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.

The emphasis on nudity is only one way in which the Orvieto frescoes differ from other cycles painted in Italy over the previous century. The vigour of the figures, the expressive outline and the almost obsessive use of foreshortening make all previous cycles look decidedly staid and restrained in comparison. And certain passages, such as the rays of fire being blasted down on the earth by winged demons, look like nothing so much as scenes from Hollywood disaster movies. It is all very far from the repose and good taste of much Renaissance art – or so it seems now in retrospect. The frescoes demonstrate the strength of Signorelli’s draughtsmanship and his ability to organise large numbers of figures in an effective and dramatic way. But they also reveal the lack of vivid characterisation, a sometimes cartoonish treatment of figures and the frequent use of similar poses. Signorelli’s range in these frescoes was not very large, but his style was well suited to the sensational subject matter, giving it an unprecedented vividness and credibility. It is not surprising, therefore, that Michelangelo is said to have been impressed by Signorelli’s work in Orvieto, even if the idea that it had some influence on his paintings made a decade or so later on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is impossible to substantiate.

Signorelli’s reputation has always been based primarily on the frescoes, but he was prolific, with a career spanning almost half a century, and more than 150 paintings by him are still known today, although this total includes fragments of dismembered altarpieces. His work is widely distributed in the churches of Central Italy and in museums in North America and Europe, including eight pictures in the National Gallery. The geographical spread of his paintings is probably one reason why, in comparison with other leading Italian artists of his generation, Signorelli has been rather neglected by modern scholars. The publication of Tom Henry’s book and the exhibition of his works this summer in Italy provide an unprecedented opportunity for evaluating his achievement as a whole. Many of Signorelli’s pictures are large altarpieces, often on panel, which could not realistically or safely be moved, but about sixty were displayed (including reunited parts of dismembered altarpieces), most of them in Perugia, with a few in Città di Castello. The selection gave a vivid idea of Signorelli’s strengths and limitations.

By the standards of his time, he is an unusually well-documented artist. He was born around 1450 in Cortona, a small hill town in south-eastern Tuscany, where he lived on and off until his death in 1523. He was evidently one of the most prosperous and successful citizens, playing a prominent role in local government, and he had a large family. He was trained by the leading local artist, Piero della Francesca, but almost nothing else is known about his career before he was about thirty, when he emerged as one of the many painters working on the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. It is not at all clear what he painted before that time: the main candidates are some undistinguished pictures roughly in the style of Piero. The Sistine frescoes show a more distinctive style, which changed remarkably little over the rest of his life, although the figures in his altarpieces tended to become bulkier and more static, and the compositions more obviously repetitive. In the later paintings, too, scholars have generally detected the increasing involvement of his assistants, among them his nephew Francesco.

It is remarkable how little Signorelli seems to have taken from his teacher. To modern eyes, Piero’s most distinctive characteristics were a mastery of perspective, and especially foreshortening, based on a painstaking use of geometry, a strong sense of monumentality and repose in the figures, and a precise and fastidious use of oil paint to create pictorial surfaces of almost Flemish perfection. Although some of Signorelli’s works are highly finished and carefully modelled, notably a couple of paintings of the Madonna produced in Florence in the 1480s, which were exhibited in Perugia, he was normally much less concerned about such qualities, and in this respect notably different from the leading painters of his generation, such as Perugino and Botticelli. Like Piero, he relied on a rather narrow range of physical types, but these are much less strongly characterised than those of his most talented contemporaries. From Piero he acquired his considerable skill in foreshortening, but there is no indication that he shared Piero’s interest in the study of perspective for its own sake.

In short, while all painters tend to be somewhat repetitive – which is how we can distinguish the work of one from another – Signorelli seems to have carried this further than most. One seldom if ever has the sense that he is stretching himself, or attempting to do something new. And the remarkable thing about this is that his career spanned one of the most innovative and revolutionary periods in European art, coinciding with the careers of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and the young Michelangelo, as well as any number of other highly talented artists. Looking at Signorelli’s output as a whole, it is difficult to see any marked impact on his work of the major artistic developments of his time. Once he had created a way of painting that found a market, he seems to have seen no reason to change.

Signorelli was not alone in adopting this attitude. There is a famous and possibly apocryphal anecdote in Vasari’s Lives about Perugino being indignant when Florentine painters criticised him for producing paintings similar to works by him that they had praised thirty years earlier. It could just as well have been applied to Signorelli. As a result, it is difficult to accommodate him within the kind of art historical narrative which we now take as the norm, especially in the case of Renaissance artists; and this presents a problem for Henry, who has been thinking about Signorelli for twenty years, and has seen all the paintings and read all the documents. In its scope, size and scholarly quality, and also in the illustrations, his book, which is based on sustained research, is superior to all previous monographs on the artist and will certainly be the standard work of reference.

The book does not follow the traditional pattern of an introduction, which would normally contain a chronological account of the artist’s career, followed by a catalogue of works, because Henry provided the catalogue entries for a 2002 book on Signorelli written with another art historian, Laurence Kanter. One can understand why he didn’t wish to produce a new catalogue, but this is a feature of artistic monographs that retains its value, since such books are more often consulted than read from cover to cover. It is particularly unfortunate that neither book includes a topographical index of works, thus in most cases making rapid consultation impossible. Henry has tried to incorporate much of the material that one would find in catalogue entries in his text and notes, and has done so skilfully; but it is not the best way of providing such information, and it means that readers primarily interested in an overview of Signorelli’s career are often confronted with detailed arguments which may not be of particular interest to them. At the same time, the biographical format is not ideal for exploring some of the more general issues about Signorelli and his art, although Henry does attempt to deal with them.

