Like Mannequins

Charles Hope

  • The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli by Tom Henry
    Yale, 456 pp, £50.00, ISBN 0 300 17926 X

There used to be a widespread practice in Italy, particularly in the 1960s and in Tuscany, of removing baroque additions of all kinds from old churches, in a usually implausible attempt to restore them to something resembling their medieval appearance. This led to the destruction or dispersal of many fine works of art, and often gave the restored buildings an empty appearance they had probably never previously had, or been meant to have. The practice was not new. Already, in the last quarter of the 19th century, the huge gothic cathedral of Orvieto, whose façade has been imitated in religious buildings from Beijing to Guadalajara and the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, was emptied in much the same way. Besides alterations to the façade, a series of large and mostly rather dull baroque altarpieces and their elaborate frames on the side altars of the nave were removed, together with two rows of large and fine marble statues of saints. Without these late and supposedly inappropriate additions, the nave now has something of the feeling of an aircraft hangar. Fortunately, most of the decoration of the east end of the building was spared, presumably because it dated from before the then despised era of the baroque. But what survives demonstrates that already in the Renaissance simplicity and lack of decoration were not highly valued by the Church authorities.

This is particularly evident from the Chapel of San Brizio, an almost freestanding structure at the end of the right aisle, which is and probably always was the main tourist attraction of the cathedral and includes one of the most elaborate and intact painted decorative schemes of the Renaissance. It is almost entirely the work of Luca Signorelli, who covered the upper part of the walls and ceiling with frescoes illustrating the end of the world and the Last Judgment, with panels of figures framed by elaborate decoration below. Fra Angelico had begun the frescoes in 1447, but he painted only part of the vault before abandoning the task. In 1491, the cathedral authorities tried to interest Perugino in the job, but he left after a few days, and it was only in 1499, after it was clear that he had no intention of returning, that they hired Signorelli, who carried out the decoration with various assistants over the next five years.

It is not known whether Fra Angelico had intended to illustrate the scheme Signorelli followed, but the small section of the vault that he actually painted, with Christ in Judgment surrounded by angels and a group of patriarchs, indicates that the theme of the Last Judgment was to be depicted from the first. This does not mean, of course, that he, like Signorelli, would have filled the walls with narrative paintings showing episodes such as the Coming of the Antichrist, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Ascent of the Elect and the Punishment of the Damned. Signorelli’s frescoes, in fact, are the most elaborate representation of such scenes for more than a century. They also differ markedly from previous versions of these subjects. Thus the emphasis on the gruesome tortures of the damned, of the kind still to be seen in a famous 14th-century relief on the façade, is replaced by a much less explicit rendering of their sufferings, and the devils are distinguished from the humans mainly by their horns and their greenish or bluish skin, although some also have wings. Nor do the damned include, as they so often did in the past, a strong representation of popes, kings and other powerful people. This may have been in part because Orvieto was part of the Papal States, but probably more important was the fact that the blessed and the damned are all shown naked and the same age. In accordance with theological doctrine they are all 33 years old, the age Christ was when he died and, according to theologians, the age of all those who will rise from the dead at the Last Judgment. Whether this was Signorelli’s idea is unclear: he may have been following the recommendation of the theological adviser mentioned in his contract. But only the saints and patriarchs on the ceiling, who would be unrecognisable without their costumes and, in many cases, their beards and their venerable appearance, are excluded from this rule.

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