his simple, pliable nature fitted him to be a follower rather than a leader, and we find him now influenced by Pier dei Franceschi, now by Signorelli, and again later by Fiorenzo di Lorenzo. If it be true that the really splendid painting of the Sistine Chapel is due to him entirely, it is, of course, his masterpiece, and reaches, indeed, a level not very inferior to that of Signorelli himself. His most important undisputed works are the above-mentioned painting in the church of S. Francesco, Castiglione Fiorentino, the altar – piece in the Collegiata of the same town, a S. Rock in the Gallery, and a fresco of S. Jerome, in the Bishop’s Palace, Arezzo, etc.
Another imitator of importance, Girolamo Genga, impressionable as his nature was, yet has much individual excellence to distinguish him from the rest of Signorelli’s assistants. Born at Urbino in 1476, he was placed, at the age of fifteen, in the studio of Signorelli, with whom, according to Vasari, he remained for twenty years, becoming ” one of the best pupils that he had.” After assisting the master in the painting of the Cappella Nuova, Orvieto, Genga (always according to the same authority) placed himself to study perspective with Perugino, at the time that Raffaelle was also under the influence of that painter. This, as well as the fact that he was a native of Urbino, and had probably also felt the impression of Timoteo Viti, would account for the enormous influence Raffaelle’s painting had upon his later work. He seems to have had an extraordinary facility for changing his style ; for, while under the influence of Signorelli, as in the Petrucci Palace frescoes (Nos. 375 and 376 in the Gallery of Siena), his work bears so much resemblance to that of the master, that so observant a critic as Morelli declared the composition of both to be most certainly by Luca himself.’ Genga seems to have caught, not the superficial forms only, but also the spirit of Signorelli in these frescoes, for in one” The Flight of Aeneas from Troy “there is an exaggeration of the characteristic energy and movement, which, almost hysterical though it be, is yet successful and full of real life ; while in the swaggering strength of the nude figures in ” The Rescue of Prisoners ” there is something of Luca’s own dignity and impressiveness. In his later work, although he never departs from certain likenesses to his first master, yet he gives himself up to the influence of Raffaelle unreservedly, as may be best seen in the Cesena altar-piece, now in the Brera, Milan. Morelli writes of him : ” This eclectic painter, who, though working in a baroque style, is not without talent, is confounded with the most diverse masters, both in drawings and paintings ” ; and the fact that besides the above-mentioned variations of style, his work is also pardonably attributed to Girolamo del Pacchia and to Sodoma, fully justifies the epithet and the assertion. Of the other and less important followers, Tommaso Bernabei, called Papacello, seems to have been first assistant of Giulio Romano, and then of Giambattista Caporali, with whom he is said to have painted the frescoes in the Villa Passerini, near Cortona. His first original work is of the year 1524a “Conception of the Virgin,” in the church of Santa Maria del Calcinaio, near Cortona, in which the manner of Signorelli is very apparent. In the same church are two other paintings by him, dated 1527, an ” Adoration of the Magi,” and an ” Annunciation,” which are sufficient to indicate the small amount of artistic ability of the painter. The date of his birth is unknown ; he died in 1559.
We have, besides, four members of Signorelli’s own family. First, his son Polidoro, whom we know to have been his assistant at Orvieto ; for, in a document of 1501, he is mentioned as having received certain payments there for salary, as well as for materials for the work .4 His manner of painting is unknown to us, so that it is impossible to distinguish his share in the frescoes.
Two other sons, Antonio and Pier Tommaso, were, it seems, also assistants of their father, the former being the painter of a dated altar-piece in the church of Santa Maria del Calcinaio, near Cortona. Lastly, his nephew Francesco, the most important of the assistants bearing his own name, from whose hand there are several paintings very close to the master in style. To him, at least, are attributed the standard of ” The Baptism,” in the Gallery of Città di Castello, and a Tondo of a ” Madonna and Saints,” in the Palazzo Pubblico, Cortona. There is one signed altar-piece by him, ” The Conception of the Virgin,” in the choir of S. Francesco, Gubbio.
