Painter of Cortona

                    LUCA SIGNORELLI<br>Painter of Cortona<br>                                      (1441-1523)

LUCA SIGNORELLI, an excellent painter, of whom we must now speak, following the chronological order, was in his day considered more famous in Italy and his works were more highly valued than almost any other master's, no matter of what period, because he showed the way to represent nude figures in painting so as to make them appear alive, although with art and difficulty. He was the pupil of Pietro of Borgoa S. Sepolcro, and made great efforts in his youth to equal and even to surpass his master. Whilst he was working at Arezzo with his master and living with his uncle Lazzaro Vasari, as has been said, he imitated Pietro's style so well that it was hardly possible to perceive any difference. His first works were at S. Lorenzo at Arezzo, where he painted the chapel of St. Barbara in fresco in 1472, and did the processional banner in oils on cloth for the company of St. Caterina as well as that of la Trinita, which seems rather the work of Pietro dal Borgo than his own. In S. Agostino in that city he did the picture of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, with beautiful small scenes executed with design and invention. In the chapel of the Sacrament in the same place he did two angels in fresco. In the Chapel of the Accolti in the Church of S. Francesco he did a picture of M. Francesco, doctor of laws, with portraits of the doctor and some members of his family. In this work is an admirable St. Michael weighing souls, showing Luca's knowledge in the splendour of the arms, in the reflections, and indeed in the whole work. He puts in his hands a pair of scales, the nudes in either scale, one up and the other down, being finely foreshortened. Among other ingenious things there is a nude figure finely transformed into a devil, while a lizard licks the blood flowing from his wound. Here are also a Virgin and Child, St. Stephen, St. Lawrence and St. Catherine, two angels playing, one a lute and the other a rebec, all these figures being draped and wonderfully adorned. But the predella is the most remarkable, full of small figures of the friars of St. Catherine. In Perugia Luca did many works, among others a panel in the Duomo 1 for M. Jacopo Vannucci, of Cortona the John the Baptist and St. Stephen, and a beautiful angel tuning a lute. At Volterra he painted a fine Cirumcision of Christ 2 in fresco over the altar of an oratory in S. Francesco, which is considered very remarkable, although the babe having suffered from the damp was restored by Sodoma much less finely than the original. Indeed, it is sometimes better to keep the works of famous men even half-destroyed than to have them retouched by inferior hands. In S. Agostino in the same city he did a panel in tempera with a predella of small figures representing scenes from the Passion of Christ, 3 which is considered extraordinarily fine. For the lords of Monte a S. Maria he painted a dead Christ and a Nativity in S. Francesco at Citth di Castello, 4 and a St. Sebastian 5 on another panel in S. Domenico. In S. Margherita in his native Cortona, a house of the bare-footed friars, he did a dead Christ, 6 one of his finest works, and in the oratory of the Gesh in the same city he did three panels, the one near the high altar being marvellous, representing Christ communicating with the Apostles and Judas putting the lost in the money-bag. 7 In the Pieve, now called the Vescovado, he painted some life size prophets in fresco in the chapel of the Sacrament, with angels about the tabernacle opening a pavilion, while St. Jerome and St. Thomas Aquinas are at the sides. At the high altar of this church he did a fine Assumption and designed the glass for the principal rose-window, afterwards carried out by Stagio Sassoli of Arezzoo. In Castiglione Aretino he did a dead Christ 8 above the cliapel of the Sacrament with the Maries, and the doors of the presses in S. Francesco di Lucignano, in which is a coral tree with a cross at the top. He did a panel of the chapel of St. Christopher in St. Agostino at Siena, containing some saints surrounding a St. Christopher in relief. 9

From Siena he went to Florence to see the works of the masters then living and those of the dead. Here he painted some naked gods, on canvas for Lorenzo de Medici, which were much praised, and a picture of Our Lady with two small prophets; this is now 10 It Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo. He gave both works to Lorenzo, who would never allow himself to be surpassed by anyone in liberality and magnificence. He also painted a Madonna 11 in a round, which is in the audience-chamber of the captains of the Guelph party. At Chiusuri of Siena, one of the principal houses of the monks of Monte Oliveto, he painted on one side of the cloister eleven scenes of the life and acts of St. Benedict. 12 From Cortona he sent some of his works to Montepulciano, the picture which is on the high altar of the Pieve at Foiano, and others to other places of Valdichiana. In the Madonna, the principal church of Orvieto, he finished the chapel begun by Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, 13 representing all the scenes of the end of the world with curious and fanciful invention, with angels, demons, ruins, earthquakes, fires, miracles of Antichrist, and many other such things, in addition to nudes, foreshortenings, and a number of fine figures, and their terror on that great and awful day. So he paved the way for his successors, who have found the difficulties of that manner smoothed away. Accordingly I do not wonder that Luca's works were always highly praised by Michelagnolo, who in his divine Last Judgment in the chapel partly borrowed from Luca such things as angels, demons, the arrangement of the heavens, and other things in which Michelagnolo imitated Luca's treatment, as all may see. 14 Into this Work Luca introduced many portraits of friends, including his own and those of Niccolo, Paoloand Vittellozzo Vitelli, Giovan. Paolo and Orazio Baglioni, and others whose names I do not know. In S. Maria at Loreto he painted in fresco in the sanctuary of the four Evangelists, the four Doctors, and other saints, which are very fine, being liberally rewarded by Pope Sixtus. It is said that on a son, of whom he was very fond, of beautiful face and figure, being killed at Cortona, Luca caused him to be stripped, and with extraordinary fortitude, without shedding a tear, drew the body so that he might always behold in this work of his hands what Nature had given him and cruel Fortune taken away. Being summoned by Pope Sixtus to work in the chapel of the palace with other painters, he did two scenes which are reckoned among the best, one being the testament of Moses to the Hebrew people after seeing the Land of Promise, and the other his death.

