Resurrection. (Detail).  San Brizio Chapel, Duomo, Orvieto. 

LUCA SIGNORELLI, painter of Cortona (ca. 1450-1523)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists

LUCA SIGNORELLI, an excellent painter, of whom, according to the order of time, we have now to speak, was more famous throughout Italy in his day, and his works were held in greater price than has ever been the case with any other master at any time whatsoever, for the reason that in the works that he executed in painting he showed the true method of making nudes, and how they can be caused, although only with art and difficulty, to appear alive. He was a pupil and disciple of Piero dal Borgo a San Sepolcro, and greatly did he strive in his youth to imitate his master, and eve to surpass him; and the while that he was working with Piero at Arezzo, living in the house of his uncle Lazzaro Vasari, as it has been told, he imitated the manner of the said Piero so well that the one could scarcely be distinguished from the other.

The first works of Luca were in San Lorenzo at Arezzo, where he painted the Chapel of St. Barbara in fresco in the year 1472; and he painted for the Company of Santa Caterina, on cloth and in oil, the banner that is borne in processions, and likewise that of the Trinita, although this does not appear to be by the hand of Luca, but by Piero dal Borgo himself. In Sant'Agostino in the same city he painted the panel of San Niccola da Tolentino, with most beautiful little scenes, executing the work with good drawing and invention; and in the same place, in the Chapel of the Sacrament, he made two angels wrought in fresco. In the Chapel of the Accolti in the Church of San Francesco, for Messer Francesco, Doctor of Laws, he painted a panel in which he portrayed the said Messer Francesco with some of his relatives. In this work is a St. Michael weighing souls, who is admirable; and in him there is seen the knowledge of Luca, both in the splendour of his armour and in the reflected lights, and, in short, throughout the whole work. In his hands he placed a pair of scales, in which are nude figures, very beautifully foreshortened, one going up and the other down; and among other ingenious things that are in this picture is a nude figure most skillfully transformed into a devil, with a lizard licking the blood from a would in its body. Besides this, there is a Madonna with the Child on her lap, with St. Stephen, St. Lawrence, St. Catherine, and two angels, of whom one is playing on a lute and the other on a rebec; and all these figures are draped and adorned so beautifully that it is a marvel. But the most miraculous part of this panel is the predella, which is full of Friars of the said St. Catherine in the form of little figures.

In Perugia, also, he made many works; among others, a panel in the Duomo for Messer Jacopo Vannucci of Cortona, Bishop of that city; in which panel are Our Lady, St. Onofrio, St. Ercolano, St. John the Baptist, and St. Stephen, with a most beautiful angel, who is tuning a lute. At Volterra, over the altar of a Company in the Church of San Francesco, he painted in fresco the Circumcision of Our Lord, which is considered beautiful to a marvel, although the Infant, having been injured by damp, was restored by Sodoma and made much less beautiful than before. And, in truth, it would be sometimes better to leave works half spoilt, when they have been made by men of excellence, rather than to have them retouched by inferior masters. In San Agostino in the same city he painted a panel in distemper, and the predella of little figures, with stories of the Passion of Christ; and this is held to be extraordinarily beautiful. At Santa Maria a Monte he painted a Dead Christ on a panel for the monks of that place; and at Citta di Castello a Nativity of Christ in San Francesco, with a St. Sebastian on another panel in San Domenico. In Santa Margarita, a seat of the Frati del Zoccolo in his native city of Cortona, he painted a Dead Christ, one of the rarest of his works; and for the Company of the Gesue, in the same city, he executed three panels, of which the one that is on the high altar is marvellous, showing Christ administering the Sacrament to the Apostles, and Judas placing the Host into his wallet.

In the Pieve, now called the Vescovado, in the Chapel of the Sacrament, he painted some lifesize prophets in fresco; and round the tabernacle are some angels who are opening out a canopy, with St. Jerome and St. Thomas Aquinas at the sides. For the high altar of the said church he painted a panel with a most beautiful Assumption, and he designed the pictures for the principal round window of the same church; in which pictures were afterwards executed by Stagio Sassoli of Arezzo. In Castiglione Aretino he made a Dead Christ, with the Maries, over the Chapel of the Sacrament; and in San Francesco, at Lucignano, he painted the folding doors of a press, wherein there is a tree of coral surmounted by a cross. At Siena, in the Chapel of San Cristofano in San Agostino, he painted a panel with some saints, in the midst of whom is a St. Christopher in relief.

Having gone from Siena to Florence in order to see both the works of those masters who were then living and those of many already dead, he painted for Lorenzo de'Medici certain nude gods on a canvas, for which he was much commended, and a picture of Our Lady with two littel prophets in terretta, which is now at Castello, a villa of Duke Cosimo. These works, both the one and the other, he presented to the said Lorenzo, who would never be beaten by any man in liberality and magnificence. He also painted a round picture of Our Lady, which is in the Audience Chamber of the Captains of the Guelph party--a very beautiful work.