Turpino Zaccagna is another pupil, of whom Manni writes that he was a noble youth of Cortona, who took to painting, and imitated Signorelli’s style.’ Of his work remains an altar-piece in the church of S. Agata di Cantalena, near Cortona, signed and dated 1537.
With him the list of known pupils closes. But more really important than either of these minor scholars is the unknown imitator who painted the beautiful ” Magdalen,” of the Florence Academy. Executed on linen, and evidently intended for a church standard, this is the most successful of all the works in Signorelli’s manner, which yet cannot be accepted as genuine. The design of the principal figures in the foreground and middle distance I believe to be by Signorelli himself, and the intensity of emotion in the Magdalen, who has cast herself at the foot of the Cross, and the impressive grandeur of the three figures to the right, have lost none of the original spirit of the master. The colour is entirely different, and would alone preclude the acceptance of the painting as Signorelli’s work, but, moreover, the general effect has so little of his sweeping breadth, and the details of the shadowy landscape are so poorly composed, that it is probable even the whole of the drawing is not by him.
An interesting picture in the Gallery of Buda-Pesth, there attributed to Luca himself, connects the charming and mysterious “Griselda ” series (Nos. 912, 913, and 914), of the National Gallery, with some follower of Signorelli, for it is sufficient to glance at the back-ground of this “Tiberius Gracchus” to be convinced that its painter is the same unknown master. In the ” Griselda ” pictures there is more evidence than here of the influence of Pintorricchio, to whom they are, not unnaturally, attributed ; while in the “Tiberius,” in the drapery of the figure, and the type of the children who support the tablet, especially, there is much of the real spirit of Signorelli, as well as a good deal of his breadth and solidity of drawing. The painter must, for the present, remain as an unknown Umbrian, almost equally influenced by Pintorricchio and Luca, and with peculiar qualities of simple grace and romance, which give his work an extremely individual character.
Very different is the imitation of Signorelli’s manner-isms in such works as ” The Nativity,” of the National Gallery, ” The Madonna and Saints,” of the Gallery of Cittâ di Castello, and ” The Abbondanza,” of the Uffizi. In these the imitation is mechanical, and without any comprehension of the master’s spirit. It would be useless to mention more of the school-work, in which superficial excellences and defects are copied with equal zeal.
On the other hand, the spiritual qualities which these mechanical imitators missed, were felt intensely by men who never adopted his mannerisms, and it is in the work of these that the real effect of Signorelli’s influence is to be found. The frescoes of Orvieto never became, like Masaccio’s in the Carmine, a school to which the younger painters thronged, purposely to learn the methods of the master, but their impressive grandeur and solemnity, and the breadth of brushwork and solid modelling by which these qualities were in a great measure obtained, worked, nevertheless, a very important change in the Art of the time, and a wave of strong fresh blood was sent through its veins. With-out them, perhaps, we should never have had the same appeal to the imagination and the nobler instincts in the Sistine paintings, although there is not in the whole of the work one single mannerism from Signorelli’s style. But what is called the ” Terribilitâ ” of the older master was entirely free from the sombre melancholy which strikes so gloomy a note in the work of Michelangelo. Signorelli’s greatest gift to us is his conception of humanity, not only of its robust strength, but of its mental vigour. His figures are solemn, but it is a solemnity untainted with sadness, conscious only of the dignity of the human race, its significance and responsibilities.
By his power over his materials, won by hard study, he added much to Art, and presented things, not as conventional symbols, but as they are actually reflected on the eye. His people stand on solid ground by the help of firm muscle, substantial realities that we feel could be touched and walked round. His atmosphere gives the sense of real space and air. His trees seem to have roots, and their branches to be full of sap. By this truth and power of presenting things as they are he was able to endow his paintings with his own conception of Nature, grander and wider than our own, and to make us see mankind with his eyes, built on broader, stronger lines. Nothing trivial or insignificant enters into his perception of life. He takes his place with Mantegna, with Dürer, and with Cossa, the austere painters, who felt the dignity of life to lie in rugged strength, iron resolution, and unflinching self-reliance.