Last Works Of Luca Signorelli
( Originally Published 1908 )
WE have now considered in detail most of the important works of Signorelli's early manhood and maturity, and up to his seventy-fourth year have found him, both in conception and execution, still maintaining a high standard of excellence, and at an age when the life's work is supposed to be over showing but little sign of failing powers. On the contrary, he seems to have gained ground in certain things most characteristic of his technical ability—in a rugged strength of modelling, in facility of drawing and freedom of brushwork, and particularly in that mastery of united movement, which it seemed his special desire to attain. Even in this last group of paintings which we have now to consider the mind works as powerfully, and the subjects are conceived with the same impressive grandeur, as before, and only in one or two instances can, it be noticed that the hand does not always respond so readily to the purpose.
In the "Madonna and Saints," of the Mancini collection, Cittâ di Castello, a slight technical falling off is apparent, although it is possible that this may be due to the assistance of pupils. Its history would seem, however, to point to its being the unaided work of Signorelli ; but, as we have already seen, documentary evidence is by no means infallible. In the archives of Montone, a little town near Umbertide, a deed, dated September Io, 1515, was discovered, which speaks of an altar-piece presented by the master as a free gift to a certain French physician, Luigi de Rutanis, in gratitude " for services rendered, and for those which he hoped to receive in future."
The Virgin stands heavily on the heads of cherubs, with S. Sebastian on one side, and Santa Cristina, with a terribly realistic millstone hung round her neck, on the other. Two angels hold the crown over her head, and below stand S. Jerome and S. Nicholas of Bari, both intently reading. The background stretches away into a charming distant landscape, in which is a lake, not unlike Trasimeno, and sloping hills, on which scenes of pastoral life are taking place. This landscape, taken by itself, is the best part of the painting ; of the rest, the composition is too mechanically precise, the values of distance are bad, the figures being all on the same plane, and even the landscape does not keep its proper place in the picture. This last fault may, however, be due to repainting, which is so thick that it is useless to speak of the present colour. The altar-piece was discovered by Signor Giacomo Mancini in a cellar in Montone, almost destroyed by damp and neglect, and since its restoration it is perhaps hardly fair to discuss more than the general lines ; yet these, in the awkwardness of arrangement, and the comparative triviality of the figures, both in attitude and gesture, betray a weakness we have not hitherto met with.
Another picture of the same date--1515—is " The Madonna and Saints," in the church of San Domenico, Cortona, also in very bad condition. The restoration of the seventeenth century added a piece of canvas all round, in order to enlarge it. It was painted for Serninio, Bishop of Cortona, whose portrait is to be seen in the corner, full of expression and exceedingly well modelled. The Virgin, in red robe and green mantle, sits with her feet resting on the heads of cherubs, with an angel on either side, and below S. Peter Martyr, and S. Domenico. It is an important work, and among the most successful of the later paintings, and it is curious that it should not have been photo-graphed by either of the larger firms.
The next year, 1516, Signorelli painted " The Deposition," of Umbertide, in which he shows all the technical power of his maturity—(or was it, perhaps, that he left less of the execution to assistants ?). It was executed for the little dark church of Santa Croce, in this village, till recently called La Fratta, and still stands over the high altar—not, however, in its original frame, which was removed in the seventeenth century. It seems that there was a lunette over the top, containing a Pieta.' Terribly defaced by bad restoration, and the cracking of the later paint, it is still a very beautiful work, and its predella has all the qualities of boldness and freedom characteristic of the master's best times. Some of the figures are perhaps too obviously life-studies, especially the Mary, standing in the fore-ground left, which he evidently painted straight from some contadina, whose stolid features he reproduced without reference to the subject. The body of the Christ is successful, and has all the weight and helpless inertia of a corpse ; the composition is admirable, and there is sincerity of emotion in the painting of much of the scene. It is, however, in the three pictures of the predella that we shall find most proof of the vigour of mind and hand. It is interesting to compare Signorelli's treatment of the same subject with that of Pier dei Franceschi in Arezzo, at the painting of which he probably assisted, more than forty years before—" The March of Constantine," " The Discovery of the Cross," and "The Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem." The first of the three is the best, both for the special quality of animated movement, and for the excellence of its composition and its effect of spacious movement. How much larger a tiny panel like this appears than some of the crowded altar-pieces of his later years ! Dashed in with a few broad touches, as a modern impressionist might paint, the scene of the camp is most natural, with its groups of soldiers and marching troops with raised lances and fluttering pennons.
