When Piero della Francesca was painting his masterpieces at Arezzo, Lazzaro Vasari, great-grandfather of the historian, invited a young art student, Luca Signorelli, to come and live in the Vasari home and study with Piero. Luca had first seen the light at Cortona, some fourteen miles southeast of Arezzo (1441). He was only eleven when Piero came, but he was twenty-four when Piero finished. In the interval the youth, taking with passion to the painter’s art, learned from Piero to draw the nude body with merciless veracity—with a stern rigor that went back to his teacher, and a masculine force that pointed forward to Michelangelo. In the studio and the hospitals, under the gibbet and in the cemeteries, he sought the human body, as naked as he could find it; and he asked of it not beauty but strength. He seems to have cared for nothing else; if he painted anything else it was by impatient concession; and then, as often as not, he would use nude figures for incidental ornament. Like Michelangelo he was not at home (if we may speak so carelessly) with female nudes; he drew them with scant success; and among males he preferred not the young and fair, as Leonardo did and Sodoma, but the middle-aged man in the full development of musculature and virility.
Carrying this passion with him, Signorelli moved about among the cities of central Italy depositing nudes. After some early works in Arezzo and San Sepolcro he moved on to Florence (c. 1475), and there painted, and presented to Lorenzo, The School of Pan, a canvas crowded with naked pagan gods. Probably for Lorenzo he painted the Virgin and Child now in the Uffizi: the Virgin ample but beautiful, the background largely composed of naked men; here Michelangelo would find a hint for his Doni Holy Family.
And yet this carnal pagan could paint piously. The Virgin in his Uffizi Holy Family is one of the fairest figures in Renaissance art. At the behest of Pope Sixtus IV he went to Loreto (c. 1479), and adorned the sanctuary of Santa Maria with excellent frescoes of the evangelists and other saints. Three years later we find him in Rome contributing to the Sistine Chapel a scene from the life of Moses—admirable in its male figures, ungainly in its women. Called to Perugia (1484), he painted some minor frescoes in the cathedral. Thenceforth he seems to have made Cortona his home, producing pictures there for delivery elsewhere, and leaving it chiefly for major assignments in Siena, Orvieto, and Rome. In the cloister of the monastery of Monte Oliveto at Chiusuri, near Siena, he depicted scenes from the life of St. Benedict. For the church of Sant’ Agostino in Siena he completed an altarpiece which was ranked among his best works; only the wings remain. For the palace of the Sienese dictator, Pandolfo Petrucci, he painted episodes from classic history or legend. Then he passed on to Orvieto for his culminating achievement.
The cathedral council there had waited in vain for Perugino to come and decorate the chapel of San Brizio. It had considered and rejected Pinturicchio. Now (1499) it summoned Signorelli, and bade him complete the work that Fra Angelico had begun in that chapel half a century before. It was the favorite altar in the great cathedral, for over it hung an old picture of the Madonna di San Brizio, who (the people liked to believe) could ease the pains of childbirth, keep lovers and husbands faithful, ward off the ague, and quiet a storm. Under the ceiling frescoes where Fra Angelico had pictured the Last Judgment in the full spirit of medieval hopes and fears, Signorelli painted similar themes—Antichrist, The End of the World, The Resurrection of the Dead, Paradise, and The Descent of the Damned Into Hell. But these old themes were for him merely a frame wherein to show the naked bodies of men and women in a hundred different attitudes, and in a hundred varieties of joy and pain. Not until Michelangelo’s Last Judgment would the Renaissance see again such an orgy of human flesh. Bodies handsome or deformed, faces bestial or celestial, the grimaces of devils, the agony of the condemned sprayed by jets of fire, the torturing of one sinner by breaking his teeth and his thighbone with a club—did Signorelli delight in these scenes, or was he instructed to paint them as encouragement to piety? In any case he pictured himself (in a corner of the Antichrist) looking upon the melee with the equanimity of the saved.
After spending three years on these frescoes, Signorelli returned to Cortona, and painted a Dead Christ for the church of Santa Margherita. It was about this time that tragedy overtook him in the violent death of his favorite son. When the corpse was brought to him, says Vasari, “he caused it to be stripped, and with extraordinary fortitude, without shedding a tear, he made a drawing of the body, so that he might always behold in this work of his hands what Nature had given him and cruel Fortune had taken away.”3
In 1508 a different misfortune came. With Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Sodoma he was commissioned by Julius II to decorate the papal chambers in the Vatican. While their labors were progressing Raphael arrived, and so pleased the Pope with his initial frescoes that Julius turned over all the rooms to him, and dismissed the other artists. Signorelli was then sixty-seven, and perhaps his hand had lost its skill or steadiness. Nevertheless, eleven years later, he painted with success and acclaim an altarpiece commissioned by the Company of San Girolamo at Arezzo; when it was finished the brothers of the Company came to Cortona and carried this Madonna and Saints on their shoulders all the way to Arezzo. Signorelli accompanied them, and again lodged in the house of the Vasari. There Giorgio Vasari, a lad of eight, saw him, and received from him long-remembered words of encouragement in the study of art. Once a youth of impetuous passion, Signorelli was now a kindly old gentleman, nearing eighty, living in moderate prosperity in his native town, and honored by all. At the age of eighty-three he was elected for the last time to the governing council of Cortona. In that year, 1524, he died.
Excellent scholars4 have thought that Signorelli’s fame is inadequate to his deserts; but perhaps it exceeds them. He was a facile draftsman, who amazes us with his studies of anatomy, posture, perspective, and foreshortening, and amuses us with his use of human figures in composition and ornament. Sometimes in his Madonnas he reaches a note of tenderness, and the musician angels at Loreto have charmed discriminating minds. But for the rest he was the apostle of the body as anatomy; he gave it no sensual softness, no voluptuous grace, no glory of color, no magic of light and shade; he seldom realized that the function of the body is to be the outward expression and instrument of a subtle and intangible spirit or character, and that the sovereign task of art is to find and reveal that soul through its veil of flesh. Michelangelo took from Signorelli this idolatry of anatomy, this loss of the end in the means, and in the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel he repeated on a larger scale the physiological frenzy of the Orvieto frescoes; but on the ceiling of that same chapel, and in his sculpture, he used the body as the voice of the soul. In Signorelli painting passed at one step from the terrors and tenderness of medieval art to the strained and soulless exaggerations of baroque.