At Chiusuri in the district of Siena, the principal seat of the Monks of Monte Oliveto, he painted eleven scenes of the life and acts of St. Benedict on one side of the cloister. And from Cortona he sent some of his works to Montepulciano; to Foiano the panel which is on the high altar of the Pieve; and other works to other places in Valdichiana. In the Madonna, the principal church of Orvieto, he finished with his own hand the chapel that Fra Giovanni da Fiesole had formerly begun there; in which chapel he painted all the scenes of the end of the world with bizarre and fantastic invention--angels, demons, ruins, earthquakes, fires, miracles of the Antichrist, and many other similar things besides, such as nudes, foreshortenings, and many beautiful figures; imaging the terror that there shall be on that last and awful day.

By means of this he encouraged all those who have lived after him, insomuch that since then they have found easy the difficulties of that manner; wherefore I do not marvel that the works of Luca were ever very highly extolled by Michaelangelo, nor that in certain parts of his divine Judgement, which he made in the chapel, he should have deigned to avail himself in some measure of the inventions of Luca, as he did in the angels, the demons, the division of the Heavens, and other things, in which Michaelangelo himself imitated Luca's method, as all may see. In this work Luca portrayed himself and many of his friends; Niccolo, Paolo, and Vitelozzo Vitelli, Giovan Paolo and Orazio Baglioni, and others whose names are not known. In the Sacristy of Santa Maria at Loreto he painted in fresco the four Evangelists, the four Doctors, and other saints, all very beautiful; and for this work he was liberally rewarded by Pope Sixtus.

It is said that a son of his, most beautiful in countenance and in person, whom he loved dearly, was killed at Cortona; and that Luca, heart-broken as he was, had him stripped naked, and with the greatest firmness of soul, without lamenting or shedding a tear, portrayed him, to the end that, whenever he might wish, he might be able by means of the work of his own hands to see what nature had given him and adverse fortune had snatched away.

Finally, having executed works for almost every Prince in Italy, and being now old, he returned to Cortona, where, in those last years of his life, he worked more for pleasure than for any other reason, as one who, being used to labor, neither could nor would stay idle. In this his old age, then, he painted a panel for the Nuns of Santa Margherita at Arezzo, and one for the Company of San Girolamo, which was paid for in part by Messer Niccolo Gamurrini, Doctor of Laws and Auditor of the Ruota, who is portrayed from life in that panel, kneeling before the Madonna, to whom he is being presented by a St. Nicholas who is in the same panel; there are also St. Donatus and St. Stephen, and lower down a nude St.Jerome, and a David who is singing to a psaltery; and also two prophets, who, as it appears from the rolls that they have in their hands, are speaking about the Conception. This work was brought from Cortona to Arezzo on the shoulders of the men of that Company; and Luca, old as he was, insisted on coming to set it in place, and partly also in order to revisit his friends and relatives.

And since he lodged in the house of the Vasari, in which I then was, a little boy of eight years old, I remember that the good old man, who was most gracious and courteous, having heard from the master who was teaching me my first letters, that I gave my attention to nothing in lesson-time save to drawing figures, I remember, I say, that he turned to my father Antonio and said to him: "Antonio, if you wish little Giorgio not to become backward, by all means let him learn to draw, for, even were he to devote himself to letters, design cannot be otherwise than helpful, honorable, and advantageous to him, as it is to every gentleman." Then, turning to me, who was standing in front of him, he said: "Mind your lessons, little kinsman." He said many other things about me, which I withhold, for the reason that I know that I have failed by a great measure to justify the opinion which the good old man had of me. And since he heard, as was true, that the blood used to flow from my nose at that age in such quantities that this left me sometimes half dead, with infinite lovingness he bound a jasper round my neck with his own hand; and this memory of Luca will stay forever fixed in my mind. The said panel set in place, he returned to Cortona, accompanied for a great part of the way by many citizens, friends, and relatives, as was due to the excellence of Luca, who always lived rather as a nobleman of rank than as a painter.

About the same time a palace had been built for Cardinal Silvio Passerini of Cortona, half a mile beyond the city, by Benedetto Caporali, a painter of Perugia, who, delighting in architecture, had written a commentary on Vitruvius a short time before; and the said Cardinal determined to have almost the whole of it painted. Wherefore Benedetto, putting his hand to this with the aid of Maso Papacello of Cortona (who was his disciple and had also learnt not a little from Giulio Roman, as will be told), of Tommaso, and of other disciples and lads, did not cease until he had painted it almost all over in fresco. But the Cardinal wishing to have some painting by the hand of Luca as well, he, old as he was, and hindered by palsy, painted in fresco, on the altarwall of the chapel of that palace, the scene of St. John the Baptist baptizing the Savior, but he was not able to finish it completely, for while still working on it he died, having reached the age of eighty-two.

Luca was a man of most excellent character, true and loving with his friends, sweet and amiable in his dealings with every man, and, above all, courteous to all who had need of him, and kindly in teaching his disciples. He lived spendidly, and he took delight in clothing himself well. And for these good qualities he was ever held in the highest veneration both in his own country and abroad.

And so, with the end of this master's life, which was in 1521, we will bring to an end the Second Part of these Lives; concluding with Luca, as the man who, with his profound mastery of design, particularly in nudes, and with his grace in invention and in the composition of scenes, opened to the majority of craftsmen the way to the final perfection of art, to which those men who followed were afterwards enabled to add the crown, of whom we are henceforward to speak.

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