In the second, three scenes are run into one, with-out much reference to any sequence of the story. On the right the Queen of Sheba kneels before the bridge which she has recognised as the sacred wood ; on the left the Empress Helena finds the three crosses ; and in the centre takes place the testing of the true one in the resuscitation of the dead youth. In the third —" The Entry of Heraclius into Jerusalem "—we have again a splendid effect of a moving body of men. The Emperor has descended from his horse, which is led behind him, and barefooted, in his shirt, he carries the Cross within the gates.
The next dated work—" The Madonna and Saints," of the Arezzo Gallery, was painted three years after this, in 1519. "He executed," says Vasari, "in his old age, a picture for the Campagnia of S. Girolamo, part of which was paid for by Messer Niccolô Gamurrini, Doctor of Law, Master of the Rolls, whom he portrayed from life in that picture, on his knees before the Madonna, to whom he is presented by a S. Nicholas, also in the said picture ; there are besides, S. Donato and S. Stephen, and below a nude S. Jerome, and a David who sings on a Psaltery ; there are also two Prophets, who appear, by the scrolls in their hands, to be discussing the Conception."
The commission was given to Luca by the Compagnia of S. Girolamo, on September 19, 1519, and the price was to be one hundred broad gold florins, to be shared by Messer Gamurrini and the Confraternity.
In this picture it is in the intention rather than the execution that we shall find the vigour and strength which ended only with the painter's life. Much still remains grand and impressive, but though it shows considerable power, the actual work is not so good. The colour is exceedingly dark, and full of harsh contrasts ; the composition is overcrowded, as in many of his later paintings ; and the figure of David, although nobly conceived, is awkward and ill-balanced. On the other hand, the Virgin is as powerfully executed as ever, and so is the earnest, white-haired Prophet at her feet. It seems to me that the master has given his own features in this upturned face, with its firmly-cut lips and square jaw, certainly much more real a person than the apathetic kneeling Donor. After its removal from its original place over the altar of the Confraternity, the picture was for several years in Santa Croce, and, after the suppression of that con-vent in 1849, removed to Santo Spirito, and from thence to the Gallery.
Very close to it in style, and probably painted at no distant date, is the predella owned by Mr Ludwig Mond. It has three stories—I. Ahasuerus and Esther, II. and III. (with no legendary connection of which I am aware) Scenes in the Life of S. Augustine. The first is the finest. Ahasuerus, surrounded by his councillors, bends forward, and touches with his sceptre the head of the kneeling Esther. His figure is very like that of the David in the foregoing picture. On the right is a fine back view of one of the characteristic swaggering soldiers in tight striped clothes. The treatment is broad, but the drawing in parts is somewhat careless. In the other two scenes, the composition is jerky and insignificant, but the individual figures are characteristic, especially the nude écorché-like old saint. They represent visions which appear in the air to S. Augustine, who sits below under a loggia.