Understandably, Henry is more alert to the merits of his subject than the limitations, and has seen his role as that of advocate for the defence. Sometimes, however, he pushes the evidence a little too hard, for example when we are told that Signorelli had ‘an international fame’ and ‘travelled abroad’. Signorelli’s native town was ruled by Florence, but was close both to the territory of Siena and the Papal States. That he worked on both sides of the highly permeable borders was in no way exceptional, and Henry’s gloss is anachronistic and quite misleading. In order to understand Signorelli’s situation and reputation, it is also important to bear in mind that his output consisted almost exclusively of painted images with a religious content. His competence in this seems to have been widely recognised, but whether most of his patrons chose him because they liked the way he painted more than they liked the way his contemporaries painted, is impossible to establish. The authorities in Orvieto seem to have chosen Fra Angelico because he had worked at the Vatican, and Perugino for the same reason, while Signorelli was selected because he had produced pictures in many places, especially Siena. What mattered was that the artist was known to be competent; what his paintings looked like may have been irrelevant, especially when few if any of those making the decision are likely to have seen anything by him, or would have felt qualified to judge his merits.

This underlines the difficulty of writing about a painter such as Signorelli, working in the decades around 1500. Our whole way of thinking about artists of that period, and indeed of other periods, and what they did has been coloured by Vasari’s Lives, with its stress on artistic progress and its notion of the beneficial effect of rivalry between artists. Against that background, Henry presents Signorelli as a forerunner of Raphael and Michelangelo. But he does not really address the repetitiveness of Signorelli’s work, or why he seems to have taken so little interest in the innovations of his contemporaries. In this context, it is illuminating to try to think about his own preoccupations and priorities, rather than judging him by standards that he would not necessarily have understood or shared.

The most obvious artistic problem facing Signorelli was how to represent the human figure in a way that was convincing anatomically and psychologically. For artists of Tuscany and Central Italy, the solution was provided by the mastery of drawing, something that was first fully achieved by Leonardo, who was followed by Michelangelo and Raphael. Signorelli, like most other artists, had a series of formulae for representing figures and faces, and especially notoriously difficult details such as hands; and these served him well throughout his career. Of course, it is because the representation of the figure was based on certain well-tried formulae rather than direct observation from life that so much of the art historical discussion of the period is centred on the question of influence – the way one artist acquired a new formula from another. One important source of such formulae were the surviving statues and reliefs of classical antiquity, especially, as Aby Warburg noted, for the representation of figures in movement; but Signorelli seems to have been relatively uninterested in such sources, perhaps because he had only limited access to them. He was a capable draughtsman by the standards of his time, but there is little indication of study from live models. It is entirely predictable, too, that his few portraits should be wooden and unconvincing. Throughout his career, he used a narrow range of physical types, with an equally narrow range of expressions, and as a result his figures are more like mannequins than people.

It is surely no accident that Signorelli produced his most carefully finished and impressive panel paintings while he was in Florence, among them the so-called Court of Pan, his only substantial mythological picture, destroyed in 1945 in Berlin, of which an early colour photograph is reproduced by Henry. In Florence he found himself in competition with other highly competent painters, and working for patrons who had ready access to the work of a range of different artists. Elsewhere, he did not face this kind of competition, and the consequences are all too evident. It is not known why he spent some time in Florence, or why he left, but the fact that he obtained commissions in many smaller centres may be as much a reflection of the reluctance of the leading Florentine painters to undertake this kind of work as of his own fame and ability. It is true that he was one of a team of artists employed to decorate rooms in the Vatican, probably in 1507, but, most unusually, this decoration, of which almost nothing is known, was evidently considered unsatisfactory and was replaced with frescoes by Raphael less than a decade later.

Henry makes the best case he can for Signorelli, and on matters such as dating and attribution he is fair-minded in his reports of alternative views and generally persuasive in his conclusions. But his claim, often repeated, that Signorelli thought carefully about the subjects he was called on to paint and was often innovative in the way he represented them is not entirely convincing. This is partly because Henry tends to take it for granted that the ways used today to categorise subjects have a greater validity than those current in Signorelli’s day. Thus he describes an altarpiece showing the Magi presenting their gifts to the infant Christ as Christological, because the Virgin holds the baby on the central axis of the picture. This sounds impressive, but the term is not one that comes up in Renaissance discussions of works of art, and Henry provides no evidence that anyone at the time would have regarded the baby as the most significant figure in the picture, or as the rationale for the choice of subject.

The themes represented at Orvieto were relatively unusual. They were also particularly well suited to Signorelli’s gifts (in a way that could scarcely have been true of Perugino), and he was evidently stimulated by the challenge to take special pains. This does not apply to the saints and patriarchs on the vault, but few painters of his generation could have done much better with such an unrewarding subject. While much is now known about Signorelli’s life, his personality is less clearly defined, and we have no way of knowing whether he would have welcomed further challenges of the kind that he faced at Orvieto, or whether he was content to earn a decent living painting large numbers of altarpieces for towns and villages in Central Italy. In fact, there is little in his career to suggest that he was all that ambitious, so he may well have regarded the Orvieto commission as a piece of unexpected good fortune, due not so much to his own merits as to Perugino’s reluctance to do the job. Whatever the truth of the matter, he took full advantage of the opportunity that the commission provided, in a way that one could hardly predict from his other works; and it is entirely appropriate that these frescoes should remain the basis of his fame.