At length, after working for almost every prince in Italy, and being now old, Luca returned to Cortona, 15 where he passed his last years in working more for love of it than anything else, as if after spending his life in toil he could not remain idle. He then did a panel for the nuns of S. Margherita at Arezzo, 16 and one at the oratory of S. Girolamo, part of the cost being paid for by M. Niccolo Gamurrini, doctor of laws, auditor of the Ruota, whose portrait is there, kneeling before the Madonna, to whom St. Nicholas presents him. St. Donato and St. Stephen are also there, and lower down St. Jerome naked and David singing with a psalter. Here also are two prophets who treat of the Conception, to judge by the scrolls in their hands. This work was taken from Cortona to Arezzo on the shoulders of the men of that company, and Luca, old as he was, wanted to set it up there and revisit his friends and relations. He stayed in the house of the Vasari, and as a child of eight 17 I remember the worthy old man, so gracious and refined, and when he heard from my master who taught me my letters that I did nothing but draw figures in school, he turned to my father Antonio and said, "Antonio, in order that Giorgiomay not grow worse, get him to learn to draw, because even with his other studies this cannot fail to be of assistance and honour to him as it is to all worthy men." Then turning to me as I stood before him, he said, " Learn, little kinsman, learn." he said a great deal more, which I will not repeat, because I know that I have not nearly realised the expectations which he formed of me. Knowing also that I suffered severely from bleeding at the nose, which sometimes left me in a fainting condition, he very tenderly put a jasper on my neck. This memory of Luca will remain with me for ever. Having set up the picture, he returned to Cortona, accompanied for a great part of the way by citizens, friends and relations, as his great qualities merited, and he lived rather like a great lord and gentleman than as a painter.

About this time Benedetto Caporali, a painter of Perugia, had erected a palace for Silvio Passerrini, cardinal of Cortona, half a mile outside the city. Benedetto, being fond of architecture, had just previously written a commentary on Vitruvius. 18 The cardinal wished the whole palace to be painted, and Benedetto set to work on it with the help of Maso Papacello of Cortona, his pupil, who had also studied under Giulio Romano, as will be said, and of Tommaso, and other pupils and boys, and painted almost the whole in fresco. But the cardinal desired to have some painting of Luca, and, old and paralytic as he was, he did in fresco the altar-wall of the chapel of the palace, representing John baptising the Saviour. He did not quite finish it, as he died while he was still at work on it, at the age of eighty-two. Luca was a man of the highest character, sincere and loving with friends, of gentle and pleasing conversation with everyone, and, above all, courteous to all who needed his skill, and a good master to his pupils. He lived magnificently, and was fond of fine clothes. For his good qualities he was always revered at home and abroad. I shall therefore finish this second part with the close of his life, which took place in 1521, 19 Luca being the one who by his ground-work of design, and especially of nudes, by his grace of invention and the grouping of his scenes, paved the way for the final perfection of art, and for most of those artists with whom we shall now have to deal, who put the finishing touches.

  • 1 Painted in 1484.
  • 2 Painted about 1490; now in the National Gallery, London.
  • 3 Possibly the picture now in the Louvre.
  • 4 Probably the picture now in the National Gallery, painted in 1496.
  • 5 Commissioned in 1498.
  • 6 In 1502.
  • 7 Painted in 1552.
  • 8 Probably the picture in the Berlin Gallery.
  • 9 In 1498.
  • 10 The "School of Pan," now in the Berlin Gallery.
  • 11 Now in the Uffizi.
  • 12 Commissioned in. 1497.
  • 13 Between 1499 and1509.
  • 14 About 1479.
  • 15 Between 1482 and 1484.
  • 16 In 1520; now in the Gallery, Arezzo.
  • 17 It would therefore be in 1519.
  • 18 Published in 1536.
  • 19 1523.

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