Luca Signorelli
Biography of High Renaissance Fresco Painter of Orvieto Cathedral.

Pin it

The Damned (1500-04)
Part of Signorelli's Fresco Cycle
in the Cappella di San Brizio
Duomo, Orvieto Cathedral.

Luca Signorelli (1450-1523)


Career and Works
Influences and Style of Painting
Orvieto Cathedral Frescoes
Last Works
Influence on Raphael

For details of the pigments
used by Luca Signorelli
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.


One of the more intense, melodramatic Old Masters of High Renaissance art, Luca Signorelli is best known for the indirect influence of his fresco painting on the work of Michelangelo (1475-1564), notably the latter's Genesis fresco (1508-12) and Last Judgment fresco (1536-41) on the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The mysterious seated male youth in Signorelli's Last Acts and Death of Moses (1483), for instance, is remarkably similar to some of Michelangelo's Ignudi, from Genesis. Signorelli himself must have attained a certain reputation by his early 30s, because in 1483 he was commissioned by the Pope to complete the mural paintings on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. But his masterpiece of High Renaissance painting was the awesome series of frescoes (1499-1504) illustrating the end of the world, in Orvieto Cathedral. The cycle contains a number of magnificent male nudes, which greatly impressed Michelangelo. In addition, Signorelli was one of the best artists at figure drawing - excelled only by the Renaissance drawings of Michelangelo - but was outclassed as a painter by Raphael (1483-1520), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Correggio (1489-1534) and Michelangelo.



Career and Works

It is likely that Signorelli was born around 1450 in Cortona, a town on the border between Tuscany and Umbria. According to the mathematician Luca Pacioli, Signorelli was a pupil of Piero della Francesca (1420-92) - Pacioli's own teacher - and since he wrote while Signorelli was still active, the contention seems well-founded. In 1454 he dated an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Perugia (Museo del Duomo). In the same year he was paid by the officials of Cortona to proceed to Gubbio to negotiate with the Sienese painter and architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini, about building the Madonna del Calcinaio, a centrally planned church outside Cortona.

A poorly preserved fresco fragment dated to 1474 is his first surviving work (Pinacoteca Communale, Citta di Castello). Signorelli was active in the Florence Renaissance during the next decade: in 1482 he was commissioned to paint the doors of a wardrobe frontal in Lucigniano (now lost), and shortly after he frescoed the small Cappella della Cura in the Basilica of the Santa Casa in Loreto, somewhat more distant from Florence in the Marches. Signorelli had a share in the frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel around 1482-83, after they had been left unfinished by Perugino (1450-1523), Botticelli (1445-1510) and Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94).

In 1485 he was commissioned to do an altarpiece in Spoleto (lost or never finished). The Annunciation of the Galleria Communale of Volterra is signed and dated 1491. In the same year he was invited to attend a meeting of artists to select the best design for the new facade of the Florentine Cathedral: clear evidence of Signorelli's standing in the Florence of Lorenzo de' Aledici. He did not, in fact, attend the meeting. He was recorded back in Citta di Castello in 1493 and in the following year painted a standard for Urbino (Ducal Palace). In 1497 he began work on the cycle of frescoes for the abbey of Monte Oliveto illustrating the life of St. Benedict and thereby gained a reputation in the nearby Sienese School of painting. There in 1498 he painted the altarpiece for the Bichi Chapel in Sant'Agostino, in combination with a wooden sculpture (Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem) and a predella now divided among various collections.

His work in Siena was followed by two commissions, first to finish the vaults begun by Fra Angelico (c.1400-55) for the large San Brizio Chapel in the Cathedral of Orvieto in 1499 and for the walls of that chapel in 1500, which he finished at the latest by 1503 or 1504. In the years that followed, Signorelli was back in Siena, then again in the Marches and Rome, but he always maintained close ties with his native Cortona, where he frequently served on public councils and where he continued to paint. During the final decade of his life, he painted the Institution of the Eucharist (1512, Diocesan Museum, Cortona), an unusual theme which depicts Christ distributing the Eucharist to the Apostles. He died eleven years later in Cortona.

Influences and Style of Painting

Signorelli's training and early career are hazy because of the limited number of early pictures. The small, signed Flagellation (1480, Pinacoteca di Brera Milan), made originally as a processional banner and once backed by a Madonna and Child (now separated), was for a church in Fabriano and is probably one of his earliest surviving works, perhaps dated 1480. The connections with Piero della Francesca's art, including the eloquently painted version of the same subject, are not overriding, except for a formal, measured balance in composition; by the age of thirty predictably the specific lessons learned from his master had been thoroughly digested and the period of imitation, if there was one, had long since passed. The poses are directly derived from antique sources both in the foreground group and the imitation reliefs behind, with, however, a Florentine mediation like the frescoes of Antonio del Pollaiuolo in the Villa della Gallina, which relate to Signorelli's dancing tormentors of Christ. Signorelli stresses the sturdy outline of his figures, probably applied during the final resolution of the painting, in order to accentuate the forms themselves, while thickening the limbs.

The Madonna and Child with Saints, which once had an inscribed date of 1484, was commissioned for the Cathedral of Perugia by a bishop from Cortona. By this period, traces of Signorelli's training and even his first mature manner are obscured; reflections of Piero della Francesca continue to be rare and are mainly discernible in the Child, a massive figure of exceptional gravity and seriousness. The Madonna and Child are placed high in the pictorial field on a narrow, rather fragile throne, which makes them by comparison appear even more solid. Saints John the Baptist and Lawrence are on the same elevated zone, with St. Onophrius and a bishop, perhaps the donor himself, beneath. In the centre a Pollaiuolesque angel, almost certainly based on a life study, tunes a lute. In seeking possible sources for Signorelli's painting as seen here, we must also imagine a connection with Perugino, especially for the St. John. Signorelli and Perugino were both Umbrians whose lifespans overlapped, and they were influential over much of Italy. The piling up of figures in the composition reflects Perugino, but it also occurs among Ferrarese painters like Cosme Tura (1430-95), and becomes especially important in Venetian painting (1500-1600).