Again, very close to the Arezzo altar-piece is " The Conception of the Virgin," painted for the church of the Gesù, Cortona, now in the Cathedral. The Virgin stands, on the usual cherub heads, in red and blue robes, while God the Father bends over her, and two angels scatter flowers through the air. Below are six prophets, among them David, with his Psaltery, and Solomon, in crown and royal robe. Under the Virgin, apparently supporting the cherubs, is the Tree of Life, with two very fine nude figures of Adam and Eve receiving the fruit from the serpent. It is the lower part only we have to consider, the whole of the upper painting, with the weak, badly - draped Virgin and the theatrical angels being certainly the work of assistants, as also, it seems to me, is the drapery of the half-kneeling Prophet to the right. The David is exactly the same figure as in the Arezzo altar-piece, to which, besides, there is a great resemblance in all the faces, and in the hard coarse manner in which the draperies are treated. The picture, however, lacks the rugged strength which makes the Arezzo picture, with all its shortcomings, so impressive, and only in the nude figures is the old power unimpaired. These, however, are very good, the Adam especially being as fine a study of the human form as any of the earlier work.
At Morra, a little village not far from Città di Castello, in the church of San Crescenziano, are two very important frescoes, a "Crucifixion" and a " Flagellation," evidently very late work of the master. In the latter the composition is very little altered from the early picture of the Brera. Christ is in the centre, bound to the pillar, and on the right stands the Roman soldier. The executioner near him is almost a repetition of the magnificent drawing in the Louvre (see reproduction), except that the legs are wide apart. All Signorelli's energies have again gone into the figures of the executioners, but, fine as they are, they are not treated with the same breadth as in the earlier picture, albeit the painting is free almost to roughness. The background, instead of the carved wall, now opens out of the court into a spacious landscape.
In the " Crucifixion," the group at the foot of the Cross is arranged much like those of the San Sepolcro, Urbino, and Cortona pictures, but it is half lost in the confusion of a crowd of mounted soldiers. The impressive silence and solemnity of these earlier " Pietàs " is changed here to a scene of noisy turmoil, and the painter's interest is obviously centred on the movement of this hustling crowd. The horses are badly drawn and ill-balanced, as in the Louvre " Adoration," and the Magdalen is very coarsely painted. The animation and action are well rendered, but something of the grandeur of his earlier work is sacrificed.
This grandeur was, however, fully regained in the last work of the master, painted in 1523, the very year of his death—" The Coronation of the Virgin," in the Collegiata of Foiano, a small town near Sinalunga.
The Virgin, in red robes and greenish-blue mantle, with fair hair, kneels before Christ, who places the crown on her head. On either side two angels play musical instruments, and on the right and left stand S. Joseph and the Archangel Michael. In the fore-ground kneels S. Martin, to whom the altar-piece was dedicated, in a magnificent gold cope, having on his left S. Jerome with a grey loin-cloth. Farther back are three monks, and behind S. Martin stands the Magdalen, while on the other side an old saint introduces the donor, Angelo Massarelli. The general tone of colour is not nearly so heavy as in the Arezzo painting, the reds are of a pale rose-colour, and only the flesh-tints of S. Jerome are very dark. This figure and the S. Martin are nobly and power-fully conceived. The donor recalls the portrait of the Gamurrini of Arezzo.
The painting does not seem to be the unassisted work of Signorelli, the S. Michael being too insignificant a figure, and the Magdalen too weakly executed to be by his own hand. The predella bears evidence that he had an assistant, for, of the four stories of S. Martin, which they illustrate, only two are by the master. These two are very fine and bold, in composition and brushwork. In the first the Saint, clad in armour, is seated on the characteristic white horse, with a man - at - arms behind him, and divides his cloak with the nude beggar. The background is a broadly-painted landscape. The other represents the Saint kneeling before a Bishop and two acolytes, clothed in a green tabard, a romantic and beautiful figure. The two remaining divisions are larger in size, and obviously the work of assistants, one illustrating S. Martin exorcising a mad bull, the other his funeral and the miraculous healing of the sick by the dead body.
It is satisfactory to have to conclude the list of works with one so strong, and which combines so many of the qualities which we have learnt to look for in Signorelli's painting. Rugged energy, dignity, decorative grace, and even romantic beauty are all to be found in this altar-piece, which is a fit ending to the life's work of the master.'
These detailed studies do not include all the works of Signorelli, but a complete list of all that are known to the author is to be found in the catalogue at the end.