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Luca Signorelli (c. 1445 – 16 October 1523) was an Italian Renaissance painter who was noted in particular for his ability as a draughtsman and his use of foreshortening. His massive frescoes of the Last Judgment (1499–1503) in Orvieto Cathedral are considered his masterpiece.
He was born Luca d'Egidio di Ventura in Cortona, Tuscany (some sources call him Luca da Cortona). The precise date of his birth is uncertain; birth dates of 1441–1445 are proposed. He died in 1523 in Cortona, where he is buried. He was perhaps eighty-two years old. He is considered to be part of the Tuscan school, although he also worked extensively in Umbria and Rome.
His first impressions of art seem to be due to Perugia — the style of Benedetto Bonfigli, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo and Pinturicchio. Lazzaro Vasari, the great-grandfather of art historian Giorgio Vasari, was brother to Luca's mother; according to Giorgio Vasari he got Luca apprenticed to Piero della Francesca. In 1472 the young man was painting at Arezzo, and in 1474 at Città di Castello. He presented to Lorenzo de' Medici a picture which is probably the one named the School of Pan. Janet Ross and her husband Henry discovered the painting in Florence circa 1870 and subsequently sold it to the Kaiser Frederick Museum in Berlin. The painting was destroyed by allied bombs in WWII. The painting's subject is almost the same as that which he also painted on the wall of the Petrucci palace in Siena—the principal figures being Pan himself, Olympus, Echo, a man reclining on the ground and two listening shepherds.
He executed, moreover, various sacred pictures, showing a study of Botticelli and Lippo Lippi. Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Signorelli to paint some frescoes, now mostly very dim, in the shrine of Loreto—Angels, Doctors of the Church, Evangelists, Apostles, the Incredulity of Thomas and the Conversion of St Paul. He also executed a single fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Testament and Death of Moses, although most of it has been attributed to Bartolomeo della Gatta; another, the Moses Leaving to Egypt, once ascribed to Signorelli, is now recognized as the work of Perugino and other assistants.
Signorelli worked in Rome from 1478 to 1484. In the latter year he returned to his native Cortona, which remained from this time his home. In the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Siena) he painted eight frescoes, forming part of a vast series of the life of St. Benedict; they are at present much injured. In the palace of Pandolfo Petrucci he worked upon various classic or mythological subjects, including the School of Pan already mentioned.
Work in Orvieto
Resurrection of the Flesh (1499–1502) Fresco Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto.
From the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Siena, Signorelli went to Orvieto, and produced his masterpiece, the frescoes in the chapel of S. Brizio (then called the Cappella Nuova), in the cathedral.
The Cappella Nuova already contained two groups of images in the vaulting over the altar, the Judging Christ and the Prophets, by Fra Angelico, who had begun the murals fifty years earlier. The works of Signorelli in the vaults and on the upper walls represent the events surrounding the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. The events of the Apocalypse fill the space which surrounds the entrance into the large chapel.
The Apocalyptic events begin with the Preaching of Antichrist, and proceed to the Doomsday and The Resurrection of the Flesh. They occupy three vast lunettes, each of them a single continuous narrative composition. In one of them, Antichrist, after his portents and impious glories, falls headlong from the sky, crashing down into an innumerable crowd of men and women.
The events of the Last Judgment fill the facing vault and the walls around the altar: Paradise, the Elect and the Condemned, Hell, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Destruction of the Reprobate.
To Angelico's ceiling, which contained the Judging Christ and the Prophets led by John the Baptist, Signorelli added the Madonna leading the Apostles, the Patriarchs, Doctors of the Church, Martyrs, and Virgins. The unifying factor of the paintings is found in the scripture readings in the Roman liturgies for the Feast of All Saints and Advent.
Stylistically, the daring and terrible inventions, with their powerful treatment of the nude and arduous foreshortenings, were striking in its day. Michelangelo is claimed to have borrowed, in his own fresco at the Sistine Chapel wall, some of Signorelli's figures or combinations. The decoration of the lower walls, unprecedented in the history of art, are richly decorated with a great deal of subsidiary work connected with Dante, specifically the first eleven books of his Purgatorio, and with the poets and legends of antiquity. A Pietà composition in a niche in the lower wall contains explicit references to two important Orvietan martyr saints, S. Pietro Parenzo and S. Faustino, in the centuries preceding the execution of the lunette paintings.
The contract for Signorelli's work is still on record in the archives of the Cathedral of Orvieto. He undertook on April 5, 1499 to complete the ceiling for 200 ducats, and to paint the walls for 600, along with lodging, and in every month two measures of wine and two quarters of corn. The contract directed Signorelli to consult the Masters of the Sacred Page for theological matters. This is the first such recorded instance of an artist receiving theological advice, although art historians believe the two groups routinely discussed such matters. Signorelli's first stay in Orvieto lasted not more than two years. In 1502 he returned to Cortona. He returned to Orvieto and continued the lower walls. He painted a dead Christ, with Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary and the martyrs local Saints Pietro Parenzo and Faustino.The figure of the dead Christ, according to Vasari, is the image of Signorelli's son Antonio, who died from the plague during the course of the execution of the paintings.