Notwithstanding the connections, Signorelli's painting in Perugia (Perugino's home territory, of course) is distinct and independent, with its cool, pale background virtually without landscape references. The transparent glass vessels containing wild flowers - a reference to Mary - and other superb still-life devices need not be derived from Flemish painting directly (as is often suggested), because by the 1480s such elements had long since become commonplace among Italian artists. Signorelli here is already a master of the nude, as demonstrated by his handling of the Child and the youthful angel but also by the emaciated hermit St. Onophrius - hints of his future figural preferences.

The memorable Madonna and Child painted, as circumstantial evidence suggests, for the Medici family in Florence, along with the famous School of Pan (now destroyed) (1480s, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin), chronicles Signorelli's adherence to classical models, especially for the nudes in the background of the tondo, with its fictive marble frame superimposed on a rectangular picture. Signorelli must have been a student of ancient sarcophagi as well as of freestanding statues and very likely also knew quite a bit aboutl Roman sculpture and Greek pottery. At the same time, he was aware of the sculpture of Donatello (1386-1466) and Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88). Landscape painting, as with Michelangelo, had little interest for Signorelli, although in the Uffizi Madonna the flowers and plants are presented affectionately, and in the rocky cliff, open in the middle like a gigantic arched bridge, already a familiar motif in the art of Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), he expanded his formal vocabulary to meet the fierce competition in Florence.

Orvieto Cathedral Frescoes

The frescoes in the San Brizio Chapel of Orvieto Cathedral (a commission offered earlier to Perugino, whose price was considered too high by the church officials) constitute Signorelli's greatest contribution to the art of the Italian Renaissance. He first undertook to finish the vaulting begun by Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli a half-century earlier with depictions in separate sections containing choirs of Apostles, Church Doctors, Virgin Martyrs, and Angels. The large wall frescoes are reserved for the Antichrist, the End of the World, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Damned, the Saved and, on the base level, imitation classical grotesques and portraits, including those of Virgil and Dante. The subject of the Last Judgment coincides with the half-millennium and the prophecies of doom that circulated widely before the year 1500. Signorelli apparently painted the vast cycle rapidly, making effective use of assistants. He reveals himself as particularly dedicated to a monumental style, an advocate of the expressive potentialities of the human figure, nude, or tightly dressed to allow a reading of the anatomy.

The Antichrist, without nudes because of the iconographic requirements of the subject, is decidedly scenographic; more than a hundred figures are distributed across the flat landscape, dominated on the right by an imaginary structure composed of a classical temple attached to a square building with a towering dome. On the left in the distance is a city. Signorelli, like the slightly older Melozzo da Forli (1438-94), is challenged by arranging figures in difficult foreshortening - on the ground, flying in the air, twisting and turning in unexpected positions. The central space is taken up by the Antichrist being counseled by the devil as he preaches from a small marble altar.

The other frescoes in Orvieto give Luca wider latitude in his drawing of the nude; in the Resurrection of the Dead the figures rise from the earth as skeletons or as full flesh-and-blood images in a wide variety of poses. In Signorelli's vision, the world is composed of beautiful young men and women, muscular, strong, thick-limbed, with well-formed hands and distinctive fingers, presented with generalized modeling. They are convincingly three-dimensional and occupy the spaces they create by their fleshy presence.

Colour has a secondary part in the total effect, but Luca often employs rich, sonorous, though metallic and sometimes stark colour that can be decorative but never naturalistic. As in the case of the Schifanoia Palace frescoes in Ferrara, the Orvieto frescoes would have had a far more powerful, even inevitable impact on other artists were they not located in a provincial centre like Orvieto, though it is on the road to Rome. Furthermore, they appeared old-fashioned soon after they were painted, having been so quickly followed by the frescoes in the four Raphael Rooms (c.1508-20) (Stanze di Raffaello), now in the Vatican Museums in Rome, and by Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes. Seen within the context of second generation painting, however, they are unique, attractive, and progressive.

Last Works

Among his last works (and Luca outlived both Leonardo and Raphael), where a noticeable decline in quality is undeniable, the Institution of the Eucharist retains the originality of his previous efforts. Christ, standing in the centre high in the picture, is framed by the finely decorated piers and the arch of a Renaissance structure, open to the pale sky. He offers the holy wafer to the Apostles, who form a spatial funnel, revealing a multicoloured marble floor. Judas, perhaps the finest figure in the painting, is subtly separated from the others; he turns away from Christ, putting the Host in a money sack where presumably he stores the pieces of silver, a sad and remorseful image.

Influence on Raphael

Signorelli was one of the important models for the young Raphael as he was evolving his own artistic style, especially when he was in Citta di Castello, on and off between 1500 and about 1503 or 1504. Unlike Raphael, and even Piero della Francesca, Signorelli was a great provincial master who remained provincial despite moments of glory and periods of soaring invention, as in the Pan or in the frescoes in Orvieto.

Paintings by Luca Signorelli and his pupils can be seen in some of the best art museums in Italy.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from James Beck's brilliant work "Italian Renaissance Painting" (published by Konemann, 1999).

• For more about famous fresco painters, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important Renaissance frescoes, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Visual Artists, Greatest
© All rights reserved.